January 1, 2009
There’s just something about the beginning of a New Year that appeals to me. Of course, this time last year I was lamenting hitting my forties. How I wish I had known then that it would be just a stepping stone in my journey of rediscovery! We live in such a fascinating, yet uncertain time as seen in the 2008 presidential race. Our country is headed in a new direction with all of us banding together at the helm.
The same is true for my column. Once a purely romance writing venue, it has taken on its own voice by encompassing all genres and capturing the true essence of the best and the brightest in the publishing industry. In celebration of its new path, it only seems fitting to be kicking off the New Year with New York Times Bestselling Author Steve Berry. His latest release, THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT, is an explosive military thriller that spans various continents and challenges the many truisms of history.
As part of this interview, Ballantine Books has generously donated five copies of his blockbuster hit for you, my readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. Happy New Year and welcome back to Jen’s Jewels!
Jen: Most authors only dream of writing internationally bestselling novels yet for you, it has become a reality. What makes an author truly stand out from the rest of pack is the defining moment in his life when this choice is made. Please tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background that paved your way for a career in the publishing business.
Steve: I was a lawyer who wanted to write international suspense thrillers. I've always loved history, read it constantly since I was a teenager. Finally, in 1990, I decided to quit thinking about it and do it. Unfortunately, I discovered that writing novels is hard and it took me 12 years—85 rejections over 5 different manuscripts—before Ballantine Books finally bought a manuscript.
Jen: Eighty-five rejections over five manuscripts is quite a big number. During that difficult time period, was there a specific area of your craft that you chose to focus on in order to bring your writing to the next level? From your first book to the latest, how have you seen yourself grow as a writer?
Steve: I don't adhere to the adage, ‘Write what you know.’ Bad advice. Instead, ‘Write what you love.’ I've always been partial to a little bit of history, secrets, conspiracy, action, adventure, and international settings. So I focused on international suspense thrillers. I also worked hard on craft, attending a writer's workshop every Wednesday night for 6 years. And, of course, I wrote every day. No question, there is a marked difference in my craft today from 18 years ago. If every writer can't say that, then there's something wrong. None of us gets it right all the time. All we can hope for is what we wrote today is better than yesterday and what we write tomorrow is better than today.
Jen: The central character in your highly successful novels is Cotton Malone. First of all, why did you select such an unusual name? Was it a conscious effort to set him apart as a unique human being from the get-go?
Steve: He was born in Copenhagen, while I was sitting at a café in Højbro Plads, a popular Danish square. I love that city, so I decided Cotton would own a bookshop right there. I wanted a character with government ties and a background that would make him, if threatened, a formidable opponent. Since I personally 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 himself immersed in trouble. I also gave him an eidetic memory, since, well, 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; he's lousy with women; and he’s tired of the risks that seem to follow him, even in retirement. In short, he has problems just like us. As to his name? That will remain a mystery.
Jen: Back in November, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Neville, author of THE EIGHT. As she did, you chose to incorporate Charlemagne into your latest work, THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT. What particular aspect of this powerful historical figure’s life contributed most to your decision to center the story on him? What was the most fascinating tidbit of knowledge you learned along the way?
Steve: The fact that he hasn’t appeared in many thrillers was the main draw. As you noted, Katherine Neville is the only writer I can recall who’s made good use of him, and The Eight is one of my favorite books. Charlemagne is fascinating. He ruled for 47 years and lived to be 74 at a time when kings rarely reigned more than 5 years and people died long before age 40. He unified a continent and laid the groundwork for the formation, centuries later, of a modern Europe. Many of his policies and practices became proven models for western law and government. He was a visionary who surrounded himself with smart people and, for the first time, placed the needs of his subjects before royal ambition. He was so progressive that it begs the question—did he have help? Was he privy to special knowledge? Both are interesting questions that spurred my imagination
Jen: I like how you took the time at the end of the novel to explain the historical relevance to your plot including some liberties that you, as an author, took in order to bring your story to life. Would you briefly set the stage for my readers as to significance of the American-run operations Windmill and Highjump and the Nazi exploration of Antarctica in relation to THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT?
Steve: I always include a writer's note at the end so the reader knows where fact and fiction separate. But readers should never go there first. It will spoil the whole story. Read that last. As to the Antarctic expeditions, the Nazis went in 1938 to scout strategic locations and search for untapped mineral wealth. But they found a continent tough to tame. Great mineral deposits exist, but they are difficult to extract, especially with the state of technology at that time. World War II eventually interfered with Germany returning, though conspiratorialists believe that they did return and established a secret base. Our Operations Highjump and Windmill, which came a decade after, were pure military jaunts. We went to explore, test men and equipment, and learn. Some say we went to find that Nazi base. Much about both of these extensive, cold-weather military operations remain classified to this day, which only encourages speculation as to what might have been encountered.
Jen: Setting the tone of a novel is the role of the main character. In a sense, his thoughts and actions determine the overall fluidity of the plot as well as the credibility of the storyline. I think one could make a case for saying that your novel has four main characters, Cotton, Stephanie, Ramsey, and the Oberhauser family, since they all are interconnected within the framework of the book. In a sense, Cotton is simply the thread that weaves them together. What was the most challenging part of writing four “central” plots at the same time?
Steve: Keeping them all on track. I use these separate stages (usually 3) to increase the suspense and drive the story forward. But I have to be cognizant of the fact that these story lines must, eventually, collide. The interesting thing about THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT is that they do collide at the end, only several thousand miles with two continents separating the characters. Yet all plot lines are resolved.
Jen: Not only does this novel entail the pursuit of Charlemagne over various continents, but also it details Cotton’s personal pursuit of the truth surrounding his own father’s death. At any time during the creative process did you sense that the evolution of this book took on a whole new approach not evident in previous Cotton Malone storylines? And if so, in what way?
Steve: No question. I knew that Cotton confronting what happened to his father would be an emotional experience. For 38 years he’s pondered that situation. Then I came across the book Ice, by Marianna Gosnell, which described the amazing affects of the Antarctic cold. Once I realized what was possible, I increased the intensity of Malone’s journey. As a writer, I struggle with character development. It’s something I work hard to expand. This book, my seventh novel, allowed me an opportunity to expand my craft. This story is much character-driven than the others. I can only hope that reader’s regard my effort as a positive one
Jen: Part of the sheer enjoyment of reading a thriller is the locales the author chooses to depict. What drew you to these three in particular…Zugspitze, the Biltmore Estate, and Antarctica? Have you had the pleasure of experiencing each one of them?
Steve: I visited the Zugspitze in Bavaria and rode the same cable car 10,000 feet up that Malone finds himself trapped on. I also loitered around the cathedral in Aachen for four days, trying to conjure up the Charlemagne pursuit. Biltmore Estate in Asheville is one of my favorite places. I’ve visited several times, especially at Christmas. As for Antarctica, unfortunately I didn’t make it there (thank goodness the good Lord created National Geographic). My goal is to walk upon all seven continents. I have two to go, one being Antarctica, which is at the top of my must-see list.
Jen: As far as the secondary characters are concerned, who is the strongest member of the Oberhauser clan…Dorothea, Christl, Isabel, or Werner? How so?
Steve: They're all equally weak, though each one of them thinks they are the strongest. It was that precise fault that I exploited relentlessly, and it’s what leads to their downfall. They were a lot of fun to create, develop, and evolve as the story progressed.
Jen: I just have to take a moment and ask you about the sinister Admiral Ramsey. No good suspense novel is complete without the evil character and his malevolent deeds. What makes Diane McCoy such a formidable opponent for him?
Steve: Ramsey is like most antagonists --- he thinks himself smarter than everyone else, including Diane McCoy. He underestimates her, thinking her equally as ambitious as himself, so much so that he can't see that she's nothing like him. I like the character of Diane McCoy. She's named for a lovely lady who lived in my community and was a great fan. Unfortunately, cancer claimed her before the book was finished, so she never saw her name on the page. She'll live on, though, with this story.
Jen: What’s in store for Cotton’s future? And, are you at work on your next novel?
Steve: I've just completed his 2009 adventure and will shortly start the 2010 story. He'll be around in 2011 too. Hopefully, he'll continue on, but that all depends on how readers react to him. So far they seem to love him.
Jen: Please tell us about your website. Do you have e-mail notification of upcoming releases? Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one? Do you have reading group guides for your novels?
Steve: My website is located at steveberry.org. It's a great site. Lots of information, podcasts, some videos, and photos. We tried to keep it simply and fun. There is an e-mail link to me. I read every e-mail and we respond to each one too. There are some reading guides for the first three novels on the site, too. As to author phone chats, I've never done those but wouldn't be opposed.
Jen: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to stop by and speak with my readers. THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT is the perfect novel to kick off the New Year with what we hope is filled with new beginnings and a bright future for our country. I wish you only the best in 2009.
Steve: I appreciate you having me participate. To yourself and all your reader's --- have a Happy New Year!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Steve. Please stop by your local library or favorite bookstore today and pick up a copy of THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT. Or better yet…would you like to win one? Be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at email@example.com with the correct answer to the following question and you’ll win!
What is the name of the lead character in THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT?
Later this month, I will be bringing to you my first children’s author interview with one of my all-time personal favorites…Dan Gutman. You won’t want to miss it.
Until next time…Jen