Interview with Terry Brooks

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by: Jenna Bush



There are over 30 titles in the Shannara series by Terry Brooks, second-best-selling living fantasy author after “Harry Potter” scribe J.K. Rowling. The first book in the series, “The Sword of Shannara,” was published in 1977 (which I first discovered on my dad’s bookshelf) and “The Elfstones of Shannara” followed in 1982.

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Back in December, MTV President Suzanne Daniels gave the TV adaptation a script-to-series order with Al Gough and Miles Millar, the guys who brought you Smallville. Jon Favreau was originally attached to direct, though scheduling issues caused him to take an executive producer credit and leave the directing to Jonathan Liebsman.

As a huge fan of Terry Brooks, I was thrilled to get a chance to chat with him about his writing, his hopes for the show and if and how he’s going to end the series. Check out what he has to say below.

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Nerd Machine: I’m so excited to talk to you today. I’m a fan. I found my first Shannara book on my dad’s shelf when I was a little kid, so I’ve been a fan for a long time.

Terry Brooks: [laughs] I hear that a lot these days. It makes me feel really old. But then I am fairly old, so there you go.

Nerd Machine: I have to ask my one dad question –

Terry Brooks: Yeah, you’ve got to.

Nerd Machine: You started as a lawyer, and what sparked you to decide to change careers, because that’s a big jump.

Terry Brooks: Well, you can tell him I was a writer before I was a lawyer, and I started writing when I was 10 years old. The thing I learned was that there was always a way to keep from starving to death while I was trying to figure out how in the heck to get published. So I was writing the whole time I was practicing law. In fact, I wrote my first book – I wrote The Sword of Shannara when I was in law school so I wouldn’t go totally bonkers. And I finished it up when I was out of school and was in my first couple years of practice. And then I wrote a couple more. I wrote that whole first trilogy and Magic Kingdom for Sale – SOLD while I was still practicing. And then I thought that that was enough of a head start and I could just give the law career up and go full time as a writer. I was a little worried about it at first; I thought maybe – you know all that free time maybe you won’t be able to do anything instead of squeezing things in during nights and on weekends… That did not prove to be the case.

Nerd Machine: How much of an adjustment was it, changing your whole writing schedule when you didn’t have to practice law any more?

Terry Brooks: Well, there was an adjustment, but I’ve learned since then that you change your writing program about once every ten years because you’re in a different place. You know, I started out as a small kid, and I was working another job, so the only times I could write were early in the morning and late at night and weekends… And then you have to fit your family in somewhere. And then I… After the kids I quit my job and that gave me a lot more free time during the days, um, and then your kids move out, and then you discover all of a sudden that you’re sleeping differently. I used to be a night person; now at three in the afternoon I’m brain dead. So I basically do all my work in the morning. I’m ready to go by five thirty, six o’clock, and I will work pretty hard through the morning. So, you know, it’s just like that. There’s constant changes. Each time you have to make that adjustment. If you love what you’re doing enough, you find ways to do it.

Nerd Machine: Well, as somebody that quit my day job to write, I really appreciate that.

Terry Brooks: [laughs] Well, you can do that, but you really have to commit to something in your life. The only thing that I ever really, really wanted to do was write. And it’s still true, you know, my favorite and most passionate pursuit is writing, and I don’t feel any less passionate about it now than I did fifty years ago. It’s just that you – If you don’t have that passion, that fire in you to do it, it’s real easy to let it slide. You know, you’ve heard all the people say ‘I’m going to write something someday.’ I think, “Uh huh. We’ll see.” You really do have to give up – I gave up television entirely. That was the first thing I gave up. I realized I had to choose something, and I didn’t want to give up reading, and I’m not going to give up food, but I can give up television, so that’s what I gave up.

Nerd Machine: Well, you know I was actually going to ask you about that because Elfstones is going to be a TV series.

Terry Brooks: I heard that.

Nerd Machine: You hear that? [giggle] Because I know – things say you’ve been very heavily involved in this; you’re executive producing. Did you do any research, television watching-wise?

Terry Brooks: [laughter] As if that would do anything! Uh, no, I didn’t. I watch television series on DVDs and streaming, with no commercials, when I have a block of time to watch something. It’s not like I’ve foresworn any connection with television, but I can’t lock in and watch an episode of something when there’s other stuff to do. So I’m conversant about the shows; I have some sense of what’s going on on the networks. I don’t have any real experience with producing a television show. You know, I don’t. But, uh, you can learn, and the main thing I learned how to do is when a script comes across, and I don’t like what’s in it, I know how to change it. And that’s what I have the power to do.

Nerd Machine: Now, I’ve heard that this has been a possibility before, with movies, TV – even if it’s not appropriate now, have you ever had specific actors in mind for roles for Elfstones?

Terry Brooks: You know, I never have, and I get asked that question a lot. Back in the days when we were shopping everything around to the movie studios, and they were taking options, all of that, they’d always ask that. ‘Who do you see playing Allanon?’ And I’d be a blank slate. I don’t work that way when I’m writing, either. I don’t ever have anyone particular in mind. And that includes, friends, neighbors, actors… I never see anyone in particular in my mind while I’m writing the characters. I like to be surprised. Surprise me. Find some new people, get some new faces in there. When you get pressed on something, you start thinking about it and so you come up with somebody and then you start going ‘Liam Neeson; wouldn’t he be great?’ and he’s got a real presence – Every time you come up with somebody, they get too old for the part or they get too big for the part. And they’d be doing things where they’re the main person and it just wouldn’t work out. So after I while, I thought ‘Well, screw it. Why should I waste my time on it; let somebody else worry about it.’ Let someone else do it. I’d be really happy if they cast this show with all unknowns.

Nerd Machine: I love that idea.

Terry Brooks: Wouldn’t that be cool? Just bring in a whole bunch of new people, and don’t just get a whole bunch of pretty people either. Let’s bring in a whole bunch of people who look like who they’re supposed to be. Like, maybe they’ve lived a hard life. Every time I see a movie or a show like Justified… Where in the world did Justified find those people? Or Winter’s Bone in the movies. Fantastic casting job. Those people looked for sure like they were out of the Ozarks or Appalachia. It was wonderful! That’s a better approach sometimes than trying to cast the big name – not that anybody will listen to me or even think about it.

Nerd Machine: Are they going to let you sit in on the casting sessions?

Terry Brooks: Well, they have to at least ask me about it, or they have to pay attention if I rise up and say ‘NOT HIM!’ Adam Sandler was mentioned at one point and I said that I don’t want Adam Sandler in any movie that I am associated with, and I’m not kidding about that. So, you kind of have your own feelings about it, but I feel like it’s not my expertise. It’s like when we had the cover artist do the cover art, and this has been true for me forever, and they ask what I’d like to see. And I give up some ideas for what would be good scenes in the movie, or in the book, I mean, and the cover artist then does some cover sketches. And then we take a look at them and say ‘Yeah, that basically looks pretty good’ and then he does it. I don’t come in and say ‘Hey, this sword’s got to be moved up here’ and so forth. I just – it’s not my expertise and I just feel like you’ve got to trust who you’re working with to have the kind of expertise to do the job. And I think that works best.

Nerd Machine: I totally get that. And I’m curious, because I watched Smallville and you’ve got Al and Miles on this, and I mean I’m a huge Smallville fan. Did you watch anything that they’ve worked on to get a feel of what they were about?

Terry Brooks: I knew Smallville, so that helped, but more important than that was after they were tapped to do this, I flew down and met with them. We spent about three hours talking about Shannara and I was completely sold because they were right on the same page as I was, they had the same vision for it that I did, they were smart about it and paid close attention to the book – to that particular book anyways – who knows if they read anything else… But I really liked them. I liked their attitude – you know you connect with people right away sometimes – and that was true with them. Because MTV just loves them and I thought ‘Well what the heck? This is going to work out,’ so that’s kind of how it went. And then I saw their first draft on the pilot episode, which I think we’re just about ready to put to bed, and it’s so good. There really wasn’t too much for me to do, except correct a few misconceptions about it, so it was very encouraging to have it. I’ve never had that before on any project. Everybody always seems to feel like they’re in an adversarial position, or they’ve decided to rewrite, sort of like reinventing the wheel again, that sort of thing… Oh my god, I just want to scream!

Nerd Machine: Yeah, I get that. I’m a Game of Thrones fan and of course I’ve read the books. I totally understand.

Terry Brooks: And the thing of it is after all these years, the thing that’s always been good to me is that the books always get passed down in families. It’s like what you said. Your dad read the books, then you read the books and so on all the time. And not many writers get that. You know, it’s mostly sort of blocked in with one generation. But the people who read the books love them and they feel a very close attachment to them. And I’m not going to turn around and make a movie or a TV show that turns around and just craps on the fans of the book. For the book, that’d just be horrible. I have to face those people, for god’s sake. And I wouldn’t want that done to something I love, although it has happened with other people’s books that I’ve loved. So I’m hoping in this case we can keep everything on the path it needs to be even though there’s got to be changes and they’re going to rearrange stuff. You have to realize it’s going to be different when you’ve got a video presentation and you have a book presentation and the way the action unfolds and how to create moments with the audience… It’s all got to be done differently. So you have to give it some leeway.

Nerd Machine: Well, I’m curious just because I’d mentioned Game of Thrones, and there’s so much mythology out there. But you’re still writing the books. So is there anything that’s come up in terms of writing the scripts where you’re like ‘Oh, there’s this secret that I haven’t revealed yet that I have to change everything because of?’

Terry Brooks: Well there isn’t. I haven’t come up against that yet. There have been a couple situations where they’ve expanded something, for example, where I’ve had to say ‘at the end of the series, you discover such-and-so’ and they’ve backed off, so it’s been no problem. But the best thing about what I do is that I’m writing a generational saga, so things change. For every two, three, four, five hundred years, you’ve got new characters, a new situation, and in that kind of format, you can get away with an awful lot because you’re not locked into a series where everybody’s the same, you’re not stuck in a world where nothing ever changes… I mean, this world changes considerably from one time to the next, so that allows for a lot of tinkering and I also tend to write a lot about characters who you don’t find out exactly what happens to them. You know, they just kind of go off into the sunset. I don’t know what happened to those characters. I hope it allows readers and moviegoers and TV watchers to imagine some of this stuff for themselves. That’s what’s kind of fun about stories.

Nerd Machine: Yeah, I like that and I think that’s what gets everybody into fan fiction. I don’t write it, but I have a lot of friends who do and it’s because they’re like ‘Oh, I’ve imagined this in my head and now someone else can read it.’

Terry Brooks: You know, I kind of like fan fiction. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, unless of course they’re selling it for money or something. As far as the idea of using fan fiction as a way to hone your craft or just to entertain yourself, I think that’s a real compliment to a writer.

Nerd Machine: I had asked online for questions, and I got one that I thought was pretty cool because you’ve jumped around in time and this guy asked: “If you could go back in time, would you change the order of anything you’ve written, or would you stick with what you’ve done?”

Terry Brooks: Oh, I’m not big on changing the past. I’m not like Stephen King. I don’t want to rewrite The Stand again. I think I did the best I could with everything at the time. It’s laid out the way it is. Would you go back and not kill somebody off? No, thank you. I did it and they’re dead and that’s it. And we’re moving on here. It’s about what lies ahead, not rethinking what’s been done. If you do that, you’re taking away from the readers, and I just don’t think that’s a good plan. They’ve attached themselves to something, and that’s the end of it. It’s theirs. Those characters belong to them and their imaginations.

Nerd Machine: I’m a big Star Wars fan, and having Lucas go back to change stuff… Not happy with that.

Terry Brooks: You just want to scream sometimes. And then there’s all the stuff about the studio release and the director’s cut, and you want to say ‘Oh, for god’s sake! What am I going to do? Collect all these twenty different editions?’ Once books are out there, a lot of time and effort goes into writing a book. And when you’ve put all that time and effort into it, it’s somehow denigrating to go back and redo it. And I don’t know that you have the right to pass that kind of judgement.

Nerd Machine: I totally agree. So I’m curious about what books you have coming up.

Terry Brooks: The High Druid’s Blade is just out, and that’s the first in a set of three that are linked by an intermingling of characters from one book to the next. So they’re independent stories and they are a lead up to a trilogy which will mark the end of the series. I’ll write that in the next five to seven years.

Nerd Machine: End of the series?!? Don’t say that!

Terry Brooks: I know! It’s the end of the series, but maybe it’s not the end of the series. I’m aware of my own mortality, so maybe I should write my own ending. To die without ending the series, I can’t think of anything worse. So I decided that I’m going to write my own ending to the series, but then I’ve got all this pre-history that I haven’t finished and other places I can go.

Nerd Machine: You realize a lot of George RR Martin fans are going to be very jealous when they hear you say that.

Terry Brooks: [laughter] Well, they can do that, but I have to accept that I’m not going to keep working at the same speed and be prolific in the same way. I’m going to have to not be churning out a book a year. I need to slow down.


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