It seems fitting that action-adventure thriller writer Steve Berry lives in St. Augustine, Fla. After all, the city founded in 1565 is the oldest in the continental United States. And Berry specializes in headlining ancient history in his novels.
Berry takes readers on globe-hopping adventures in pursuit of the most fantastic objects from history, mixing myth with reality and spicing that elixir with relentless action. The result: 11 million books in print.
His ninth novel, and the sixth in a series starring Justice Department operative-turned-rare book dealer Cotton Malone, is "The Emperor's Tomb."
"The Emperor's Tomb" poses this premise: "The tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi, has remained sealed for 2,000 years, guarded by an underground army of terra cotta warriors. Though it's one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, the government won't allow anyone to open it. Why?"
Berry practiced law for 30 years in St. Marys, Ga., before giving it up two years ago and, in August, moving to Florida, into a home on a golf course ("I play a little here and there.")
"I was a street lawyer," he said on the phone the other day, in a voice lightly accented with magnolia. "I took whatever came in off the street to pay the bills -- divorces, criminal defense, litigation and the everyday stuff a small-town lawyer does."
In 1990, he decided to try his hand as a novelist.
"I'd had a little voice in my head that was driving me crazy for 10 years, telling me to write," he said. "I finally listened to it one day. Then it was 12 years and 85 rejections (of five manuscripts) from the day I wrote my first words to the day I sold my first book."
Action and antique
Berry's thrillers are packed with action -- explosions, burning buildings, surprise attacks, running gunfights, close calls and cliffhanging chapter endings. Case in point: A cadre of archers causes plenty of trouble in "The Emperor's Tomb."
More striking is another Berry theme: the quest for or re-emergence of something mythical or legendary, an item of great value or potential that has been mislaid or forgotten. A third-century Chinese lamp that holds the secret to vast amounts of crude oil ("The Emperor's Tomb"), for instance, or the long-sought treasure of the Knights Templar ("The Templar Legacy").
"Readers are fascinated by these unique and odd things from history that have been lost forever but which have great significance today," Berry said.
"The Library of Alexandria was the greatest collection of knowledge in the ancient world ('The Alexandria Link'). Alexander the Great's body was venerated for centuries, and then it just disappeared ('The Venetian Betrayal'). Napoleon's lost cache of looted treasure ('The Paris Vendetta'). An artifact from Charlemagne's tomb ('The Charlemagne Pursuit'). The readers want to know more about such (intrigue) from the past."
Of necessity and passion, Berry is a consummate researcher, typically consulting 200 to 300 sources (including antique volumes) for each novel. Often, the quest for detail translates to travels around the globe: Russia, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany.
"It's fun because you're going there in search of stuff, but it's also a lot of work," he said.
"Steve's (story) settings have changed from book to book," said Berry's hands-on editor since 2002, Mark Tavani, executive editor of Ballantine/Bantam/Dell.
"A lot of novelists who write series set them in the same part of the world. In Steve's case, every book takes place in a new locale. Not everybody can consistently turn out new, full-length thrillers that take so much research time."
Surprisingly, Berry did not visit China for "The Emperor's Tomb."
"The trip would have taken a month, and we were moving (to St. Augustine), so I could not go," he said. "I (researched) it from other books, from pictures and from people who have been to China, whom I interviewed. China is on my list of places to go someday, right up there with Antarctica."
The 2012 book
Berry, who writes mostly in the mornings, recently turned in the 2011 Cotton Malone novel and is "now working on the 2012 book."
"Cotton is going to come home to America (from his bookstore and apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark) in 'The Jefferson Key' for his first domestic adventure," he said. "It deals with a clause in the U.S. Constitution that I daresay 99 percent of all Americans have no idea is there. It will be a shock."
The 2012 novel will be a stand-alone (not part of the series) with "secrets, history and conspiracies, but with a totally new set of characters. It has something very interesting from history that no one's ever touched before. Then Cotton will be back in 2013."
It's well-known that Berry modeled protagonist Malone largely after himself. A key difference, of course, is that Malone is quick with a gun and doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger.
"He can be a killer, but only in self-defense and when he has to," Berry was quick to point out. "He's in a dangerous game and does what he has to do to survive, but he takes no joy in killing. It weighs on him.
"I keep the killing in my books very minimal," he said. "There's not as much as there is in other thrillers. I'm careful to fit it in (with the plot) because killing is a big deal."
Berry sometimes refers to Malone as if he were a real person, as in, "Cotton called me a few months ago and said, 'You've been workin' me to death, you've been blowing' up everything and I'm just tired. Can I have a year off and rest?' "