From Charlemagne to the Knights Templar to Thomas Jefferson, New York Times best-selling author Steve Berry has explored and unraveled secrets of the past with his character Cotton Malone, a retired elite operative for the U.S. Justice Department and rare book dealer who lives in Copenhagen. Malone is invariably drawn into international conspiracies and alternate histories that he must puzzle out before each novel’s heart-stopping conclusion.
Berry, who has sold more than 14 million books, started out as a lawyer and didn’t pick up a pen until he was 35. It took him 12 years and five manuscripts to sell his first novel, but his tenacity paid off. He regularly tops the bestseller lists and ranks alongside other top-notch thriller writers like Dan Brown and Harlan Coben.
The St. Augustine resident will teach a three day intensive writing course at Hunter College on June 6-9 and will also moderate the Hunter College Writers’ Conference’s “Suspense Panel” with Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder and Andrew Gross on Saturday, June 9th.
He took some time out of his new book tour promoting his latest novel The Columbus Affair to talk about the art of writing thrillers, his foundation History Matters and the upcoming Writers’ Conference.
What was it about Christopher Columbus that intrigued you enough to make him the focus of your new thriller?
The great mystery about Columbus is that we know nothing about him: what he looked like, where he was born, how he ended up in the new world, even his diaries that we have are a copy. Everything is legend and myth.
What advice do you give new writers?
A lot of people say write what you know. I think that’s bad advice. I say write what you love. If they are the same thing that’s great. In my case though, I’ve been interested in history since I was a boy. I’ve also always loved thrillers.
You struggled for 12 years to get published and received 85 rejections. Was there ever a time that you thought of quitting? What was it that kept you going?
What I tell writers is that I’m living proof that you can do it. After a lot of rejections, I finally caught the break that I’d be looking for. And yes, I probably stopped writing three times, but there was that little voice in my head that all writers have that said enough is enough, stop moping and get back to work.
You started History Matters to help communities with their historic preservation efforts. What have you learned about the state of preservation that would surprise people most?
What would surprise people most is the horrendous state of preservation in this country. There are millions of objects, documents and buildings that are crumbling because we’re not taking care of them. So far, History Matters has raised $250,000 for various historic preservation efforts. Last week, I was in Houston and we helped raise money to restore a city of Houston flag. This guy found it in his garage; it was 200 years old and an original version of the city’s first flag.
At Hunter, you’re teaching a three night intensive writing workshop and moderating a panel on suspense with Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder and Andrew Gross. What can people attending the intensive session and panel expect?
The intensive is nine hours on the craft of writing fiction, where I will teach what I’ve learned over the years. During the panel, I’m going to pick the author’s brains about the state of suspense right now. We’re going to have a great time.
You’ve written seven novels with Cotton Malone; do you ever worry about running out of fresh things to say or retiring the character?
No. I envision a lot more of good adventures with Cotton. He’s coming back next year with his son Gary to uncover a secret about the Tudors called “The Tudor Deception.” He’s changed a lot over the novels and I think there’s a lot more to explore with him.
For more information about the Hunter Writers’ Conference visit http://www.hunter.cuny.edu
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