Up Close: Steve Berry

Cotton Malone Visits Poland in Latest Berry Thriller

By J. H. Bográn

New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry has wanted to set a book in Poland for more than 10 years—he admits to loving the place and the people. He’s also appreciative of its troubled history—the country has long been the battlefield of Europe, wiped from the map more than once, the most recent attempt in 1939.

Berry gets his wish in his latest novel, THE WARSAW PROTOCOL.

Berry’s longtime series protagonist Cotton Malone visits the city of Bruges with two distinct goals. The first is to attend one of the largest antiquarian book fairs in the world. The other is to try his favorite dessert, the dame blanche (White Lady). Those goals, though, take a backseat when he witnesses the robbery of a sacred relic in the Basilica of the Holy Blood—his former boss, Stephanie Nelle, appears and asks him to get involved. The robbery is the first in what seems an orchestrated effort to steal all of the sacred relics that form the mythical Arma Christi, the Weapons of Christ.

“My hope is that the novel will draw attention to the history of Poland, and the heritage that it has,” Berry says.

Keeping a character fresh and relevant is a challenge for every author of a successful series.

Inside Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, Poland, which serves as a WARSAW PROTOCOL location.

“The Cotton Malone from THE WARSAW PROTOCOL is a different man from the Cotton Malone in The Templar Legacy,” Berry says. “Over the course of 15 stories he’s evolved.  Readers will not allow an author to never change their main character. That’s why I make sure that Cotton Malone experiences something emotionally unique with each new book.”

Part of this series evolution meant that Cotton Malone would have to sever ties with the United States government and move to Denmark, where he owns an old bookshop. The hook for each story is his return to deal with some special problem that someone needs his assistance in solving.

Berry conducts research during a visit to Belgium.

“Every single book in a series has to be the same, but different,” Berry says. “That’s a tall order. The ‘same’ for me is action, history, secrets, and conspiracies. The ‘different’ comes from the historical element, the time period explored, and the things happening to the characters that have never happened before.”

One of the dangers of writing a long-running series is alienating new readers by not introducing returning characters in a proper way, having the author just assume everyone knows who they are. But the other side of that double-edged knife is that by providing too much information, fans of the series might get irritated.

“It’s a narrow path,” Berry says. “The way I handle that is to keep the intros short and to the point. In fact, I use nearly the exact same words in every book to introduce Cotton Malone or any of the returning characters. I never use more than two or three sentences, enough for the new reader to know who they are, but not too much for the old reader to be annoyed.”

Research—what to include and what to leave out—is another balancing act. After doing this for 30 years, Berry has developed a feel for it. Yet he doesn’t cut corners or skim over topics.

Berry snapped this photo of the Bruges canals during a recent trip to Belgium. The canals, which are featured in THE WARSAW PROTOCOL, connect the city to the North Sea and give it the nickname “Venice of the North.”

“When I’m done with my research I have a stack of papers that is four to eight inches high,” he says. “I know from the start that I will only be using maybe 15 to 20 percent of that material. The rest isn’t going to make it. During the drafting of the novel I read and re-read. I go through my books about 50 to 60 times. If the material reads smoothly, it stays. But if it stalls the eye, delays the brain, it comes out. The people who read my novels want information, but only in the right doses. The trick is for the reader to go down a page, learn something, and never notice. If they notice, then it’s too much.”

ITW executive director Liz Berry inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland. The mine, first excavated in the 13th century, figures prominently in the climax of THE WARSAW PROTOCOL.

Berry’s wife—ITW Executive Director, Liz Berry—is his first reader for all of the novels. She’s part owner of a publishing and marketing company, 1001 Dark Nights, and a trained editor. Berry says her comments, sometimes a couple of dozen per page, are always on point.

“She’s quite mean to me,” he says. “No mercy. No hedging. Just right to the point. But she has a good eye for pace and story. Only my agent and editor read the novels after her. Two or three people, that’s it. You have to be careful about not soliciting too much input.”

Besides writing internationally bestselling novels, Berry is involved with the International Thriller Writers—in fact, he’s a founding member and former co-president.  He also donates a lot of time teaching a new generation of writers.

“People went out of their way to help me when I started,” Berry says. “Now it’s my turn to help the new wave of writers as they develop.”

Photo credit (home): Kelly Campbell

 

J. H. Bográn
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