Author Talk: December 4, 2009
December 4, 2009
Having explored some of history's biggest unanswered questions --- such as the truth behind the Romanov murders, the fate of the Templar fortune and the location of Alexander the Great's tomb --- in his seven previous works, Steve Berry turns his attention to Napoleon Bonaparte's legendary hidden cache in his latest thriller, THE PARIS VENDETTA. In this interview, Berry speculates on the appeal of this compelling but polarizing figure and describes some of the real objects, like Rommell's gold and THE REPORT FROM IRON MOUNTAIN, that fueled the book's plot. He also discusses some of the locations he visited in France in the name of research, shares details about a foundation he and his wife founded for historic preservation and restoration, and hints what's in store for protagonist Cotton Malone in his next adventure.
Question: Napoleon is front and center in this story. What drew you to him?
Steve Berry: He's fascinating. Polarizing, even today, nearly 200 years after his death. Only Jesus Christ has had more books written about him --- which is pretty amazing. His second exile is particularly interesting. Here was a man who'd attempted to conquer Europe and Russia. He'd wreaked total havoc. Millions had died. When finally stopped, he was simply exiled to Elba, but he escaped and tried to do it all over again. Then the Allied powers sent him to St. Helena, a desolate island off the African coast. Why didn't they just kill him? Historians say that making him a martyr would have been the worst thing possible. Even in defeat, Napoleon commanded a great popular respect. But you have to wonder. Why banish him to a rock in the Atlantic Ocean, isolating him for five years, until he dies of natural causes? Was there a treasure Napoleon concealed? Part of the spoils that he skimmed off his massive plunder? Wealth that the Allied powers, especially Britain, wanted back? Many believe so but, in the end, he took whatever secrets he harbored to his grave. Or did he?
Q: The prologue is eerie. Did Napoleon visit the Great Pyramid and actually go inside?
SB: A lot has been written about the possibility Napoleon climbed inside the Great Pyramid. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure. He did fight a great battle near the site, and definitely visited the area to inspect the progress of his savants, French scientists brought by him to study Egypt. So it's reasonable to assume that he might have ventured inside one of the pyramids. Why not? His curiosity alone would have drawn him. It is beyond dispute that Napoleon was changed by his Egyptian experiences. He spoke of it often. While in Egypt Napoleon made the decision to return to France and become its emperor. He worshiped the desert all of his life, even remarking when he laid eyes on St. Helena, and the possibility of a long exile there, "I would have done better to remain in Egypt."
Q: And the oracle that plays a role in THE PARIS VENDETTA, is that real?
SB: The book, THE BOOK OF FATE FORMERLY IN POSSESSION OF AND USED BY NAPOLEON was published in 1822 (a year after Napoleon died) and the dedication to the former-empress, Marie Louise, is real. Where the oracle actually came from, though, is a matter of great debate. No one knows for sure. The story at the time was that it had been found by Napoleon, while in Egypt, and secretly translated for his personal use. Napoleon was, without question, a highly superstitious person and oracles would have definitely appealed to him. This one is quite unique. I tried it several times and was shocked at how accurate its predictions came to be.
Q: Paris is a big part of this story. Did you visit there as part of the research?
SB: I spent 4 days visiting the Eiffel Tower, Hotel de Invalides, the underground, St. Denis basilica, Shakespeare & Company, and roaming the Latin Quarter. Paris is truly one of the world's great cities. The Hôtel des Invalides was particularly compelling. Napoleon's sarcophagus is massive. Photographs of it perched on a platform of green granite do not do its size justice. Seven coffins are nestled inside one another --- made of iron, mahogany, two of lead, ebony, oak, and red porphyry --- almost as if they wanted to be sure he would not escape. To cement the connection with Napoleon, an image of the Hôtel des Invalides appears on THE PARIS VENDETTA's cover. Distinctive, its dome, the second tallest structure in Paris, is reminiscent of St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and the United States Capitol.
Q: And what about Rommell's gold, is that a real treasure?
SB: It is one of the last great cache's lost from World War II. Gold looted from Jews in northern Africa, then transported across the Mediterranean, first to Italy, then abandoned somewhere in and around Corsica. When I discovered the facts surrounding this treasure, especially its Corsican connection, considering Napoleon's involvement with the story, I couldn't resist including it.
Q: Some of the ancient wisdoms used in the story are noted in the Writer's Note as coming from a more modern source, THE REPORT FROM IRON MOUNTAIN. Tell us about that document.
SB: I came across it during my research. Supposedly, a 15-member panel, called the Special Study Group, was set up in 1963 to examine what problems would occur if the United States entered a state of lasting peace. In other words, if there was no war, how would the nation maintain order? The panel met in an underground nuclear bunker called Iron Mountain and worked in secret for two years. Supposedly, one member, an anonymous professor at a college in the Midwest, decided to release the report to the public and Dial Press published it in 1967. The book became a bestseller. Extremely popular. But the general consensus now is the entire report was a hoax. In fact, THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS eventually labeled THE REPORT FROM IRON MOUNTAIN as its Most Successful Literary Hoax. Still, the ideas presented about war, peace, and maintaining political stability are, if nothing else, thought-provoking. The concept that society will allow in a time of threat that which it would never tolerate in peace is particularly relevant today. Those ideas were perfect for THE PARIS VENDETTA.
Q: Financial manipulations are at the center of the conspiracy in THE PARIS VENDETTA. When you conceived the plot, were you aware of its timeliness?
SB: Not really. I worked out the plot in 2007, a year before the financial crisis that gripped the world in late 2008 and into 2009. As I wrote the book in 2008 I watched parallels from the plot manifest in reality. Manipulating global markets and affecting economies, not for political power, but simply for greed, is not all that difficult. History has shown that economics is a far more effective weapon than guns and bombs. As mentioned in the novel, Yugoslavia, in the 1980s, is a perfect example of how money became a weapon, and how those clever enough to exploit a chaotic situation could reap great profit. I'm always searching for that 'so what' in a story, that element which makes the past critically relevant today. The 'so what' in THE PARIS VENDETTA is all too real.
Q: This is Cotton Malone's fifth adventure. There are a lot of surprises in this book. Were they intentional?
SB: Cotton Malone was born in THE TEMPLAR LEGACY. We learned about his personal life in THE ALEXANDRIA LINK. Then his relationship with Cassiopeia Vitt developed in THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL. What happened to his father was resolved in THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT. Now, in THE PARIS VENDETTA, we deal with what happened two years ago in Mexico City, when Malone decided that he no longer wanted to be a Justice Department agent. It was then that he also met Henrik Thorvaldsen, who eventually became his best friend. Now, Thorvaldsen is after the man who murdered his son two years ago, and Malone is forced into a difficult quandary, one that requires him to choose between friend and country. Just as in real life, where things never stay the same, the fictional world of Cotton Malone is about to change too. Lots of surprises in this book and the ones to come.
Q: You and your wife, Elizabeth, have started a foundation, History Matters. Tell us about that.
SB: In all of my books, history is critical. Always, there is something from the past --- lost, forgotten --- something that continues to hold great relevance today. As Elizabeth and I traveled the world, one comment we kept hearing concerned the dwindling supply of funds available to preserve our heritage. So we launched History Matters to assist communities, around the world, with historic restoration and preservation. Right now, just within the United States, there are more than 1.7 billion rare and unique books, periodicals, and scrapbooks in collections, at least 16%, 270,000,000, are endangered because of poor conservation. Of the 21,000,000 paintings, sculptures, and decorative art in those collections, 26%, 5,500,000, are threatened. Of the 4.8 billion artifacts held in public trust by more than 30,000 archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, scientific research collections, and repositories, over 65% report damage due to improper storage, another 53% note a danger from moisture, and 26% have no environmental controls to protect their collections from the effects of temperature and light. This sad reality is a crisis. History Matters is here to help. Elizabeth and I encourage any community who'd like our assistance to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What's next for Cotton Malone?
SB: He'll be back in 2010 with a sixth adventure, which will also mark the return of Cassiopeia Vitt. It's a great tale called THE EMPEROR'S TOMB.
© Copyright 2009, Steve Berry. All rights reserved.
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