“For 35 years, I’ve been getting away with this hoax of writing books,” said fantasy author Terry Brooks to guests at Wednesday night’s Columbia Forum.

And when he took a hand count, he discovered many hadn’t read any of his books.

Brooks, author of 23 New York Times bestsellers, focuses mainly on epic fantasies set out in series that stretch as far as 26 books.

He’s in the process of relocating from Seattle to Arcadia Beach near Cannon Beach, where he helps organize the annual Get Lit at the Beach event in April.

For inspiration, Brooks said William Faulkner provides the concept for generational sagas – history and secrets that set things in motion and tear apart families – while J.R.R. Tolkien provides the format – fantasy worlds all with their own rules and ways of life.

How to get published: Luck

Brooks attended Washington and Lee University, from which he earned a juris doctor (a professional graduate degree in law). He was also introduced to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a primary influence in his writing.

“I hated it – with a passion,” he said about law school. I told my parents ‘Please, let me die before I have to go back.’”

Law school, said Brooks, taught him the discipline he needed to focus wholly on his eventually full-time writing career. While at school, he started writing “The Sword of Shannara,” which would start what has so far been his most successful group of works, the Shannara series.

He returned to his hometown of Sterling, Ill., to practice law after graduation.

“You took whoever walked through the door – no specializations,” he said. “I loved it.”

He eventually sent in the manuscript of the first Shannara book to a small publisher who summarily passed it on. It eventually went to Ballantine Books and landed in the hands of Lester del Rey, a science fiction author who, Brooks said, thought the market was ripe for more fantasy works and told him he could get it published if he would “crawl across broken glass and sell my soul.”

Del Rey worked him to death editing and re-editing the book, until it pleased the senior author down to the very end. That first Shannara book, which came out in 1977, spent about five months as the first fantasy book on the New York Times Bestsellers list, launching Brooks’ career.

Brooks said sheer luck, such as his manuscript landing in friendly hands, is the best way to get published, followed by perseverance, exemplified by his long road to publication and extensive work with del Rey.

How to sustain

your career

Brooks said the writing industry has gone from the point when authors were to be read and not seen or heard, to the point where he spends about 30 percent of his professional time publicizing his work. Debate club and typing courses have been two of the most important academic factors in keeping him going.

“You sustain your career because you’re producing on a regular basis,” he said, throwing out an average of a book a year.

Brooks has given readers 25 sequels, albeit in different anthologies, to the original Shannara book, stretching from 1977 to the most recent – “The Wards of Faerie” – in August 2012.

“You (the reader) love what you read before and want something else,” he said.

How to grow up

“It was a time at which there were no technological toys to play with,” said Brooks, 68, about his childhood in northern Illinois. “Most of the time was spent making things up.”

It was a strange relationship with the neighborhood kids, said Brooks, where as the small, geeky kid, he’d have to entertain the others enough to not get beat up. They’d recreate such scenes as the jousting in Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” – with broom handles for swords, garbage can lids for shields and bikes for horses – and the lynching scene in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” a play Brooks said got the kids in a lot of trouble.

Brooks said he spent a lot of time in his room making up grandiose ideas and situations in his room, arranging toys in vast war scenes and playing out entire stories. His father tried and failed to get him interested in Little League, after which his parents showed support for his writing abilities.

A haunted house story where the traditional ghosts were replaced by aliens caught the attention of his teacher. His first published work came when he performed well in an Illinois state essay competition about Abraham Lincoln, getting his draft published in the local journal.

It only took 20 more years until he got published for elves.

“I don’t know how you retire,” said Brooks about his twilight. “I’m going to die with my fingers on the keyboard and the screen on.”

Question and answer

During a questions session after his talk, Gloria Jones asked where people should start if they want to get a good example of his style.

Brooks said he has three major series, including the Shannara books. The Magic Kingdom of Landover series is about fulfillment of one’s wishes, centering on a talented but depressed Chicago trial lawyer who becomes leader of a magical kingdom. His Word and Void dark urban fantasy series mostly take place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Illinois and focus on the protagonists using the magic of “Word” to overcome demonic forces of the “Void.”

“I wrote this because I had the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to for a whole lot of money,” he said.

Sam Johnson of the Columbia River Maritime Museum asked Brooks if he still likes to spin yarns.

“I’ve perfected the art of lying in a deadpan way to where people believe me,” responded Brooks, adding that his greatest disappointment in life was his kids not wanting to hear all his valuable information.

Larry Jordan asked if Brooks’ experience in law ever comes through in his writing.

Brooks said that his law education gave him the discipline and order needed to stay afloat in the writing business.

Jones had a final question: What does Brooks read?

“I read anything you can mention,” he said. “I get a lot of my ideas from newspapers.”

   

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