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Brooks: ‘Time to say goodbye’ to Shannara

Sterling author starts wrapping up career with series on MTV

Published: Saturday, July 26, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST
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Terry Brooks
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In this image from Random House, a map marks key locations in the fictional town of Hopewell that is featured in Terry Brooks’ book “Running with the Demon” in the “Word & Void” series. Hopewell is molded after Sterling, where Brooks grew up.

Best-selling fantasy author and Sterling native Terry Brooks recently announced on his website that MTV will air a TV show adapted from one of his books.

The 10-episode series, set to air next year, will be based on the second book of the original trilogy, “The Elfstones of Shannara.”

The 70-year-old Brooks methodically built the Shannara universe around the use of magic and spells, epic journeys, and the elemental struggle of self-discovery.

Brooks, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, said he has “quite a bit” of creative direction in the TV show production process.

“There’s nobody in my publishing house [who] has read all those books because I’ve outlived everyone,” Brooks said in a phone interview this week with Sauk Valley Media.

He reviews and approves scripts for each episode, and keeps everyone “on the straight and narrow” when it comes to timeline and plot.

Brooks then gave a shoutout to his “Web Druid” Shawn Speakman, who is his website manager, assistant and close friend. Speakman and the online group of superfans likely are among the few who can decipher the scrolls of Shannara canon.

More than two dozen Shannara tales have been knighted as New York Times bestsellers over a writing span of more than 40 years.

Brooks cherry-picked “Elfstones” as the bedrock for the MTV series because of its broad range of characters and strong female roles, details that the studio highlighted. It was the best option for casting, marketing and selling, too.

For scale, the company that is producing the series for MTV told Variety Magazine in 2012 that Brooks’ fanbase was larger than the audience of “The Hunger Games” series, one of the more recent novels to strike movie gold.

“We got the writers first, and after that we went to the different studios,” Brooks said.

The group that pitched the book-to-TV concept approached several networks, and about 12 or 13 saw the proposals.

Brooks watched from a distance as the effort, spearheaded by a producer and close friend, played out.

Jon Favreau was aboard, too, and signed on to nudge the effort forward. Known best for his work in “Rudy,” “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” projects, Favreau had a presence at meetings that immediately gave the bids more weight.

When the dust settled, about six companies were interested, and three stood out from the rest, one of which was MTV.

“They seemed like an unlikely choice,” Brooks admitted, but he quickly warmed up to the cable TV giant.

MTV had been looking to reinvent itself, more along the lines of its “Teen Wolf” work, to appeal to a larger audience and get away from reality TV.

The Shannara TV series would be the network’s centerpiece.

Origins

Terry Brooks was born in 1944, when the world was at war. A loaf of bread was about 12 cents. A new car was about 10 benjamins. A boy had been born who would go on to write a book that would eventually help shape a genre.

Brooks said he began to write in grade school.

He wrote his first story in fourth grade, and continued to experiment with style like a chemist in a white labcoat.

“I liked it. … It was a hobby for me,” he recalled. “I liked the process, and I was fascinated with what you could do. You didn’t have the distractions that are there today. For me, that was great because I spent a lot of time living in my head.”

Brooks grew up in a family of avid readers.

When his imagination took flight, he role-played outside and pretended to be characters with neighborhood friends in the early ’50s.

Eventually, Brooks began to jot some of those ideas down.

Sterling was the inspiration for the town that Nest Freemark lives in throughout the “Running with the Demon” book of the “Word & Void” series, Brooks explained. The fictional name of the town is Hopewell, and it was molded by Brooks’ early experience.

“It made a huge difference,” he said. “I can’t think I would have turned out the same way if I had been living somewhere else.”

Brooks came back to Sterling for his 45th and 50th high school class reunions. Although he no longer has family in the area, he periodically returns to the Sauk Valley, and likes to keep tabs on the town that raised him.

Metamorphosis

Brooks, who graduated from Sterling High School in 1962, credits his progress as a writer to encouragement he received from “terrific” teachers.

But, like some protagonists in his books, the author faced his own period of demons, distraction and doubt.

An English major, Brooks was a “typical college student” who didn’t know what he wanted from life. He went to school because that’s what everyone did, and if you didn’t do that, “you went to Vietnam.”

Brooks went on to finish a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. The school sits about a 3-hour drive north of the farm that later would host the legendary Woodstock music festival.

Without missing a beat, Brooks dived right in to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. It was one of only two schools that had accepted him.

It wasn’t a good fit for the young Brooks, and boredom quickly swelled within.

“I’d like to tell you it was somebody’s influence,” he said. “I’d like to tell you that I made this decision [to attend law school] with a whole lot of foresight because I was such a good student.”

“I was a great student throughout high school, and I was a crappy student while I was in college. I didn’t care. I didn’t study. I fiddled around. I drifted.”

But, he read all the time, and he read a lot.

He began to write to escape, he said, and that’s when things got better.

It was during his second year of law school that he composed the first paragraphs of his first book, “The Sword of Shannara.”

“I hated law school with a passion,” he said. “I never really loved school after high school.”

Brooks wanted to get out and get going, but his parents persuaded him to complete the degree.

Brooks finished and moved back to Sterling, where he began work as an attorney the year of the moon landing.

Brooks was a junior associate with the firm that preceded Miller, Lancaster & Walker.

Sterling was a very different place in that era.

Within 5 years, Brooks made partner, and continued to practice law in the downtown building that housed Central National Bank for 17 years. Midland States Bank now calls the building home.

Brooks finished the first book of the original trilogy, “Sword,” and it was published in 1977 while he held down his day job. He finally had one foot in the publishing world.

“You have to work really hard to make sure the next book is better,” Brooks said. He wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one-shot wonder before he made the next move.

Two more books would be published before he changed his profession altogether.

End game

Brooks felt lucky that the first book did as well as it did.

He had sent it to two companies.

The first had said it was “too big and too Tolkien-esque.” They didn’t know what to do with it, and everyone had been afraid of comparisons.

The perception in the publishing industry at the time was that fantasy stories weren’t worth much.

“Then, science fiction was all the rage,” Brooks said.

Publishers thought that fantasy was just a small niche in the market.

The second company, Ballantine Books, agreed to take up the torch and publish it. It was Brooks’ editor who believed in him and set out to prove everyone else wrong.

The immense success of his first books brought about a paradigm shift: a pivot to the perception that fantasy, as a genre, could stand on its own.

Brooks now finds it humorous when he looks at how things have changed in the world of entertainment, books, TV and movies.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” enthralled and captivated Brooks at the beginning of his career, but it was the European writers Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson who really influenced his work. Brooks measured their writing against his own.

Above all else, however, Brooks has been shaped by William Faulkner, the American writer from Oxford, Mississippi.

“What he did with all those stories and tangled families that were dysfunctional in one county in Mississippi, ... he made it all so claustrophobic,” Brooks explained.

Brooks wanted to capture that, and a lot of those emotions came to play in the Shannara series. The stories evolved on their own as he went along.

“The questions of moral responsibility, and what constitutes the right thing to do in difficult situations … is more along the lines of what influences me today,” he said.

He doesn’t want to give the impression that he had a bad upbringing, though. He had good parents and a solid family unit.

Brooks’ dad was a business owner who ran a local printing company called Rock River Valley Printers. His mom was a homemaker.

Brooks’ sister, Laurie, is an accomplished playwright and young adult book author. She has had 16 plays produced, including four at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

As a longtime series writer, Terry Brooks has spent a lot of time working on books that were part of a cluster of two, three or four. But his newest book, “The High Druids Blade,” released July 8, is considered a stand-alone.

He said that pressure came from readers’ desire for something that could be quickly digested, without waiting for the rest of the story, nestled away in upcoming books.

“It’s actually the beginning of the prelude to the conclusion of the Shannara series, because I’m going to wrap it all up in the next 5 years,” Brooks said.

“It’s time to say goodbye.”

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