Steve Berry became, in his own words, “an expert on rejection” during the years he spent learning his craft and trying to get published, but since the publication of his first thriller, The Amber Room, his career has never faltered. After three stand-alone thrillers that sold well, he introduced his series character, Cotton Malone, an antiquarian book dealer whose former life in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the Justice Department keeps drawing him back into dangerous investigations in exotic locales. The Jefferson Key brings Malone home to the U.S. to uncover a diabolical plot that has changed the course of history more than once.
Over 12 million copies of Berry’s books have been sold around the world. He is a former board member and co-president of ITW and contributed material to the Thriller and First Thrills anthologies.
You’ve said that the idea for The Jefferson Key came from something you noticed long ago in law school. Why did it take so long for that idea to take shape as a novel?
I had to learn the craft of writing then manage to snag a publisher, which, for me, took 12 years. Once I created the Cotton Malone series in The Templar Legacy I knew at some point Cotton would come home for a domestic adventure. That was finally possible here, with Book 7 in the series.
Much of your writing involves exotic settings and elements of European and worldwide history. Did your research for this book differ in any way?
Actually, researching this novel was a joy. Elizabeth and I traveled to North Carolina, Virginia, New York City, and Washington, D.C. American history is fascinating, particularly the parts about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, pirates, presidential assassinations, and the Constitution, which this novel delves deep into.
Cotton Malone gets into an awful lot of trouble for a guy whose occupation is trading in old books. Why did you give him that as a current job, instead of keeping him in the military or other government service?
I wanted him to be somewhat ordinary. Just like all the rest of us, but possessed of some extraordinary skills that he can call upon when needed. Also, I have a passion for old books, so it was natural Cotton would too.
What is it about Malone that makes him special to you and makes you want to spend years of your life telling his story? Why do you like this man so much?
He’s a lot like me. My personality is all through him. But he also offers me a way to explore things about myself that I would not ordinarily do. Alter egos can be quite therapeutic.
You published three bestselling stand-alone thrillers before you began writing about Malone. Why did you decide to switch to a series? What advantages does a series offer over stand-alones?
It helps with marketing and publicity to have a series, especially when you’re first starting out. My first three books were successful, but The Templar Legacy, where Cotton is introduced, became my break-out book. I’ve been lucky. The character caught on and seems to now have a life of his own. Long may he live.
Many ( maybe most) kids hate history when they’re in school and can’t understand its relevance to their own lives. Were you one of those students?
No, I always liked history. It was fascinating, so it was only natural that I would eventually write about it.
You wrote for a lot of years and accumulated dozens of rejections before you sold The Amber Room. Looking back on your earlier, rejected efforts, do you think The Amber Room has something those books lacked? Or was it purely a matter of luck that you found an editor who loved it?
It was right place, right time. The DaVinci Code brought the international thriller genre back to life and I was there, in 2002, at the precise moment that happened, ready with a manuscript in the same vein, exactly what Mark Tavani at Ballantine Books was looking for. Praise be to Dan Brown and Doubleday.
Have you ever wanted to write a straight mystery or a courtroom drama?
I used to say never, but maybe one day.
You list a couple of female authors, Lisa Gardner and Sharon Kay Penman, among your favorite writers. What would you say to male readers who make a point of never reading a novel written by a woman?
You’re missing out. Male? Female? What does it matter? We’re all writers telling stories. And no one writes historical fiction better than Sharon Kay Penman.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing the 2012 book, which will be a stand-alone, my first in ten years. Cotton is going to take a vacation in 2012, but the new story will still be action, history, secrets, conspiracies, and international settings, just with a new set of characters, ones quite different from Cotton’s world. Then, in 2013, Cotton comes back.
To learn more about Steve Berry, please visit his website.