With 23 best-selling fantasies under his belt, Terry Brooks isn’t slowing down. The author of “The Sword of Shannara” plans to write three new novels in the coming year. Yet before he gets too busy writing, Brooks is spearheading an April conference for book lovers to benefit the Tolovana Arts Colony, an arts group here in Cannon Beach. That may explain my luck in scoring an interview during one of his visits to my little bookshop here on the coast, where he lives part of the year.
Also, the wee folk may have been playing with us.
Q: Belief in fairies was affirmed by my favorite columnist, the late Michael Burgess, co-founder of the Tolovana Arts Colony and lead writer for the Upper Left Edge. Michael never claimed to have seen them, but that didn’t dampen his convictions. What are your personal views on the existence of fairies? Can you imagine a day when good writing on this topic might find a place on the list of best-selling nonfiction?
Brooks: Having visited the Fairy Glen in Betws-y-Coed, Wales, I can tell you that places which claim fairies and their kin don’t seem out of the question. Certain places have that magical feel, as if they transcend what we know of life and reach beyond it into other realms. As for fantasy reaching nonfiction best-seller lists, I always tell attendees at conventions and festivals that I write nonfiction about elves.
Q: The mists of the Oregon coast feel full of magic. I was introduced to your work through your “Word & Void” trilogy because a friend told me part of the storyline unfolds in Cannon Beach. What other influence has this place had on your writing?
Brooks: First let’s go back to Fairy Glen. My wife, Judine, and I went there before I wrote “Running With the Demon” (the first book in the “Word & Void” trilogy) because I wanted to incorporate Welsh mythology into the storyline. We saw a tourist sign for the Fairy Glen that looked like a sign you might see for an alligator park in Florida. After driving through a farm we pulled off at a spot where there’s a box for donations, then on up a lane through a pasture with cows and sheep, through a fence and into trees. Suddenly we were in this incredibly magical glen — absolutely gorgeous, somewhat ethereal — with a waterfall and creek and big rocks. And nobody else besides us was there. Judine loves to take photographs, and she was snapping shots like crazy. And that became the spot where the Knights of the Word are anointed.
That’s happened over and over again, when we experience places while traveling that anchor my stories. Place really is a central character in my work because fantasy must convince readers of make-believe worlds.
Q: And the Oregon coast?
Brooks: Right. This is the place where so much began, for “The Gypsy Morph” and other storylines. I’ll never forget our first drive down to this area from Seattle in 1987. We went about as far as Florence, stopping in the little towns and looking in the little shops. Judine had come here many times as a child, having grown up in Washington. But it was a major shift for me, coming from the cornfields of Illinois.
We were headed down the coast when we saw a For Sale sign south of Cannon Beach, and stopped to look at the property. Walking out to the edge of the bluff under those big Sitka spruce, with the light streaming through, it felt like being in a church, a sanctuary.
Q: Now for much of the year you call the north coast home. Do you find this is a good place to write?
Brooks: Yes. My primary residence is still Seattle for now, but I call the north coast of Oregon home. This is a great place to write for many reasons. It’s beautiful, inspirational and somewhat secluded. I’m kind of monklike in the way I work, in designated places where I’m invested in my surroundings and can organize.
Q: Fantasy writers have contributed greatly to the expanding market of young adult literature. Has the book industry just figured out a way to sell more fantasy, or is some deeper magic at work here?
Brooks: Well, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” set the bar for sales in recent years, fueled in part by the success of the movies. Young Adult just jumped on this when they saw the impact following the books of “Twilight” and some others. Fantasy has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since Lester del Rey decided to prove it could achieve best-seller numbers by publishing “The Sword of Shannara” back in 1977. Lester’s point was that fantasy could sell as well as any other genre. The audience for it was out there — it was just being ignored. “Sword” changed the rules. Now Young Adult, though a little slow coming to the table, dominates.
Q: There seem to be as many over-30 people as there are 12-and-under people who come into my shop requesting Young Adult best-sellers. Some days it feels like everyone’s obsessed with those tricky years of human development that were omitted from the canonical stories of Jesus. Is there any rhyme or reason why that time of life is now attracting so much cross-generational attention?
Brooks: My own theory is that fantasy cuts across all boundaries because it is instantly accessible and familiar to readers from memories of early days and because at its heart it centers around stories we all recognize. When I started out as a published writer, most of my readers were male teens. But that has changed dramatically and now my readers are pretty evenly split between male and female and run all the way up from 8 to 80. Fantasy readers are intensely loyal to their authors and tend to stick with them as they grow older. That’s been one of the reasons I’ve been able to stay around for so long.
Q: When you refer to early memories, I suspect most folks will interpret that as childhood. While recently reading a novel from your “Magic Kingdom” series (“A Princess of Landover”), I was struck by how much a certain fantastic feline kept pawing through my mind. At first I thought this was a doubling effect from my childhood memory of the Cheshire Cat (you do include an excerpt from “Alice in Wonderland” in the beginning of your book). But now I’m wondering if that fully accounts for what’s happening.
A little online research suggests that Lewis Carroll was borrowing from older legends of grinning cats that inhabited his native countryside. Are the mental images of some fairy creatures magnified by cultural memories that predate our individual childhoods? What makes them feel so archetypal when good storytellers flesh them out?
Brooks: The cat you mention, Edgewood Dirk, is the voice of inscrutability. That’s the way cats are, and the way they are cast in numerous stories. They’re ubiquitous, too. And I made him kind of snarky because I like my stories to feature at least one snarky character.
He comes into the story the same way as my dog Abernathy, who spent long hours with me in my library, just lying there. I thought since he was there all the time I should put him to work in my books. So I think a lot of that familiarity we’re talking about stems from human-animal relationships. I like the idea of animals being part of the fabric of the world. They certainly are part of ours. And they should all talk.
By the way, Edgewood Dirk was named after a real racehorse in which I once had a part ownership.
Q: While doing some online research I found mention of a short work of nonfiction by you titled “Why I Write About Elves.” It was sold exclusively through Amazon as an e-download and was never available in print. Now it is nowhere to be found, despite the fact that your fans have tried for months to post it at your official website. Is there a solid future in online publishing, or is the medium inherently ephemeral? Will our descendents tell fantastic stories about the strange virtual inhabitants of a mythical kingdom called the Internet?
Brooks: I think there is definitely a solid future in online publishing. How far the writers will be able to take it depends in large part on the evolution of the medium. And that’s a work still in progress. As the technology improves, the e-book sales will do the same and grow. Does this mean the end of paper books? I don’t think so. But I won’t be around to find out, I suspect.
Q: You’ve cited William Faulkner as a formative influence. Friends have occasionally accused me of being Faulknerian, when I get going on some spiraling train of thought. From what I’ve read, your work doesn’t seem too infected with that virus. How does Faulkner figure in?
Brooks: You just haven’t read enough of the early work where my sentences went on and on. Actually, my style of writing isn’t Faulknerian. His influence is mostly one of structuring and style. I was enamored of his use of a single county in Mississippi populated by a handful of families whose members, friends and enemies formed the heart and soul of most of his work. I wanted that structure set in a historical saga in which members of the same families kept cropping up over and over. I wanted to tell stories in which secrets within families proved toxic and strengths and weaknesses both resulted in tragic, terrible results. I wanted to write about dysfunctionality and weakness that eroded and destroyed.
Q: I bet Faulkner would have found fertile ground for his art here in Clatsop County. On the second weekend of April you are leading a gathering for readers and writers in Cannon Beach. I’m grateful to you and the other authors who’ve volunteered to headline this event for the Tolovana Arts Colony. Why are you so passionate about this?
Brooks: Most writers love to get together and talk shop. For 12 years I was very involved with the Maui Writers’ Conference. A strong camaraderie formed among participants in that event. All of us said we wanted to do it again — not at the same scale, but with the same energy. So I called up some of the gang and asked if they’d like to re-create the Maui conference in miniature, in one of the most beautiful places on the Oregon coast. Cannon Beach is frozen in time in many ways. That’s a good thing that is extremely hard to find anymore.
— This article also appeared in the Sunday Living section of The Oregonian (March 18, 1012) .
Update: Flash forward to 2013. The Oregon coast is gearing up for the second annual “Get Lit and the Beach”. Hats off to Terry Brooks for spearheading the event again this year. The gathering will unfold April 12-14 and features seven bestselling authors. Check out details at tolovanaartscolony.org.