Attorney turned best selling author Steve Berry has developed a tough hide. Before his first book was published, he received 85 rejection slips.
Berry, who now has more than 11 million books in print, is releasing "The Emperor’s Tomb" today, a thriller featuring crusty hero Cotton Malone and his quest to unlock the secrets of an ancient Chinese tomb.
Berry took time from his book tour to talk about the new book, how he writes and the possibility of a never-ending source of oil.
News-Telegram: You had an agent long before you found a publisher, right? Tell us about that and what the experience taught you about perseverance.
Steve Berry: It took me 12 years from the day I wrote my first word to the day I sold my first. Along the way I wrote 8 manuscripts, 5 of which were submitted to New York publishers, all rejected a total of 85 times. I may not know a whole lot about writing, but I'm a world class expert on rejection. Yet it was a great learning experience. I worked on my craft during that time, honed it, kept writing, and made myself ready for when opportunity finally came knocking on the 86th try when "The Amber Room" made it to print.
N-T: Why did you start writing?
SB: Because I had to. A little voice in my head told me to do it. Every writer who ever lived has that same little voice. It tells you to write and, when you do, it's happy. When not, it nags at you. I ignored that nagging for a decade, then finally started to listen to it one summer day in 1990.
N-T: Where did you go to law school? How long did you practice? Did you specialize? What field?
SB: I graduated from Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University and practiced for 30 years as trial lawyer. I handled a lot of divorces, criminal defense, anything in a courtroom, along with the everyday stuff that helped pay the bills.
N-T: Did being a practicing attorney help you be a disciplined writer?
SB: It had little or no affect. I learned my discipline in Catholic school, as a child. Those nuns were tough. No excuses were accepted for anything less than success.
N-T: What is your writing schedule?
SB: I write from around 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., 5 days a week. That's what I did while I still practiced law, though I quit then at 9 each day to start work.
I sometimes now write some after lunch for an hour or two, then I tend to the business of writing for a few hours each day. This entails marketing, press, website, you name it, whatever is needed for promotion. The evenings are devoted to an hour or so of research, getting ready for the next day's work.
N-T: The Cotton Malone books include a large dose of history. Have you always been interested in the past? Why? What does it teach us?
SB: Understanding the past is vital to knowing the future. It's cliche, but absolutely true. I've always been fascinated with the past and I'm lucky now to be able to incorporate that fascination into the novels. I work hard to find something from the past that the reader may know little to nothing about, but of which they would like to know more. The trick is to find that something. It's getting tougher and tougher but luckily I have the next several years covered.
N-T: Who helps you, if anyone, with your research?
SB: Not a soul. I do it alone, and that's the only way it can be done. I'm the only one who knows what I'm looking for and, sometimes, I don't even know until I get there.
N-T: You seem to know a lot about the workings of the world of intelligence and espionage. Care to share your sources?
SB: Mainly books, but I have a few friends with some intimate knowledge that I turn to from time to time.
N-T: How did Cotton Malone come to be?
SB: He was born one afternoon in Copenhagen, Denmark where I decided that he would live there. Most of his backstory was fleshed out then too. His personality is a lot like mine for the obvious reason that I was the easiest to draw from. Of course, I don't get to leap from airplanes and shoot guns the way he does so, in that respect, he's like an alter ego.
N-T: Do your characters evolve as you're writing? Do they let you know when you get it wrong?
SB: Characterization is tough for me. I work hard at it, so they are constantly evolving throughout the book. And sure, motivations must be clear in a novel. When they're not is when the characters start not making sense. This is something my editor and I work on a lot.
N-T: In The Emperor's Tomb you present the hypothesis of a never-ending supply of abiotic oil. Tell us how you came to write about the possibility of ending our dependence on fossil fuel.
SB: I never realized that the concept of ‘fossil fuels’ is not a proven theory. The idea that oil originated from decayed organic material—such as plants and animals, including dinosaurs—was conceived in 1757 by a Russian scientist named Mikhail Lomonosov.
There is no proof that oil is biotic in origin. In fact, the Russians firmly insist that oil is abiotic—that it originates from deep within the earth, the result of natural geological processes. The implications from this are enormous.
Biotic oil is finite, while abiotic oil is potentially limitless. The Russians have long believed in abiotic oil since they have discovered reserves far deeper in the earth than where any biotic oil could possibly lay.
Thankfully, abiotic oil can be identified thanks to diamondoids which exist within it.
These microscopic crystals can only be formed only deep in the earth, where great heat and pressure exist, far away from where any fossil fuels might be.
This was too cool to pass up, so I made it the basis of the novel. Also, what's interesting is that The Emperor's Tomb is a book about oil that has nothing to do with the Middle East.
N-T: The two characters fighting for control of China in The Emperor's Tomb represent opposite views of how to govern. Do you believe there's a struggle like this going on in China right now?
SB: The Legalist movement is a political philosophy which emphasizes a central government made strong through the use of force and fear. Confucianism is the counter to Legalism. That philosophy stresses the willing obedience of the people from a compassionate, fair, and benevolent government.
Both philosophies want a strong central authority, they simply achieve that end through radically different means. This debate, Legalism versus Confucianism, has always lay at the heart of Chinese politics. My two characters represent these two opposing sides. As in the novel, that debate is ongoing in China right now.
N-T: Tell us a little about "Operation Thriller." That must have been a great experience for you and the other authors who participated.
SB: It is a life-changing experience. Douglas Preston, James Rollins, David Morrell, Andy Harp, and myself spent 9 days in Iraq and Kuwait visiting our troops. It was the first time the USO has ever sent a contingent of writers into a war zone. We were warmly received by everyone and we enjoyed out time with our fighting men and women. Books are important over there. The recreation and USO centers were stocked with novels. We talked to many about writing and the craft, encouraging them to record their stories.
We also also visited Walter Reed and the Naval Hospital at Bethesda to see the injured, which was particularly inspiring. Though confined to beds, some with horrific injuries, not a discouraging word was heard. That was an incredible day for all five of us.
N-T: What's next for you and Cotton Malone?
SB: Cotton Malone will return next year in his first domestic adventure. He'll be coming home to the United States for a visit, dealing with a unique clause in the U.S. Constitution that 99.9% of all Americans have no idea is there.
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