A diagnosis with Parkinson’s hasn’t stopped Herbie Brennan from continuing to add to his impressive roster of best-selling books, says.
The gravel driveway leading to author Herbie Brennan’s home in Tullow, Co Carlow is long, narrow and twisting. A wall of trees stands between the house and the bustling Midlands town beyond.
There is a sense of leaving behind the outside world.
The feeling intensifies as you round the final bend. A circle of standing stones has been erected in the garden, like a miniaturised Stone Henge.
The porch brims with figurines that, to the untutored eye, suggest a pagan panoply. It would not come as a complete shock were a parade of mummers straight out of The Wicker Man to emerge from around the corner.
The Old Rectory where Brennan and his herbalist wife have lived for over a decade is in some ways an extension of his work. Since the 1970s he has been one of Ireland’s foremost imaginative writers.
As ‘JHBrennan’ the now 79-year-old has published 116 titles, including the popular Grailquest and Faerie Wars Chronicles. He is as popular as he is prolific, selling 10 million books across 50 countries.
All of his esoteric skills and his knack for a gripping yarn are on display in his latest novel. Nectanebo: Traveller from an Antique Land is a time-travel romp that connects a taut mystery in present-day New York to an ancient Egyptian pharaoh.
It’s an irresistible page-turner that plays out like a Hollywood thriller.
“Many years ago I dreamed up this Egyptian wizard I called Nectanebo,” he says.
I pulled the name out of the air, really. It was a bit like ‘Necromancy’ — it had that sort of feeling. I did some research and to my surprise discovered there was an actual pharaoh magician namedNectanebo in a couple of hundred years BC.
If no stranger to the bestseller lists, Brennan is nonetheless not as well known as he should be. However, he is widely respected in Irish literary circles. Booker-nominated author Sebastian Barry, for instance, spoke at the launch of Nectanebo.
He is, moreover, a bit of an icon among a subset of readers. In the early 1980s, Brennan joined the publishing craze for adventure gamebooks. Thus began the superstar phase of his career.
The gamebook goldrush had kicked off in 1982 with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. The Grailquest series was part of the deluge that followed as publishers attempted to cash in. Brennan’s writing stood out from the rest of the genre. Drawing on Arthurian mythology, his books were thrilling but also educational. And very funny.
“To this day I get letters from people in their middle years saying, ‘I played Grailquest as a kid and it got me through some difficult times’. It was extraordinary,” he says. “I signed a three-book contract and somehow three turned into eight. They couldn’t publish them fast enough.”
Brennan grew up in Gilford, a small village between Banbridge and Portadown. His career began when he joined the Belfast Telegraph as a reporter at age 18. He moved to Dublin in the 1960s to edit weekly news magazine Scene, where artist Jim Fitzpatrick was art director.
“I loved it. And yet, I always wanted to write science fiction,” says Brennan, petting one of the eight cats with whom he and his wife live.
“I didn’t read a lot of fantasy. But over the years I have ended up writing a lot of it.”
He came to adventure books after discovering Dungeons and Dragons, with which he developed an obsession. After that he designed his own fantasy role-playing games to great acclaim.
"His publisher in America, having seen Warlock of Firetop Mountain, next suggested he try his hand at a “chose-your-own-adventure” style title. When he approached publisher Collins, as it was then known, with the idea for Grailquest they struck up a deal on the spot.
“Collins had spotted Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which had sold millions. I signed a three-book contract. The three books turned into eight. It was just so unexpected.”
He was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.“One of the things that affects me most is that I used to write extremely fast,” he says of the condition.
“That was no hardship. I used to write 2,000 words a day, day in day out. I can remember one good day when I wrote 10,000 words. Now I’m very lucky if I can write more than 500. It drives me mad. I’m very slow writing now.
Funnily enough, I don’t get the blanks I get when I’m talking. When I’m writing I don’t go blank for some reason. I suppose because I’ve been doing it so long: it’s an automatic process.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was finding it more and more difficult to write altogether. In the early stages before I got the dosage of medicines right, I wrote a book about cats [The Mysterious World of Cats]. It was the hardest thing I ever did.”
But what comes out is of the same quality as previously and he is already at work on his next novel.
Alongside his fiction he has written extensively about the supernatural and has a deep interest in the Irish spirit world. Books such as Whisperers: The Secret History of the Spirit World delve into this fascination.
“Not that many people take it seriously. But if you look at Irish history you have people like Yeats who was a magician with the Golden Dawn. Lady Gregory was interested in Irish folklore.
"When you’re talking about people of that calibre, you’re not talking about nut-cases.
“You’re talking about people who had a good grasp of life and were influential in politics. Jim Fitzpatrick once said to me: ‘When you’re living in Dublin you don’t believe in the fairies. When you’re living in the countryside, it’s a whole different thing’.”
Does he believe in things that exist beyond the understanding of science?
“The spirit world is a matter of imagination. But I don’t think imagination is what we believe it to be. The psychologist might say, ‘You don’t really see a ghost, it’s just your imagination’.
“Well, okay. But it’s about the way they put it. ‘Just’ your imagination? It’s as if your imagination is not valid. An awful lot of people believe they can communicate with spirits. I’m not saying for one minute that they can. But they believe they can. And we haven’t really investigated what these voices are.”