Author Terry Brooks has had a long and distinguished career writing big fantasy novels, including two long-running series, the Magic Kingdom of Landover saga and his best-known work, the Shannara series. Last month, Brooks published the final installment of the Shannara series, The Last Druid, more than four decades after his career-making first novel, The Sword of Shannara, hit shelves. For the occasion, PW spoke with Brooks by phone from his home on the Oregon coast about how he became a writer, his perspective on his work, what he's working on next, and more.
When did you first realize you wanted to write?
I grew up in a reading household. There were books everywhere. My parents were readers. So I had role models, right from the beginning. I was a good student, a good reader, and by the time I was 10, I had been bitten by the writing bug. Kids in those days were thrown out of the house and told to go do something. And there wasn't anything much to do except to roleplay, so I sort of feel like I invented role playing. The problem was, when the kids were small, they would listen. But after they got bigger, they quit listening to me. So I decided I would do better if I just tried to create my own scenarios and just write them up. I got real strong support from a fourth grade teacher on one of the wild-ass stories I wrote. It was about a couple boys in a house that had spaceship and aliens in it. It was ridiculous. I was published when I was 13, in a massively impressive county journal that published stories about Abraham Lincoln, 'cause this was Illinois. It was an assignment, I wrote it, they loved it, and they published it. And I got really, really bitten by the bug then.
When did you first develop an interest in writing fantasy?
In those days I never read fantasy, except for Emerald City of Oz and Tarzan. Every kid I grew up with was a science fiction aficionado. We all read about spaceships and robots and interplanetary space travel and all of that. And I read European adventure story writers, through high school and a little beyond. When I was 21, the girl I was dating gave me a copy of The Lord of the Rings. That really, really caught my eye, and I thought, this is what I really want to do from there. Then I went on to write The Sword of Shannara. But I think most of my influence came from the way I grew up, playing with kids pretending to be knights of the Round Table or soldiers or whatever from a very early age on.
When were you able to become a full-time writer?
I floundered around for a while with being a lawyer, but I started writing The Sword of Shannara when I was in law school, because I hated law school. I was on the verge of failing after the first year, but folks talked me into going back. I decided to change my way of doing business, so I cut out all television and everything else except reading and started writing this book. And that went on for about six or seven years. After The Sword of Shannara published, it was enormously successful—much more successful than I think anybody thought it would be. My editor at that time was Lester del Rey, who is kind of a legend. He was a curmudgeon of the first order and a strict disciplinarian. His wife once called me and said, when I was griping about something, "Just remember this, Terry: Lester is always right." End of conversation.
After the book published, I told Lester, "I think I can quit the law and become a full time writer," and he said, "No, you can't. You're not that good yet. You're just lucky. Here's what you are to do: You are to go out and write at least two more books. If they both are on the bestseller list, and if you are able to get a year's salary and put it in the bank, then you can quit." It was good advice. And then he promptly rejected my next book, to drive the nail into the coffin. And I said, "Well, you know, I'm not giving up. I'm just not that kind of guy. So I floundered along through two more, and then I met my future wife, and when I met her, that was it. I told Lester, I'm done. I'm moving to Seattle and quitting the job. He supported me at that point.
How did The Sword of Shannara become a series?
I wrote Sword with no expectations. It was a first novel, so I didn't know if I could get published, I didn't know if anyone would read it, I didn't know anything. So when it was successful, this led automatically to thinking about what I could do next, because there at least was a future here. I wrote a sequel, and then I decided to make it a trilogy, because even then, trilogies were in, and then I wanted to wrap the whole thing up. I was sick to death of Shannara, because I'd been working on it for 20 years or something. Once I wrote the sequel, I went to Lester and asked for some thoughts about where I could go, and I came up with the Magic Kingdom of Landover series, and wrote some of those books.
In the meantime, my publisher was saying to me, "When are we getting another Shannara book?" And I'm saying, "Well, I'm not sure about that." And they're saying something along the lines of, "Are you nuts?" But without actually saying that. "Well, your fans are all asking for another Shannara book, and we as your publisher, who are interested in earning money, and will make use of money in the process, would like to see you do this," they said. So it's all in code, but you know, I got the picture.
What I saw here was that because of the nature of the way the stories had assumed a generational-skipping quality, I was going to have to consider the fact that I was going to end up doing a lot of more of these books. At that point, I was smart enough to know that there were a lot of mystery writers who ran out of gas after four or five books because they really didn't have an idea of where to go and everybody got tired of their main character.
But I was out touring quite a bit in the late '80s and '90s, going six weeks at a time touring around. And my readers really won me over to thinking that if I didn't do these books on a regular basis, I would be disappointing a whole raft of people. I asked myself, "Is that really what I want to do?" So I just figured, well, I'll just write them till I get sick of them.
How did you decide to end the series with your latest, The Fall of Shannara: The Last Druid?
If you're not energized, when you go into a 500 page book, you are in big trouble. It's so hard to write a good book if you don't love it from the beginning and all the way through, and you're not working with a certain amount of energy every time you sit down. As things wore on into this last decade, I told myself, "There's two things that are gonna happen here: Either you're going to die, and somebody else is going to finish this series for you—probably Brandon Sanderson—or you're gonna force yourself to write the ending now, and deal with the consequences."
I always knew what the ending was I wanted, which also helped persuade me not to just abandon this thing. I knew what I wanted to write, I knew this was always a circular story about how one kind of power replaces another. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if science no longer exists in the world, and there is magic, then magic will be the power until it falls out of favor, which it will, because it's elitist. And then science starts to reemerge because we're an evolving society, and so would this one be. This book was always going to be about whether the Druid order, which has been there through all these 30 books, was going to continue to survive, or if it would fall apart at the end, as really everything eventually does. And I wrote it to answer that question. I'm at peace with it right now. I think I ended it the way I wanted to—and I can always go back to it if I choose to.
Talk to me a bit about what you're working on next.
This is a Covid story. I had written another book and turned it in, and neither the publisher or I were particularly happy with it, but they were going to publish it, and there was no particular rush because it wasn't going to come out until next year. So then I'm sitting here, in March, locked away and at the beach with nothing to write. And I thought, "Well, this is stupid, I'm a writer. Write something!" And I was really inspired by another book. I just finished reading Naomi Novik's new book, A Deadly Education. She's a writer I respect quite a bit, and this book just took me away from the get go. It was a non-stop adventure story. And I wanted to try something like that, because I'm always kind of slow getting into the story, so I wanted to try something at breakneck speed.
So I started with a prison break. Everybody gets killed right away, except for one person—we don't know who she is, we don't know where she came from, she doesn't know who she is or where she came from. And she's out in the desert, and she's being hunted. After that, it turns into a first contact kind of story, in which humans, who are not the good guys in this, meet fairykind, who live in a different space. And it becomes a question about why these two different species have never interacted before, because they're right next to each other, but they don't seem to really know much about each other. There's just rumors about fairy people being around. Then it goes from there. There's a lot of twists and turns, a lot of surprises, which is the kind of thing I really like to do. Nobody is exactly who they seem, particularly our protagonist. And all of it is a search for identity and finding a place in the world, which are tropes that have been around forever.
I wanted to write about how people are marginalized for race, color, religion. I wanted to write something about that, because that, of course, is the single most dominant social topic right now. But I didn't want to do it in the way that that would sound like it was a polemic. I wanted to do it in a way so that it would just be a story. This is how I've always done things. I write a story in a different world, with different people, but readers will pick up on it. They'll see what I'm writing about. They'll make that connection. Anyway, I turned it in and I didn't know what was going to happen. And my editor called me up and said, "This is the best thing you've written in years." They immediately ash-canned the other book and said, "This is going to be the next book. And we want another one too."