Next to death and taxes, humans loathe doubt most. Yet, toying with doubt makes for a thrilling time. The ecstasy of a roller coaster is in the doubt you’ll survive to ride again; in a novel, it’s will the hero triumph.
Secrets told by teenage girls reduce doubt as do urban legends told by teenage boys. Among adults, rumour and gossip reduce doubt. In the end, everyone feels secure and safe.
Novels that thrill, such as “The Columbus Affair,” create much doubt for the reader. What if revealing a 500-year-old secret as true meant violently re-shaping the world, today. How might such a story take place or end well?
Authors of thrillers, such as Steve Berry, above, build plots spiked with crushing doubt. About to take his own life, Tom Sagan, a disgraced reporter, agrees to rescue his daughter, who hates him. A harsh game of cat-and-mouse, against a callous villain, plays out, internationally.
For thirty years, Berry was a lawyer in St Mary’s, Georgia. In 1990, he began writing carefully researched historical, not legal, thrillers. “Write what you love,” says Berry, “not necessarily what you know: I love history.”
Persistence is his strength. “After 85 letters of rejection,” says Berry, “Little Random House published ‘The Amber Room,’ in 2003.” Now, he has four stand-alone novels, eight episodes in the Cotton Malone series and four e-books published.
“For each novel,” says Berry, “I read roughly 400 books.” His job is to find facts to blend into a fictional plot, seasoned with much action and sound guesswork. Was Columbus Jewish and did his 1492 journey have latent purpose: “I think so,” says Berry.
His latest novel, “The King’s Deception,” asks questions about Queen Elizabeth I. “It’s a taut game of hide-and-seek, set in the landmarks of London, that won’t disappoint readers,” says Berry. “This is the eighth episode in the Cotton Malone series.”
“I picked up the idea for the book while in England, in 2010.” A tour guide told him of a legend, dating to 1542. “I hadn’t heard of the event,” says Berry. “It was too good to resist.”
In each of his books, Berry challenges the reader to guess what comes next. Why does the anti-hero unexpectedly save the villain from quicksand? The catholic cleverness, of Berry, makes his novels a chess match, with the reader trying vainly to predict the next move, only to say, “Of course.”
Berry uses his fame well. He and his wife, Elizabeth, developed a writing workshop, given as part of events backed by his charity, History Matters. “Preservation of historical documents found in the home is our focus,” says Berry.
“There are millions of documents,” he says, “sitting in basements or attics, the ink fading. The Declaration of Independence has faded so much it's almost impossible to read.”
In this interview, Steve Berry discusses writing. Specifically, how he develops doubt and applies a salve. How he decides on book topics. How an agent, publisher and editor fulfill his needs as a writer.
Grub Street (GS) You have a new novel.
Steve Berry (SB) Yes, “The King’s Deception” published 11 June 2013. It’s number eight in the Cotton Malone series. Cotton took 2012 off, but is now back.
GS I’m not surprised. I needed a rest after reading “The Templar Legacy.” He must be weary.
SB I wrote “The Columbus Affair,” last year, as a stand-alone book, with a new set of characters, such as Tom Sagan and his twenty-something daughter, Alle. “Columbus” is the same fiction I write, with action, history, secrets, conspiracy and international settings, but a different set of characters and motivations.
Cotton returns in “The Kings Deception.” This story grounds in a curious legend about the Tudors and Elizabeth the First. Cotton is in England with his son, Gary. The story takes place over 36 hours.
GS What is the village?
SB It’s Bisley, in Cotswold, south of London. Elizabeth, my wife, and I were in Edy, a village north of London and an hour from Bisley. We were doing some work for my British publisher. As our guide showed us through a cathedral, she told us the legend.
On a certain day, each year, the residents of Bisley dress a young boy in an Elizabethan costume. They parade him through the streets. This practice supposedly began in 1542, only hours before Henry the Eighth arrived to visit his youngest daughter, Elizabeth.
I wondered how and why this it began. Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula,” wrote of this legend in “Famous Imposters.” I found a copy of his book, which stirred my interest even more. The more research I did, on this practice, the more I saw the potential for a novel.
“The King’s Deception” focuses on Elizabeth the First. She was unusual: heavy make-up, always, and wigs; clothing that didn’t flatter her body; she refused any medical examination; never married, proclaiming she was the Virgin Queen. She left orders for no autopsy and burial in the same grave as her sister, Mary, so their bones would mix.
The people of Bisley seemingly knew a secret about Elizabeth the First. Cotton Malone travels to England. He discovers why Bisley dressed a ten-year-old boy as a sixteenth century woman and displayed him, publically.
The story is different. It was interesting to write. Readers may decide the legend may well be true.
GS It’s cryptic.
SB Yes, but worth the wait, I promise. “I’ve never heard of such a legend.” Residents of Bisley and Edy told us about the legend; it’s a local story, which attracts tourists to Bisley and the area surrounding London.
GS When did you discover the legend?
SB My wife and I were in London, in April 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Although the weather was beautiful in London, sunny, cloudless skies and warm, no flights left for four days. I took the time to do more research on the Bisley legend.
I wrote the book in late 2011. Random House received it in fall 2012. June 2013 the book published.
GS Your first career was in law.
SB I was a lawyer for thirty years. I practiced in a small town, Saint Mary’s, Georgia, which is down on the Southeastern coast of Georgia. It’s as far south and east, as far as you can go, in Georgia; right above Jacksonville Florida.
GS St. Mary’s is a quaint town.
SB Yes, I was a street lawyer. Whatever legal business came in off the street, I handled it. I did much mundane legal work; St Mary’s is a small town. I did much litigation, too. Mainly, I was a trial lawyer, with a great many divorce cases.
I did criminal defense, contract litigation and personal injury. You name it. I did it for 30 years. While I was a lawyer, I also severed on the local school board and twelve years as a county commissioner.
I enjoyed public service. I enjoyed helping shape the Saint Mary’s community. It was a challenge and great fun.
In 2009, I quit practicing law; writing became my job. Writing grew into full-time. I didn’t set out for to happen.
Now, we, my family and I, live in Saint Augustine, Florida. We moved down here a couple of years ago. It’s a fine town.
GS You’re a history buff.
SB I read somewhere that all writers have to be readers. I love to read history. There’s no question about it.
When I began readings, as a child, history attracted me most. When I began reading adult fiction, “Hawaii,” by James Michener was first. He’s my favourite writer of all time.
To this day, I have a collection of Michener books. He mixes history with story and gives it an epic sweep. He hooked me from the start. It was great.
The books I write are thrillers that mix history with action, secrets, conspiracies and so forth. I’m not a historian. Nor am I trained as an historian, but I love doing historical research.
Researching each novel takes much time, roughly eighteen-months for each novel. Typically, my novels use four hundred sources. Yes, I read four hundred books on a particular subject, say, the Knights Templar or Christopher Columbus and so forth.
When you read four hundred books on one subject, you begin to see the conflicts in these books. One book claims this, another claims that. I came to realize how little we know about a topic. I explore the known and unknown in my novels.
Of the nuggets I extract out of four hundred sources, I use roughly twenty-five percent. I can’t use everything. I don’t write encyclopedias. I write thrillers to entertain. I have to select, carefully, what I include.
GS European history seems a favourite.
SB I like European history, but I also deal with Asian history in “The Emperor’s Tomb” and ancient history, in “The Alexandria Link” and “The Venetian Betrayal.” “The Columbus Affair” brought together Judaic, Jamaican and Eastern European history. “The Jefferson Key,” the 2014 book and the next Cotton Malone involve American history.
I want to do something in the South Pacific. Polynesians fascinate me, likely an influence of Mitchner. I would like to revisit Russia; I enjoyed dealing with Russian history in “The Romanov Prophecy.” Medieval and European history were my favourites; now, I like it all.
GS Have you considered a non-fiction book about the contradictions you find.
SB I never had the urge to write a non-fiction piece about what I research. Frankly, most of the subjects I deal with are in such conflict, I don’t where I might start. For Christopher Columbus, I used four hundred books meaning four-hundred different stories, potentially.
There’s almost no consistency across my sources. When researching “The Romanov Prophecy,” I found no uniformity about the events of the night of 17 July 1918, when Bolsheviks killed the family, near Yekaterinburg, Russia. Throughout the twentieth century, many women claimed to be Anastasia, a Romanov daughter. The claims were hard to corroborate and harder to deny for the lack of consistent evidence.
There’s no consistency in many or most of my source stories. I guess an article might address the extent of inconsistency. I’m not sure such an article would be of much interest; like counting negatives.
What I try to do, in my novels, is resolve the inconsistencies. I can play with the subject a bit. I can make educated guesses. I always put a note in the back of my books telling the reader where and what I guessed.
GS Is the sea of contradiction frustrating.
SB I’m used to it, now. In the beginning, when I was writing “The Romanov Prophecy,” I read the eyewitness accounts of what happened that night. It was as if every account was from a different a different location, in Russia, not only different witnesses. There is in Russian a saying, “He lies like an eyewitness,” which is true.
In telling different versions, these people were trying to save their lives; this was true in Bisley, in 1542, too. It was a mess. Eyewitnesses made it up as they went along. The eyewitness testimony was not much testimony, at all.
I made educated guesses from what I read. I learned how to guess. I come across so many inconsistencies that make no sense.
Every witness has a different opinion. They have different sources. They steal or borrow from one other; I read reports, say, and I think, “I read this before.”
Sources go back and forth. When I research three-to-four hundred books on one subject, I’m prone to catch the inconsistencies. I’m used to it, now. I make my guesses. I give it my best shot. I am writing fiction. I can twist it up, a little bit.
GS You started publishing shortly after “De Vinci Code” released.
SB Yes, I wouldn’t have a book published if it’s wasn’t for “De Vinci.” That book changed everything. Random House bought “De Vinci Code” and gambled big. Dan Brown had three unsuccessful books before “De Vinci.”
As I understand, the people at Random House sensed something new, fresh and different in “De Vinci.” They were right. Booksellers went crazy over it. A realization swept across Random House that this form of intricate fiction, then on life support, was ready for revival.
When publishers gamble, they’re doing their job. They place a bet on a good manuscript. They say, “We’re looking at it; we’re using our crystal ball and using our experience.” “We’re putting it all together; we think we have something here.” “Let’s give it a shot.” Today, the style is hot.
“De Vinci Code” is the biggest-selling fiction book of all time. You’re going to see again, this summer and fall, with “Inferno,” by Brown. It’s going to be a huge success.
The fiction I write, international thrillers passed away with the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, no publisher was buying this brand of fiction. Robert Ludlum, with many solid best-sellers under his belt, was okay, but there were few, if any, new authors writing such fiction.
GS I read sales for John le Carré spy novels wobbled, a lot.
SB Surely, I was trying to break in, in the 1990s, and it was near impossible. “De Vinci” brought that fiction back to life, in 2003, but in a different way. It came back, not as a spy novel, but as action, history, secrets, conspiracy and international settings. That was exactly what I was writing.
That’s why, on the eighty-sixth time my agent, Pam Ahearn, and I sent a manuscript to Mark Tavani, at Random House, he bought it. It’s timing. Ahearn and I happened to send a manuscript, “The Amber Room,” to Tavani, an editor at Random House, at exactly the moment the company realized “De Vinci Code” might be huge best-seller.
This was about a year before “De Vinci” published. Tavani said, “I want your book because it’s like “De Vinci Code.” Random House needed manuscripts to bootstrap on “De Vinci.” Response, from booksellers, was incredible.
Random House bought “The Amber Room” in May 2002, as it worked on “De Vinci.” In March 2003, “De Vinci Code” published. “The Amber Room” published in September 2003.
Dan Brown gave “The Amber Room” a wonderful blurb. He said, “My kind of thriller.” Those words helped promote “The Amber Room,” all over the world.
I was a fan of the first three books from Brown. He knew nothing of my writing. His blurb was thus even more thrilling for me.
The International Thriller Writers (ITW) exists, today, because Dan Brown resurrected and re-invigorated such fiction. Many successful writers, including me, have careers, today, because of “De Vinci Code.” It’s all about timing.
Whenever I go into a bookstore and pass a copy of the “De Vinci” Code, I stop and I bow. I say, “Thank you.” The “De Vinci” made my success possible. If it hadn’t been for The “De Vinci” Code, I doubt any publisher would have taken a second look at me.
GS Will “Fifty Shades of Grey” increase demand for erotic fiction.
SB That’s was the idea. It hasn’t happened, yet. “Fifty Shades of Grey” brought erotic fiction into mainstream, but it has not spun off other books as well as “De Vinci.” It is possible publishers aren’t as sure what to do with “Fifty Shades” as with “De Vinci.”
“Fifty Shades” is an anomaly. It’s trying to change the face of publishing. I hope it gives some writers a chance, but not yet.
GS Are your early manuscripts much the same fiction.
SB Yes. I adhere to the philosophy, “Do not write what you know, instead, write what you love.” If what you know and you love the same topic, then you’re in good shape. That’s the best advice.
For me, I was a trial lawyer and did various forms of law, civil and criminal. I saw some of the most horrible evidence you could imagine. I didn’t want to write about the law.
I love action, history, secrets, conspiracies, international settings and such. That’s my love. That’s what I read. That’s what I enjoy.
I gravitated and started writing novels involve history, secrets, conspiracies and action. I have a book series, with a lawyer as my protagonist, Cotton Malone. He’s my tribute to my profession.
Malone doesn’t do law. He’s a former agent for the government. I was fortunate how everything fell into place, in the Cotton Malone books. The series grew on each other. I could write for a living, thanks to Cotton Malone.
GS Norman Mailer said a writer grows by writing in different areas. Do you ever think of breaking from the mold that brings you so much success?
SB I might change, that’s possible. There’s nothing wrong with trying something different as long as I don’t give up on my bread and butter. I love what I write.
I love action, history, secrets, conspiracy and international settings. This is what I’ll always write. I might try a suspense thriller. I might write a legal thriller or a fantasy.
One day, trying a different topic and approach would be fun. This would be as well as what I write, not instead.
I’d like to try my hand at something, but the problem is time. I have three novels in my mind, always. I would have to figure out a way to fit it in where I could write a different novel, without interfering with my mainstay.
Time is the concern. It would be lovely to get to a point where I could write one of my Cotton Malone books or one of my international suspense thriller books, every two years. For now, I write a novel a year.
A change-up, of sorts, might be fun to try one year. It’s a good idea, but that’s not possible in the immediate future. I have to expand my current audience and I can’t do that with a new book, once every two years. It would be good to go to once every two years and then maybe I could try my hand in a little something else.
GS Did you receive eighty-five rejection letters for five manuscripts?
SB Yes, five different manuscripts, over twelve years and received eighty-five rejections. In 12 years, I wrote eight manuscripts. Five went to New York houses, rejected each time.
I wanted to be a commercial fiction writer. I wanted to write books for a New York publishing house. On my eighty-sixth submission, Ballantine Books, part of the Random House Publishing Group, accepted “The Amber Room.” That was the second time around for that manuscript.
I wanted to build an audience. I wanted to do exactly what I’m doing right now. I didn’t think it would be possible, but never gave up hope.
It’s almost impossible to carry out my goal. I was fortunate I could, eventually. I caught a few breaks.
Bobby Jones, the golfer, always said, “The harder he practiced the luckier he got.” That’s true about writing. As the time went on, I eventually caught a break or two I capitalized.
GS Is an agent necessary to publish with a major house.
SB Yes, almost no one can sell a manuscript to a New York house without an agent, anymore. It can happen. You can win the lottery too. It’s incredibly rare, these days.
Editors, at the major publishers, don’t have the time to develop writers and books, anymore. Agents are their gatekeepers; if an agent takes on a writer, it signals support from someone who knows publishing. Getting an agent is harder than getting a publisher, but it does happen.
I’m a living testimonial that it’s possible. I sent letters to four hundred agents. One took me, Pamela G Ahearn, of the Ahearn Agency.
Expect to contact three to four hundred agents or more. That’s typical. Today, it’s much tougher to find an agent than in 1995, when I connected with Ahearn. Still, writers find agents, all the time.
Today, there are routes to agents I didn’t have in 1995. At Thriller Fest, for example, there’s an Agents Fest. Sixty or more agents, from the New York City area, some of the top people, come looking for talent.
Agents Fest is akin to speed dating. Each author gets thee minutes to pitch a top agent. Fifteen to twenty pitches is typical. Every year, writers sign with agents at Agents Fest.
GS Your productivity is impressive.
SB So far, I’ve written four stand-alone novels: “The Amber Room,” “The Romanov Prophecy,” “The Third Secret” and “The Columbus Affair.” There’s the “Cotton Malone” series, starting with “The Templar Legacy.” In June 2013, the newest Cotton Malone novel, “The Kings Deception,” published; that’s the eighth title in the series.
GS That’s a dozen novels since 2003.
SB Yes and four e-books of original short stories are also available. The fourth e-book, “The Tutor Plot,” published in May 2013. The e-books whet your appetite for the novel that’s coming. We use the e-books for the pre-publication campaign.
GS Do you have any idea how many copies of your books are available.
SB I think the number is fifteen million books in print, around the world, in fifty-one counties and forty languages. It’s kewl. I have to pinch myself sometimes. Each book is a long time for me, looking back; it’s great.
GS Have you published or revisited any of your original seven manuscripts.
SB Yes, of the five manuscripts I sent Random House, three published. Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, published “The Amber Room,” “The Romanov Prophecy” and “The Third Secret.” The other two manuscripts, I cannibalized, heavily for use across all the other novels. I’ve used about eighty percent of the words in those early manuscripts. I tell writers all the time, never throw your work away.
GS How do you approach writing?
SB I never try to write what I think will sell. That idea took root in me a long time ago. I pass it along to those who take my workshops.
Write what’s inside you. Write what you love. Don’t try to predict what readers want, that’s impossible. Write for yourself. Readers will find your work.
Unfortunately, that advice does not apply, much, once you become a commercial fiction writer for a huge publishing house. The publisher needs to anticipate what your audience wants. The writer must find and built an audience, which hungers for more of what she or he offers.
The book business is similar to elections. Not everybody will vote for any political candidate; that’s not democracy. Only supporters, of some sort, vote for a candidate. Winning an election means getting your supports to the poles. I must get readers to booksellers, to vote for, to buy my books.
A writer builds an audience, a following. Ideally, his or her following grows a little more with each new book. The task is to keep the audience, readers, engaged.
For me, if I’m not careful, I can lose my audience, often many at once. A weak book may encourage readers to drift elsewhere to find what they need. I can’t write the same book, repeatedly; each book must be part the same, part different.
GS Seems as a rolling Venn diagram. Finding the balance, of same and different is difficult, I suspect.
SB That’s the trick. It’s difficult. In my case, the historical parts change, radically, from book to book. Cotton Malone, in that series, provides some continuity.
My books are the same to the extent the reader gets action, history, secrets and conspiracy, mostly in international settings. My books differ because each time it’s a new adventure, with a new historical angle, say, Henry the Eighth or Christopher Columbus, new motivations and new relations associated in the story and its telling.
GS That’s great for the reader.
SG Yes, the reader gets a great experience, different but similar. It’s tough for me, as I have to create each one of those stories and write it. This makes pulling the facts together a bit stressful.
GS How do you decide what to write?
SB To start, I meet with my publisher, Gina Centrello, Mark Tavani, my editor, and Simon Lipskar, my agent. I pitch book ideas. They offer comments, suggestions and advice.
Usually, I suggest three or four ideas that interest me. The pitch is a few words, a sentence or two. Someone says, “No, I don’t like that.” Someone else says, “No. No. Wait a minute. That one’s interesting.”
In 2010, after my trip to London, I pitched the idea for “The King’s Deception.” The legend made for a good story. After some discussion, all agreed to go ahead with that idea.
When we find a book idea everyone likes, we try to flush it, take a fuller look. I am not going to write a book no one wants to publish. Nor is Centrello going to make me write a book I don’t want to write.
We look for a compromise. Luckily, we’re all patient and, I guess, smart enough, not to fight. Everyone wants a success.
I pitched “The Columbus Affair” in 2009, I think. The international seasoning was what Centrello and Tavani needed. We liked the reasoned speculation possible in that novel.
Our goal, in deciding what I’ll write about, is finding what interests my audience. For now, we agreed on ideas for the next three years, through 2016. We’re in good shape.
Deciding on the topic for the next three year is a collaborative effort, figuring out what interests the audience, tomorrow. Here is what’s tricky; tomorrow is two years from now. The book business stays years ahead.
I’ve been fortunate, in the last few years. We guessed correctly each time. I hope my run of luck continues.
GS How do you get on with your Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House?
SB Our relations are good. Centrello takes an active part in choosing topics for my books. Her ideas and advice are good.
GS Are there book ideas you wanted to follow, but Centrello or Mark Tavani, your editor, didn’t?
SB Sometimes, Centrello or Tavani may think my idea isn’t fresh or new enough. Other times, my idea might be too much or too little. Mostly, Centrello and Tavani are right.
I don’t discard their ideas. I put those ideas aside, as one or another might become useful later. Maybe an idea that wasn’t new enough for a full novel might plug a hole in another book.
Centrello didn’t care much about my idea for 2016. I found a way to fix the idea and she loved it. That’s how we work: collaborate for compromise.
We always find a comprise point. “Jefferson Key” was the first domestic adventure of Cotton Malone; previous stories, in the series, were in overseas settings. I wanted to write a domestic adventure for Malone. Centrello and Tavani said, “No,” as early as 2007.
Gina Centrello wanted to keep Malone international. I didn’t agree, but I didn’t argue, much. Finally, Centrello agreed to “The Jefferson Key.”
In 2010, the domestic idea was more palatable, made more sense. “The Jefferson Key” was successful. The timing was perfect. If we had done it earlier, I don’t think it would have been as good of a book or sold as well.
Centrello, Tavani and Random House are in the book business. Centrello offers insight about what might sell, well; what it can market. I must trust her instincts.
The people at Random House know how to assemble a book, how to think about story in a way that’s most likely to sell. I trust Centrello and Tavani; their judgment is good. Together, we make it happen. I have come to depend on our collaboration.
GS You brainstorm ideas, with your publisher, editor and agent. What is the next step?
SB I do a book a year. The great part, about a book a year, is Random House pays me for a book year. The down side is I must constantly juggle three books in my mind.
Right now, I’m writing for 2014. I’m writing as fast as I can. I need to finish by summer 2013.
I’m plotting, researching and preparing to write 2015. I did the preliminary research for 2015. I start writing 2015 the day after I finish 2014.
I’m also thinking about and starting to prepare for 2016. I start writing that book the day after I finish 2015. Sometime in 2015, we’ll likely start thinking about future books.
GS Centrello approved your book ideas that far in advance.
SB Yes, we worked out books through 2016. Once the people at Random House give approval, I start researching the book. I need to stay far ahead because of the research involved in my novels.
There’s a huge bookshop not far from my home. For thirty years or so, I’ve used this bookshop. It’s a wonderful place.
This bookshop has a huge history section. I troll the shelves. I buy every book available on a particular topic, say, Columbus or the Tudors. I buy boxes of books.
This is the way the research goes, book after book. I have research, here, on the shelf, for 2014, 2015 and 2016. When I tire of working on 2014, I take a break, for a few hours or a day, by researching 2015.
GS Have you considered writing a novel that’s less dependent on research and more on plot.
SB I often think it would be kewl, one time, to write a book where I think plot, mostly. That would be interesting. I’ve not done that. I always have so much research material I must merge into the action.
It would be neat, I think, to write a more plot-driven story, once, but that’s not a Steve Berry book. My novels must be the same, but different. I can’t be too different, as I mentioned earlier.
GS You start with an idea. What sense of plot do you have at this point?
SB I may have some sense of a plot, but not a general plot outline. When I pitch, I suggest an outline of the story. I have bulleted points. I can say we’re going to have this or that. We’re going to go Copenhagen, first, then to Austria, ending in Jamaica.
In “The Columbus Affair,” Columbus is Jewish. No one knew about that, at the time, but we know now. It makes a difference, today, and carries the story along.
I have Jamaica and the Maroons involved, too. There’s Prague, the old city, the Jewish cemetery. I find an historical linking of Prague and the lost gold mine of Columbus in Jamaica.
I mix history and myth with truth. The story pulls together. Then I write about why it matters that Columbus was Jewish.
In my case, here’s what happens. When I’m roughly half way a new manuscript, my editor, Mark Tavani, and my agent, Simon Lipskar, at Writers House, read it. Everyone knows the draft is rough and incomplete.
They aren’t reading it for quality, at this point. They’re reading it for substance and development, characterization, motivation and so forth. Half way, it’s much easier to correct flaws than in a full draft of the book.
Not long ago, I filed a half-draft of my 2014 novel. Tavani and Lipskar agreed the pacing wasn’t on mark. The manuscript dragged in some places. I needed to pick up the pace, a bit, in the first 120 pages.
I made the necessary changes. It’s much easier to perform surgery on half the manuscript. I kept going. When I finished the manuscript, Tavani and Lipskar read it, again, and suggested more changes.
Again, I needed to fix flaws, but, mostly, I’m working on the second half of the draft. When I finished re-working the full manuscript, Tavani and Lipskar will read it again. They’ll have more suggestions about what to change.
Following another re-write, they read the manuscript again. By this point, I’ve read it sixty to seventy times; Tavani and Lipskar have it three times. Still, they will want changes.
Sometimes I’m lucky. There is only one set of changes. I make those changes.
Once Mark Tavani has the final full draft, he starts to worry about how the story, context and writing work. He goes through the manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line. Then he returns it to me. I incorporate his changes.
Finally, the manuscript goes back to Tavani. I’m done with that manuscript. I’m onto the next one.
Whether I accept his final edits is another matter; often, there are edits with which I don’t agree. I accept maybe three-quarters of what my editor suggests. I must stick to my style.
I don’t maliciously decline to make some edits. I do it because my style is my style. His style may be different. Still, I usually take three-of-four suggestions made by Tavani.
GS There’s the collaboration and compromise part.
SB Yes, I’ve come to rely on the expertise of my editor. Active involvement, by the editor, in the story, plotting and character development is important. A developmental editor provides another of eyes. He or she may re-arrange a manuscript for the better.
I’ve come to depend working this way. I like this critical route. I like their suggestions. I go with most of what Tavani and Lipskar suggest.
GS There’s criticism and there’s criticism.
SB Yes, I think “Don’t do this” may be more important than “You did this well.” If a writer only hears compliments, there’s not much possibility of improving her or his work. Only fair and reasonable criticism, analysis, improves writing. This is what Mark Tavani does, well.
GS What happens when you hand over the final draft of a new book?
SB I start writing on the next book.
At Random House, my editor, Mark Tavani, is hands on; he line edits my manuscript, word-by-word. I think that’s the job of an editor. All editors should edit their writers, line-by-line, word by word.
The next step is production. This takes a long time. It is one reason we, Tavani, Lipskar and I, work at least one year ahead of the release date.
GS How many different editors have you worked with?
SB Just one, that’s Mark Tavani. He’s with me each of my books. I am a rare case in publishing.
I have the same editor, same marketing people, same publicist, same publisher and the same everyone. This team has lasted ten years, a decade. Everyone has received a promotion, over the years. All stayed with Random House.
My editor was 24-years-old when we began working together. Tavani, a newly minted college graduated, decided my entire life, as a writer. When I met Tavani, he was an associate editor, an intern of sorts. Today, he’s the Senior Editor for Fiction at Little Random House, a huge imprint of Random House. His rise, up the ranks, grounds in his talent.
GS How many books does Little Random House publish a year?
SB That’s a good question. The answer is a great many; more than I know. Random House is the largest publisher in the world. A German entertainment conglomerate owns Random House.
I think Little Random House publishes more than one thousand books a year. If you consider all the divisions and imprints, of Random House, in the USA and internationally, the number of books published skyrockets.
In late 2012, Pearson merged its Penguin division with Random House, giving the combined publisher roughly one-quarter of the consumer book market. Little Random House, from a merger of Little Brown and Random House, is larger than are all other publishers, together, not counting Random House. Gina Centrello does a great job, as president and publisher of the Random House Publishing Group.
Centrello started as a copy editor at Pocket Books. Ten years later, she was running that imprint for Simon and Schuster. Centrello brought me to Random House.
GS You’re self-disciplined.
SB Practicing law and writing call for much self-discipline. Writing is discipline. This is what I teach in the workshop all the time.
Writing is discipline, not an obsession. Writers can’t become obsessed with writing. Writers must train themselves to adhere to a set of rules he or she develops, such as working for so many hours or so many pages, each day.
Writers must set a side time, every day, to write; at least five days a week. Writers have to sit down, each day, to write something, even if she or he pitches it out the next day. This is how a story forms, through the familiarity of a daily routine.
Writers must write the words. Writers must edit the words. Writers must go at writing in a disciplined way. No discipline means limited chances of success.
Every successful writer has self-discipline. Hemingway, as wild and crazy as he was, had a disciplined routine he followed, when he wrote. Every writer does. He or she must stick to writing, every day. It’s a job, an occupation and a career.
In the practice of law, it’s much the same. Self-discipline is most important. There is meticulousness to the law, much as there is to writing.
I was fortunate with writing and the law. I went to Catholic school, taught by nuns. Nuns stressed self-discipline.
The nuns wanted us to work, meet deadlines and offer no excuses. They didn’t accept excuses. I learned from them during those years of how to apply myself.
I was fortunate when I started to write that I understood the notion of self-discipline. I’ve stuck to that, to this day. I write five days a week, as I’ve always done.
No one has to make me do it. I come in, sit down and write, even when I don’t feel like it. I do what I have to do. That’s part of the job; you must apply yourself.
In our workshops for writers, Elizabeth, my wife, and I try to impress, on new writers, how ninety percent of all writers do not finish what they start. That’s a terrible misfortune.
We encourage those who take our workshops not to quit. Keep going until you’re done. That’s discipline.
Law taught me a great deal. You can’t just say, “I’m sorry judge, I don’t feel like it today. I’m going home. I’m just not up to it today.” That won’t fly. You have to get yourself up, into the courtroom, rev your engine and do your job.
Writing is much the same. Self-discipline is the key. I was lucky to pick up such traits in law.
GS You write five days a week.
SB When I was practicing law, I went to work at 6:30 am and wrote until 9 am. All the books that publishers rejected, seven, in all, I wrote while I practiced law. During that time, I learned to write, like it or not, felt well or not, until 9 am, Monday to Friday.
My schedule is to write, Monday to Friday, like it or not, to finish the next book. Saturday or Sunday, if I felt like writing, I did. If nothing special going on, I’d write. There was always something special going, with the children and so forth. Weekend writing was rare.
GS Most people can barely make oatmeal at 6:30 in the morning.
SB I’m a morning person. I do my best writing or any work from 6:30 am to 2 pm. After 2 pm, I’m fried; my productivity falls off, fast. Others may write seven days a week.
I play to my strength. I know other writers that don’t start until 2 pm. They may write until midnight.
William Deal, who wrote “A Pilgrim Who Made Progress,” among other great novels, wrote from 11 pm until 4 am; that’s when he did his best work. A writer needs to find when his or her brain peaks, then set up a routine to match. That’s how you make it work: always play to your strengths.
GS What tips can you offer about dialogue in a novel?
SB Dialogue in a book is simple, as it isn’t real. No one, in real life, talks as do characters in a novel. No one has the perfect answer to the question, the perfect response, every time, at the exactly the moment needed.
In a book, you have to get to the point. Thus, it’s fake. It’s not real.
GS Is genuine dialogue in a novel possible.
SB Sure, you can do that, but it likely won’t work. I spend an hour on dialogue in our writing workshop, talking about these ideas. The best dialogue is indirect.
Here are examples of direct dialogue.
“What are you doing today?”
“I called this writer from Florida and I asked him questions?”
“Did he answer them?”
“What are you going to do after that?”
“I’m going to go here and do this and that.”
Is that boring or what? I asked you a question. You gave me an answer. If I ask, in a novel,
“What are you going to do today?”
Your response might be, “I told you not to ask me again. I told you, yesterday, not to ask me and I’m telling you now not to ask me that. I don’t want to tell you want I’m going to do today.”
The question answered in an indirect or slanted way, not direct way. I also got your attention, because you go, “Wow, what’s going on here.”
I showed you conflict. I showed you character. I showed you many types of information with a simple, roundabout answer.
That’s what I strive for in dialogue. I want the dialogue to be as indirect as I can; it needs to be vague, without being opaque. I must keep the reader interested, engaged, all the way through.
That’s dialogue. It is not a legal deposition or Socratic. I don’t ask one question and you answer. For example,
“Is Rabbi Berlinger dead?”
“Did someone kill him?”
“Did you kill him?”
The worst error you can make, in a novel, is use depositional dialogue.
“Is Rabbi Berlinger dead?”
“The cleaning woman found his body, after Simon left.”
I spend much time writing concise dialogue. I choose every word with great care. In a novel, there isn’t much space for small talk. When thriller writers get together, their conversations are right to the point.
GS Are you friends with anyone else who is a repeating best-selling author.
SB Sure, I know many best-selling authors. I’m a founding member of International Thriller Writers (ITW), which includes two thousand thriller writers, around the world. I served as co-president, of ITW, for three years. Currently, my wife, Elizabeth, is executive director of ITW. We know many thriller writers. I’ve worked with many of them closely.
GS When you get together, even over e-mail, say, do you talk business?
SB Sure we talk about writing all the time. If one of us runs into plotting problems, say, the others help. Someone will call and say, a plot issue has stopped him or her, in their tracks. We work on how to solve the problem. Where does the plot or character need to go? How do I find a way to solve his or her problem? We can usually figure it out, on the phone, say; we trust each other.
A problem, with my 2015 novel, came up a couple of weeks ago. I got help, right away. That help got me out of a mess, right away. It strikes me, how I can’t get a handle on a problem I face, when writing a novel, but someone else can find a solution, for me, easily.
GS Conversely, too, I suspect.
SB Yes and there’s no stealing or such. Nobody would even dream of plagiarizing another author. We want to help each other and do.
I don’t have a jealous bone in my body. I’m not jealous of anybody. I want to learn.
Do I want to match, follow the footsteps and be as good as some of these folks? I do. Do I want to learn from them? Yes, I do. Still, I’m not jealous of anybody at all. We want to make our own success in our own way. I want to further my own style.
If I can help my friends, it’s great. They feel like same way. Thriller writers are giving individuals.
Every year, writers of thrillers get together, in New York City, at Thriller Fest. It’s a great gathering, every July, and it’s open to the public. We have about nine hundred people come, about three hundred writers. We hang around at the Grand Hyatt for five days and talk thrillers. It’s much fun.
GS When is Thriller Fest set for 2013?
SB It starts on 10 July and runs through 13 Jul. This year it’s at the Grand Hyatt, 42nd and Grand Central Terminal, in New York City. There are author and fan categories as well as event registration.
GS Thriller Fest is a great idea, but I have the impression some writers don’t want to meet other writers.
SB Whatever works. Writing is discipline. Every writer must find the discipline that works for her or him.
Some writers want isolation; others do not. I like to be in my own world, most of the time, when I’m writing. I also like to contact other writers.
I need to hear what other writers and readers have to say. Everyone has his or her own view. I don’t mind criticism. Part of my discipline is I like criticism. I learned the craft of writing through a critical route, so it doesn’t bother me. Each writer must do whatever works for her or him.
GS When you were first writing, trying to publish, when you were pitching, was your intention to become a best-selling author or were you just thinking, “I’ll be happy if I get one book published?”
SB No, my goal was to be a commercial fiction writer for a New York City publishing house. I wanted to write books, on a consistent basis, and build an audience. I wanted to do exactly what I’m doing right now.
That’s the most difficult goal any writer can set for himself or herself. The odds of realizing my goal, being a success, are slim. I knew this from day one
As I said, for me, it was a twelve-year struggle to my first published novel. Now, it is ten years publishing, building, slowly, one book at a time. If I have a setback, I must work harder to make up ground and rebuild.
Nothing has exploded or imploded. It’s been a slow steady growth. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write books, on a consistent basis.
GS Did you believe you could make a living writing?
SB I don’t know. That’s even more difficult. A writer can write commercial fiction from his or her kitchen table. Making living writing, that’s another goal. I was fortunate; it worked out for me.
I was content to practice law and write books; that was an okay way to achieve my goal. I was fortunate. Writing grew to the point I had to choose: law or writing. I tell writers, all the time, that, you must have a goal.
GS What’s your take on self-publishing?
SB If your goal is only to see your name on a cover of a book, that’s easy: self-publish whatever you want. If your goal is to sell a handful of copies, to your family and friend, that’s easy, too. If your goal is to build an audience, that’s difficult.
If you’re going to build a national audience, routinely, that’s much more difficult. If you’re going to build a national and an international audience, routinely, that’s hardest of all. A writer must set up a goal and choose one of many paths to realizing that goal.
I picked my goal and my path. I stuck walked that path, day and night. I caught a break. I write to a national and international audience, year in and year out.
GS What has surprised, as a writer?
SB I don’t know about surprise. My route to today was slow. Surprises were rare.
I had time to study the industry and talk with people. I was fortunate for ITW, where I meet writers, ahead of me in the curve. That is, authors who have been through many ordeals. I picked their brains and learned.
Publishing is a tough business. It’s a hard business and it’s getting tougher every day. The shift to e-books, such as Kindle versions of my novels, is changing publishing, dramatically.
The rules are changing by the day, too. I must be adaptable. I have to be ready to move on a change, with little notice.
Imagination remains important. A writer must be bold. Sometimes, though, you have to be conservative. I find I must sit back and let something come to me.
It’s hard to make those calls. I guess being a trial lawyer helped, a little bit. Writing is much like a trial.
A trial progresses by the hour and changes by the second. My job was to adapt, based on my preparation. I had to prepare enough that I’d be ready for any change that came along; adaptability was the key.
I spent much time studying the business of publishing and keeping up with it. I try for good decisions. I’m lucky I have an excellent agent Simon Lipskar; he’s a smart man. I had a smart lady-agent before, Pamela G Ahearn, of the Ahearn Agency; she, too, was excellent. I’ve had two good agents. They looked after me. I also have a good publisher.
GS Did you get the agent, first.
SB No, I wrote four manuscripts before I found an agent in the middle 1990s, when Pam Ahearn took me on. Why she took me, I have no clue, but she stuck with me for seven years and all of those rejections. Eventually, she was there when I sold the “The Amber Run.”
GS How do you like the marketing and promotion you must do to sell books?
SB I’m not a marketer. That’s not my expertise. Still, I learned how to market books.
I learned what works and what doesn’t work. I learned what I must avoid, such as five months on the road, promoting a book, and what I need to seek, such as balance of writing, promoting, family, workshops and History Matters. Experience has taught me to take part, as actively as I can, in marketing.
Again, luckily, I have Simon Lipskar, my agent. He takes care of marketing, ensuring all works, well. Random House does a good and creditable job marketing my books.
GS Did you name the antagonist, in “The Columbus Affair,” for your agent.
SB Yes, Zachariah Simon is homage to my agent.
Promotion I must do, myself. I’m on the road, always, for a new book. In years past, I was on the road, promoting a book, for about four to five months of the year. Now, we do three months year.
I cut back on the travel. I choose promotional events carefully. Yet, it does take a toll.
I enjoy doing promotional events. I enjoy going out and meeting readers, talking with them and answering their questions. I don’t like it five months of the year, that’s the point.
Three months is plenty. When a new book releases, I always tour coast to coast, with ten to twelve stops.
GS It is necessary, especially for a new author, to build a following in the social media before filing a manuscript.
SB Yes, today, I think so. When I got into writing and publishing, there was no Facebook or Twitter. There were e-books. There was no online marketing, Internet marketing.
As recently as the middle 1990s, it was print media. Print and radio were the prime media for promoting a book and, maybe, bus boards. That’s changed. The entire way you market a book and promote a book is now social media, first.
GS Do you think marketing and promotion a priority for writers.
SB I tell writers not to fret marketing and promotion before you write your book. Your job is to write the best book you can. Once the book sells to a publisher, you can start worrying about marketing and promotion.
Writers must worry their craft, first. Worry the story. Worry the characters.
Once the book sells to a publisher, the writer has up to a year to prepare for marketing and promotion. A perceptive writer will troll social media after a publisher buys his or her manuscript. There’s plenty of time to work the social media, once the manuscript sells.
Writers must attend to some tasks. Most likely, a writer must spend some money on his or her book. The publisher may not market and promote the book as much as the writer likes.
I spent ten thousand dollars promoting “The Amber Room,” my first published novel. I travelled the country, on my own dime. I got myself into every book festival I could.
Touring, I built solid relations booksellers, readers, the media. I worked as hard as I could to set up name recognition. “The Amber Room” sold well. “The Romanov Prophecy” sold more copies.
Random House began to do more marketing and promotion for my books. As a writer becomes more successful, the publisher does more for him or her because it sees the profit potential. It’s economics.
The writer writes the best book he or she can. The best book gives the author a fighting chance to sell well. Again, write the book, first, and dive into marketing and promotion after the manuscript sells to a publisher.
GS What do you hope writers take away from your books?
SB Writers are readers, but there’s a distinction.
SB I want readers entertained; my number one job is to entertain. I also hope readers develop a greater interest in the topic of my book. If the reader thinks my book is a kewl story that provokes some small need to learn more about Prague or the south of France, I did my job.
I hope writers read my books and recognize how each develops in a solid way. Respect for the view and the plotting makes sense. I hope they see the characterizations and motivations, the crucibles of the characters are in place.
I adhere to the craft of writing. I want writers to see I wrote the book in a way that works. Maybe a writer might learn something from reading my books. Maybe I provoke them to write something or want to try something.
When I read other writers all the time, I look for their style. I learn from their craft. I’ve read every David Morrell novel, say, “Desperate Measures,” as a textbook. I learned my craft from reading Morrell.
GS You mentioned self-publishing, can we talk about that a bit more.
SB Sure, this choice is similar to the sales pitch for lottery tickets. If you buy a lottery ticket, if you buy enough such tickets, you’ll win one million dollars, eventually. No, you won’t; winning has nothing to do with how many tickets you buy.
It’s the same in the book buying business. It has nothing to do with the fact you wrote a book and it’s available for sale. There’s much more involved, such as goals.
Writing and publishing is about goals. Self-publishing may be the way to fulfill some goals. If the goal, for your writing, is for notice far beyond your family and friends, self-publishing won’t work.
To realize this larger goal, you need to find a way for a traditional publisher to buy the manuscript. Once in a long while, someone self-publishes a best-selling book, such as “Term Limits,” by Vince Flynn; still, you can count on one hand the number of times it happens. For every one that happens, there are ten or twenty thousand times that it doesn’t happen: the odds are horrible against you.
If a writer wants to write commercial fiction, successfully, and build an audience, the old-fashion way works best and most often. Put the manuscript together. Pitch it; put it out there, find an agent.
If an agent takes you on, that shows your potential. Agents are particular about who they pick as clients. Everyone, agents most of all, want winners.
If no traditional publisher wants to publish your book and your agent thinks you have a worthwhile product, self-publishing might work. Be ready, though, to spend ten thousand dollars or more. You need a good editor and cover design, high quality type setting, marketing and promotion help. The list of what it takes to get a book into stores is long.
If you take all these steps, you might have a slim chance for your book to sell. I meet many writers who say, “I’m just going to put it out there myself and see what happens.” What happens is nothing.
You’re going to find much frustration and anger. You’re going to quit. That’s what ninety percent of self-published authors do, they quit.
What’s the result; not much, I think. I encourage writers to be intelligent about self-publishing; it’s useful, if you know what you’re doing. Most self-publishers don’t know what they’re doing.
GS You have a history-related charity.
SB History Matters is a foundation Elizabeth, my wife, and I started four years ago. As we traveled all over the country, we noticed there’s little, if any, historic preservation anymore. There’s no money, I guess. There may be no interest.
Yet, there is so much available material. There are millions of artifacts, documents and buildings, wasting away. Most of what’s available, what’s of interest, is rotting in basements or attics.
We were out in Oregon, not long ago. A museum curator told me something shocking: “There are millions and millions of pages of documents and archives all over America; every second of every day ink fades off each page.” You can’t ever read those words, again.
That affected me, strongly. If you’ve been to the national archives and seen the Declaration of Independence, it’s shocking. It’s nearly gone. You can barely read anything on the pages. It’s fading away. I thought, “Wow, what are we missing? What are we losing?”
This is why we created History Matters. Over the last four years, we did sixty projects. We raised a half a million dollars for various historical preservation projects around the country.
We do about four-to-six History Matters projects a year. We helped the PT Barnum Museum, historic cemeteries and other museum buildings. We did the Lincoln Log Cabin, helped the Smithsonian Institution and the rare book room at the Library of Virginia. We did a few other libraries, too.
We go at these projects in various ways. I may speak at a fund-raising dinner. My wife and I may give a writing workshop; I do three and one-half hours, Elizabeth does the final half hour. The money goes to one or another project. We don’t take any expense money. We pay to do these events.
The writing workshops are intense. In three hours, workshop participants learn what it took me twelve years to assimilate. I whittle it down, finely.
Some of those who took the workshop found publishers. A few did remarkably well. The workshops are a gratifying experience and successful.
GS You don’t recover your costs for doing these projects.
SB It costs me money. Money is always an issue. When we set up a History Matters project, the local organizers say, “We want to make a big deal for you. We want to do this for you.” They want to pay us for our time and expense.
I say, “No, this has nothing to do with me. This is all about your library or restoring important historical documents. I’m coming to teach a workshop, to speak at your dinner or lunch, to help you. I want to talk with people about books and historic preservation. The idea is to raise money for you, not me.”
I pay to attend the event. I want to make it as successful as possible. The money the organizers invest, the money I invest, I want used in the right ways. I want and get a good return from it.
I always have a hard time trying to tell the organizers I’m there for them. On one project, the organizers went out of their way to make the event elaborate for me. I finally had to say, “No; quit doing that.”
Celebrating me is not the point. The idea is to maximize the dollars raised for the project. Elizabeth and I choose projects carefully because I pay to go. We want to make sure when we invest and when we go, we’re going to get a good return for the project.
GS You mentioned History Matters helps restore cemeteries.
SB Yes, we recently helped restore two cemeteries: thee Oakland Cemetery, in Atlanta, Georgia, and City Cemetery, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Many old cemeteries are fragile. Elizabeth and I understand the importance of preserving and restoring these parts of American history.
The Oakland Cemetery is an island of tranquillity in the heart of Atlanta. It is two hundred years old, on the National Register of Historic Place and is a Landmark District for Atlanta. It needs much restoration; our workshop raised money for maintenance and restoration.
A hurricane devastated City Cemetery, in Raleigh, North Carolina, a few weeks before we gave a workshop. Downed trees were everywhere. It looked like a war zone. We raised some money for the cleanup.
We also helped raise money for the duBignon Cemetery, in Jekyll Island, Georgia. It was in great need of restoration. Destroyed markers and extensive erosion called for much funding. We raised money to help that effort, too.
History Matters helps museum buildings, documents and books. For the Smithsonian Institution, we did adopt a book programme. We helped save four rare books.
GS You work with the Smithsonian Institution a great deal.
SB I’m on the advisory board for Smithsonian libraries. Each museum around the country has a library attached. The library is the research arm of the Smithsonian. If you research, at the Smithsonian, you most likely use one of its libraries.
The board helps manage and run the libraries. It’s an honour. I started in January 2013. Before joining the board, I did a History Matters event for the Smithsonian. In April 2013, I did an American Library Association (ALA) event at the Smithsonian.
It’s an honour to work with the Smithsonian. It’s always been a dream of mine to do that. Another goal achieved through writing.
GS Tell me about your work with the American Library Association.
SB My efforts focus on National Preservation Week. It’s a way to bring attention to book preservation, especially in the home. Most of us have books and papers, around our homes, historical pictures, mementos and so forth.
These artifacts are important to people, sentimental, but seldom preserved, properly, or prepared to survive bad weather, such as hurricane Sandy. As extreme weather is more common and more threatening, preservation, in the home, draws more attention.
I did a related event at the Smithsonian in April 2013. Curators, from across American, gathered in Washington. The public could bring books, documents, maps and so forth to the Smithsonian Institution. The curators talked about how to preserve whatever people brought.
I spoke at the event. I felt honored they asked me; I did all they asked. It was an interesting part of Preservation Week.
GS Do you read for fun.
SB A little bit, yes, I do. I use to read four or five books a month. Now, I read eight or ten books a year. There’s not much time to read for fun anymore.
GS What do you read for fun?
SB I’m a thriller junkie. I read thrillers. I’ll pick one up, every once in a while, and start reading.
There are certain authors I like to read. James Mitchner, who wrote “The Covenant” and “Hawaii,” is my favourite author; I read all of his stuff. I read David Morrell, author of “Rambo” and “Murder is a Fine Art,” among others.
Morrell is productive and does a great job. He’s likely the greatest living thriller writer I would know. I learned much about writing from the books by David Morrell.
Lee Child, who wrote the Jack Reacher series, such as “The Killing Floor,” his first novel, or “One Shot,” his most recent novel, is another favourite. Clive Cussler is the master of high concept. He writes the NUMA Files and Dirk Pitt series.
I learned about high concept reading Cussler. Pacing I picked up from Dan Brown. In 1988, “The Eight,” written by Katherine Neville, published; from her book, I learned how to blend the ingredients of a thriller.
GS Even reading for fun, you learn.
SB Yes and I miss reading for fun. Now, I’m juggling three books in my mind, at one time. Sometimes, I must put the research aside and read another writer. There isn’t much time anymore, though.
GS The Spirit of Ann Frank Awards gave you its Human Writes Award for 2013.
SB Yes, the award took me by surprise. It’s an annual award for books dealing with Jewish issues, in a particular way. “The Columbus Affair” deals with the fact Columbus was Jewish.
GS You found substantive evidence Columbus was Jewish.
SB I would say he was Jewish, given my research. The Anne Frank Awards committee liked the book. They asked if I would be willing to accept award. The presentation ceremony was in June.
It’s great, as writers of thriller don’t win many awards. I don’t win many awards. It was an experience.
Previous winners include Arthur Miller, who wrote “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” among a great many other books, and Nicolas Christophe, who wrote “A History of Ancient Egypt.” I’m in good company. It was a special honored that they gave me the award.
GS Can you talk about your 2014 book.
SB No, that would get me in big trouble. I must be careful to keep future books under wrap. I don’t want anyone preempting my work. Luckily, I picked new and fresh ideas as well as a different way to present these ideas; no one has preempted me, yet.
GS Let’s talk about “The Columbus Affair,” then.
SB It’s now available in paperback. I created a new character, Tom Sagan, a disgraced newspaper reporter. He’s at the end of his rope. Set up and framed, he lost everything on a bogus accusation of creating an important news story about the Middle East.
Sagan isn’t sure; was he framed, how and by whom. It’s been seven years, all hope is gone; he’s getting ready to kill himself. Right before he pulls the trigger, there’s a knock on the window.
Standing outside the window is a man. He’s holding a photograph of Alle Sagan. She’s the grown, estranged daughter of Tom Sagan.
In the photograph, Alle, bound and gagged, is obviously a hostage. The kidnapper wants Sagan to do something for him. Only then, the kidnapper says, will he release Alle, unharmed.
There’s a lot more going on. Alle despises Tom. He doesn’t care for her. There are long-standing issues between them.
Does he kill himself? Does he help Alle? Obviously, he helps her or the book ends after chapter one.
GS There’s much going on in “The Columbus Affair.”
SB Yes, the antagonist, Zachariah Simon, is a wealthy European Jew. There’s a Jamaican anti-hero, of a sort, named Béne Rowe. These characters come together as they deal with a great mystery: was Christopher Columbus Jewish; does it matter today.
It’s a great story. It goes from Florida to Vienna to Prague to the mountains of Jamaica. Readers will learn a great deal about Columbus.
GS Most of which is most likely true.
SB Likely is all you can say. You can’t say it is true. From everything I’ve read and looked at it, it’s reasonable.
I based the book on a non-fiction book by Simon Wiesenthal, written about forty years ago, called, “Sails of Hope.” Wiesenthal was the first to suggest Columbus was Jewish. Although ridiculed, when published, the idea took root.
We know next to nothing of Christopher Columbus. Was that his birth name? Where was he born? How did he look? There are no firm answers to most questions about him.
He’s a total mystery. Did someone purposively cloak Columbus? Was it because he was Jewish? Did the Inquisition, which peaked during his life, force him to hide his origins? “The Columbus Affair” tries to answer these questions and entertain the reader, of course.
GS Don’t paintings of Columbus exist.
SB There are eight paintings of Columbus. No genuine portraits of him exist; well, maybe, one, by a painter who may have seen him. The other seven are post mortem.
GS As is the case with William Shakespeare.
SB Yes, the one, possibly genuine, painting shows a different face than do the other seven portraits. The one exception is in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy.
Columbus intentionally didn’t want paintings of himself. He never spoke of his background. He never wrote of his birthplace, where he grew up or went to school. He never talked of himself; never wrote of himself. Twice he noted his date of birth, giving a different date each time.
GS Again, much as Shakespeare: six ostensibly genuine copies of his signature exist, each one different from the others.
SB Columbus was intentionally mysterious about his background. There must be a reason for his avoidance. He was not haphazard about how he avoided details; it seems intentional.
GS Do you think it was to hide his Jewish origin?
SB I don’t think there’s any question that it was to hide that he was Jewish. The Inquisition was executing Jews who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism. Columbus had great difficulty find backers for his ideas, which is suggestive, since the promise of riches was reasonable. “The Columbus Affair” explores the man as well as his discoveries.
GS It’s a good story.
SB It’s one of the stories I enjoyed research and writing most. It’s a compelling story about something you might think you know something about and then you go. “Wow, I never knew all that.”
I wanted the Tom Sagan character in conflict. He’s about to kill himself, his daughter, who hates his guts, appears. She hasn’t spoken to him in years and when she did speak to him, she was rude and obnoxious. Now, she is now in trouble, but it’s still his daughter. It’s his blood, so he rises to the occasion.
There are interesting twists, with the daughter. It’s not as straight forward as you might expect.
There’s much happening. Tom Sagan is an interesting character. I enjoyed creating Sagan. He’s not Cotton Malone, but he gets himself in and out of trouble, in several imaginative ways. I hope to bring Sagan back one day.
GS Steve, we asked for an hour and you gave us more than two. Thanks so much.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Thanks to Corina Kellam.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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