Return to the Land of SHANNARA: A Conversation with Terry Brooks (Mania.com)
By:By Andrew Osmond
Date: Monday, October 30, 2000
[Warning to Ilse Witch readers: some plot spoilers follow.]
'It's a five-book set,' Terry Brooks says of the latest incarnation of his best-selling Shannara fantasy series. Ilse Witch, the first of the quintet, is already available from Ballantine. 'I'm on a schedule to do them one a year. I've actually written the second one, so that's two down and three to go! The way this series is constructed, there are three books in the 'Voyage of The Jerle Shannara' arc: Ilse Witch, Antrax and Morgawr. Morgawr concludes the voyage, and everyone will be back in the Four Lands by then. The last two books will be stand-alones that play off and discuss the ramifications of the first trio. So it's a three-one-one formation.'
How big will the ramifications be? 'We know from the conclusion of the first book that the Jerle Shannara crew have stumbled on technology from the Old World. What it is won't be revealed till the next book. But one of the issues I've set up in this series is reintroducing science into the medieval-style world of Shannara. If there's an option to do thisand it'll turn out there iswhat will the Druid Walker decide? Is it better to embrace science, to bring it back into the world it destroyed and risk redeveloping it; or is it best to stick with magic as the principal guiding power?'
Even before the climactic discoveries, Ilse Witch introduces a new technology to the Shannara world. Now there are airships, albeit airships resembling sailing ships rather than dirigibles. Does this connect to the magic-technology theme? 'Yes. It seemed a natural progression. I always tried to write about the world of Shannara with an eye towards what we know to be true of this world. So I thought, OK, civilization was destroyed once by science and people have forsworn it. They're frightened of science. But eventually someone's going to reintroduce elements of that into the world, and there'll be a question of how much and how far you should take it. Well, now someone has brought back science, using crystals to draw ambient light to power airships.' And this is science? 'To me it's more science than magic, but bordering on both. It connects to the ambiguity about the use of power.'
Brooks has more pragmatic reasons for introducing airships. 'Over here we have the Four Lands. Way over here we have the country our heroes are going to. If they take sailing ships it would be a very long series! I needed to get them there quick, so they needed fast transportation. Also, I wanted an All Quiet On The Western Front situation. There's a war between the Freeborn and the Federation that's been brewing for ten years and is going nowhere. They're locked against each other and have just introduced rudimentary flying machines, like the planes in World War One. These don't do much except ramble around, run into each other and drop stuff so everyone on the ground hates them. That's my introduction to this stalemated war, which will resolve itself in the next four books.'
One sequence in Isle Witch is strongly reminiscent of Jason and the Argonauts. 'I started by thinking, I'll retell Jason. I love that story. Let's get all these people together and send them off in search of a Golden Fleece and see what happens. And then the story began to evolve and I got interested in Treasure Island and said, 'That's more interesting; let's have pirates!' So it became a sort of hybrid. But there's a deeper, more personal consideration, which is Walker Boh's efforts to validate his existence as a Druid. He wants to find a way to get the 'magic' that will give him the hold to persuade governments that Druids should be givers of power again. Nobody agrees with that right now, and Walker feels he became a Druid to no end.'
There's plenty of prophecy and foreshadowing in Isle Witch. Does Brooks know everything that happens down the line? 'I do. At least for the first three books. There's a cohesive storyline from book one to book three, and I think you need to know the story-arc and thematic structure, not to mention how the different issues will resolve themselves. But the last two books are not plotted. What happens in the first trio will tell me how the last two need to be developed, how the storyline will be set up. Even though I know the basic elements and plot, I need to write the series to that point. But I know the last books will be set round the same time as the first three. They'll be within fifty years at most. It'll be close because the ramifications of the voyage have to be dealt with pretty quick.'
Ilse Witch leaves the fate of all the characters in the balance. 'We left everybody in some kind of a cliff-hanger, and some of those people are not coming back, to their distress!' Can he give any pointers as to who will survive? 'I'm not going to tell you that! You have to decide how important a character is. If he or she is important enough, they'll find a way back. If not, goodbye.' Brooks adds, however, that he's never been one for overly gloomy stories. 'I don't plan this series to end up in a horrendous Armageddon that leaves everyone thinking, Boy, that was grim! But I'm not a Pollyanna in my view of the world. There's always a price; there's always people who die who we don't want to see die. There are unresolved issues that carry over and return later. The characters undertake massive efforts and solve one problem if they're lucky. The rest are carried over for someone else to deal with.'
Looking back a moment, there are plot elements from earlier books that seem to have untapped sequel potential. For example, the sentient tree the Ellcrys, still around in the new series, is the transformed version of a past Shannara heroine. Has Brooks considered using it/her again? 'I've thought about it, but I'm hesitant to go back. It's like trying to improve something you've already done. I think, Well, it's there, but I'm not sure about telling another story. What I have thought about doing, though, is going back and taking principal characters from the earlier books and doing short stories round them, a 'one more adventure' experience. That might be interesting.'
Has Brooks been tempted to write outside of the fantasy field? 'No. I think fantasy allows me enough latitude that I can do what I need to do. I could write 'The Word and Void series' [starting with Running With the Demon, 1997), which let me do a dark contemporary suburban fantasy dealing with social issues and things true about this world that worked best in that kind of storyline. Or something a little lighter, like the 'Magic Kingdom' series [starting with Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold!, 1986), which still had a depressive main character.'
'Shannara' is set in a wholly fantastical realm, while 'World and the Void' takes place in 'our' world. 'Magic Kingdom' plonks a real-world character into a created setting. Does Brooks have any preference? 'It's not a case of liking one more than another, but wanting to do it all. The key is not doing one thing all the time. I'm fresher for going into 'this' world in Running With the Demon,, where I used magic and demons to look at the ways we're destroying ourselves. Then I can go into the Magic Kingdom, where our hero Ben Holiday is dropped into a different world but carries our sensibilities in how he looks at things. Ben's world is quirky and strange, and sometimes downright funny, but can also be very dangerous.
'Magic Kingdom is about someone struggling to control himself and his world, which he's been given to administer. In contrast, in the Shannara books everything is imaginary and otherworldly, with a sweeping saga and broader concepts. It's satisfying for me, artistically and personally, to write in these different series. Though I might do something entirely different, next time out.'
A further avenue for Brooks is writing novelizations. He adapted Hook and more recently Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace. 'I didn't care much for Hook, which was a difficult process. But I enjoyed writing Phantom Menace a great deal. The Lucas people were extremely co-operative. Lucas encouraged me to feel free to change his material and dialogue, and do anything I needed to make it a companion to the film.' Brooks feels kinship with Lucas. 'He wrote Star Wars about the same time I wrote Sword of Shannara [the very first 'Shannara' novel, published back in 1977]. 'We're about the same age and had similar influences, and here we are, writing in different fields but the stories are so similar, the Shannara world and the world of the Jedi. I think sometimes that just happens. Writers come at something from entirely different directions and end up at the same point.'
Brooks looks forward to next year's big-screen fantasy onslaught (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings), but with caution. 'I always look forward to these films. But I'm not always happy with the results! I have great hopes for Lord of the Rings, of course. The stills are spectacular-looking, and I hope it'll be wonderful because we'd all like Lord of the Rings to be a great experience. But of course it's fallen short at the cinema in the past, so we can only wait and see... You just don't know.'
And what did Brooks think of Phantom Menace? 'The book was better. But then the book is ALWAYS better than the movie!'