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Co Down writer who has sold millions of books on his lifelong fascination with the supernatural

Co Down writer Herbie Brennan tells Linda Stewart about his lifelong fascination with the supernatural and how he finally managed to swap newspapers for New Age interests

Herbie hard at work in his home office
Herbie hard at work in his home office

By Linda Stewart

He's the most famous bestselling Northern Ireland fantasy writer you've never heard of, shifting more than 10 million copies in more than 50 countries. But Co Down-born author Herbie Brennan - pen-name JH Brennan - reveals it's partially his own fault that he isn't better known in his home country, admitting he hadn't got as involved in the publicity side of publishing as he could have.

"I didn't like publicity very much," he says. "It's my own fault. If you don't make an effort in these things... it doesn't surprise me that I'm not terribly well-known in Ireland."

Now 79 and living in a rectory in Co Carlow with his wife, the master medical herbalist Jackie Burgess, Herbie has just published his 116th book, Nectanebo: Traveller from an Antique Land, which has been in gestation since the 1980s and is finally seeing the light of day thanks to the "nagging" of its protagonist, an ancient Egyptian sorcerer called Nectanebo.

As a child, Herbie had a good idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up: "Two things - one was a newsreader on the BBC and the other one was a writer. I eventually got to hear my voice recorded and that put paid to that particular ambition, but I decided to become a writer and I haven't done a day's work since."

Herbie grew up in the Co Down village of Gilford as an only child whose father ran a small grocery store.

"He died when I was four. My mother took over the business and hated every minute of it, but she ran the business until she retired," he says.

With his mother busy trying to cope with the shop, Herbie was left to his own devices, so he became an avid reader and a fan of oddities and anomalies at an early age.

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"I was very interested in hypnosis when I was still in primary school," he says. "I was an avid reader of Ripley's Believe It Or Not and I remember a feature in it about the blob. According to Ripley, the blob is used by mystics in the east to hypnotise people.

"I asked my friend Reggie McIlroy if he would try it, and he said yes. I said 'look at this blob' and, honestly, it worked. He fell off the chair. I was never so surprised in my life.

"I was interested in anomalies, I was interested in yoga, I was interested in eastern mysticism. I would read stuff about these things - I'm still doing it - and it stuck with me for the rest of my life. I read a lot about things like reincarnation and magic.

Author Herbie Brennan relaxes at home with a book and his cat
Author Herbie Brennan relaxes at home with a book and his cat

"When I got older and got more mobile, I would drive up to Smithfield Market in Belfast and go through the second-hand book stalls there.

"I was most interested in science-fiction. I read all the classics, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Cyril Kornbluth... you name it, I read it.

"I wanted at some stage to write for the American science-fiction magazines and managed to do it quite early on."

As a budding writer, Herbie managed to get some short stories published in magazines such as Galaxy, the World of It and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but he also had a day job as a reporter.

He worked at the Portadown News, then moved to the Portadown Times and worked as a reporter at this newspaper for a short time in the 1960s, before moving to the Lurgan Mail.

"What I really wanted to do was write books. I wanted to get up in the morning, go to my study and write a book - that was my ambition," Herbie says.

"I thought going into journalism would be a great way to achieve that ambition. The idea was that you'd be a reporter by day and after hours you wrote the great novel. That was my thought.

"It didn't work out because you'd go out in the evening and get drunk. By the time you're finished for the day, all you want to do is relax."

He describes a number of odd events that have happened over the years, including witnessing a ghostly woman in a walled garden at Hamwood House in Co Meath and sighting a herd of tiny horses with his friend at an eerie ring fort at Furness in Co Kildare.

But there was one very peculiar incident that kicked off his career as a writer of books - an out-of-body experience in the middle of the night.

Herbie explains: "I got up in the middle of the night to have a pee and I couldn't open the bedroom door. I couldn't understand this. I looked carefully and I found my hand had penetrated the knob of the door. Then I looked across at the bed and there was a strange man lying in bed. I realised after a while that the strange man was me and I moved out of my body."

That presented a difficulty, as he recalls: "You can't have a pee unless you bring the relevant equipment, so I tried to wriggle back into my body again.

Herbie Brennan
Herbie Brennan

"It took six attempts before I could have a pee that night.

"I woke up the following morning and thought 'that was a bizarre experience'. I wondered at the time if anybody else had ever done this and I discovered it was relatively commonplace. Statistically, you're likely to have an out-of-body experience at least once in your lifetime. I was so intrigued that I wrote a book called Astral Doorways. That was the first book I ever published. It started my career as an author and I've been working at it ever since."

More books were to follow on what are regarded as New Age subjects - among them Five Keys to Past Lives, Experimental Magic and The Occult Reich, which dealt with occult practises in Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, in his day job, Herbie took up a role as editorial chair of the Ulster Star and later moved to Dublin to take over the chair of a monthly magazine called Scene - "I ran that into the ground in 18 months" - before going into advertising.

Eventually, he decided to pack in the job and go full-time as an author.

While many of his books focus on niche subjects, such as astral projection and ghosts, it was the fantasy role-playing subject matter that really took off.

Herbie was given a Dungeons and Dragons game on Christmas Day and set up a group on Boxing Day.

"Come March, I woke up and realised I hadn't done a scrap of work in three months - I was playing Dungeons and Dragons all the time.

"I adored fantasy role-playing games, but I thought that while the fantasy RPGs on the market were very interesting as games, they were poorly written. I thought I could do better, so I created two games and they were published by a company in Texas."

It was the president of that publishing company who suggested he should get involved in writing 'choose your own adventure' stories.

"The first book in the series sold like hot cakes," Herbie says.

"It sold 10,000 copies, then it was released in Japanese and it sold 50,000 copies. Then it was released in French and it sold millions.

"It was the most successful thing I've ever worked at in my life.

"It was just fun to write and I ended up doing 15 game books, all of which were very successful."

One day he began writing a story called Faerie and it ended up becoming the hugely successful Faerie Wars series.

However, his publisher initially said it wasn't working as a novel and told him to go back and write more.

Herbie wrote seven chapters and sent them off, but didn't he hear back from her for three months and assumed she hadn't liked it.

"She rang up one day and said 'I'm going to auction Faerie in New York'. As luck would have it, she set up the auction with a number of different publishers and editors in New York on 9/11 when the Twin Towers went down. The auction was half wrecked - some of the people couldn't make it because they banned all flights for two or three days afterwards.

"However, Bloomsbury liked it and bought it and gave me a very hefty advance. I finished it and it was a huge success and led to another four books in the Faerie Wars series."

In recent years, Herbie has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which his mother developed at a similar age, but the medication has made him feel a great deal better.

"It's what in Shakespeare's time they called the palsy. Without medication, I had tremors. With medication, you probably wouldn't notice the tremors.

"I have a tendency of going blank in the middle of a long conversation. It will hit in the middle of a sentence, but I just go back."

Herbie's latest character, Nectanebo, emerged during his fantasy role-play days in the 1980s.

One of his ongoing scenarios involved a dark wizard and Herbie invented a fearsome magic-practising character, only to discover that there really had been a Nectanebo.

"I had a very clear idea of what he looked like - similar to Akhenaten in many respects - and the complexities of his character. I saw him as someone deeply involved in politics, a power-hungry plotter and schemer," he says.

"Before I got to writing the scenario, I thought I'd do a bit of library research to refresh myself about ancient Egypt so I could include a few authentic details that would make the character more believable.

"The first thing I discovered was that there had been a real-life Nectanebo.

"Indeed, there were two of them, uncle and nephew, but the one that matched my wizard was Nectanebo II.

"He was Egypt's last native pharaoh and had a fearsome reputation as a sorcerer. He was power-hungry and seized the throne by force.

"It felt like Nectanebo's ghost had crawled into my head and wouldn't leave. Nectanebo wanted his story written, not just the little role-play scenario I'd planned, but a proper full-length book that would bring his name before the modern world.

"He nagged and nagged at me to write it. For weeks, then months, I couldn't think of anything else. Eventually I gave in, put aside my other work and started on a biography of Nectanebo."

Very little was known about Nectanebo at the time, so Herbie decided to write a fictional novel and signed a contract with a publisher who promptly went bankrupt.

Faced with a lack of interest, Herbie rewrote the book five times and eventually put the project aside, only to return to it years later and crowdfund its publication with a Kickstarter campaign.

"It's a modern-day thriller set in New York and the story of Nectanebo is woven through it, so what you get is really a type of science-fiction novel," he says.

Close to the Kickstarter deadline, it started to look like Herbie wasn't going to reach the target.

However, on the final day he discovered the target had been met, thanks to his late friend Audrey Dodds.

"It seemed that the extra money - several thousand euros - had been funded from the estate of a very dear friend of mine who had died some years earlier," he says.

"Her executors decided she would have wanted me to complete the Nectanebo project and made the pledge on her behalf, so the spirit of my friend was instrumental in ensuring I could lay the pharaoh's ghost to rest.

"The deadline of the crowdfunding campaign was actually her birthday - it was so bizarre.

"I really was shocked and I couldn't get over it."

Herbie Brennan's latest bestseller, Nectanebo: Traveller from an Antique Land, juxtaposes the extraordinary story of the last Egyptian pharaoh with a modern thriller and can be found at at £20.99 for the paperback or £8.13 for the Kindle version.

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