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Interview: December 14, 2007

December 14, 2007

Steve Berry's latest installment in the Cotton Malone series, THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL, finds the former U.S. Justice Department agent turned rare-book dealer in search of one of history's greatest unsolved mysteries: the location of Alexander the Great's final resting place.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Berry talks about what drew him to this compelling figure as the subject of his sixth book and discusses his fascination with lost objects of antiquity. He also explains how he balances fact and fiction in these historically-based novels and gives insight into what may be in store next for Cotton and company. Your new novel, THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL, concerns two intertwined mysteries: the lost tomb of Alexander the Great --- a real-world puzzle that remains unsolved to this day --- and a mystery of your own invention involving a formula for a mysterious draught with the ability to cure conditions and illnesses that otherwise would be fatal. What initially caused you to become interested in Alexander? And how did you develop the idea for the draught?

Steve Berry: Here’s a man who conquered the known world in 12 years, from age 21 to 33. What a story of success. He walked his army 23,000 miles into totally unknown terrain and won it all. Yet, he was also terribly flawed and inexplicably driven. Eventually, his army revolted and he had to stop. But, along the way, he changed the course of human history. He was a Greek who became a Persian; the first man of the world; a purveyor of culture that allowed East and West --- for the first time --- to mingle.

Alexander’s political and historical legacy, though, continues to be a matter of intense debate. Was he a wise visionary or a reckless, bloody conqueror? Many books have been written on this subject, but the best is Peter Green’s ALEXANDER OF MACEDON 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography. Green’s thoughtful study makes clear that Alexander spent his entire life, with legendary success, in pursuit of nothing but personal glory. And though the empire he fought so hard to create collapsed the moment he was gone, his legend lives on. Proof of this immortality can be seen in the belief he has long inspired in others. To Peter Green, Alexander is an enigma whose greatness simply defies any final judgment. He personifies an archetype --- restless and perennial, the embodiment of an eternal quest, a personality that has grown greater than the measurable sum of his impressive works. In the end, Alexander himself said it best: "Toil and risk are the price of glory, but it is a lovely thing to live with courage and die leaving an everlasting fame."

As for the draught, that is entirely my concoction, though Alexander’s actual death remains one of the great historical mysteries. Of course, viruses and bacteria that prey on other viruses are real. I simply adapted one of those to this tale.

BRC: THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL sends Cotton Malone on another exciting and globe-trotting race against time in Denmark, the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia, and of course, Venice. Of those three locations, the inclusion of Central Asia as a locale --- and its formation into the Central Asian Federation --- is an unexpected one. Did you visit Central Asia while you were researching the book? If so, what can you share about your visit?

SB: Unfortunately, no, but I would love to go. After reading so much about the region, I’m now enthralled. Unfortunately, many of the dangers and political corruption described in the story exist in real life, so travel to that part of the world is a challenge, at best. But that’s never stopped me. I’m sure I’ll make it there one day. My hope is that readers will likewise become fascinated with the region and want to visit too. That’s one objective I strive for --- to interest readers in new and different places, as those places interest me. Central Asia is particularly fascinating --- it sits directly between Europe, Asia, Russia and India; it is a focal point and has been a battleground for centuries. It possesses enormous natural resources. If the region unified, it could easily become a potent political force.

BRC: On a related note, the so-called game of buzkashi, indigenous to that region as well as to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is interesting. P.J. O’Rourke has described the game as a metaphor for Afghani politics, and your description of it in THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL would seem to confirm this. Did you have the opportunity to see the sport being played, and what were your impressions when you watched it?

SB: What an experience that would be. Can you imagine? A goat is slaughtered, its extremities hacked off, the carcass soaked in cold water for a day. Then, men on horseback fight like hell over the body, trying to toss it in a lime circle on the ground. What would animal rights groups do with that one? But, as with central Asia, I learned about buzkashi vicariously through written accounts and Internet pictures. When I first heard of it, I was instantly intrigued and thought the game would provide an excellent way to illustrate the brutality of Irina Zovastina. Clearly, watching buzkashi is not for the faint of heart. I read many accounts from U.S. military personnel who both watched and participated, and all agree that it is an intense experience that is unique in the world. Severe injury and death are, indeed, common occurrences. And Rourke’s metaphor is quite apt.

BRC: While Alexander's draught was your creation rather than antiquity’s, I’m curious as to whether you believe that it, or something like it --- say The Fountain of Youth --- truly exists and is waiting to be rediscovered. Can you comment?

SB: That, of course, is impossible to say but what an intriguing possibility. Just as Troy was once thought mythical and non-existent (we now know that city to be real), there are surely many more secrets out there waiting to be discovered. The search for what was thought lost is a central theme in all of my books. The Amber Room, lost Romanov heirs, the third secret of Fatima, Templar treasure, the library of Alexandria, and now the tomb of Alexander the Great --- each of these has been central to my novels. But --- just as in real life --- for me, learning about these treasures is becoming harder and harder; thankfully, I have ideas for at least the next three or four years.

BRC: The close of THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL indicates that there may be at least one major change in Cotton Malone’s future. What can you share with us that you have planned for him in the next books?

SB: The 2008 story will be quite personal and emotionally intense for Malone. I’m writing it now. There are definitely some changes coming for him. I think that’s important; characters need to change. Just as in life, in fiction, nothing ever stays the same.

BRC: I find Henrik Thorvaldsen to be one of the more fascinating characters in your Cotton Malone novels. In THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL, he is even more interesting than Malone himself in some ways. Will you be doing more with Thorvaldsen --- revealing more about him or perhaps even featuring him in a novel of his own --- in the future?

SB: There is book coming that will focus heavily on Thorvaldsen, just as THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL focuses on Cassiopia. We need to know more about his son and what happened when he was killed. Thorvaldsen totes a heavy load because of his son’s death. When I initially created these characters in THE TEMPLAR LEGACY, I needed someone Malone could relate to, someone he respected and yet was also wary of. Thorvaldsen is a clever soul, though sometimes he can be too clever for his own good. Ballantine Books has signed me for three more novels starting in 2009, so readers are definitely going to learn more about Henrik Thorvaldsen.

BRC: As you freely indicate in your Author’s Note at the conclusion of THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL, there are some elements of history that you leave intact, some that you change and some that you create. What sort of process do you go through while deciding what to change and what to leave intact? Do you find, more often than not, that historical events are more unusual, and more interesting, than fiction?

SB: No question, truth is many times stranger than fiction. Some of the best plot twists in my stories are based on real events and real things. But I have to keep in mind that I’m writing a novel, not a textbook, whose primary objective is to entertain. So, I’m allowed to play games with reality. During my research, which takes 18 months from start to finish, I amass countless pieces of information. I study around 100-200 sources for each novel. Modifying and adapting facts are simply part of the creative process. But I try to keep it as real as possible and I always include a writer's note at the end that lets the reader know where I played games with the truth. That’s important. But don’t read that writer’s note first. It will give away the entire plot.

BRC: Out of curiosity, how does Cotton Malone’s bookstore stay in business whenever he suddenly disappears for days at a time? Who is minding the store while he’s gone?

SB: He has employees. They were mentioned in THE TEMPLAR LEGACY, but perhaps you’re right --- maybe they need another mention or two.

BRC: Given the complexity of the concepts of your novels and the demanding amount of research you put into them, it would seem that you could only work on one novel at a time. Is that the case? And do you maintain a list, or library, of subjects for future novels?

SB: I wish I could work on only one book at a time. That would be a luxury I’ve never been afforded. With a-book-a-year schedule, you always have 3 books in your head. This year is a good example. I was editing and preparing THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL for publication; actively writing the 2008 manuscript; and plotting and researching the 2009 story in anticipation of starting writing in February 2008. Keeping it all straight is just a matter of organization. I also have an idea box in which I toss articles, clippings and notes for future books. I go in and out of that box all the time. Oh, and by the way, I still practice law and serve on the Camden County Board of Commissioners.