Interview: April 28, 2006
Amidst the current popularity of religious-themed fiction, two novels ---THE LAST TEMPLAR and THE TEMPLAR LEGACY --- have both become international bestsellers. The authors of these two books, Raymond Khoury and Steve Berry, spoke with Bookreporter.com's Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek about the appeal of speculative history novels, as well as the sheer coincidence of simultaneously writing and publishing thrillers on similar topics. They also discuss the challenges of researching and accurately portraying the past, and share their thoughts on Dan Brown's recent court case.
Bookreporter.com: When did you each become aware that the other was writing a book involving the Templars?
Raymond Khoury: Almost exactly a year ago, when my agents were sending out the manuscript of THE LAST TEMPLAR to publishers here in London, they also showed it to a couple of publishers in New York, and the editor at Ballantine came back saying this was most certainly his kind of book, but that it was too close in topic and spirit --- though not in story --- to a new work by one of his favorite authors, Steve Berry. This kind of terrified me, as I quickly discovered Steve was a well-established, bestselling author. I finally got hold of a copy a few weeks ago and took it on holiday with me over Easter, reading it on a remote island in the Maldives --- and loved it.
Steve Berry: I first became aware of Raymond's book last fall. THE TEMPLAR LEGACY was turned in, finished, and in production at Ballantine when my editor called and told me about THE LAST TEMPLAR. He then sent me an advanced readers copy and I read it. Always good to check out the competition.
BRC: Have you met or corresponded?
When Raymond debuted at #5 on the New York Times list, I emailed his publicist with congratulations. They forwarded my note to him and we've been emailing ever since. Since we've stayed side by side on nearly all the bestseller lists, it was fun ribbing each other. It seemed like a way for both of us to relieve the anxiety the experience was generating. He even sent me a cheesy photo of him at the beach with my book.
It was great to receive Steve's congratulatory email when my book hit the New York Times list. It's not the kind of email I'd ever gotten from anyone in the film world! We knew it was looking good, but getting on that list wasn't something I was expecting to get on the first week out. It was great to share the weekly NYT bestsellers list panic and the curse of increased expectations with someone who was feeling the same thing --- and, amazingly, with two books that were directly related. We've been emailing ever since. It's actually pretty amazing to think that we were both inspired to write books that have so much in common thematically, and yet are so different story-wise. They were written at widely different stages of our lives, at different times, and in different continents, and yet they have come out within weeks of each other and sit on the same bestseller lists. Talk about synchronicity… It's truly a unique experience, and it's been a blast.
BRC: What was the impetus for you to write a novel based upon the 13th century and the Templars? Have you always been interested in this period of history? When did you first become interested in it?
I've always been interested in the Templars and Rennes-le-Chateau is likewise fascinating. When I was searching for a new idea in 2003, this story came to mind. But I wanted to portray the Templars accurately, not as Hollywood stereotypes. Of course, some liberties have to be taken to keep the plot moving, but I wanted readers to understand what the Templars actually were. We need to get away from the Holy Grail and fantasy aspects of their existence. They were, in fact, a remarkable organization that was way ahead of their time, creating many concepts that we take for granted today.
It all happened purely by chance. Back in 1996, I'd written two screenplays that were kind of small and personal, and I felt like writing something bigger and more epic. I visited friends in Fontainebleau in France, thinking about what to write next, and one of them was a history buff and told me about the Templars. I didn't know anything about them at the time, but they're a huge deal in France --- a big part of its history and its lore. As I read up about them that weekend, it quickly became obvious to me that this was an exceptional group of people who played a pivotal role in something that still resonates today, and their legends were great fodder for fiction. A year and a half later, I had my screenplay, which eventually became this novel.
BRC: What do you think it is about speculative history novels that are striking a chord with readers? Why do you think that THE TEMPLAR LEGACY and THE LAST TEMPLAR have resonated so strongly with readers?
The appeal of the genre is easy to explain: page-turning thrillers with a lot of interesting information to discover, the secrets of the past, myths and legends… It's interesting, it's epic, and it's entertaining --- and it makes a change from serial killers and forensics. Dan Brown's success obviously made people aware of the genre, much like John Grisham's THE FIRM put the whole legal thriller genre on the map 15 years ago. I do think the novels that have resonated particularly strongly, though, are those that deal with religion and --- more specifically --- the hidden history (or possible hidden history) of the Catholic Church. This is more a reflection of our times, when religion is back on the front pages in a big way.
Readers enjoy the mixture of history, secrets, conspiracy, action, and exotic settings. All four of my thrillers, THE AMBER ROOM, THE ROMANOV PROPHECY, THE THIRD SECRET and THE TEMPLAR LEGACY, are just that ---- international suspense thrillers --- and there's nothing new about the concept. It's been around for 60-plus years. What's happened over the past three years is that the genre is once again popular. Thank goodness. That's what I like to read and write.
BRC: Do you find that reactions to your respective novels vary from country to country? Is there a wide variance of opinion regarding your work even within a country?
I haven't really seen a difference in reaction across borders. It's kind of hard to judge, though, given that my sampling is limited to the anecdotal evidence or the reviews and comments of a few people, which isn't really significant when a book is selling --- and continues to sell --- hundreds of thousands of copies. I've been fortunate enough to have my book find an audience in every country it's been published, so I guess the interest in the subject matter and the reactions to the book are pretty universal right now, which is amazing.
My four thrillers are now published in 34 countries and 31 languages, and I receive emails daily from around the world. It's particularly gratifying for me to hear from readers in India, Tasmania, Indonesia, and China who have read my stories and like them. I've seen no real variance in opinions, but they do enjoy pointing out any errors I made in language and locations. But that's okay. I don't mind. I want to get it right. Even Raymond himself sent me one of those emails. He says my French needs work. He offered to fix the errors, and I told him to go for it.
BRC: Both THE TEMPLAR LEGACY and THE LAST TEMPLAR mention, in areas other than the novel itself, the quote of Pope Leo X, "It has served us well, this myth of Christ." Personally, how do you feel about this quote? Were you raised in a traditional Christian faith? What sort of reaction have you received from Christian readers of your respective novels?
This quote appears all over the place. I've received about 15 emails from readers who tell me that I have it absolutely wrong and they have provided me the "correct" quote. Here's the problem. All 15 give me different wording. None of them agree. So who knows? Leo X was probably the most corrupt man to ever serve as pope, so him saying something like this would not be out of character. Was it said? We'll never know, but it makes for great fiction. I was born, raised, and educated Catholic. Altar boy and all that stuff. The religion fascinates me, though I no longer actively practice it.
The quote is infamous, and obviously, we'll never really know what the truth about it is. All of history is open to interpretation and conjecture, which is the basis of the novel: what can we believe about events that happened hundreds, even thousands, of years ago? Even today, with everything that's available to record events, you can still find widely conflicting accounts about pretty much anything you choose. This is great for fiction writers --- those "what ifs are what feeds our imagination. Personally, I wasn't raised in a particularly religious family, and I'm not a practicing Catholic, and yet researching the book was sometimes uncomfortable, even for me. The reactions from religious readers of the book, the few I've seen, have been mixed: some liked it and found it uplifting, while others understandably thought it was sacrilegious…
BRC: What do you think happened to the Templar treasure? Do you think that the Templars still exist today? Do they have any influence, or are they biding their time?
Who knows? All we do know is that not a piece of their wealth or a scrap of their knowledge was ever found. Remnants of the Templars certainly still exist in Masonic and other organizations who have adopted parts of their ritual. But as to the real thing, that's doubtful. But it wouldn't be great if they were hold up in a Pyrenees abbey waiting and watching.
I would have said I'm pretty sure they're sadly no longer among us, except that after reading Steve's book, I could be wrong --- his present-day Templars are pretty convincing. As for their treasure, the legend of those galleys loaded with Templar treasure and sailing off into the night from La Rochelle is pretty inspiring, and I like to think that what they managed to spirit away is still out there, somewhere, in some desolate windswept place, waiting for some intrepid, stubborn misfit to find it.
BRC: A number of the situations we face today arise from events that took place in the late 13th century. What do each of you think was the most crucial event that occurred at that time, in terms of its influence on our current events?
I'm tempted to say it's the birth of the Mafia in Sicily in 1282, but that's probably not what you had in mind! The 13th century event that sticks in my mind is the Children's Crusade. How insane was that? Fifty thousand boys and girls, the oldest of them no more than 12, marching off to liberate the holy land from the heathens. Less than 200 made it back, which is a higher number than I would have expected. Have we moved on that much since then? I'm not so sure… I suppose the fall of Jerusalem was the most crucial, in that it affected the subsequent history of an area that had been turbulent and hotly contested before, and remains so today. Had it remained under Crusader control, the development of religion in the area undoubtedly would have been affected --- for better or for worse --- and I suspect it would have had a huge influence on the state of the world today.
Tough to say. That was a pivotal century in many ways. I think Barbara Tuchman answered this question best in her excellent work, A DISTANT MIRROR. Though she deals with the 14th century, readers should check out her work and learn exactly how that time is so reflective of now.
BRC: Both of you write novels that require a vast amount of research. Would either of you care to comment on the outcome of Dan Brown's trial in England? If the verdict had not been in Brown's favor, how could that have affected the historical fiction genre?
There was never any doubt in my mind what that verdict would be. That lawsuit had no merit from the start. Zero. Now, as to generating worldwide publicity for both the plaintiff's and the defendant's books ---- on that count, the whole endeavor was a resounding success. You have to wonder if that was the plaintiff's motive from the start. Certainly Dan did not require any more publicity.
I agree with Steve: I didn't doubt the outcome either, though in this age of spin, you can't help but be cynical about the timing of it all. I mean, Dan Brown acknowledged their book in the actual narrative of his own book! And that book was based on conjecture that had been common knowledge in France for years. Historical fiction is based on research --- it's the real fun part of writing books like these; each story becomes a journey of discovery for the author too. It's either that, or we have to turn into historian-slash-novelists, which would mean bringing out a novel every ten years…
BRC: What are the most challenging aspects of writing a book that is set both in the present and in the past?
Doing the research to get the period details right (which isn't easy when writing about things that happened over 700 years ago, trust me --- there isn't even a definitive description of the Templars' flag, to say nothing about their ships!), and to a lesser extent, getting the right balance. Finding this balance was a discovery process for me, really, as it only came together during the writing; it wasn't planned that way. The parts of the story set in the past were initially just a series of brief flashbacks. As I got deeper and deeper into the book, I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to Martin and his gang, and ultimately those chapters grew.
Weaving those two together and getting it right --- that's always tough --- while at the same time, remembering it's a novel and the primary mission is to entertain. Lots of balloons to hold under the water at the same time.
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
Another Cotton Malone adventure coming in February 2007. There will be two more after that in 2008 and 2009. Hope folks like him.
A new novel, which will come out sometime in 2007. Different characters, different issues, different worlds, but still with a mix of history and present day, and --- with a bit of luck --- a decent read.