Interview: August 31, 2004
August 31, 2004
Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek of Bookreporter.com interviewed Steve Berry, author of THE ROMANOV PROPHECY. Berry explains the difficulty of accurately depicting the historical aspects of the book, as many versions of the Romanovs' story are contradictory and inconsistent.
He also talks about breaking stereotypes with his main character --- an African-American lawyer from the deep south who is fluent in the Russian language and well-versed in the culture --- and the importance of pacing in a thriller.
BRC: Your first published novel, THE AMBER ROOM, and your new novel, THE ROMANOV PROPHECY, reveal a deep interest in Russian history and culture. THE ROMANOV PROPHECY, in particular, delves deeply into the nuances of Russian culture. What initially sparked your interest in Russia? Did you spend a lot of time in Russia researching your novels? Did you visit other countries while doing research for these novels?
Steve Berry: Russia has always interested me. Of course, writing THE AMBER ROOM whet my appetite, but I fully satisfied the craving when I wrote THE ROMANOV PROPHECY. I enjoyed the research on this subject, which took about 8 months, reading many primary and secondary sources on what may or may not have happened to the Romanovs. For the past 16 years my wife and I have regularly traveled to Europe, and those trips provided the spark for all of my novels --- THE ROMANOV PROPHECY particularly since the idea came to me during a tour of the Kremlin.
BRC: You contrast the differences in Russia before and after the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. What are the most significant differences?
SB: The differences are infinite. Some are good, others bad. There is a Russian joke: Yeltsin and Putin managed in 14 years to do what the communists could not do in 70 years --- make the people long for communism. Times are definitely tough in Russia. There are immense growing pains and the Russians do not take well to democracy. It's a land and people that have been dominated for over a thousand years. The Slavic mind is far more accustomed to trusting, rather than distrusting, its government, and democracy only works when the people distrust their government. Russia, though, is clearly on the right path --- no question about it.
BRC: What sparked your interest in the Nicholas II and Alexandra story in particular?
SB: Who wouldn't be fascinated by their sad tale? It's a true love story laced with brutal politics, deep intrigue, massive deception, and gruesome murder. Hard to resist all those.
BRC: What is the most challenging aspect of writing a novel against a historical background?
SB: Getting the facts right, and that was tough here. There are so many inconsistent versions of what happened that culling out the embellishments and finding some version of reality was a true challenge. I think it's important that the reader, even in a novel (which, by definition, is imaginary), receives accurate information. That's why I include a Writer's Note to distinguish fact from fiction.
BRC: THE ROMANOV PROPHECY is a fish-out-of-water story in the sense that you have Miles Lord as a very visible protagonist --- a black man in a Caucasian country --- who is running for his life from pursuers who have the ability to be everywhere at once. One of the many intriguing components of Lord's personality is his almost lifelong interest in the history of Russia, a passion that by turns helps him and endangers him in THE ROMANOV PROPHECY. Did you infuse Lord with aspects of your own personality and interests? What made you decide to make his character black?
SB: While visiting Russia I noticed that there were precious few dark faces. By and large, Russia is a fair-skinned country. By making Miles a man of color his dilemma was greatly multiplied since, not only were men intent on killing him, but he now possessed precious few places in which to hide. I also like to break stereotypes. Here we have a lawyer specializing in international law --- an African-American from the deep south, the son of an evangelical preacher, who is schooled in Russian history and speaks the Russian language --- who finds himself thrust to the forefront of something extraordinary. And he rises to the challenge. Any of me inside Miles? Hardly. I only wish I was more like him.
BRC: THE ROMANOV PROPHECY centers on the restoration of the tsar as the leader of Russia, and the selection process by which the tsar will be chosen from the descendants of Nicholas II, the last tsar. Is there presently any political movement anywhere proposing to bring back the tsar?
SB: The All-Russian Monarchist Assembly referred to in the book is an actual Russian organization dedicated to not only Tsarist remembrance, but a Romanov restoration. No one gives the movement much of a chance, but that was the same thing said decades ago about the demise of communism. So, anything is possible.
BRC: THE ROMANOV PROPHECY immediately pulls the reader in, and you maintain the pacing through the story. How difficult is it to achieve effective pacing in a novel --- which is doubly important in a thriller?
SB: This is the most difficult thing for a suspense novelist to achieve and its success is measured on an individual basis. Hard to please everyone. I think THE ROMANOV PROPHECY has a much better pace than THE AMBER ROOM, which is attributable to what was learned during the writing and editing of THE AMBER ROOM. Pacing is everything to a thriller. Remember, the number one objective is to entertain. If you can inform the reader at the same time --- super --- but keeping pages turning is the top priority.
BRC: What was the most interesting fact that you learned during research for the book?
SB: I never knew the royal family's bodies were retrieved from the mine shaft the day after they were thrown down. Can you imagine? Pulling those corpses back out of that hole in the ground and driving them around the countryside, only to finally bury them in the middle of the roadway. Also, the princess trees found in western North Carolina were new to me. I've seen the trees there many times, but never realized precisely what they were. I also knew nothing about Borzois prior to writing this book. They seem like an impressive animal, which was why I made one an intricate part of the story. Of course, Rasputin and his antics were fascinating, as were the wonders of Fabergé.
BRC: You are becoming a household name on the strength of two novels. Do you feel any pressure as a result of your success?
SB: I'm not sure about the household name stuff, but it would be gratifying to be appreciated by thriller readers. Certainly, the bar is rising with each book. I have at least two more coming from Ballantine, both of which will raise that bar even more. But I've been working at this for 14 years now, so I'm ready for the challenge. My hope is that readers like what they see.
BRC: Do you still actively practice law?
SB: Everyday. There's a rule at the office. The writing and the books are great, but clients come first. The goal is to one day write full time but, for now, I'm in court 2-3 days every week and seeing clients the rest of the time. I write in the mornings, between 7 - 9 a.m. That's when I do my 500 words. Keep that up and 10 months later you have a book. The trick is to do it every day.
BRC: Have any writers been a major personal and/or professional influence upon you?
SB: My all time favorite writer is James Michener. I loved his prose. Unfortunately, his narrative style will not work for a thriller writer in 2004. But I still love him. In the thriller genre, I learned much from David Morrell's books. He provided a wonderful quote that appears on THE ROMANOV PROPHECY's cover. That was a real thrill. Also, Sharon Kay Penman is a superb writer and her quote on the cover was a double thrill for me. Others I read with regularity are Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Ken Follett, David Poyer, John Case, Allan Folsom, Stephen Frey, Robert Ludlum, Daniel Easterman, Frederick Forsyth, Jack DuBrul, and Nelson DeMille.
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
SB: The next one is THE THIRD SECRET, which will deal with the third secret of Fatima; it comes in June 2005. I'm presently finishing the 2006 book tentatively titled, THE TEMPLAR LEGACY.