Author Interview ~ Terry Brennan

I grew up in the Catholic Church. God was real to me, but He wasn’t personal. How could a God possibly love me? When I was about 30, a man convinced me to begin reading the Bible … that my faith in God was still in there somewhere. I don’t have a “salvation moment” as many do. For me, it was a process – one that continued into my marriage to Andrea and which was influenced both by her strong faith and by the spiritual awakening that was the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. One day, I just knew that what I had been reading in the Bible all these years was true. And that God meant it for me. So, for the last 30 years, the journey has been primarily in trying to apply God’s love to me, to my life. I know He loves everybody else. But me? That’s the struggle.

My kids – Michael, Patrick, Meghan and Matthew – always inspire me with their enthusiasm for life and their encouragement. But my greatest inspiration while writing The Sacred Cipher came from my wife, Andrea. Not only did she give me the gift of a year of Saturdays in which to write the book, but she kept me sane and rooted during the many long, agonizing stretches when I struggled with fear, doubt and inadequacy. Andrea is not only my prayer partner, she’s also my best friend and biggest fan.

As for me, I was a journalist for 22 years, ending up as an editor and/or publisher of newspapers in Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York State. Then God moved in a miraculous way, picked us up out of the newspaper business and dropped me into New York City as Vice President of Christian Herald Association, the organization that runs The Bowery Mission and three other ministries to the addicted and homeless here in New York. After 12 years with The Bowery Mission, I’m now Vice President of the National Organization on Disability.

What made you start writing?

I think I was born a writer … it was the way God wired me. But I didn’t become aware of it until I was a freshman in high school. I’ve written ever since, first spending 22 years as a journalist – 15 as a sportswriter.

But I never considered myself a ‘writer’ until I tried my hand at my first novel in the mid-90’s. That one took four years, then sat in a drawer for six years. One day, I thought, I wonder if there is any value in that book? Eventually I went to my first writer’s conference – the Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference – in 2005. I had an idea that I pitched to anyone who would listen, got a lot of encouragement and … boom … that was it. Off on this crazy journey. It took four years for The Sacred Cipher to go from an idea at the ’05 Philly Conference to launch date 2009.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Confidence is always a roadblock, and I haven’t overcome that one yet.

Organization is another challenge, and I haven’t overcome that one yet, either.

But, once I sold a book, pride and arrogance showed up in a hurry. With a book getting published, I figured I must have the golden touch. So I wrote my second novel much too quickly, didn’t pay enough attention to my craft. God put a dent in my pride with a 2 x 4 when the second novel was declined. There is nothing as effective as God’s reality check.

But the most difficult part of writing really is the discipline to sit down and write on a regular basis. When I have it, magic happens. When I don’t, nothing happens. Creating and sticking to a rigid schedule is one of the few ways I’ve found to establish discipline.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

So far, my male protagonists always start off as me. But, then they wake up to the power they hold and begin to demand the ability to express themselves. After that, it’s anybody’s guess who they are.

I’m not a character-driven author, but a plot-driven author. I’ve always been a story teller. Story tellers always start with the story. The people in the story are secondary to the story itself … they people the universe, but they don’t determine the universe. The story does.

I think my story telling was sharpened and defined by my 15 years as a sportswriter. When you cover sports, the game is the story. The athletes play the game, so they have a part, but the game is the story – the score; the impact of the score; etc. So when I come at a story, I come at it through the plot, not the people.

As a result, many of my characters start off as some version of me – or someone I know – and then grow organically into who they will eventually become.

Usually, there’s not much of me left at the end.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I’ve always trusted myself as a writer. You don’t spend more than a decade as a sportswriter, writing stories on deadline, without trusting your ability to write – trust and confidence not always being the same thing.

But novel writing is a totally different ball game with a whole new set of rules. I trust my storytelling, but I also know I need a lot of help in determining a character’s motivation, in developing deep, realistic, empathetic characters and in maintaining the pace and structure of a novel. And, once you’ve worked with a good editor – like Miranda Gardner and Dawn Anderson at Kregel Publications – you’d be foolish not to look forward to suggestions and critiques from people of their caliber.

Tell us a little about your latest release:

The Sacred Cipher is an adult thriller/suspense novel triggered by the discovery of a hidden room behind the organ pipes in The Bowery Mission’s chapel in New York City. A huge safe in the room holds an ancient scroll with a message written in an extinct language that has never been deciphered. The first half of the book takes place in NYC as a ‘team’ of guys tries to discover the meaning of the content of the message, and the second half is when the team goes off to find out if the message is, in fact, true.

Here’s the blurb from the back cover of the book:

“When New Yorker Tom Bohannon uncovers an ancient scroll containing a dead language that has been lost in the sands of time, he doesn’t fully comprehend the danger that’s about to unfold. Though Tom and his team of ragtag scientists and historians want to decode the ancient text, others don’t want the cipher revealed. And they are prepared to kill to keep it hidden.
“From a market in nineteenth-century Alexandria to a library in present-day New York to the tunnels beneath Jerusalem, the secret of the cipher is gradually revealing itself across the globe. And for those in its path, life is about to change – forever.”

Sounds fascinating! How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

My wife and I lived in The Bowery Mission for many years while I worked for its parent organization, the Christian Herald Association. I had the idea for the second half of the story (which is the surprise part) and that was kicking around in my head. Then, one day I was standing at the back of The Bowery Mission’s 120-year-old chapel, looking up at the organ pipes that rise high above the speaker’s platform. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a room hidden behind the organ pipes? Of course, I had been behind the organ pipes many times and knew what was there – certainly not a hidden room. But the idea was intriguing, and that’s when the two pieces started coming together and, eventually, formed The Sacred Cipher.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

Since I needed somebody who worked at The Bowery Mission to be the person who found the hidden room and the secret scroll, I created Tom Bohannon to be a lot like me (I wasn’t very clever with the name, was I?). He is a former journalist, a former Catholic who has encountered and accepted the grace of Jesus Christ, a Penn State grad and a guy struggling with the concept that God really does love him. Hits pretty close to home. The challenge for me was in how to develop Tom as his own person – not just a shadow of me. I’m still working on that development now, in the sequel.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

I really enjoyed the discovery of the journey. I started with the idea of how the book would start and how it would end and … in very general terms … what the story would be. Who knew? Over many months, the story told itself to me. And, as I searched for its various pieces, God would reveal to me in my research some crazy, wild idea or bit of information that I had never conceived of before – and that ended up adding some wonderful level of depth to the narrative. One of those was tripping across the English composer Sir Edward Elgar and his fondness for codes and ciphers. Outside of Pomp and Circumstances March played at every graduation, I had no clue who Elgar was. But he ends up playing a significant part in the development of the plot. Those things, and there were many, were like finding buried treasure. What a kick!

Least? The self-flagellation about how undisciplined I am … the self-doubt while the manuscript is out being “pitched” and, now, holding my breath to see if anyone will actually buy the thing.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

That God loves them … them, personally. Every other religion in the world is about man reaching up to try and find God. The Judeo-Christian faith is all about God reaching down to find man, and to love man unconditionally.
That God invites relationship, encourages communications, and listens to prayer. God wants to be known. That’s how much he loves each of us.

What does your writing space look like?

I have an office, now, for the first time in over 30 years of marriage. And, for the first time in 30 years of marriage, I have all of the old, antique books I’ve been collecting for three decades out of boxes and up on bookshelves. The bookshelves cover two walls. They are inexpensive pine that I stained and finished myself, and they are packed with some pretty cool, old books. I love my library.

My computer is in the corner opposite from the bookshelves. In the opposite corner, behind me, is an old Morris chair with thick cushions and a tall brass lamp behind it … our favorite reading chair. To my right is a two-drawer, black metal filing cabinet. Above the filing cabinet is an antique, ornately designed gold-painted (and tarnished) wooden frame that holds a collage of most of the credentials I gathered during 15 years as a sportswriter – Sugar Bowl; Stanley Cup finals; Austrian Grand Prix; Army-Navy football game; Philadelphia Eagles playoff game; Indy 500.
To my left, are two windows. These windows don’t just look outside. They look out over the Hudson River, across to the Palisades in New Jersey, the several-mile long cliffs that stretch along the western side of the Hudson. My dream – sunsets over water – fulfilled.

BUT … where I wrote The Sacred Cipher during that year of Saturdays was in a dark corner of our bedroom in our apartment at The Bowery Mission where the windows, if you could see out of them, only looked across a space of four feet to a brick wall.

We moved into this apartment 10 months ago. And I have bookshelves … and windows … and a river. God is good!

What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?

Penn State football … Phillies baseball … Yankees baseball … Penn State football … did I say Penn State football? Going out on our date nights with my wife, Andrea. Usually Friday nights, it’s the time we get to sit and talk. Any kind of vacation. Laughing with my accountability brothers. And, most precious and valuable, any time with my children.

A sports nut–LOVE IT! Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

You give me too much credit. I sit in a chair, staring at an LCD screen. I put my fingers on the keyboard in my lap. And the story tells itself through my fingers.
Really, that’s the way it is.

I do research, both online and at the huge Humanities and Social Sciences Library on Bryant Park in New York City. And I love that part of the work.
But, the writing? I don’t have a plan (sorry to all of you who labor over plot outlines and build fully-formed character personalities). I have a story, and I try to tell the story … or let the story tell me and I tell you.
I was a journalist for 22 years – 15 years as a sportswriter. When you cover a game, any kind of game, you have a very short deadline in which to file that story. An hour if you’re lucky. Sometimes as little as 15 minutes. So you get used to telling the story through your fingers. Not too much thinking. Just try to figure out the story of the game, or the athletes, and tell the story to the best of your ability in the time allowed. Then, the next day, you get to do it all over again. And, just as an aside, don’t make any mistakes.
That is the learned skill I bring to novel writing. I have an idea what the story is going to be, some understanding of the people who are playing in that story, and then I sit down to write the story. And it tells me what to do and where it’s going.
Conception to revision – that’s about the way it goes.
Pretty lame, eh?

What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special?

A great question. I wish I had an answer. See spot run. Does that count?

Absolutely! Who doesn’t remember Spot? 🙂 What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?

I’ve always loved the classic American authors – Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald – particularly Steinbeck. That guy was a wizard with words. As a kid, I read every Fu Manchu mystery. As a college student, every James Bond thriller and the required Lord of the Rings trilogy, including the prequel The Hobbit. In between, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes … you get the drift.

Today, I love Dennis Lehane’s work – particularly his latest – The Given Day. I think he’s become a lyrical writer. And my son, Matt, has hooked me into both Stephen King and (more my style) Cormack McCarthy.
Sprinkle into that adrenalin mix some historical biographies and/or autobiographies (Mornings on Horseback By David McCoullough).
And lots of contemporary thriller writers, like Joel Rosenberg.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

Jealousy is a great motivator.

No, I think it’s like being an athlete (yeah, another sports analogy) watching another athlete perform. You can enjoy the grace of a cross-over dribble, the courage of staring down a blitz, the guts of going full-out past the warning track, the insanity of taking a corner at 180 miles per hour.
And you can aspire to do it as well. Even in your dreams.

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

Don’t make the mistake to think somebody else has the answer. That there is some magic formula for writing that those on the inside know, but they won’t tell you.

There are as many theories about writing and style requirements as there are books about writing. And most of the teachers I’ve listened to at writers conferences all believe their way is the best (right?) way. Understand, this is not a science. There is not one formula that works. Sure, there are some basic expectations for content and presentation but – hey, down to it, it’s all about the writing.
So, write. Write a lot. Write all the time. Write until you’re sick of it. And then keep on writing until your characters begin to talk back to you. Then follow their advice.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

What I’ve been trying is a regular newsletter (mailing list of about 250) that I started nearly a year before the book came out. I’ve got a blog, which I visit very infrequently. Honest, I don’t know how these folks who are on Facebook all the time and have these extraordinary blog sites – I don’t know how they do it. It’s a struggle to find time to write.
When the book came out, my wife, Andrea, and I went and visited every Barnes & Noble store in New York City (we’re still working on the outer boroughs). I went in and signed the store stock (they put these cool little green stickers on them ‘autographed by author’ or something like that) and then we stood outside the entryway to the store and handed out Sacred Cipher postcards to the people entering – asked them to consider buying my book. Probably time to do that again.
I’ve also asked people on my mailing list if they would like to receive postcards – 10 stamped and 10 without stamp – that they can pass out to friends, family, church, businesses, whatever. I got 5,000 postcards from Kregel Publications and we’ve probably distributed 3,500 by now.
Just did a taped radio interview in Missouri … I’m going to the major scene locations in Manhattan (Collector’s Club; the library on Bryant Park; the Old Town bar) to see if they are willing to do some kind of fundraising promotion with the book. We did a fundraiser in our church for two villages in Rwanda where our church body is sponsoring over 1,000 kids through World Vision – sold 36 books and donated $180 to the Rwanda ministry. And it’s time to go talk to the folks at our local library.
I have no idea how it’s working. My first book only came out at the end of July. So I have no idea what works or doesn’t work.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

Well, only God knows when the next one will be out.

My first book, Jacob’s Portion, was a necessary soul cleansing, written by a journalist who had no idea what book writing was all about. It’s still in a drawer, it’s on life support and needs organ transplants to make it viable. Perhaps someday.
I’ve “finished” (Hah!) my second novel, Hunger’s Ransom, which my publisher, Kregel Publications, has seen and for which they’ve suggested some significant editing and story shaping. It’s a good yarn, set against the back drop of the world food crisis.
But what I’m really committed to at this time is the sequel to The Sacred Cipher. I’m about one-third of the way through, a work-in-progress that is titled, at the moment, Scorpion Pass. This one is a lot of fun, too. It’s writing itself … just like I enjoy.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Writing is a lot like life. Enjoy the journey. And let God handle the details. I said that.

Good judgment comes from experience; and experience comes from bad judgment. Somebody else said that.

“A problem can never be solved from the level at which it was created.” Einstein said that. Think about it. It covers a whole lot of ground.

Thanks for reading!!!

Want more? Check out Terry’s book trailer, then leave a comment and let us know what you think!