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Interview: February 2, 2007

February 2, 2007

International bestselling author Steve Berry has made a name for himself writing thrillers based on unsolved historical mysteries, such as the true fates of Russia's last tzar in THE ROMANOV PROPHECY and the Knights Templar in THE TEMPLAR LEGACY. His latest novel, THE ALEXANDRIA LINK, revolves around the disappearance of the largest library in the ancient world.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Berry describes what first ignited his interest on the subject and shares theories behind the organization's unusual vanishing. He also discusses the advantages of writing a series with recurring characters, names some of the authors who have influenced his writing, and explains how penning novels has relieved the pressures of his "day job." What drew you to want to write a book with the Library of Alexandria, a repository of ancient knowledge that mysteriously vanished over a millennium ago, as its storyline?

Steve Berry: It was the grandest collection of knowledge in the ancient world: part university, laboratory, research institute and zoo. An impressive complex of buildings and gardens (situated in two separate locations), resembling a Greek temple, each with richly decorated lecture and banquet halls linked by colonnaded walks. Founded in the fourth century B.C.E., it lasted for 600 years, staffed by Greek scientists, philosophers, artists, writers and scholars, and containing a vast collection, over 700,000 scrolls and papyri. If any book was found aboard a ship that visited Alexandria, the law required it to be taken to the library and copied. And all that disappeared. Without a trace. What could be more fascinating? The perfect subject for a thriller. I've had an interest in the Library of Alexandria for years. Libraries themselves are fascinating. I currently serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Camden County library, so the institutions have a near and dear place in my heart.

BRC: THE ALEXANDRIA LINK puts forth one proposition as to the fate of the Library. Based on your own research, what do you think happened to it?

SB: There are three theories. One version holds that it burned when Julius Caesar fought Ptolemy XIII in 48 B.C.E. Caesar ordered the torching of the royal fleet, but the fire spread throughout the city and may have consumed the library. Another version blamed Christians who supposedly destroyed both the main library in 272 c.e. and the secondary one, in the Serapeum, in 391 --- part of their effort to rid the city of all pagan influences. A final account credited Arabs with the library's destruction after they conquered Alexandria in 642. The caliph Omar, when asked about books in the imperial treasury, was quoted as saying, "If what is written agrees with the Book of God, they are not required. If it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them." So for six months, scrolls supposedly fueled the baths of Alexandria. But no one knows which version is true. The more likely explanation is that, as Egypt was confronted with growing unrest and foreign aggression, the library simply became victim to persecution, mob violence and military occupation, no longer enjoying special privileges. As with so much that man creates, it simply faded away.

BRC: Is there one story that you can share with us about researching THE ALEXANDRIA LINK?

SB: Its inception was particularly special. In 2004, I was at an event in Camden, South Carolina, promoting THE ROMANOV PROPHECY, when the husband of my hostess asked if I'd ever heard of a man named Kamal Salibi. When I said no, he told me about three books Salibi had written, beginning in the late 1980s. Intrigued, we went back to his house and he showed me the books. I asked if I could borrow them and he graciously agreed. Though it was late and my mind was tired, that little voice inside my head was screaming, "There's a thriller here somewhere," and the voice was right. Three years later, that story materialized when I started writing THE ALEXANDRIA LINK. Recently, I went back to Camden and brought Ken one of the first editions of THE ALEXANDRIA LINK. Ideas truly do come at the strangest and most unexpected times.

BRC: What we loved about this book is that both the plot and the characters are fully developed and strong. Did you find that writing your second Cotton book was interesting as you were able to flesh out his character and relationships more thoroughly for readers?

SB: I did. But here's the rub: You can't assume readers of this book will have read THE TEMPLAR LEGACY (where Cotton is first introduced), so there's a certain amount of character development that has to be included with this new story. What recurring characters offer, though, is an ability to grow. Readers can learn more about their personalities as they face differing situations. Like old friends, the more you see them, the more you know about them. That's different from my first three novels, THE AMBER ROOM, THE ROMANOV PROPHECY and THE THIRD SECRET, which were all stand-alones. Cotton, himself, is a conflicted soul. He worked for the government as a Justice Department agent, but opted out early, tired of the risks. He has an ex-wife, a 15-year-old son, and problems we all experience everyday. He's the first character I've created with a lot of me in him. He talks, acts and thinks in many ways like me, though I wish I had as exciting a life as he gets to live.

BRC: The breadth of THE ALEXANDRIA LINK, both in terms of subject matter and locations, is breathtaking. How long did it take you from conceptualizing the book to completing the finished manuscript? Did it take longer than your previous novels? And can you walk us a bit through your timeline on this project --- research, writing, first draft, etc.?

SB: This one was normal --- about 18 months from first thought to finished manuscript, which includes 12 months of solid writing. I always start researching the next book while still working on the current one. I began the actual writing of THE ALEXANDRIA LINK in May 2005 and turned in the completed manuscript in June 2006. I constantly researched along the way, and I traveled to Portugal for some specific research on the abbey at Belem, which figures prominently in the story.

BRC: While THE ALEXANDRIA LINK is primarily a thriller, it contains numerous elements that pay homage to the mystery genre and provide an additional basis for the many suspenseful underpinnings of the story. Are there any specific mystery writers, either traditional or contemporary, who have influenced your work?

SB: David Morrell is, to me, the best thriller writer alive today. I learn so much from his books. He teaches me about story, craft and technique. In years past, I read his books like textbooks and I encourage all writers to check him out. Nobody does high concept better than Clive Cussler. I studied him closely to see how to meld many differing plot elements into a cohesive story. Of course, masters such as Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth taught me things, too, about suspense. THE DA VINCI CODE is a wonderful study in pacing, as is Allan Folsom's first book, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. You can learn so much from other writers.

BRC: THE ALEXANDRIA LINK is the second of your Cotton Malone novels. Your first three published works, on the other hand, were self-contained. We have heard that the next title is another Cotton Malone story. What can you share with us about this next book?

SB: Cotton Malone and his supporting cast of characters will return in 2008 for another adventure. I'm writing that book now, which will take Cassiopeia and Cotton into central Asia in search of another ancient artifact, one that's held my interest for many years. (How's that for being vague?)

BRC: Each of your novels has been based upon an unsolved historical mystery. Have you had any ideas for novels where you ran into a brick wall, in terms of access to research, and had to abandon --- however temporarily --- that idea in favor of another?

SB: Many times. THE ALEXANDRIA LINK started off much different than the finished product. A writer has to be flexible --- always prepared to abandon what's not working. I struggle with this on every novel, and it doesn't get any easier. I've found that rarely is the finished book even close to the original plot conception. This is the kind of thing that drives writers nuts.

BRC: You still have a full-time law practice. What made you decide to turn to writing as a vocation? What's the best part of writing, as opposed to the practice of law, as a vocation? And what is the worst part?

SB: I started writing international suspense thrillers as a way to escape the difficulties encountered in the practice of law. People come to lawyers for one reason, they have a problem (which is usually major), and it's the lawyer's job to solve it. That's a lot of pressure. You generally see people at their worst. So writing, for me, was an escape. For a few hours each morning I could journey off to a faraway place on an exciting adventure. But I also knew that I wanted to write for a New York house --- be a commercial fiction writer --- someone who entertained people with his stories. The best part, for me, is when someone likes my story. That's the finest compliment a reader can bestow. The worst part? When it fails. And it's that fear that keeps us sharp.