Terry Goodkind Interview by Lynn Flewelling
Bangor Daily News November, 1995
A small sign taped to author Terry Goodkind's computer declares, "Be Relentless". Another one nearby warns "Expect No Mercy." Whether the latter is a message to himself or others is unclear; it's probably both.
Goodkind burst onto the fantasy scene in 1994 in a fashion most struggling writers only dream of. Two years ago, at age 45, he decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a novelist. A year later he sent a query letter describing his first effort, a three hundred thousand word opus titled Wizard's First Rule, to Russell Galen. Galen, one of the genre's most influential agents quickly wrote back, "I feel a ripple of history in the making. Send me your book."
Ten weeks later, Wizard's First Rule sold at auction for more than six times the record price ever paid for a first fantasy novel. Published in October, 1994 with a first print run of sixty thousand copies--three to five thousand is the norm--it has become an international bestseller and garnered praise from the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffery, and the Kirkrus Review. It is also one of the most successful debut fantasy novels in the history of trade publishing. A sequel, Stone of Tears, has just been given an equally impressive launch. The rights to three more related books in what is now The Sword of Truth series have been purchased by Tor for another substantial advance. Relentless, indeed.
"I hate telling that story to people who've been struggling for years," Goodkind said during our lengthy conversation at his Mount Desert Island home last week. "They look at me and I kind of back up in case they go for my throat."
At forty seven, Goodkind is a tall, intense man with a long pony tail and a ready sense of humor. Jeans and tee shirts remain his favorite attire. "After the book took off, I bought a whole new wardrobe," he said with a distinct twinkle in his eye. "Cost me almost $100!"
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Goodkind first came to Maine with a friend after graduating from high school. "I felt like I'd been misplaced in the cosmos and I belonged in Maine," Goodkind said, describing his instant love for the state. "After that, I came back every year. Everyone said, 'Well, when you retire you can move there.' But I said, 'Why should I live my whole life where I don't want to be.'" Twelve years ago he and his wife Jeri purchased four wooded acres on MDI and settled in to stay.Our interview began with a guided tour of their spacious, superinsulated home which Goodkind, an artist, former cabinet maker, and experienced craftsman, designed and built. Custom features include a handsome oak-paneled library, a coffin-shaped door with inset lighting ("I got tired of making rectangular doors"), and what is probably the world's only all-Corian kitchen. When he called DuPont, the maker of Corian, for advice on how to fashion cabinet doors from the heavy, stone-like material, he was told it couldn't be done. He proved that it could. One of the larger doors weighs sixty five pounds, but it opens smoothly on multiple hinges and looks great. In short, the entire house speaks of a man determined to manifest his inner vision.
Along with assorted swords, gargoyles, antiques, and Indonesian masks, the house is filled with other examples of Goodkind's work-- his paintings, his tools, his cabinetry. He refers to the bookcase in his office his "Ph.D. in Formica." To achieve the desired monolithic effect, he used curved panels of granite patterned Formica, hand painting every exposed edge to give the appearance of seamless stone. The same meticulous skill went into the decorative border that frames the map in his books. The stippled vine pattern took 150 hours, a task he did willingly so that it would be done to his own satisfaction. Yet all of this--the paintings, the tools, the house building (at last relinquished to contractors as an addition is added)--seem like artifacts of his progress, skins shed on his way to his current vocation.
"I don't think I could have written what I did any earlier," said Goodkind. "I had to live this long, have the experiences I've had, to create what I do. I knew I wanted to write for years, but I had to be ready so I wouldn't blow it. The move to Maine was the final step."
According to Goodkind, he did not get off to an auspicious start academically. Hampered by an undiagnosed learning disability, he had tremendous difficulty reading and writing and was labeled an underachiever. In spite of his discouragement at school, however, he read novels secretly at the public library, away from judgmental eyes. One teacher in high school recognized and encouraged his ability as a storyteller. That encouragement stayed with him, but he remained at odds with formal education and eventually dropped out of college.
"Ever since I was really little, I've had characters that were in my mind," Goodkind told me, speaking of how he came to be a fantasy writer. "I would put myself to sleep at night listening to their stories, what their dilemmas were. It was always characters in trouble, conflict, emotional turmoil--what brought their world to pieces and what it took to put it back together. Today I approach writing from the character's standpoint."
The Sword of Truth series is epic high fantasy. The central heroes, Richard Cypher and Mother Confessor Kahlan, strive to preserve their world from evil at any cost. In Goodkind's cosmology, heroes and villains alike have rounded personalities and believable motivations.
He attributes the success of his work in part to the fact that he writes from a strong moral center and a sense of outrage against modern injustice.
"I've always said fantasy is sort of 'stealth philosophy'," he explained. "It allows you to say things that sound very dramatic and get away with it. If you had characters in modern fiction say the same things as they're driving down the street in an Oldsmobile they'd sound ludicrous! Fantasy allows you bend the world and the situation to more clearly focus on the moral aspects of what's happening. In fantasy you can distill life down to the essence of your story."
Goodkind is often approached by unpublished hopefuls wanting to know what "the Secret" is. Although he has little patience with people who believe there is some trick or magic formula to getting published, he actively encourages writers who understand that sucess comes from hard work and a drive to write. "I did the research, I did the work," said Goodkind. "I wasn't writing to get published, or for the money. I write because it's what I have to do. It's my passion, my bliss."
I asked Goodkind if he was surprised by the reception his writing has received so far. After a moment's thought, he shook his head. "I visualize the success of things working the way I want them to work, like in sports when you visualize where you want the ball to go. So on one level when it really happens, part of me is thrilled and astonished. Another part is kind of unimpressed because I expected it of myself."
Goodkind is currently visualizing himself as the number one fantasy author in America. Given his history to date, it doesn't seem such a far-fetched goal.