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Fantasy author Terry Brooks visits Mitchell Books
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Visit the fantasy/sci-fi section of your local bookstore and take a look at all those multi-volume epics and cycles and series and chronicles. They all owe a huge debt to fantasy novelist Terry Brooks. When Brooksí first novel The Sword of Shannara came out in 1977, the author (who was then a practicing attorney) had no idea how successful it was going to be. The novel ó a massive fantasy epic in the J.R.R. Tolkien tradition ó was not only a huge bestseller, but played a key role in sparking the fantasy fiction explosion of the late 70s and 80s by showing that the fantasy genre could mean big business.
Brooks says he began working on Sword of Shannara after his first year of law school so he wouldnít go crazy. ďI started working on something which was about as far from practicing law as you could imagine.Ē But as far as the bookís success, he claims he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Credit goes to the legendary Lester Del Ray, editor at Ballantineís Del Ray line. ďLester was one of these old time editors who had a lot of hard thoughts about the way the world works,Ē says Brooks. ďOne of them was that publishers were all missing the boat on fantasy, that there was a huge market out there that wasnít getting satisfied by Tolkien. So he set out to make a point and used Sword of Shannara to do it.Ē
Brooks has now written over a dozen books in the Shannara series, as well as authoring many other fantasy novels. On September 19th, Brooks will stop by Mitchell Books to sign books and read from his latest novel (his 26th!), a post-apocalyptic story called Armageddonís Children.
Fort Wayne Reader: You were writing Sword of Shannara while you were practicing law, werenít you?
Terry Brooks: Well, yeah, I started writing it so I wouldnít go crazy. I was in law school, I had just finished my first year and it was driving me up a tree. My parents urged me to stick with it, so I did, but I decided I would start writing again and I started working on something which was about as far from practicing law as you could imagine, and that turned out to be Sword of Shannara.
FWR: Were you surprised at its success?
TB: Oh, yeah (laughs). I tell everybody, Iím a living example of how if I can make it, anyone can make it, because I was so clueless about how the business worked or how to get published or any of that stuff. No writer now is as clueless as I was then. I have a friend named Liz Angstrom who is a writer. She gives a talk on getting published and asks the audience to list the top 100 things it takes to get published in order of importance. Someone always shouts ďTalent!Ē And she says ďRight! Talent! #52! What else?Ē ďPerseverence!Ē ďRight! #2!Ē #1? Itís luck. In my case, it was being in the right place at the right time.
FWR: You must meet a lot of people these days whose first introduction to the fantasy genre was though your stuff
TB: I hear a lot of what you said: ďI read your book back when.Ē I feel incredibly old. But yeah, Iím at a stage now where Iím getting the kids and grandkids of readers that started out with me in the late 70s and early 80s, which is a really nice thing. You know, you donít think about this when you start out to write a book. You donít think ďIíll get everybody in the family reading these books.Ē Itís been a great gift that these books tend to be read in families, and they pass them on. Most of the signings I do tend to involve more than just one member of the family. It has taken a while to get there, but I have to tell you itís a wonderful thing. I get the biggest kick out of it.
FWR: Armageddonís Children sounds a little different from some of the things youíve done. What will long time readers find in this book that might surprise them?
TB: I think most of it is going to be a surprise. Itís part of a standalone series, but it links to the Shannara books and Word and the Void. Iím looking to write six to nine books in the set before Iím finished. Iím not writing them in sequence, Iím writing them in dollops, I guess youíd say ó three here, two there, that kind of thing. They wonít have the same characters and they wonít cover the same time period, so itís a pretty major undertaking but Iím very invested in doing this. Itís a new story. But I think theyíll also be surprised, because it takes place in the near future, to recognize that the thematic structure picks up with whatís happening in the world right now, like many writers are doing. Weíre all obsessed with the idea that weíre trying to destroy ourselves in just about every way you can think of. So Iím looking at some of those issue and Iím hypothesizing that in 50 years we will have succeeded. In Armageddonís Children, thereís no government anymore. Itís been destroyed worldwide and itís a case of mostly anarchy with individual militias and walled armed compounds and street kids and others who live outside the compounds just trying to make their way. It talks about the wars we find ourselves in right now. It talks about the destruction of the environment and our failure to be good stewards.
FWR: Armageddonís Children is described as the first of a trilogy. When you have an idea for a story, do you automatically start thinking in terms of a series?
TB: I do. I didnít used to when I started out, because it was too overwhelming, but because Iíve written so many long, long novels ó mine tend to sprawl a bit ó I made the determination after the first three Shannara books, that for the Heritage of Shannara series I was going to do four books that were essentially linked but were too big for a single book or even two. So, Iím doing the same for Armageddonís Children, which is the first of three books but is a single story. Itís got a lot of plot threads that run through it, and a lot of climaxes and resolutions at various points, but the overall story is essentially going to run three volumes. But then, I donít know. I say six to nine books, but I always might change my mind.
FWR: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the fantasy genre?
TB: I think the biggest misconception was ó before Harry Potter ó that it was strictly for kids, and that it had no real relevance for adults, and it was a childish kind of reading. But I think some of that misconception has been done away with because of the success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Iím seeing that more and more authors working in other fields are borrowing from fantasy. Weíre finding ghosts and magical realism and types of fantasy characters cropping up in just about every kind of reading you can think of. We have time travel, weíve gotÖ you know, just about anything you want showing up in romance and mystery, and a lot of well-respected writers in contemporary fiction are using these concepts as well. So thereís been some erosion of that belief that fantasy isnít an appropriate reading form for adults. But you know, I donít know how to combat this. Iíve been trying to figure it out for 30 years and I just do it reader by reader. I can talk myself blue in the face in front of an audience, but people either buy into it or they donít. The best way to do it is to sit down and talk with someone one-on-one and then maybe youíll make some progress.
FWR: The flipside of that question: whatís biggest problem with the genre?
TB: I have a very strong opinion about this, and itís definitely a personal opinion. But my feeling is that fantasy is the one form of writing that can accomplish metaphorically what almost no other form of writing can. Because it takes place in an imaginary setting that isnít completely connected with the real world, it gives you the opportunity to talk about the real world in new terms. You can talk about the destruction of the environment or racial prejudice or drugs or dysfunctional families and so forth. You can do it in a wholly different environment, and I think it gives people a way into that subject without all those preconceived ideas cropping up immediately and shutting down any kind of acceptance of change. I think all the good fantasies ó from Tolkien to the Oz books ó all do this. They all talk about whatís happening in our world when theyíre talking about whatís going on in their imaginary world. To me, the biggest problem we have in fantasy today is we have an awful lot of fantasy that doesnít do that. We have stories that are strictly sword and sorcery but donít have any other purpose. Iím not a fan of those kinds of books. I want the writer to be more involved in whatís going on, I want them to get in there and make a point. Give the reader something that goes more than one layer deep. The thing about stories like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, if you just want to read that story on the surface, itís a great story. Theyíre all great stories. But if you want to look a little deeper than that, they all have something important to say about the way the world works, whether itís the schools or the way kids relate to adults, or the way the world always has a dark side to it, they all have something thatís deeper than just the surface story. In straight epic fiction, you need to do more than just say they set out and had a lot of battles and some died and some didnít and they came back and lived happily ever after. That doesnít teach us anything, and reading should teach us something. It should have something to say that the reader can take away.
FWR: Do ever get tired of Shannara?
TB: Oh sure! I get sick to death of it. After youíve done three books and lived with it for however many years, I donít even want to hear the word. Thatís why I do more than one series, because after Iíve finished up on one set, Iíll shift to another series and let my batteries recharge on the other one. Mostly, that seems to work. Another thing is that I made the determination somewhere close to the beginning of things that I wasnít going to use the same characters over and over again because I was going to get sick of them. You make a decision about how youíre going to treat your material so you donít burn out. One thing that writers do that disappoints me as a reader is that they get tired of their characters, particularly in mysteries. The level of their storytelling and character development falls off, and you can tell theyíre just doing it for another paycheck. Thatís the worst thing a writer can do is lead your reader on to expect a good story and then just give them this half-assed effort.
FWR: Are there any plans to adapt any of your stuff for the big screen? It seems like a natural fit
TB: Thereís an option for Magic Kingdom at Universal that has been there for about a year. Thereís been a lot of back-and-forthing with directors and screenplays, so itís in development hell or something. So will it ever happen? Who knows? Iíve just entered into a verbal agreement for the Shannara books. But you know, Iím superstitious about talking about stuff like that, soÖ The other thing is that Iím doing a graphic novel on Shannara starting next year. Itís a new story, it riffs off of characters in Wishsong of Shannara, and kind of goes its own way, but theyíve hired people to do the work who are talented, unlike me. Theyíre going to do the writing and the illustrations, and my job is to give them the storyline and character description and just oversee the creative process, which is great by me. Itís a story I donít particularly want to write myself but I think will bring some readers into the fold.
Tuesday, September 19th, 7 pm
6360 West Jefferson, Covington Plaza