Terry Brooks is the bestselling author of the genre-defining novel The Sword of Shannara and the other 20+ books in the Shannara sequence, as well as the Magic Kingdom of Landover series. His latest novel is Wards of Faerie, a new Shannara tale.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Tell us about your new novel, Wards of Faerie. What’s it about?
This is the first in a trilogy that I have been thinking about for quite a bit of time. It’s in the future of the Shannara world, not in the prehistory where I have been working. It is a direct sequel to the High Druid set of books, and it’s about a topic that has been discussed ever since I wrote Elfstones back in the day—1982 or whatever it was when it was published—about the Elfstones themselves, which were forged in the ancient world of Faerie before humans, and nobody knows what happened to them, and somebody is always saying, “What happened to the other Elfstones? The only ones that survived are these blue Elfstones, and we’ve never heard anything more.” So, after not having an answer for that for the better part of 30 years, I thought maybe I’d come up with one, and that’s what this book is about.
When I was at the Odyssey writers workshop, you came and were our writer-in-residence, and while you were there you told us a story about how when you submitted your first novel, The Sword of Shannara, to Lester del Rey, he made you do just massive, massive revisions on it. Could you talk about that?
Well, that was my first complete novel, and I was pretty much a neophyte in the craft area. I had rewritten that book three times before I sent it in, as a matter of fact, but there were a lot of places where it was weak. I also was wordy—much more wordy than I am now certainly—and it just sort of went on and on. And he got irritated with the fact that I was doing a lot of things with weather reports and descriptions of forest lands and so on, and he said, “Cut all this stuff out of here.” He said, “We don’t need this. It just slows the story down. Just get to the story.” It’s sort of like Elmore Leonard saying, “Leave out all the words that people skip.” That was his approach to writing as a commercial fiction writer, and I believed in that, so I rewrote some areas numerous times. I rewrote the ending repeatedly. He didn’t like the ending and he wanted it different, so I wrote it two or three times, and then finally got it to a place where he was happy with it. He threatened, at one point, because I wasn’t moving fast enough, he said, “Well look, if you can’t do this, why don’t I do it? I’ll write it for you.” And of course that scared the bejeezus out of me, so I went back and got it right the next time, and he was happy after that.
I remember you saying that you had sent in your manuscript on white paper, and he sent it back, and in between each page of white paper there was a yellow piece of paper with changes he wanted made to the preceding page.
Yeah, that was with the second book. In between Sword and Elfstones, I wrote another Shannara book, and it wasn’t any good. And I wrote 400 pages of this thing, and I realized I couldn’t figure out what the ending ought to be, and I sent it to him. So he sent it back to me saying, “Well what you need to do with this is burn it.” And I was in shock, I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was mistaken. I thought, “He’s clearly delusional here. I just wrote a book that sold umpteen million copies. What do you mean, it isn’t any good?” But he sent the manuscript back to me, and every second or third page he stuck a yellow sheet in there describing in detail what was wrong with what I was doing in that particular section of the book. And after I read it all through, I saw that he was right, that this book was no good, and there were so many problems with it that it was better to just ashcan it and start over again. It was a little humble pie, but it was also a terrific writing lesson.
Will that ever be made public, do you think?
Oh no. I don’t think I burned it yet, but I should. I mean, it wasn’t any good. It was a bad story. It had some good aspects, and what I did with it after a while is I cannibalized it and took out names and certain elements and stuck them in Wishsong and some of the other books, and they worked out fine there. But the story as a whole had all kinds of problems. I’m not one of those writers who thinks that once you have some success you should immediately publish everything you ever wrote.
I just thought maybe as a writing lesson . . .
Oh, as an object lesson? Well, yeah. I don’t think I want to do that until I’m dead, though. [laughs] I don’t want to be around for the fallout from that one. Maybe my kids won’t mind and they’ll do that.
One thing that I’ve always heard about Lester del Rey as an editor was that he had this really good sense for what would sell. What do you think made him so good at predicting that?
I don’t know. That’s a very good question. He just had great story sense. And he knew what would work and what wouldn’t, and everybody in the company that I knew over the years and that knew him said he was the best story doctor they ever knew, that he could take a book and determine what worked and what didn’t work and tell you exactly where those places were and—not necessarily what you needed to do to fix them; he would leave that to you—but he would tell you where it was weak. And I believe that’s true. He certainly was the best I’ve ever worked with in that regard, and probably the reason that I’m still around is that for those first three or four books he just beat up on me unmercifully, gave me rewrite after rewrite until I got it right. But boy, did I learn a lot in that time period about how to craft a story and how to make it a commercial success. And of course, they all sold like crazy, so something must have been right.
And actually at the time that Sword of Shannara came out, Lester del Rey had seen that there was a demand for fantasy when fantasy was considered sort of second tier. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. The prevailing opinion in the publishing industry was that fantasy was a niche genre and you could sell five or ten thousand copies of a good book, but that was it. Except for Tolkien, but that was Tolkien and he was gone anyway, so there was no point in fussing about that, and everything else that was out there just wasn’t bestseller material. And Lester thought this was a lot of hooey. I found all this out years later—at the time I’m sure I thought that he just had great judgment about my book. But he basically set out to take a Tolkien-esque kind of story, put it out there as a fantasy, and sell it in bestseller numbers. And that’s what he did with Sword. And he told me that I was going to take it on the chin over this from many, many sides, that people were going to hate it, that people were going to say it was a rip-off, that people were going to this, that, and the other thing. And I said, “I don’t care. I want to get my foot in the door and figure out how I can do this for a living.” Because that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a writer, and I had no clue how to go about doing it. Here was somebody whose work I respected saying, “I can make this happen,” so I did it.
Speaking of Lester del Rey, I just looked him up on Wikipedia and it says, “Del Rey often told people that his real name was Ramon Felipe Alvarez-del Rey (or sometimes even Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heartcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez del Rey y de los Uerdes).”
[laughs] Yeah, he also told people he was born in various places. He told them his age, and that changed about once a month. I don’t know how many of them were true, but he had various histories about his life and what he’d done during his life. But I don’t think to the bitter end anybody knew the whole truth about his story or his history, and I think most of the histories you read probably have some truth and some that he just offered up.
Was he strange in person? Did you ever have strange experiences with him?
You know, he and [his wife] Judy-Lynn both would seem strange to some people, but I kind of liked it. I mean, they had stuffed animals they talked to. They had a lifestyle that involved fantasy as part of it. But when it came to the business end of things there wasn’t anybody smarter than either one of them. They knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew how to do it.
I heard you say in an interview that the publishing industry has really change since you published Sword of Shannara, and that editors don’t have the status that they used to. Could you talk about that?
Well, it’s probably obvious to anybody in the business at least that the publishing industry has vastly changed. An awful lot of it’s been changed by the internet, and by the new avenues of publishing that have opened up, by the presence of e-books and self-publishing online, all that’s different. The publishing houses have all shrunk—not all of them, but a great number of them became conglomerates or appendages to conglomerates. Really, the marketing department has more weight now than the editors do. In the old days, the editors were pretty much top-of-the-line, they made the determinations. The thing I lament most is that when I broke into publishing, you were given a fair amount of time to work with an editor before they cut you loose. You know, they spent time teaching you how to be better, and now, really, there’s an awful lot of pressure on new writers to produce right away. If you don’t sell, then it’s on to somebody else. That’s not true universally, but it’s true to a great extent. I think that’s unfortunate, and I wish there was more time for the midlist writers to find a way to be bestselling. I miss those days. It was more of a family relationship. It’s much more an arm’s-length operation these days than it used to be. Or maybe that’s just me talking 35 years later, too.
So you’re just about to head out on a new book tour. What’s that like, and have you ever had any strange experiences on tour?
Yeah, but we don’t have enough time for that. [laughs] I’ve had many, many strange experiences on tour. But not with the readers, I hasten to say. I have a really good reading audience, and I’ve never, ever had a problem with them. Now, the minute I say this, I will, but up to this point, no.
So who have you had strange experiences with?
[laughs] Well, some of the booksellers are a little strange from time to time. In fact, one of the things that happened was when we did Odyssey. I was staying at a place nearby there, and on the night that we stayed over—at the end of things—there was some kind of a wedding there, and it got totally out of control, and they were outside the door where I was staying—I think we were probably the only people at the hotel that weren’t with the wedding party—and they were pounding on the walls and the doors, so I went out there and told them to shut up. That brought us even worse trouble, and I had to call the police. It was a little bad. That was fairly strange, but that wasn’t connected with the book part of things. But I remember Odyssey for that. [laughs]
I don’t know. I once went to a city—I’ll give you one example, and this is back a ways now—but I once went to a city where I was doing a couple of chain stores as well as a couple of independents, and the two were not speaking to each other. I don’t know what that was about, but they weren’t. I didn’t have a car or anything—I was being transported—so in order to get from one to the other I was taken to a parking lot in an industrial area and dropped. One car left and then the other came up. It was very gangland-like. I thought, “Well, maybe this is it for me. I’ll end up as a footnote in a paper somewhere.”
Back in the ’90s, there was a Shannara computer game that was developed by Lori and Corey Cole, who actually created one of my favorite computer games series, the Quest for Glory series. Did you interact with them at all or have any involvement with that game?
I don’t . . . you know, I don’t know anything about it. [laughs]
Do you remember signing the contract or anything?
No, I don’t remember a thing. [laughs] This is a true story. My problem is, it used to be that my whole focus was on books, because I’m very much a book guy. So I paid attention to the book stuff, and everything else I just said, “Well, whatever you think,” to my agent or my editor. “You take care of it. Don’t tell me about it,” and then they would make the decision, which probably shows you how naïve I am, but I just didn’t care, and I still don’t really care about much except for the books . . . and maybe the movies at some point.
What is the status on the movie stuff? Anything going on with that?
Yeah, the Magic Kingdom series is over at Warner Brothers with a development company called Weed Road. And I’ve met with those people—actually met with them face-to-face, which was some kind of first. They are in the process of working on a second draft of a screenplay for Magic Kingdom for Sale. And I’d say that looks pretty likely, and at the moment the actor attached to the project is Steve Carell. So that would be cool, and he’s perfect for Ben Holiday, I think. I think he’s terrific. I’ve seen his movies, particularly the last couple, and I just see him in that role and I think he would work perfectly. So I’m hopeful that he won’t give up on this and that he’ll hang in there, the way that sometimes, when luck works, they do. And the Shannara series is in the final, gasping stages of being signed up with a company that’s going to look for a Game of Thrones-type format and a venue for it.
Actually, speaking of the Landover series and Magic Kingdom for Sale, I just saw that the sixth book came out in 2009 after I think a 14-year gap. Why was there such a big gap in that series?
Well, when I finished up in the ’90s with it, I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to go with it. So I put it aside, and readers of the series—who are a strong group in their own right—kept saying “When’s the next one?” And I said, “Well, when they make a movie, then I’ll write another book.” And it was up with various movie companies about three times, and each time it fell through at some stage or another. And finally it got to the point where I was starting to feel guilty for not doing another book, so I decided to take it down one generation and write a story that was centered around Ben and Willow’s child Mistaya, who has magic in her own right, and I tried to throw in all of the usual characters as backdrop for the story, and forget about the movie, because I may not live that long. So I wrote the story, and now I’m back to having a follow-up to it but no time to write it at the present time, so I’m back to waiting for the movie.
I hope there wasn’t a huge cliffhanger at the end of Book 5?
No, there’s no cliffhangers in that series—those books are all self-contained. But there’s usually something at the end of the story that suggests what might be coming next. That was particularly true with Princess of Landover, where you get a sense that the witch Nightshade is going to have a major role in the next book. So I’ve got it in mind, but again I’ve just decided I don’t have time to write it right now, so I’m waiting on it. You know, I’m buried in Shannara. This whole series with Wards of Faerie and the other two, they’re all coming out in six-month increments. So that consumed my life until recently, but now that’s behind me so I can move on and maybe step back and look at some other options about what I want to do.
I saw that you recently contributed a short story to the Unfettered anthology. Could you talk about that project?
Yeah, this is Shawn Speakman’s project. He’s pretty well known in the field because of his work through the Brooks website . . . and he goes to the conventions, and he’s a correspondent for the Random House group as well—reports, blogs for them, and so forth. He asked for stories, and so I contributed one—along with practically everybody else you can think of. These are all contributions from which the money will go towards paying off his considerable medical bills. He’s got a long history of struggling with cancer. He’s had three or four different kinds, and he’s a good guy. One good thing about this field, I think, is that writers in science fiction and fantasy both tend to band together and help out people who need it, and this is a good example. My story was one that I had written many years ago for Del Rey, which was actually kind of a prototype/precursor to the Word and Void series in a somewhat different format, and it appeared in a small anthology by Del Rey authors 20-some years ago. So I pulled that one out and said, “Well, here, try this. It might be kind of fun for people.”
In addition to running your website, Shawn also helps check your books for continuity errors. Can you think of any big errors that you’re really glad he caught?
He’s the guy who’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of the Shannara books, so when I miss a description in some fashion, or I have said something is true which turns out was in fact not true, he’s the guy who catches all that stuff, so that when these books get published, all those 12- and 15-year-olds that read everything and memorize it don’t write me letters about how I made a mistake. I mean, some of these readers, they’ve read the books dozens of times. Some of them only read these books. Now, that, to me, is mind-boggling.
I’ll give you a perfect example of one that he didn’t catch, but that came to light some years later, and that was in Druid of Shannara, where the druid Walker Boh lost his arm early on, so he went around for the rest of the book with one arm gone at the elbow, but in the course of my writing the arm changed from time to time. The cover art was correct, but then they flipped it, so it was the wrong arm. Those kinds of things I don’t like to have to explain, yet somehow they always seem to get through, and Shawn is good enough at this sort of thing that he cuts back considerably on the number of errors that might otherwise appear. You know, we’re at 26 books here now, I think, altogether with the ones that aren’t published that I finished. And 26 books later, you can’t remember anything. You might as well just forget it. You can go back and read them, or you can look at the companion volume, The World of Shannara, and try to find it in there, but you still miss stuff, and the more eyes you have on the project, the better off you are. So in my case, I read it, [my wife] Judine reads it, Shawn reads it, and then it goes through several editorial drafts, and my rereading and so on. So it gets a lot of eyes on it before it’s out there, and we still miss stuff.
How did Shawn become your webmaster in the first place?
He actually wrote Del Rey and said, “You don’t seem to have an official [Terry Brooks] website. I want to be that website.” So they contacted me and they said, “Well, he lives out where you are. You want to check him out?” So I went to his website, and . . . you know, at that time—this is late in the 1990s—I was not doing anything with websites. I never go online to read what anybody says about me, because frankly I don’t care. So I didn’t know anything about this, and I said, “Do I have a website out there?” And they said, “Yeah, you’ve got about 150.” I said, “Oh, that’s not possible.” And they said, “Well, just go on and look.” So I went to Shawn’s website, and it was clearly a great website. He’d done a heck of a job. So I met him, and we talked, and I really liked what he had to say. He worked for nothing, so I thought, “What can go wrong here?” Of course, he doesn’t work for nothing now, but he did then. [laughs] So that started our relationship, and now Judine and I say he’s our other child that nobody knows about, and he calls us his other parents. So we have a really close relationship. We’ve been through a lot together. I can’t imagine trying to do what I do with the website without Shawn.
As a Tolkien fan, are you looking forward to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, and what do you think about it being split into three separate movies?
Well, first of all, I love The Lord of the Rings. I thought his take on it was terrific. Yes, he didn’t get everything in there, but then it wouldn’t have been the same movie if he had, and I thought he made good decisions. I have seen the previews for the new one and I think it looks terrific also, and I’m anxious to see it. I’m not so sure about splitting it into three parts. That feels somewhat mercenary to me, but maybe it’ll turn out that it’s a good decision. I don’t know. I keep thinking about The Lord of the Rings in three parts and how big it is, and The Hobbit is tiny by comparison, so is this really worth three parts? You know, what’s the story on that? But we’ll find out.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
There are a couple things I should mention. I’m doing more online, so I am doing more e-stories, short stories online only. I’m going to do more of that in the next couple of years, just because I’ve sort of gotten the hang of it now. I don’t like short stories very much—I mean, I don’t like writing them. I like reading them, but I’m not very good at them. But I’ve sort of gotten into it now, so I think I’m going to do a bunch more of those. I’m committed to do three between now and next April. The other thing I’m going to do is I’m going to do something new that’s not connected to anything I’ve done. I have a very specific story in mind, a very specific setting and characters and all of that. I know what I want to do, but I don’t have the time right now. But I would like to start it some time in the next three to five years. And at some point in the next decade, I’m going to wrap up Shannara.