Terry Brooks is a New York Times bestselling author, having published his first book The Sword of Shannara back in 1977. That was before my time, but since then he’s gone on to write over thirty books, many of which were passed on to me by my father (and one of which remains one of my favourite books: Running with the Demon). It feels that I’ve always had Terry Brooks’s novels on my bookshelf.
Most famous for his SHANNARA series, Brooks has been adding to his mythos for years now, resulting in an epic story that spans several generations and a few thousand years. This year Terry Brooks is celebrating his 35th year as a published writer and I’d like to thank Shawn Speakman for giving me the chance to interview him. I asked Mr. Brooks about the nature of Shannara’s chronology, how he managed to link his earlier books to a later trilogy, and I presumed to congratulate him on how well he writes his female characters.
Rebecca Fisher: My favourite novel of yours is Running With the Demon, as I love the way that all the myriad plot-strands weave together toward a conclusion that feels both inevitable and yet surprising. This was also the first time you moved away from the fantasy genre into something that would probably be classified as something like “urban fantasy.” Was there a reason for the shift?
Terry Brooks: An opportunity to write anything I wanted was offered in the early 1990s, and I was pretty quick to jump on it. I had been wanting to write something different from epic fantasy for a long time, and this was my chance. I conceived of a story that would take readers back to their childhoods, remembering when things of magic seemed real and possibilities were not yet constricted by experience and disappointment. I wanted to write about growing up in a small town, but with the understanding that what happened there would potentially impact the larger world. As kids, we are shaped by our growing up, and we eventually come to see the larger world as an extension of ourselves. So I coupled that with the mythic of the Word & Void at war, the the Knights of the Word doing battle with the Demons of the Void , and I had my thematic structure.
With that in mind, when you first started writing Running With The Demon, were you aware that it would eventually be connected to the SHANNARA series, using the GENESIS OF SHANNARA as a bridge to link the two series? What made you decide to link the two?
A lot of people think I knew what I was intending back when I began WORD & VOID. Not so. My plan was always to go back into the dreams of the Knight of a future in which they had failed in the present. But when I did so in the mid-2000s, I began to wonder about the similarities between the dreams of the Knights and the Old World of SHANNARA. Somewhere along the way, I thought it might be kind of cool to link the two. But I really wasn’t sure this was a good idea. WORD & VOID in its current trilogy was so perfect. I asked Betsy Mitchell, who was then my editor, what she thought. She told me to try it, that she thought it was a good idea. So I decided to write maybe half-a-dozen chapters and see how I gelt about it. At the end of that effort, I was pretty well convinced.
Your books are published as trilogies, quartets or duologies, but when looking at them all as a complete series, the timeline involved is spread out over thousands of years, often dealing with various families over the course of several generations. Is there a particular reason you chose to have such wide gaps between the sets of books with a new set of character in each one?
There most certainly is. I’ve never been fond of series where the same character experiences adventure after adventure in one lifetime. It doesn’t feel realistic to me. Also, I was worried about getting bored writing about the same character over and over. It seemed to me that the best way to avoid having to mercy kill the whole series at some point was to write it as a generational saga, an historical overview of several thousand years in an imaginary world where the reader would follow the lives of the members of various families during a series of upheavals and changes in their world. 35 years later, the experiment seems to be working as intended.
As mentioned, by now the SHANNARA series spans over thousands of years’ worth of history, and often the seeds of one story are planted in its predecessor (such as Allanon tracing a rune on Brin’s forehead that doesn’t really come into play until THE HERITAGE OF SHANNARA). How much of this is planned out by you in advance, and how much grows organically out of the writing process?
There is some of each in every book. I do spend time living with the story in my head before putting anything down on paper, trying out various ideas, giving various characters a chance to show me what they have to offer. If it doesn’t stick with me and doesn’t excite me sufficiently to want to hurry up and sit down and write it, then I have to think it isn’t what it needs to be. Once I have it far enough along I do a comprehensive outline of the plot, character profiles, thematic structure and a few other things that allows me to have the bones of the story in place when I start to write. But, of course, the writing always tells you how the story needs to go, so things change once you start.
This may sound like a digression, but when C.S. Lewis was asked about the sequence of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, he was fairly blasé about which order they were to be read in. These days you buy boxed sets of NARNIA in which the seven books are numbered in chronological order rather than in publishing order (with The Magician’s Nephew as book 1 when it was actually the sixth one that Lewis wrote, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as book 2 when it was actually the first). Likewise, the publishing order of your books flit back and forth across the timeline established in the actual stories. How would you encourage a first-time reader to approach the series — in chronological or publishing order? (Or alternatively, does it not really matter?)
I don’t think it matters that much. The beauty of an historical saga is that each period of history is a separate experience, so all you really need to do is start with book one in any set. Really the pre-history that begins with Armageddon’s Children is a completely separate reading experience from everything that includes the Four Lands saga. No reader needs to have read any particular set of books before reading another. It just doesn’t matter. Best for first time readers, especially, to just pick a set of SHANNARA in which the storyline seems appealing and go from there. I didn’t set out to write all these books to punish readers by forcing them to read every single one. It is one of the gripes I have with series the actually do go from book one to book ten and follow the same characters throughout. For me, this just doesn’t work.
Finally, I was very young when I started reading your books (my father is a big fan and he would pass on his copies of your books to me) but it wasn’t until I was a bit older that I was able to really come to appreciate your portrayal of female characters. The likes of Nest, Brin, Wren, Damson, Grianne (and plenty more) are all three-dimensional, capable and likeable characters; none of which are damsels in distress or defined by their love-interests and yet who are still innately feminine in nature in regards to having nurturing and emotional qualities (rather than just being “honorary boys”). In plenty of fantasy literature, most of which still occurs in quasi-medieval settings that are drawn down traditional gender lines, having female characters who are allowed to participate in adventures such as these without any sort of fuss is still quite a refreshing change of pace. So my question is, when it comes to writing female characters, are you conscious of writing them in a certain manner, or do you approach them as you would do any other character?
I’ll tell you a funny story. After writing Sword of Shannara all those years ago, when I was not thinking about balance and only trying to tell a story that appealed to me, I heard from a number of women and girls who wanted to know why I hadn’t included any major female characters in the story. I hadn’t even thought about it up until then, and I realized they were right. So with Elfstones of Shannara, I included two, Amberle and Eretria — very different women characters, but each strong and capable in her own right.
I live in a matriarchy, so I have lots of time to study how women interact. You learn pretty fast how different it is than with men. I also read women’s fiction and books written by women, so I have a chance to see how it’s done from that point of view and with a different frame of reference. Writing is mostly about studying other people and extrapolating behavioral modes. I don’t really treat women characters differently than I do men characters except to pay attention to situations where their responses and behaviors might truly differ. But thanks for telling me I got it right so far. I promise to keep trying harder.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions — I enjoyed getting to know you better!
Readers, comment for a chance to win the audiobook version of Legends of Shannara: The Measure of the Magic (or a book from our stacks).
Next week, Bill chats with D.B. Jackson.