Today is one of them!
Lev Grossman is Time Magazine‘s book critic. He is also one of the smartest people I’ve met, a man possessed of keen intellect as well as knowledge about all things fantasy. He has also written two of my favorite books—The Magicians and The Magician King—making him a writer I look up to in many ways.
We share a common bond though. We are both Terry Brooks fans! To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Terry publishing The Sword of Shannara, Lev asked to interview the author responsible for shaping the fantasy genre in many ways.
It turned out great. Enjoy!
LEV GROSSMAN INTERVIEWS TERRY BROOKS
Lev Grossman: What’s the first fantasy novel you can remember falling in love with?
Terry Brooks: Wow! Thanks for asking a question I rarely get asked. Really. Everyone usually fixates on LORD OF THE RINGS and just assumes that was the only important influence in my fantasy writing life. But I didn’t read those books until I was in my twenties. I think maybe the first fantasy book I can remember really impacting me was THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ. That was maybe #6 in the series. By then I was hooked on the OZ books in general, this being about the time I was seven or eight. I loved those books, and I really liked how Baum always found a solution to whatever dilemma was being faced by Dorothy and her friends in a mostly non-violent but gripping way. In EMERALD CITY, several armies of creatures from outside OZ were threatening the city by tunneling under its walls to capture it from within. All the OZ folk were trying to find a way to stop them, and eventually they did. It had a great ending. But I should add that about that same time I was reading TARZAN and JOHN CARTER OF MARS books by Burroughs, and they were a pretty big influence, too.
Terry Brooks: The only thing on my mind while I was writing The Sword of Shannara was, “How do I make this good enough to be published?” Not sure even today I have the answer to that question. But my influences from fantasy writing were primarily American. The sole exception to this was LotRs, but as I said before I read that in my twenties. Oh, wait. There’s also Mort D’Arthur by Thomas Mallory. Can’t remember when I read that. What’s kind of interesting is how much William Faulkner had to do with my approach to Sword. I was an English major in college,and my senior thesis was on Faulkner. I was really taken with his use of a single Mississippi County as the setting for almost all of his work, of his use of different generations of families to demonstrate how the past can influence the future and of his clear belief that secrets revealed can be destructive. Not original concepts, but intriguing enough that I adapted them right out of classic literature to fantasy. Move away from Faulkner and you will find my work squarely in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas. None of them fantasy writers, but all were writers whose work I admired.
Lev Grossman: Interesting. The Ohmsfords are the Compsons of the Four Lands. “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” It all fits.
I also think of you as writing in a different era than Tolkien, in terms of the way wars were fought. Tolkien — a veteran of WWI, writing during WWII — have have written THE LORD OF THE RINGS in a simpler moral universe than you did — writing as you did during Vietnam, in a world overshadowed by nuclear proliferation. These were conflicts with no winners, where right and wrong were harder to untangle … or am I pushing this angle too hard?
Terry Brooks: The Ohmsfords are the Compsons and various antagonists are the Snopes, but I don’t want the comparison with Faulkner to go too far. The nature of the epic fantasy form used to write the SHANNARA books has broader implications for the larger world of the Four Lands than Faulker’s stories did for Yoknapatapha County, Mississippi. That said, you could argue that both families struggle with the same basic problem – how to adapt to a changing world where the rules are constantly changing and what was once familiar and comfortable is slowly slipping away.
I think your noting how the differences in the eras in which Tolkien and I (and you) wrote have influenced our worldview is valid. Certainly, public perception of the world after WW I was decidedly different than after Vietnam. I had the benefit of living in both worlds. I grew up in the 40s and 50s, but it was the 60s that did the most to shape my thinking. I don’t see the moral universe in black and white terms with easily defined boundaries. But I do agree with what Tolkien saw as an inescapable corruption through the bestowal and exercise of power no matter caution or good intentions. I am writing those stories every time I put fingers to keyboard because I think they are as relevant and fascinating today as they were hundreds of years ago. I think any final resolution resulting in an end to evil is an illusion. It sounds good, but it just doesn’t happen. It’s always two steps forward and one back. We struggle, but we don’t gain ground quickly, if at all. What seems to contribute to this failure is a strident unwillingness to accept differences in other cultures or to find a middle ground in disagreements. Compromise has become a bad word. But the complexities of a world grown close through technology demand we do more than stand around ranting about how it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ What’s the old saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Now let me ask you something. The SHANNARA stories – at least since the HERITAGE OF SHANNARA series – are written to fulfill two separate marching orders. The first is to produce a solid tale that readers will enjoy, which hopefully adheres to my first editor/mentor’s ongoing admonition to write a good story before worrying about anything else. The second is to undertake an exploration of a current issue or complex problem or arguable dilemma that challenges the larger world, one that I think readers might want to work through. My chosen issue shows itself in glimpses beneath the surface of the primary story, but you don’t need to puzzle it through to enjoy the book. Tolkien does this with LORD OF THE RINGS. I sense you are doing it with your writing in THE MAGICIANS and The MAGICIAN KING. Am I right?
Let’s talk about storytelling. I’m sure you, like me, read widely in a lot of genres. Why fantasy? What is about THAT genre that you recognized and thought, yes, that’s the one for me. That’s how I want to tell my story.
Terry Brooks: I keep arguing that my books are really adventure stories clad in fantasy trappings. Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference. In any case, there are a number of appealing aspects to the writing of fantasy. I discovered early on that what most captured my interest – after numerous false starts and incomplete efforts – were big, sprawling tales centered around world-changing events and terrible risks. I loved the idea of multiple plotlines and large numbers of characters all elbowing for room in the story. I loved that the story could go on for as long as I wanted it to. Fantasy literature – particularly epic fantasy – has a tradition of stories like these. There were other choices, of course. There were other types of writing that embraced these criteria. But I think you have to discover in your initial writing efforts what sorts of things work for you as a writer. I loved Tolkien, but I would never write anything with appendices and footnotes. In particular, I don’t have much patience with research. I’m okay with finding out about Elves and magic when they are my Elves and magic. What worked for me right away when I was writing SWORD was that it was my world, created by me, imbued with my own mythic background, dependent only on my ability to make a whole out of its various parts. It was an adventure story that I thought would keep readers turning the pages. If someone wanted to know where I got my information, I could say I made it up and not feel guilty.
The other part of this equation centers on the available scope or the material. Most of what I write about is grounded in observations and musings gleaned from our own world. I just set my stories in a different world with different terms. In SHANNARA, magic becomes a mirror image of science, complete with uncertainties and risks. Its use impacts both the user and those it is directed against. It is mercurial and always exacts a price from those involved – just like science frequently does. I can write about subjects familiar to everyone – the environment, redemption from moral failure, making hard choices between two wrongs when there is no other option, or confrontation with risks and challenges seemingly impossible to overcome.
It isn’t so much the idea of writing “fantasy” per se as it is the idea of writing an exciting story. Even now, I get pumped at the prospect of a new tale, one I know I will still be locked into a year from now. The older I get, the more important it becomes to find ways to make that happen.
Lev Grossman: I was going to ask you next what you say to people who charge you with writing escapist fiction. But I think you may have answered it. I’m going to change course slightly. You’ve been writing fantasy for, what, 35 years now? How has the genre changed since you started?
Terry Brooks: I like to remind people that when I was growing up boys my age were reading science fiction. Fantasy was only a very small niche in the reading pantheon. Even after Tolkien, few people were writing or reading fantasy. Del Rey really broke it out of its position of obscurity with a whole raft of new writers beginning in the mid-1970s. Since then, the number of titles published has increased steadily, and after HARRY POTTER things just exploded. The market now for fantasy books is huge, particularly in YA, and the forms of fantasy published include everything from traditional epic fantasy to dark urban to paranormal to integrated fantasy/science fiction. But the salient point is that the ground swell for fantasy really began about 20 years earlier.
Besides the increase in the number of fantasy books and writers – both adult and YA – there are a couple of other notable changes. The first is in the number of related tie-ins. The approach now to publishing fantasy books in many cases is to immediately start thinking of ways to expand into other venues. Books into movies is the most obvious. And there is an increasing movement towards turning books into games. Both THE LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER have expanded into both these fields, but there are others, as well. There are even a few books that have been adapted for theme park rides, Broadway shows, traveling exhibits and various music projects. I don’t think we’ve begun to see the end.
The second change is in the tenor and subject matter of the material being written about. Today’s fantasy – especially YA – trends heavily towards edgy and socially relevant. The topics being explored in much of today’s fantasy deal with social issues and concerns that dominate our thinking in real life. A growing number of books are centered around post-apocalyptic scenarios and survival in a ruined world. Many posit repressive societies and the struggle of the individual over the state or corporate world. Again, this isn’t entirely new to literature but it does evidence a stronger presence in fantasy writing than it did in 1977. The subject matter of fiction reflects the times, and the times for many people are very dark and uncertain.
Hold on, there’s one more change I need to mention. Fantasy is not so easily defined as it was 35 years ago. This is true in general of fiction, where genres tend to bleed into one another, and defining characteristics of storytelling once attributable to one form now appear regularly in others. This is particularly true about elements of fantasy. if you read contemporary literature, magic in one form or another appears regularly as an integral part of the plotlines. It was generally believed back when I was starting out that you never mixed fantasy and science fiction, in particular. That happens all the time now, and no one thinks much about it so long as the story works.
Terry Brooks: Probably that the level of the storytelling has remained consistent. Sales and reader comments suggest this. And I’ve worked hard to make that happen, so I’m pretty proud of that. I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller. When I reread them, my books still feel fresh and exciting to me. I don’t find myself regretting anything I did. That makes me think I got it right.
Lev Grossman: You must have changed as a person, though, over 35 years, even if the level of the storytelling hasn’t. Do you ever find that your books reflect what’s going in your life? Is there any autobiography there, however buried or subtextual?
Terry Brooks: Well, I hope I’ve changed as a person, and I hope, too, that my storytelling abilities have improved with practice, practice, practice. Like lawyers and doctors are always ‘practicing’ their craft? Writers do that, too. But autobiographical subtext? Most of my autobiographic impulses are given vent in the MAGIC KINGDOM series, where Ben Holiday is essentially a personification of me. Acts like, thinks like. Shannara reflects more of my worldview, and you can track the changes in my thinking about the real world and its problems pretty easily. One thing is constant in life , and that’s change. So the way I think and write has seen a fair amount of that over the years. But I have to say I don’t think what’s going on in my life is reflected in these books so much as what’s giving me pause or causing me to react. That’s why I am forever saying that where I get most of my ideas is from reading the news. My life is pretty stable and pretty ordinary.
Terry Brooks: Love that nerdiness! I think I put several kids through school on the strength of those Elfstones. Readers give me sets of Elfstones all the time. I don’t remember much about how I conceived of the Elfstones or even when the idea first cropped up. The concept of a magic in which the level of strength is drawn from a combination heart, mind and body of the user came very early on. This was intended to be a specific kind of response, one in which the whole package was required from maximum effectiveness and the nature of the user was determinative of the success the magic would enjoy. I do think its true that we use all three in our struggles in everyday life. I do think we find ourselves needing to draw on all three in our most difficult situations. I have a couple of basic rules about using magic in storytelling, and they are embodied in the nature of the Elfstones. First, magic needs to be introduced and used judiciously. Second, it needs to reveal something of what we know to be true about our own lives. Third, it always exacts a price. Whether it be from the heart, the mind or the body, there is always a cost.
What’s kind of interesting is where the Elfstones plotline is heading currently. When readers encounter the blue Elfstones, the Seeking Stones, way back in SWORD, we discover that the Stones were created in the time of Faerie and there were other sets that were lost over the ages. No one ever finds out what happened to the other sets or even what they were supposed to be used for. A demand to know the answer to that mystery has topped the list of reader requests over the years by a large margin. The truth is, I didn’t have an solution in mind. I just wasn’t sure what i wanted it to be. I gave some thought to providing one, but never found an explanation I liked.
Until now. Starting in August with WARDS OF FAERIE and continuing on through two additional books in a trilogy called DARK LEGACY OF SHANNARA, Ithe mystery will be solved. The Druids of the Fourth Order discover a possible answer to the disappearance of the missing Elfstones and set out on an expedition to find and return them to the Druid Order. But readers will have to be patient, even though the three books come out in six month increments. It takes all three to resolve the matter. I just hope that all the years or procrastination and debate result in the kind of answer readers expect.
Lev Grossman: Your career is one of the great marathon performances of the genre. Your inspiration doesn’t seem to flag, or your energy or determination or ambition. Do you even take breaks? Have you got a routine? A ritual? Some exotic stimulant distilled from the glands of rainforest creatures? Or I know: there’s a portrait of you somewhere that has permanent writer’s block, so that the real you never has to stop writing.
Terry Brooks: A marathon performance sounds about right. Actually, I’m not nearly so driven as Stephen King and others who say they write every day without fail. I used to write every day, but as Clint says in Unforgiven , “I’m not like that anymore.” So I take breaks and days off, sometimes whole weeks. Some of that is possible because I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve learned how to do most of it in half the time. I’ve also learned to trust the process. So I don’t think much about writer’s block, only about brain cramps. Mostly, writer’s block comes from one of two sources – either from spending too much time writing and not enough playing or from taking a wrong turn a few pages back. Easily found and corrected, for the most part. You just have to pay attention to your instincts.
But, you know what? I think I am as comfortable with my writing as i am because I genuinely love what I do. Sure, it’s hard work – sometimes massively so – but it’s work that makes me happy. I love the challenge of making words come together. I think of it as puzzle, but there’s no picture except in my head, and I need to put the puzzle together to see what it will look like. I think I might have mentioned to you here or elsewhere that when I am not writing, I am not happy. I get cranky and difficult. I am always a better person when I am working. I suppose that’s an addiction, but at least it’s a healthy one.
My plan is to finish the last Shannara book just before I drop over. That might turn out to be a little tricky.
Terry Brooks: Some might argue it is easier to get published because there are so many new and different avenues into the business than there were back in 1977. Traditional publishing is still the main venue for most successful writers, but lots of writers now are finding their way to publishing their work via the internet. Posting material on an individual website and putting it out there, blogging stories, even tweeting them. One mid-list writer I know – a good one, I should add – was going nowhere with his work and managed to get it all back from the publishers and then set out on a fresh campaign to put it up online and is now doing very well with monthly subscriptions. Many writers starting out on the internet find wide audience and can then sell their books to traditional publishers. You can probably name them as quickly as I can.
I should point out that the skeptics and naysayers are making the same arguments now for why you can’t publish something that they were making back when I started out. Things really don’t change that much. You still need a good story and a lot of luck. No one is going to give you anything. You have to knock on doors, maybe break down a few, put yourself out there, and mostly keep writing and believing. I favor a direct approach. Go to a writer’s festival or conference or convention and meet agents and publishers and ask if you can send them something. That way you have a more personal connection. If you don’t want to go that route, get someone who knows what they are doing to create a website for you, put some of your work up for free reads, mount a publicity campaign and see what happens. This may cost you something, but it is worth it. Use people like Bob Mayer as a resource, a writer who teaches classes on how to publish online and how to create a presence.
Remember how important the element of LUCK is. You can write the great American novel, but you still have to be lucky in order to find an audience or a publisher.
Remember that if you don’t want this to happen more than you’ve ever wanted anything and aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to get it out there, you are already in a hole.
Remember that you have to love the process. If the being published part is more important than the writing part, quit now.
Jeez. I’m getting all preachy.
Lev Grossman: I think you’ve earned the right to preach.
Do you ever have fantasies about being a highbrow author? Of winning a Pulitzer? Does it frustrate you that fantasy doesn’t get the same critical respect literary fiction does? I’m assuming here that you haven’t been publishing literary fiction under a pseudonym all along. If Thomas Pynchon is really you, you can tell me.
Terry Brooks: I might have some wild fantasies, but not about being a highbrow author. I made a pact with myself when I started out that what I wanted out of writing besides personal satisfaction was readers and the more the merrier. I never did believe in author competition or awards. Still don’t. What I want is for my books to remain consistently good and never to disappoint a reader. This seems a more satisfying goal than winning a Pulitzer or a National Book Award.
And, no, I am not Thomas Pynchon or even Anonymous. I am just Terry Brooks, plain old commercial fiction author.
I don’t like it when fantasy is treated as fiction for children and people who never quite grew up. I think fantasy is the bedrock of all fiction, relied on and stolen from by authors of other forms of fiction across the board – especially literary fiction. So many stories draw on mythologies and legends, on fairy tales and fables, on story forms that trace their origins all the way back to cavemen. There is a universality to fiction anyway, but fantasy really lives cheek to jowl with those oldest of stories. Besides, why disparage or try to marginalize any form of writing? Isn’t the common goal to beat back all those encroachments from video?
Terry Brooks: Cheat on fantasy? After all she has done for me? Never! Funny, but I get asked this all the time. In the beginning of things, the question always followed my admission that fantasy was what I wrote. Then the questioner would say, “Oh, have you ever thought of writing something else?” As if doing so would somehow validate my writerly credentials. Anyway, the answer has always been the same. I don’t feel the call. Everything I want to say or do with my writing has always involved a fantasy framework. I have managed to include mystery, romance, thriller, science fiction, adventure, horror and “based on a true story” along the way. That’s getting back to your comment about the genre boundaries. They are more than a little blurry these days, one form blending into another, and much of the time it is difficult to catalogue a book as any one thing. It was always about marketing anyway, so I question the value beyond that. I’m called a fantasy writer, but I think of myself as an adventure story writer. The good thing about being around after 35 years is that people buy my books based on my name rather than my genre category. Or maybe I am kidding myself. Maybe I should take a poll . . .
Lev Grossman: That’s a good way of thinking about it. You are a living, breathing genre! I hope that comes with super-powers.
Speaking of marketing, a subject writers are supposed to be “above”: have you always been happy with the way your books have been packaged and sold? The covers and all the rest of it? Are there any books of yours that you wish more people had bought and read?
Terry Brooks: I’ve been pretty well treated by Del Rey and Random House regarding cover art, marketing and publicity in general. In the beginning, when Lester del Rey was alive and ran the show, I didn’t have much to say about anything. Which was probably just as well because I really didn’t know all that much. When he passed, I asked for control over my covers. A few of the early ones weren’t quite what I had hoped for. So now I work with my editor and the artist on finding and completing a cover that will satisfy all of us. So far, it’s worked pretty well. I’ve had good artists and creative people of all sorts around me from the first, so it would be churlish of me to start griping now. Lots of writers grip about how packaging damaged their sales, but I tend to think readers look past the covers for the content in choosing books. Hope that’s still so.
I do wish more people had glommed onto Running With The Demon when it first came out. I still think it might be the best thing I’ve ever done, but sales were not up to par with Shannara. Should have called it Running with the Shannara. It was such a good story, and it was my best writing. But you don’t choose these things; they get chosen for you. Sales for Demon these days are much stronger. The secret to everything in this business is you just have to live long enough.
I feel like most fantasy is on some level concerned with the problem of evil in the world. And you’ve always had, if I may say, a rather dab hand in writing villains. How do you go about writing a character like, say, the Ragpicker — do you look for, and find, something secretly malevolent in yourself? Is it unpleasant? Or — and perhaps I’m projecting here — perversely liberating?
Terry Brooks: I have the terrible feeling that however I answer this question, I am not going to come out looking like a good person. You have a diabolical streak in you, sir. However that may be, let me give this an honest shot. I think that some part of me can be found in almost every character I write about. Not always in my flesh and blood, but in my connection with how the world and its people function and how I respond. I could say that just reading the news of the world provides sufficient information about how to be wicked and ugly. I could say that experiences growing up helped shaped my understanding of evil. In fact, reading books probably provided as much insight on the human condition as anything else, and I read all the time and everything I could get my hands on. I won’t pretend it isn’t intriguing dreaming up characters like the Ragpicker. It is a one of those challenges I relish. There is an old saying in this business that your protagonist is only as compelling as the antagonist he or she faces. I think that’s what I shoot for every time out – how to create an antagonist who will challenge the main characters in the story and test them under the harshest of conditions.
Lev Grossman: Same question, and yet not: heroes. The Shannara series is organized around a single bloodline and a single setting, but not a single iconic hero, like Conan or Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe. What do all your heroes have in common? What makes a character, or for that matter a person, a hero?
Terry Brooks: I think heroes are interesting only when flawed, and the extent to which they are challenged by their flaws but overcome them is what captures my attention. Tolkien’s Hobbits were all reluctant heroes, young men who wanted nothing to do with the quest for the ring, but who put their fears and doubts aside because of their friendships and their willingness to do what they believed was right. I bought into that concept hook, line and sinker, and all of the Ohmsfords are required to face the same sort of challenges in the Shannara series. I wanted those Ohmsfords to be like you and me – Everyman faced with a seemingly insurmountable struggle but persevering nonetheless. The word ‘hero’ has become one of the most over-used words in the English language, and it really should mean more than accomplishing something spectacular. It should have something to do with overcoming your limitations. It should involve sacrifice for others. It should involve consideration of the greater good. If it is easier to step back and you chose not to, you transcend yourself. For me, that is more the measure of a real hero.
Terry Brooks: Finishing a book is always both a relief and a let-down. Great, I’m done! Darn, what now? So I usually try to find something non-writing-related for a short time. Traveling is always good. Takes the mind off the work and lets me purge whatever mix of relief and/or doubt intrudes. I always know what I am going to write next, so there’s the thinking thing going on even while I’m doing something else. But I don’t collapse, don’t get loaded, don’t do anything too wild. Once, maybe. But 35 years later? No way.
You know what I usually do, now that i think of it? I pull out those two or three books I’ve been hoarding for when I had the time, and I read them straight through. A busman’s holiday, for sure. But it makes me feel good.
Lev Grossman: It’s been a real honor, Terry. A huge honor, and a huge pleasure. There’s so much Shannara DNA in my writing — it’s generous of you just to not sue me, given how much stuff I’ve stolen from you over the years. If I ever have the chance I will buy you several hundred beers by way of reparations.
It’s tempting to end on a question about endings. Maybe I’ll push my luck with _another_ question about endings. Do you know how a book’s going to end when you start it? Does that ever change in the writing? And what makes a good ending? Do you try to strike a balance, between happy and sad, wrapping everything up and letting some things dangle? I suppose it makes a difference where you are in any given trilogy…
Terry Brooks: I always know the ending before I start writing a book, and I pretty much know the ending of any given set of books. Sometimes I even know the tag line – that last sentence that just seems so right for bringing the readers home. I know all this because it helps me tremendously to be writing towards something specific. I just that ending – or even that single sentence – as a sort of finish line in a marathon. Even when I am exhausted and disgusted or despairing or just plain worn out, there’s that ending, hanging out there in neon. It’s a way to trick myself into remembering that somehow this is all going to turn out right.
What changes in the writing of the book is almost everything else. But I have only changed the ending to a book one time that I can think of, and that was with Sword, right at the beginning of things when I was thrashing around a bit. I don’t think the tone of the ending matters nearly so much as the sense of rightness it gives to the reader. I like reading books where the ending feels like it belongs, like it is the proper one for the story. So that’s what I try to achieve with my endings.
The one caveat to all this is my belief that not all loose ends should be tied up. Some things need to be left unresolved so that the readers can puzzle over what really happened and maybe formulate endings of their own for certain of the characters. The quintessential example of this comes at the end of Wishsong of Shannara, when the Weapons Master, Garet Jax, does battle with the Jachyra. Who wins? We never find out, for sure. The book doesn’t ever say. Everyone has an opinion, and the debate goes on 25 years later. That’s exactly the way it should be.