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Terry Brooks gets candid about why he wanted to finish Shannara now, and why it's not his best work: 'I was burnt out'
The Last Druid, the new novel from acclaimed fantasy author Terry Brooks, brings the epic saga he began in 1977 with The Sword of Shannara to a close. The series' early books helped to reignite the fantasy genre, and for many readers, helped to define modern fantasy. Brooks never tried to reinvent or subvert the genre. He was influenced by, but not beholden to J.R.R. Tolkien. The books had elements of science fiction (including the setting being our world, long after a disaster, detailed in the Genesis of Shannara series) as the world evolved over centuries — as power corrupted, magic was misused, and young characters found themselves. These are themes that resonated, especially with younger readers. What kept them returning, though, is that Brooks is simply an immensely entertaining writer who always tries to do what his first editor, the late Lester del Rey told him: “Just tell a good story people will remember.”
After more than two dozen novels and short stories, ending the Shannara series was a long time in the making — and an ending that Brooks had been thinking about for decades. SYFY WIRE spoke with Brooks, who was in an introspective mood and joked about his own death more than once, about concluding a series that so many fantasy fans have read, his next project, and why he felt the need to write an ending now.
When did you decide you wanted to write an ending to the Shannara series?
A long time ago. In the mid-'90s, after I had done the first three books and then written the Heritage of Shannara series and First King, I thought, "You’re in it with both feet or you should step back right now." I began to think, "What are you writing toward?" I had made up my mind that the ending was going to be when the balance between science and magic reached a point where a choice had to be made. A decision was facing the Four Lands and required that some kind of commitment be made in one way or another.
If you’d been thinking about wrapping up the series and writing an end, why did it take you 20-something years to write it?
[Laughs.] Time. There’s really no point in doing it without a strong reason for doing it; and the strong reason was, I was burnt out. I didn’t really have anything more to say about the Shannara world. Number two, I wanted to do some other projects. I had other stories I wanted to tell. Finally, and this is something you can’t identify with, but when you get into your seventies, you start thinking about how much time you have left. I thought, "I’m going to be really pissed if I die and don’t get this written." The concept that I’d had earlier in life — that I would live forever — might not turn out to be true. [Laughs.]
You wanted to make sure that you wrote the ending.
I tell everybody, I didn’t want Brandon Sanderson writing it! Brandon’s my friend so I can say that. [Laughs.] He’s the famous example of somebody who finished off Robert Jordan's [work] — and did so better than I thought Robert Jordan. I didn’t want somebody to think he was better than I was. [Laughs.]
I’ve heard from multiple people who liked The Last Druid, thought it was a good ending, but felt underwhelmed as a finale to all of Shannara.
I’m not surprised. I’ve been competing against myself for 30 books. I don’t think I can write a book better than Elfstones and Wishsong, the Genesis of Shannara, the Heritage series. Those books, I was at the top of my game, but I’m burnt out. I felt like I needed to make a solid final four books. I just don’t see this being life-changing in the way some of the others were.
Some of that is the fact that it’s a quiet, ambiguous ending. I can imagine people expecting some Ragnarok/Armageddon-like finale and being disappointed.
That’s not me. I felt it needed to be ambiguous and a question answered by the readers. I didn’t want a clear-cut resolution because that’s not the way the world works. We don’t have clear-cut resolutions.
If one thing history has taught us it’s that whatever resolution we get, it’s going to have some caveats attached to it. Some people will think that science should prevail, others will say magic, but I don’t give them the answer. It was my intention from the beginning that they were not going to get that answer. All they get is the fates of the characters up to the point where a decision has to be made.
You’ve always tended to end books that way.
Don’t you think that’s true, about the way the world works? We come in when we’re born in the middle of something that’s been going on, and when we die, we leave in the middle of something that’s been going on. There’s no final resolution unless you have a total destruction of the world. The opportunities for you to imagine what might happen are more intriguing to me. I think lives are complicated. I think life is complicated. Everything is complicated when you get right down to it.
You mentioned before that you’ve already written a new book coming out in 2021.
It’s about a human being coming into contact with the fae. It involves two worlds, two nations, armies, an ultimate confrontation. It’s got a good ending. It also has to do with finding who you are, which I write about a lot. Hardly anybody in this book is who they seem to be, and many of them don’t know who they are.
There’s been so much about Black Lives Matter and prejudice toward other creeds and nationalities and religions and races and sexual preferences [in our own world], I wanted to write about it‚ but not directly. To write about two different cultures where all these things come into play. That question of "Who do we accept?" The fae are different, they don’t behave like us, but in other ways, they’ve surpassed us. Do we interact with these people? Is that a good idea?
The Last Druid is the conclusion to the Shannara series, but you’ve often jumped around in time so you could write more. Is this truly the final Shannara book?
That was my safety net, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it. Somebody one day will pick up the series, like Oz and other books. Or not. I’ve given my heirs permission to do that if it’s something the publisher wants to do. I don’t care. If I’m dead, it’s not going to matter to me. [Laughs.]