Intelligent Interviews: J. H. "Herbie" Brennan
A "fireside chat" with one heck of a magical man!
on Friday 22 August 2008
by Areala author list print the content item create pdf file of the content item
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Part of being an intelligent gamer is attempting to find out what other intelligent gamers think about a variety of subjects. Interviews are a new project for us here, but Areala was quite excited to get the ball rolling and volunteered to ask one of her favorite authors if he wouldn't mind answering a few questions. Luckily, after striking just the right combination of praise and flattery (two of Mr. Brennan's weaknesses, we understand), she was allowed to pepper him with a plethora of inquisitive statements which he answered most respectfully.

As the interview was conducted via e-mail, you'll have to conjure up the images of Areala and Herbie chatting in his centuries-old Irish cottage in the evening, with possibly a nice fire going in the fireplace, the smell of freshly-baked pasteries wafting through the air, a gentle mist rolling across the countryside, and the quiet hum of faerie wings beating just beneath the open windows yourself. Rest assured, that's how it would have happened in real life; Areala is certain of it...

Intelligent Gamer: First things first - do you yourself participate in any sort of regular gaming event (weekly role-playing group, massively multiplayer on-line game, or even the occasional game of Chess)?

Herbie Brennan: Not any more. I used to play poker on a daily basis when I worked in newspapers, penny-ante stuff, but I loved it. Back in the Eighties (or maybe late Seventies) somebody gave me a Dungeons and Dragons set for Christmas and I set up a gaming group on Stephen's Day*. Sometime in the middle of March, I realised I had done no work at all for three months and was in danger of going broke. Every day, seven days a week, had been spent on the adventure. After that, I did the occasional stint as Dungeon Master, but kept getting sucked in deeper and deeper. Eventually I realised it was an addiction and went cold turkey. These days you couldn't persuade me to join a queue.

(* St. Stephen's Day, for those not familiar, is a public holiday in Ireland, traditionally celebrated on the 26th of December.)

IG: How, as an author, do you feel about writing game books compared to "standard" fiction? Is it more difficult because you have to take into account so many different possibilities, or is it easier because you don't have to decide which version of the story you like best?

HB: I absolutely love writing game books and wish I could find a publisher who would pay me to write more. It is a tricky medium -- I find it hard work keeping tabs on the tracking -- but after a while you get used to the technical side and it's just fun. I find game books quite different from writing regular fiction. When I write a novel I find characters and give them their head. With luck they get on with their story and I tag along writing it all down. With game books, I find a setting first, then a central character and turn the character loose in the setting in a series of cameos. It's not nearly as spooky as writing a conventional novel, which usually feels as if it's being dictated by spirits.

IG: It seems lately that video game designers have started using professional writers to provide scripts and storylines for their titles. Have you been approached by anyone to work as a writer for a video game, and if not, would you consider doing so if the project involved subject matter that was interesting to you?

HB: Ten, twelve years ago I was approached by a computer game company and contracted to create and script a project. I came up with a thing called S.P.I.D.E.R. which was a very clever acronym for something I can't remember any more. The idea was you (the player) got recruited over the internet as a spy by the S.P.I.D.E.R. organisation and were then involved in an exciting adventure. I got to work with a brilliant team of programmers, notably a guy called JAB who became a close friend. We loaded up three levels of the adventure, then the company went bust. I got stiffed for about 12 grand, but if somebody else came along looking for another game, I'd do it like a shot.

IG: There are eight total books in the GrailQuest series, but only six were published in the US (and Americans never even saw Fire*Wolf). Were there problems bringing these titles over, or were sales considered too small by that time to print them in the States? By the same token, are there any markets where your game books are still in active print and circulation?

HB: GrailQuest was a disaster in the States. After the first three titles hit the shelves, the publishers took one look at the sales sheets and killed the series. But by this time my whizzy literary agent had stuck them with an unbreakable contract for three more, which they brought out to even more miserable sales. There was absolutely no way they were going to publish the remaining two or touch Fire*Wolf with a barge-pole. To be honest, until I wrote Faerie Wars, I was never particularly successful in the USA. (I always thought Americans didn't like my sense of humour.) GrailQuest is still in print in France, where the series initially sold millions and still sells tens of thousands every year, it's gone back into print in Japan, after lapsing for several years and my agent is now selling it for the first time into various East European countries.

IG: When you were developing a game book, how long did it take you on average to go from start to finish and did you learn some tips and shortcuts along the way to make subsequent ones faster or easier to write?

HB: I turned out GrailQuest at the rate of one a month after the first one which took about six weeks. I was a bit slow at the start because I had to devise a system that let me keep track of what I was doing. Once that was in place, everything went like a rocket. Never had so much fun in my life.

IG: A number of the Fighting Fantasy series have been republished both in the UK and in the US to a fairly high degree of praise. Could we see a reprinting or continuation of GrailQuest or Fire*Wolf in the future?

HB: I've been trying for years to interest UK publishers in reprinting but without success. I never thought it would be worthwhile trying the US again after the initial train-wreck. I badly want to get the series back in print in English and my agent and I have been in discussion with a plan to do so, but the details are secret at the moment.

IG: You describe yourself as having a "lifelong preocupation with the esoteric". What are some of your favorite elements of the esoteric that have subsequently made their way into your fictional writings (for example, astral travel from GrailQuest, or the Faerie Realm in Faerie Wars)?

HB: You're right about astral travel, of course, which preoccupied me through a couple of non-fiction books and has found its way into my fiction after an early personal out-of-body experience. Psychotronics, which is a genuine branch of science, but so weird respectable scientists won't touch it, found its way into Faerie Wars. I suppose the one aspect that interests me most is contact with spirits, which found its way into the Faerie Wars series big-time. I'm planning to make it the subject of my Masters dissertation next year, but that's not supposed to be fiction.

IG: Trying to avoid spoilers for anyone who has not read it yet, but you made one of your characters in Faerie Wars rather decidedly bisexual. Has this resulted in much negative feedback from parents or readers? (Personally, I thought the revelation was utterly hilarious, so count me in the "positive" camp).

HB: I really don't plan my novels, so I discovered the character's sexual preference the same time the readers did and I thought, "Here, you can't have that in a kid's book." But while I got a bit of flac, it was not nearly as much as I expected. I had problems with my publisher over some sexual elements in Faerie Wars but not that one. A British newspaper refused to review the book because of the lesbian element and a few readers queried it either in reviews or direct with me, but generally people accepted it.

IG: Could you tell us a little bit about your work on Man, Myth & Magic? I remember seeing ads for it in issues of Dragon magazine; was it a success or was it overshadowed by the "600-pound gorilla" of Dungeons & Dragons at the time? Did you create only the basic rules, or were you also involved in the publication of any of the scenarios that came after the boxed set?

HB: Man, Myth and Magic was a "me-too" project. There were several Fantasy Roleplaying games on the market at the time, the most notable being the original D&D, then Tunnels and Trolls and Runequest. I had the mad idea I might be able to write better scenarios and I also thought gamers might be interested in a time-travel game, so I developed a concept called Timeship. This was before GrailQuest, before Warlock of Firetop Mountain, before gamebooks altogether. Even D&D felt new. There weren't any game publishers on the Irish side of the Atlantic so I went searching for somebody in the U.S. I liked the sound of Yaquinto Games in Dallas who at that time had only ever published board games. I put together a proposal for their first FRP opus, stressed my credentials as a published author and sent it off. The President of Yaquinto at the time was Steve Peek who, it turned out, was aware of the FRP boom and anxious for his company to get a slice of the pie. He bought Timeship right off, but thought it would be better to launch Yaquinto into the Role Play market with a more traditional fantasy product and suggested I might like to write one called Man, Myth and Magic. His idea was that the box would contain the basic game system plus a couple of introductory scenarios, after which there would be a series of scenarios sold separately which could plug into the original game. He wanted me to do the lot and he wanted it all yesterday (plus Timeship.) When I said I couldn't do it in the time, he said he'd write some of the scenarios himself; and that's the way we did it. I wrote the rules for both games and the single Timeship scenario. Steve wrote most of the follow-up MM&M scenarios, I wrote the rest. Now I can't remember who did which. Nobody really competed with D&D in those days, but MM&M did okay and Timeship did a little better -- it was made into one of the earliest computer games by an outfit called Five Star Software. The whole project was a bit of a turning-point in my life. Steve and I became close friends. He was the one who told me I should try my hand at writing game books, which directly resulted in GrailQuest. And believe it or not, he was also the one who told me I should write a novel about fairies with butterfly names, which directly resulted in Faerie Wars. I'm now waiting patiently for him to tell me what to do next.

(Editor's note: Steve, if you're reading this, it might not be a bad idea to give Herbie a call!)

IG: Do you see any inherent advantages to interactive fiction in book format as opposed to a more cinematic format such as a video game (other than not having a multi-million Euro budget requirement to produce a book by one's self)?

HB: There's one huge advantage, although it's under-appreciated. With a game book (and even more so the traditional Fantasy Roleplaying game, come to that) you create your own fantasy world in your imagination, with just a little help and direction from the writer. With a computer game, all the visuals are done for you, so you don't have the same sort of engagement. I'm old enough to remember when the experts thought television would kill radio drama, but people still listen to radio drama because they say the pictures are better. I feel that way about role play: the more it's played in your head, the better the pictures will be.

IG: Comic books have started slowly to shed their reputation as "just for kids" and now we are seeing publishers and fans alike declaring certain titles or series to be more artistic and mature as a medium. For example, Watchmen by Alan Moore was the only comic featured in Time magazine's run-down of the best books of the 20th century. Do you believe that the publishers of any kind of interactive fiction, whether book-based, computer-based or otherwise, are sufficiently exploring the genre's possibilities for moving from the category of sheer entertainment into what might be considered some form of "high" art? If not, do you have any suggestions on what they might try differently?

HB: God preserve us from high art! I'm on the side of the entertainers. I'm delighted comic books are being taken more seriously and I think the quality of graphics in many of them now is stunningly high. I also believe that the first publisher to bring out an interactive graphic novel will make a fortune, but so far I haven't found one who'll listen to me. My own first graphic novel -- Boy Brimstone, set in the Faerie Realm -- is in production at the moment and due out during the winter of 2009, although I think there are problems that might push it later. I hope they don't turn it into high art. I'd be happy with a quality product people want to read.

It should be noted that, while this concluded the exchange of questions via e-mail, Areala is fervently of the opinion that had she been there in person, Herbie would have reclined back in his chair, closed his eyes, mumbled a few words of arcane lore, wished her well, and had a small group of little winged beings arrive to see her safely out the door. As it stands, though, she'll have to be content with her imagination running wild as it frequently does in matters such as these.

All of us at Intelligent Gamer would like to thank everyone who contributed a question for this interview, and also extend a huge outpouring of gratitude to Mr. Brennan for his time. We encourage you to seek out his works if you are at all into metaphysical studies, faeries, young adult fiction, interactive game books, magic, or just plain intelligent reads. The author's web page, Herbie Brennan's Bookshelf, can be found here, while those seeking information about the Faerie Wars series commented on in the interview will find this site to be most useful.

May I add my thanks to both Mr. Brennan and Areala.

[ Comment by Alastair :: 25 Aug : 15:13 ]

It was my pleasure, Alastair. :)

[ Comment by Areala :: 28 Aug : 07:34 ]

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