Saturday, January 30, 2010

Author Interview-Terry Brennan

Terry Brennan, author of The Sacred Cipher, has answered some questions for the blog about his life and the writing of this book.

About the Author:
Over the past 35 years, Terry Brennan has accumulated a broad range of experience in both the profit and non-profit business sectors.

His 22-year, award winning journalism career included:

Seven years as a sportswriter and editor with The Philadelphia Bulletin, at the time the largest-circulation afternoon newspaper in the nation;
Leading The Mercury of Pottstown (PA), as its editor, to a Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing;
Serving as Executive Editor of a multi-national newspaper firm – Ingersoll Publications – with papers in the USA, England and Ireland.
In 1996 Brennan transferred his successful journalism management career to the non-profit sector and served for 12 years as Vice President of Operations for the Christian Herald Association, Inc., the parent organization of four New York City ministries, including The Bowery Mission.

Now Vice President of the National Organization on Disability in Manhattan, Brennan also won the Valley Forge Award for editorial writing from the Freedoms Foundation. His two adult sons and their families live in Pennsylvania. Terry, his wife Andrea and their two adult children live in New York City. His first novel, The Sacred Cipher, was published by Kregel Publications and released in July of 2009.

On a more personal level:

I grew up in the Catholic Church but it wasn’t until my marriage to Andrea and our experience with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal that the God of the Bible broke through and convinced me he was real. So, for the last 30 years, the journey has been primarily in trying to accept God’s love for me. 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 my best friend and biggest fan.

As for me, I was a journalist for 22 years and loved almost every minute of that life. Then providence intervened, picked us up out of the newspaper business and dropped us into New York City working for the organization that runs The Bowery Mission. And I spent 12 years serving in a ministry to the addicted and homeless here in New York. That move was a radical change on so many levels but resulted in so many blessings for all of our family that we wouldn’t change a moment of it.

How did you get the idea for the book?

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 already formed 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.

The Sacred Cipher is an adult thriller/suspense triggered by the discovery of a hidden room behind the organ pipes in The Bowery Mission’s chapel in New York City. In a safe in the room is found 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 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."

Describe your path to writing this book?

The path to this book, as I note below, started when two ideas came together in the chapel of The Bowery Mission. Other writers got excited about the story idea and encouraged me to take the time to sit down and write it. It took a year of Saturdays to write the book, a year to secure an agent, another year to secure a publisher and another year for editing.

The path to writing is pretty short.

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 usually tells me what to do and where it’s going.

Conception to revision – that’s about the way it goes.

Pretty lame, eh?

Have you always written, when did you start, etc?

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. I wrote for my high school newspaper and my college humor magazine. I’ve written advertising copy, short stories and spent 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.

I knew from the end of the book that you had used some factual info but a day after I finished this book, I saw a news story online about the Rosetta Stone and realized that you used quite a bit of factual events and information. Have you always followed the info on the Rosetta Stone and the history relating to it or did you begin to research it just for the writing of this book?

I was a history major in college, and I truly love the thrill of research … digging into books, the Internet, any information I can find and trolling for that luscious morsel that will give the story life – and a surprising twist.

But, I can take no credit for the introduction of Demotic into the story.

I was privileged to have an archeologist in Jerusalem – Kathy Vance – as a collaborator on The Sacred Cipher. I would send her all these ideas I was working on for the book and she would email me back and say, No, don’t use that one. Use this one. That had to do with one of the historical characters and also to the use of Demotic as the extinct, indecipherable language used to write the Sacred Cipher.

The scroll that is discovered in The Bowery Mission is written in Demotic – the third language on the Rosetta Stone. Once the decision was made to use Demotic as the language, that obviously brought the Rosetta Stone into play. That’s when I went to work in the Humanities and Social Science Library here in New York City and researched as much as I could find out about the Rosetta Stone … and then tried to figure out how the Stone would fit into the unfolding of the story.

The search for the scroll’s meaning leads the team to Sir Edward Elgar, the English composer, and a cipher he wrote over 100 years ago that has yet to be deciphered. The scroll’s history reaches back to the 11th Century and at one point crossed the path of legendary English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Writers like Stephen King often say a story is organic … that it has a life of its own and will tell you where it wants to go. I was stunned to find out that is what happened with The Sacred Cipher. The Rosetta Stone, and the Demotic language, ended up being entwined into so many different aspects of the book … so much more so than I had any idea at the beginning. So I kept adding layer upon layer of factual information on top of this fanciful story about a secret message from 1,000 years ago that changes today’s history.

The Bowery Mission is real … Demotic is real … Sir Edward Elgar is real … Charles Haddon Spurgeon is real … and so are dozens of other facts and folks that are weaved into this adventure.

Most of the research was done is the massive and beautiful Humanities and Social Science Library on Bryant Park and Fifth Avenue in New York City. And on Google Earth.

As I was reading, I could see this as a movie. Any plans for one?

Many people who have read The Sacred Cipher have said the same thing … and I can only hope you are prophetic. I would love to see the book as a movie, obviously. I think it’s a very visual book. Even though it’s jammed with information and interesting facts, it’s also full of action. I hope someone out in Hollywood, or Indie-land, gets their hands on a copy and feels the same way. But no nibbles, yet.

The closest we’ve gotten is that my wife and kids and I pretend we are the casting director for the film version of the book and try to decide who would play the lead roles?

At the moment, this is as far as we’ve gotten (and it changes regularly):

For the lead, Tom Bohannon: Robert Downey, Jr. or Gerard Butler (if makeup could age him a bit) or, more of a long shot, Aiden Quinn or Liev Schrieber.
We all agree Sean Connery or Gabriel Byrne … or, perhaps, Harrison Ford … should be Dr. Richard Johnson, Jr.
Danny DeVito or Paul Giammati, or Sean Astin as Sammy Rizzo.
Charlize Theron, or Drew Barrymore, or Kate Hudson, or Rachel McAdams as Kallie Nolan.
For Joe Rodriguez, Amaury Nolasco (from Prison Break TV show).
As Tom’s wife, Annie – Jennifer Connelly, or Tea Leoni.

Can you give any info/hints on the sequel? When will it be released?

I am deep into writing the sequel, Scorpion Pass, at the present. It starts right at the end of The Sacred Cipher and continues the story into the next phase of its evolution. All I can tell you is that the same characters are involved, that there are some major surprises to be revealed in Scorpion Pass and that all is not as it seems.

In the interim, I’ve written another novel, Hunger’s Ransom, which is a contemporary suspense set in New York City. That novel – and it’s necessary rewriting and editing – has been set aside, for the moment, as I work to complete Scorpion Pass.

My publisher, Kregel Publications, has not yet set a release date for Scorpion Pass.

Fave author? Fave book?

I’ve always loved the classic American authors – Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald – particularly Steinbeck. Steinbeck is my favorite, all-time author. 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 enjoy 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. McCarthy’s The Road was a revelation. A wonderful story in a very unique style.

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.

Include any other info about the book that you would like my blog readers to know.

The Sacred Cipher is a contemporary tale of mystery, intrigue and suspense wrapped around a historical novel – based on real people, real places and real events – encapsulated by an archeological treasure hunt that threatens the lives of all those involved. All of which culminates in a revelation that could be ripped from tomorrow’s headlines and which, if true, could lead the Middle East to the cusp of nuclear war.

And the story is more than plausible.

It’s a rollicking, fast-paced adventure, a combination of Indiana Jones, The DaVinci Code and the Jason Bourne movies, filled with fascinating historical lore. Judging from the reviews, it’s a story that has captured the imagination of both male and female readers. 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.

It was such a hoot. I wrote it in a year of Saturdays and was constantly amazed at where the story would take me, what the characters would tell me and the wild stuff I would come up with in research. It was like I was on an adventure with a bunch of friends who would only give me little clues about what was going on.

As for me … learning to be a novelist …

The easiest part is coming up with basic plot. I’m a plot-driven writer, so it’s not hard for me to come up with basic plot ideas. I have several plot ideas tucked away that will be my next few books.

Flushing out the plot details is not that difficult, either. It takes time and effort, and there are many days when I’m stuck and frustrated, or I find myself written into a corner I can’t seem to escape. But my 22 years in journalism, more than half as a sportswriter often writing on deadline, effectively trained me to write when it was time to write. Sit down and get the fingers moving. I often say I think through my fingers, and it is often true. I just sit down and start at some part in the plot (never sequential) and put my fingers to work. Most of the time, the story reveals itself.

One of my greatest struggles is in character development. That takes a lot of effort. Understanding and developing motivation … building characters of complexity and depth … those are continuous challenges for me.

I struggle with confidence, and I haven’t overcome that one yet. Organization, and I haven’t overcome that one yet. But the greatest roadblock is discipline. 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.


  1. Terry,

    Not sure you'll remember me. But I worked as your assistant at Ingersoll Pub. many, many years ago (1989?) I was Janet Bushnell then. Now I live in Park City UT and work as a contract grant writer for a local non-profit.

    When I saw your picture on Amazon, it brought back many fond memories! Congratulations on your book!!! I'm so pleased for you!

    I hope this finds you and your family well.

    Best regards,
    Janet (Bushnell) Fine

  2. Terry,

    Not sure you'll remember me... but I worked with you at Ingersoll Publications back in the late 80s. I was your assistant and Janet "Bushnell" then. I now live in Park City UT and work as a contract grant writer for a local non-profit. I've lived here for 20 years and have a family - 2 children, 1 dog, and a husband!

    When I saw your bio picture on Amazon, I couldn't believe it! Congratulations on getting your book published!!

    I hope this finds you and your family well. If you ever come to Utah, please look me up.

    Best regards,
    Janet (Bushnell) Fine