Terry Brennan has had an extensive career in journalism, winning several awards, including the Valley Forge Award for editorial writing from the Freedoms Foundation. Terry served eleven years as the vice president of operations for The Bowery Mission in New York City and is currently a management consultant.
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Prior to publishing his debut novel, THE SACRED CIPHER, Terry Brennan worked as an award-winning journalist before focusing his attentions on managing non-profit organizations such as New York's Bowery Mission and the National Organization on Disability. In this interview, Brennan credits his book's publication to fellow writer Wanda Dyson and discusses some of the faith-based questions covered in his writing. He also recalls his unique journey toward finding his faith, shares his thoughts on the intersecting of religion and politics, and reveals what he hopes readers will take away from his work.
Question: Tell us how you became a writer. What got you to the point of publishing your first novel?
Terry Brennan: 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 professionally during a 22-year career as a journalist. Then I tried my hand at a novel after I left the newspaper business and got serious in 2005 about discovering if I had the chops to be a novelist. I had an idea that I liked, that others liked and encouraged me about --- so I wrote it. And then others gave me the grace to eventually get it published.
Q: Tell us about your family. How have they helped or inspired you while writing this book?
TB: 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.
Q: Who are your favorite authors? How have they influenced you?
TB: John Steinbeck. No one knows how to use words like Steinbeck, and his stories are masterfully woven. Sax Rhomer (Fu Manchu mysteries), who populated my boyhood. Cormac McCarthy: THE ROAD is lyrical, yet bleak. And I like Dennis Lehane’s latest, THE GIVEN DAY. He’s elevated his craft to a wonderful level. Check out the sense of smell. And Arthur Conan Doyle. Now there’s a storyteller!
Q: Tell us about your personal faith journey.
TB: 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 was reading in the Bible 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 and to my life. I know He loves everybody else. But me? That’s the struggle.
Q: How is that faith displayed in your novel?
TB: Tom Bohannon, the protagonist, is a man growing in his Christian faith, supported in that growth by a loving and mature wife. He’s a praying man, who believes God answers prayers. During many of the most dramatic and dangerous moments in the story, Tom is drawn to God in prayer. At one point, when things look most bleak for Tom and his team of adventurers, one of them asks Tom how can a mortal man ever possibly know an immortal God? How…why…does Tom believe God listens to his prayers? And Tom tells him a personal story of how Tom saw God reach down into his life to answer his prayers.
Q: What themes do you communicate through your novel and why?
TB: It’s a yarn…a rollicking tale of adventure and suspense. But there are some recurring themes. Forgiveness, and its power. The priceless nature of a mature Christian walk. That God is personally involved in our every breath. And the bond of friendship.
Q: What inspired you to write THE SACRED CIPHER?
TB: Not what…who. Wanda Dyson, another Christian fiction writer. I told Wanda of my story idea at the Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference four years ago. She got so excited about it she told me I HAD to write this story. She told me to write it and come back next year. If it was good, she would share with me her book proposal template and introduce me to her agent. And she did. Wanda’s still my greatest champion.
Q: How did you research this novel? Is any part of it true?
TB: So much is true I don’t know if I can cover it all. THE SACRED CIPHER is a scroll found in a hidden room behind the organ pipes in New York City’s Bowery Mission. The scroll is written in an extinct language. The story is how these guys find the scroll, figure out its message, and then go to see if the message is true --- even when their lives are at risk.
The scroll is written in the third language on the Rosetta Stone --- Demotic. The search for the scroll’s meaning leads the team to Sir Edward Elgar, the English composer, as 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.
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 in the massive and beautiful Humanities and Social Science Library on Bryant Park and Fifth Avenue in New York City. And on Google Earth.
Q: Though its fiction, THE SACRED CIPHER includes themes and issues very real in our world. Do you think it’s helpful for fiction to explore controversial issues such as these?
TB: I believe it’s vital for fiction to live in the real world. The story is a journey into a part of that world that is very different from ours, but which still lives in the same world we do. I’ve become convinced that, as my writing matures, I will be incorporating social justice issues over and over again in the layers of suspense and mystery.
If music and art can touch our souls, why not writing?
Q: Politics and religion cross paths many time in this novel, just like they do in real life. What if politics and religion weren’t so intertwined? Would you rather live in a world without politics or a world without religion?
TB: This is a trick question, right? I couldn’t fathom a world without faith. One of the things I learned in my faith walk is that faith and religion are not the same things. Maybe that is why religion and politics intersect as often as they do.
I could do without politics very well, thank you. I don’t know about religion. I think so. But then I think of all the hospitals and colleges and non-profit ministries that have been born through mainstream religions, and I think, well, maybe we do need religion. Then it hits me once more. It was faith, not necessarily religion, that built those places of blessing. I don’t think the debate is over.
Q: Some may view elements of this story as miraculous. What in this book could be described as a miracle? Do you believe in miracles?
TB: It’s a miracle they survive. Miracles happen every day. My daughter, Meghan, is alive today because of a miracle. Gee, my 30-year-marriage to my wife, Andrea…that it’s still going strong, that’s a real miracle considering what a jerk I was (used to be J). When you walk in faith, miracles are a way of life.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
And…a sense of awe. Awe in a God who desires that we know Him and desires it so much that He reaches down from heaven and inserts Himself into our lives in order that we can get to know Him personally.
That…and a strong desire to read the sequel.
© Copyright 2017, by Terry Brennan. All rights reserved.
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