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Instant 'Menace'

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 1999; Page C1


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Terry Brooks, the No. 1 best-selling author in America, is discussing the nature of fame. He looks like a man in his fifties, with a head, and a torso, and feet. As he talks, his mouth moves and, from time to time, he blinks, his eyelashes spanking each other the way eyelashes do when you blink.

Okay, these are not exactly great details, but this is not exactly a great story, either. We went with what we had, which wasn't much, since Brooks lives in Seattle and we didn't spring for the airfare. We phoned. We have no idea what he looks like.

But what our story lacks in effort, originality and insight, it makes up for in the sheer speed and thoughtlessness with which it was produced.

Brooks would understand. Overnight, he has rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace." It is the companion book to the movie.

Typically, a novel is produced by a writer working alone with his talent and his demons, fired by desperation, poisoned by ambition, enslaved and empowered in equal measure by a life of bad decisions, good adventures, and despair. This particular novel was produced after Terry Brooks read the screenplay by George Lucas, and interviewed Lucas for a few hours, and looked at some photo stills of the film's main characters, and watched a promotional 20-minute presentation that was prepared for licensees, such as companies that market Star Wars beverage tumblers. He didn't even see the film or its rushes.

"Star Wars: Episode I" has already shipped more than a million copies. It wallpapers the display windows of America's bookstores. We have the book here, and, by way of review, we would just like to say that it costs $25, all major credit cards accepted, and you can buy it with your choice of four different covers, each featuring a lushly detailed, foil-embossed, full-color photograph of one of the four "Phantom Menace" protagonists, namely the precocious tyke Anakin Skywalker, the unspeakably evil Darth Maul, the dashing Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and the lovely and mysterious Queen Amidala of Naboo, though the publisher notes that many readers buy all four as handsome keepsakes. From a literary standpoint, the book is 324 pages long.

Terry Brooks is a successful fantasy/sci-fi writer, a former lawyer who made it big as author of the best-selling Shannara series. His "Star Wars: Episode I" is pleasantly written, in the sense that words are placed together to form intelligible if sometimes promiscuously picturesque sentences such as: "Night blanketed the vast cityscape of Coruscant, cloaking the endless horizon of gleaming spires in deep velvet layers," and "The resultant glare rose off the flat, sandy surface in a wet shimmer of blistering heat to fill the gaps between the massive cliff faces and solitary outcroppings of the mountains that were the planet's sole distinguishing feature."

We telephoned America's No. 1 bestselling author to find out what it felt like to reach a literary pinnacle never scaled by Faulkner, Joyce or Fitzgerald. The interview has been edited for length.

What is it like to write a novel for which you don't actually have to think up the characters, or the plot, or physical descriptions, or the settings, or the actual dialogue, all by yourself?

Hey, I didn't even have to name the characters!

What does this do to your brain?

I don't think it stunts your growth or anything. It's like taking a vacation.

From a purely literary standpoint, how many jillions and hillions and ziptillions of dollars are you making from this sucker?

I make more money on my other books, frankly.

So you are doing this for your love of the craft of writing?

Well, no. I have hundreds of thousands of readers with my own books, but not millions, like George Lucas. Maybe some of them will be dragged kicking and screaming to my books. The other obvious reason is that I probably couldn't get The Washington Post to give me a second look for my own books. You wouldn't be calling me, for example. It's crass commercialism, what can I tell you?

So how would you describe your role here? Are you an auteur?

I am an interpreter.

Would that be an interpreter in the way A.E. Housman interpreted Horace, or more of a simultaneous interpreter, like those people at jury trials or the United Nations who whisper into rubber cones?

Closer to Housman. In most novelizations, you are not allowed to change a comma or a period.

You changed commas and periods?

Yes. I was an interpeter. Though I didn't re-interpret, that's true. I'll concede that.

Deep down, what do you think of people who would buy a book that basically was a synopsis of a movie they will see in a few days? Would you call them zealots? Nuts? Half-wits? Children? Do you feel guilty exploiting this sort of audience?

I guess I don't have that jaded a view. I think the book serves a definite purpose. It provides background. The movie leaves a lot of people wanting to know what the heck is going on. But I'd have to say if they're going out to read the next great American novel, they're in the wrong part of the store.

What part of the store should they be in?

They should be in the fantasy department, in front of the "Brooks" section.

If the price were right, is there any subject about which you would refuse to write a book?

With some subjects, the price would have to be really gargantuan, like enough for me to buy an island.

For the price of an island, would you write "The Monica Lewinsky Diet Book"?


Do you find this interview just a little hostile? As though you were talking to someone who was embittered because he himself wrote a book that did not, technically, make it to within six thousand million feet of the New York Times bestseller list?

Nah, I'm used to dealing with embittered, angry people from my days of being a lawyer.

What advice would you give to a young, aspiring novelist who wants to know how to achieve what you have achieved with this book?

I would say, first, write to George Lucas . . .


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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