Saturday, 19 November 2016

I look for something from history that no one has dealt with before...

Interview with Steve Berry 
by Agnes A. Rose

Steve Berry is an American author and former attorney. He is a graduate of Mercer University's Walter F. George School of Law. His passion is history so it lies at the heart of every one of his thrillers. A practicing attorney at the time, Steve Berry had been writing fiction since 1990, and it took him 12 years and 85 rejections before selling a manuscript to Ballantine Books. His first novel was The Amber Room, which was published in 2003. His next book, The Romanov Prophecy, was released a year later. He now has more than twenty million books in print, which have been translated into many languages and sold in more than fifty countries. Steve Berry is also the author of the Cotton Malone Series, which is very popular and loved by readers. In Poland we can read a lot of his books published by SONIA DRAGA. So far he has won many awards for his work. He is a founding member of International Thriller Writers. This is a group of more than 3,800 thriller writers from around the world. For two years he was its co-president. Steve Berry and his wife travel the world both researching and promoting his books. One comment they hear repeatedly concerns the dwindling supply of funds available to preserve our heritage. So Steve and Elizabeth launched History Matters to assist communities around the world with restoration and preservation.

Agnes A. Rose: A very warm welcome to you, Steve, and can I thank you, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me today. When a few years ago I read your first book “The Amber Room”, I thought: “What a fantastic historical thriller!” Could you tell us what motivated you to create this kind of story? I want to add that I have been your huge fan since then.

photo by Kelly Campbell
Steve Berry: In 1995, I was listening to a program on the Discovery channel, not watching, only listening from another room. The narrator was talking about the Amber Room. I caught only the last few minutes of the show, but the idea fascinated me. Unfortunately, not enough information came from the television show for me to even know what the Amber Room was. I actually, at first, thought it was a painting. All I learned from the little I heard was that it was stolen from the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo and had not been seen since 1945. So I went to the bookstore and thumbed through Russian travel guides until I found a reference. It took several more months of research to formulate the novel’s plot.

AAR: As I mentioned above you had been writing since 1990 and it took you 12 years and 85 rejections before selling a manuscript to your publisher. Why did it take you so long to publish your first book? What was wrong with your fiction that publishers rejected it as many as 85 times? It is unbelievable!

SB: Nothing was really wrong. It was all about timing. I was writing what was then called a spy thriller. But that genre died in 1991 when the Cold War ended.  Consequently, editors in the 1990s weren’t buying those kind of books then. Then, in 2003, the genre was reborn with The DaVinci Code. It came back not as a spy thriller, but as action, history, secrets, and conspiracies. Exactly what I was writing, so I was able to make it to publication. Timing is everything.

AAR: Your second book was “The Romanov Prophecy”. It was released in 2004, so shortly after your debut novel. Did you know then that you would be a professional writer and each your next book would be released?

SB: I knew I wanted to be a commercial fiction writer and sell a book-a-year to a New York publishing house. But I had no idea if I would be able to actually accomplish that. It all depended on readers liking the books. Thankfully, they did.

AAR: How do you usually choose a theme of your next novel and select characters?

SB: I look for something from history that no one has dealt with before, something lost and forgotten, but true. It has to be true. I keep my novels about 90% accurate to history, with only 10% speculation.  No writer wants to write what someone else has already done. So I search hard for those unknown bits of history that I hope readers will find interesting. The characters select themselves, depending on the story. Sometimes Cassiopeia is there, sometimes not. Luke Daniels has become a series regular now, appearing in many of the books. The hardest part is fashioning the bad guy since each one has to be different than the one before.

AAR: What made you become interested in history? Why is it so important to you? Do you have your favourite historical era?

SB: The past is our roadmap to the future. Studying it is important. Forgetting or ignoring it can be disastrous. And I really have no particular favorite era. My novels have been across a wide spectrum from ancient times to the Cold War, but always with a modern twist. 

AAR: In your books you sometimes write about the mysteries of the Catholic Church what may seem controversial. Let me mention for example “The Third Secret”. Aren’t you afraid of Catholics’ reactions? Why do you choose such themes?

SB: The reaction to the The Third Secret by some Catholics was hostile. I received a few thousand e-mails damning me to hell. The book was an idea I had way back in parochial school. What would happen if God was a liberal? Not a flame-throwing ultra-conservative. Instead, he’s progressive and we have it all wrong. It’s a good story – and readers have to keep that in mind. It’s a story, made-up, not real.

AAR: Your “Cotton Malone Series” is very popular around the world. In my opinion the main character called Cotton Malone – a former U.S. Justice Department agent – is very interesting. Could you tell us what inspired you to create him?

SB: He was born in Copenhagen while I was sitting at a café in Højbro Plads, a popular Danish square. That’s why Cotton owns a bookshop there. I wanted a character with government ties and a background that would make him, if threatened, formidable. But I also wanted him to be human, with flaws. Since I also love rare books, it was natural that Cotton would too, so he became a Justice Department operative, turned bookseller, who manages, from time to time, to find trouble. I also gave him an eidetic memory, since who wouldn’t like one of those? At the same time, Cotton is clearly a man in conflict. His marriage has failed, he maintains a difficult relationship with his teenage son,  and he’s lousy with women.

photo by Rana Faure
AAR: Which part of Cotton Malone is closest to you?

SB: His personality is pretty much mine.

AAR: While writing books which part of researching is the most personally interesting to you? Are there any facts, symbols, or themes that you would like to include, but they just don't make into the story?

SB: The research for each novel takes about 18 months and involves 300 to 4000 sources. So there’s a lot. Of that research, only about 20% makes it into the novel.  The vast majority is never used. There’s a reason for that.  I’m writing a novel, not a textbook. Its primary purpose is to entertain. If along the way the reader can also learn some things, that’s just an added bonus.

AAR: How would you describe your books to someone who has not read any of them?

SB:  “Action, history, secrets, and conspiracies.”

AAR: Most authors say that it is important to write you love because then you can succeed as a bestselling writer. Do you agree with this statement? Have you always written historical thrillers?

SB: Absolutely. It’s the best writing advice to can take. Always write what you love.  When I began writing I gravitated straight to action, history, secrets, and conspiracies. The seed for that was probably sown when I read my first adult novel at the age of 15. Hawaii by James Michener. He remains my favorite writer of all time.

AAR: What about books you like reading? What kind of literature do you prefer?

SB: I’m a thriller junkie. I read a lot of them. But my main reading is non-fiction, the research materials for the book I’m working on.

AAR: You have helped restore a lot of ailing historical artifacts and buildings through your History Matters foundation. Could you tell us something more about your work in the foundation?

SB: Money for historic preservation and conservation is one of the first things to be cut from any budget. My wife, Elizabeth, and I thought it was time to come up with an innovative way to raise money, and that’s what History Matters is all about. The most popular method we use is a 4 hour seminar we teach where writers, aspiring writers, and readers buy their way in with a contribution to the cause. All of the money raised from the workshop goes to the particular historical project that we are there to support. No expenses or appearance fees are charged. In fact, I pay all those myself. So far we’ve taught over 3000 students. Other ways History Matters raises money is through meet and greets, speaking engagements, gala events, receptions, luncheons, dinners, club meetings, or a cocktail party. All total we’ve raised nearly a $1,000,000 for historical preservation. You can find out more at

AAR: I am also very interested in International Thriller Writers. Could you tell us how this group of writers works?

SB: It’s an organization of 3800 thriller writers from around the world, the guild for thriller writers. I was fortunate to be one of the founding members and I served as co-president for two years. I still serve on the board of directors today as vice-president of Publications. Membership is free to any working thriller writer. You can find out more at 

AAR: What is your writing project you are currently working on? Could you tell us something more about it?

SB: I’m finishing up the novel that will be published in April 2018. It will be Cotton Malone’s 13th adventure. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about yet, but I can say that involves a subject-matter that will be quite topical then. The next Cotton Malone story releases in the United States on April 4, 2017. It’s called The Lost Order.

AAR: Steve, I have been absolutely delighted and very honored that you agreed to be interviewed for my literary and historical site. Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers? I know that you are going to visit Poland next year.

SB: Only that I appreciate them, one and all. All of my books have been published in Poland by Sonia Draga. I’ve had a great relationship with them. I will be visiting Poland in late November 2017 as part of a publicity tour for Sonia Draga. Hopefully, I’ll get to say hello to some of my readers. 

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

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