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March 17, 2011

An Interview with Steve Berry, Author of THE EMPEROR'S TOMB

Posted by Stephen

I know book clubs don’t often consider a mystery or suspense series for their book club picks. Maybe it’s the thought that though the books will be fun to read, they may not have enough substance to discuss. And sometimes that is the case. But many books in these genres are rich with family crisis, character issues and in this case history. Steve Berry’s The Emperor’s Tomb goes in depth into Chinese history and will give your book club plenty to talk about. I had the chance to sit down with him for an interview as he was passing through town on his book tour. Here’s a little bit of what we talked about:

berry.JPGRGG: Before we jump into the new book, let’s talk about you. I love the fact that the bio on your website talks about the struggles you had becoming a published writer. Tell me a little bit about what you went through and why you want to share that with your fans.

Steve Berry: From the day I wrote my first word to the day I sold my first word was 12 years. So it was a very long process for me. I wrote eight manuscripts during that time. Five were submitted to New York publishing houses and they were rejected 85 times. I’m sort of the poster child for “It can be done”. Ten years ago I couldn’t give away a book and now I’m in 51 countries around the world and have over 12 million books in print. I’m sort of living proof that you can do it if you want to do it. Listen, over 400 agents told me “no” before I found one that said “yes.” If you hang with it and work on your craft, you’ll catch a break and that’s what I did. I hung in there and eventually I caught a break.
RGG: And tell me about your non-profit foundation History Matters.
SB: My wife Elizabeth and I traveled all over the country, and we noticed that there is no money for historic preservation anymore. That money is gone and we wanted to do something to help, so we came up with this novel idea that no one had really tried before. What happens is a community picks a historical project like a museum, a document, a rare book or rare book collection and we go in and teach a writer’s workshop. I’ll go in and teach writing for five hours and attendees will pay around $100 for the course which all goes straight to the project. I don’t charge to be there. I don’t charge expenses or anything. We’ve done seven events so far and raised a little over $50,000 dollars, so it’s been great. 
Note: If you have a project you would like Steve to consider, click here.
RGG: Let’s talk about the Cotton Malone series. I’m a former bookstore owner, so I love Cotton. But tell me where the ideal came from to combine a bookseller with a former operative from the U.S. Justice Department --- and to have him living in Copenhagen?
SB: Well he was born one afternoon in Copenhagen. I was sitting in a café there and he just kinda came to me. I love old books, I love old bookshops, and I was looking for something to make Cotton a little different so I said “Well, I’ll just have him be a retired Justice Department agent, he’ll move here, he’ll have a book shop and he’ll get into trouble from time-to-time. That’s how he came together…my likes merging into his.”
RGG: And he does get into some trouble from time to time…
SB: Yes, his former profession does tend to follow him.
RGG: In The Emperor’s Tomb, Cotton’s “friend” Cassiopea Vitt has gotten mixed up in Chinese politics in a big way. Cotton goes to help her and they find themselves in the midst of a political struggle rooted in the past but with huge implications for the future. What made you want to explore Chinese history and politics for this book?
SB: I knew nothing about it. That’s one thing that drew me to it. This was something I didn’t really understand --- but I wanted to understand it and I wanted to get American readers to understand it. I never knew the difference between Confucianism and Legalism. I never understood how fundamental that is to Chinese philosophy and politics. I never realized how eunuchs had so much control over Chinese history. These are all things that are fascinating to me that I was beginning to learn. I never realized that the Chinese invented over 50 percent of the innovations that we consider Western concepts.
RGG: I believe you mentioned in the book that a lot of that history was actually lost.
SB: Yes. They had a terrible tendency…every Emperor that came in eradicated all vestiges of the one before. It would be like every time an American President took office they absolutely erased everything that had happened before. They wiped out all the records, all the books, all the memory, all of that is wiped out. Now, after a while you’ll begin to forget what you were as a people. And that’s exactly what happened to the Chinese. They literally forgot what they were.
RGG: This year you put out an eBook featuring Cassiopea and her adventure before The Emperor’s Tomb --- why release a book this way?
SB: Well, we were trying to attract some new readers, so we thought we would do a short story that maybe would get some readers excited about the new book and it did. It actually did. It brought in a lot of pre-orders that we had not had before. So it actually did work and if you read it first, it will wet your appetite and if you read it after, it fills in a gap. So I wrote it that way…where it doesn’t mess up The Emperor’s Tomb for you whenever you read it. It doesn’t give anything away. It’s short, it’s 6,000 words --- and we caught some grief for that on People were complaining that it was too short. Well… it’s a short story!
RGG: And it’s cheap!
SB: It’s $1.59! And it’s a short story --- and actually 6,000 words is pretty hefty short story. Overall it’s been good, and we may do some more of it going forward. You can do that so much more easily in the eBook format. I could never print that as a book BUT it will be in print in the back of The Emperor’s Tomb paperback which will be out later this year. For folks that don’t read eBooks it will be there.
RGG: So what’s next for you? Are you already working on the next Cotton Malone book?
SB: It’s been interesting. I’ve been moved up. I normally come out in November, but this year we have changed. I’ve been moved up to May. So there’ll be a new Cotton book out May 17th and it’s something new and different. Cotton is coming home for a domestic adventure called The Jefferson Key, which gives you a hint at what it’s about. I’m very excited about this one --- I’ve been wanting to do an American adventure with him. 

And then Cotton called me on the phone a few months ago and said that he’d like to take a year off. He’s a little tired. He says I’ve been blowing up his book shop, I’ve been causing him all kinds of problems, so could he have a little vacation? So I said okay and he’s going to take 2012 off and I’m going to write a standalone. It’ll be history, secrets, conspiracy, that kind of thing, but a totally different set of characters with totally different motivations and it’s been kind of fun to work on. So that will be out in 2012 and then Cotton will return in 2013.
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Dana Barrett is a regular contributor and host of the Midtown Review Podcast.