"The terms of the president and vice president shall end at noon on the 20th day of January...”
Could the seemingly straightforward first section of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contain the seeds for a political crisis? It could if you’re Steve Berry, the perennial bestselling author, whose The 14th Colony (Minotaur, Apr.), the latest complex thriller featuring covert operative Cotton Malone, asks what might happen if both the president- and vice president–elect die before taking the oath of office, a possibility not addressed in the Constitution. In Berry’s fiction, the answer is uncertain, and the scenario could lead to unprecedented political chaos.
Making the improbable plausible is a hallmark of Berry’s 11 books in the Malone series, and he’s succeeded time and again in doing so. In 2015’s The Patriot Threat (Minotaur), the story line centered on whether Congress’s power to collect income tax, granted by the 16th Amendment, is legal. Malone, who works for a secret Justice Department unit, Magellan Billet, crossed the pond in 2013’s The King’s Deception (Ballantine), to uncover secrets surrounding the legitimacy of the reign of Elizabeth I, and its connections with the Northern Irish struggle for independence and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.
Berry’s own path to success as an author—his books have a staggering 20 million copies in print worldwide, sold in 51 countries and translated into 40 languages—is almost as unlikely as the conspiracy between Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II to topple the Soviet Union that serves as the prologue to The 14th Colony.
From childhood, Berry has been an avid reader, a trait he picked up from his father, Harold, a traveling salesman who brought new books with him when he returned home to Atlanta on Friday afternoons. Berry still fondly remembers hanging out in the basement, where the books were stacked on metal shelves, and reading the newest additions to the family collection, whatever the topic. He worked as a small-town attorney in South Georgia, handling thousands of cases, including divorces and criminal defense, for over three decades. From 1996 until 2010, Berry also served his community as a county commissioner for Camden County.
Contrary to accepted wisdom, Berry believes that a writer should never write what they know. “Instead, write what you love. If what you know and what you love are the same thing, great. It wasn’t for me. I knew the law. But I loved stories with action, history, secrets, and conspiracies. So it was a no-brainer what I would write.”
Berry sought to escape the ugly side of human nature that his law practice regularly exposed him to by writing thrillers. But Berry was not successful when he tried to get published. Over a seven-year period, in which he sent five manuscripts to all 17 major publishing houses in New York City, he was rejected. And rejected. And rejected. Berry was turned down 85 times before Ballantine accepted The Amber Room, which appeared in print in 2003. Though other authors have gotten more noes (Louis L’Amour is reported to have been dinged more than 200 times), Berry’s persistence is a testament to his belief in the quality of his work. How did he keep pushing, for all those years? Berry thanks “that little voice in my head, the one every writer possesses, which nags at them every day to keep writing. It’s the only thing that kept me going.”
Berry admits that his good fortune was a matter of chance. He said that “in May 2002, on the 86th attempt, I was at the right place, at the right time, with the right story. Random House was looking for things to go with a new book they would be releasing in 2003—The Da Vinci Code—and my story was exactly what Mark Tavani at Ballantine Books was looking for.” Dan Brown ended up blurbing The Amber Room, which centered on the search for lost treasures, calling it “my kind of thriller.”
Thirteen books later (Berry has written three other standalone thrillers, most recently 2012’s The Columbus Affair, published by Ballantine), his established track record of success led Minotaur to offer him a million-dollar three-book deal in 2013, luring him away from his first publisher.
Minotaur editor Kelley Ragland explained the deal. “First and foremost, we all loved his books. Steve has a unique place among thriller writers, as he brings so much real and interesting history into the story lines. He has a great instinct for what historical controversies or real political intrigues will resonate with readers. And he has a knack for putting just the right fictional spin on these ideas to maximize the suspense of a given scenario. He pays careful attention to a story’s momentum, the timing of the twists and turns of the plot, and how to slowly, slowly build toward a denouement. Few thriller writers today are as adept at the bones of a story, and if the bones aren’t right, the finished novel will never be as satisfying as it should be. There is no one writing books quite like he does on a yearly basis, and he was a perfect addition to the Minotaur list. We look forward to being in the Steve Berry business for a long, long time.”
Berry works hard to research his intricate plots. “My process involves no shortcuts. I go through 200 to 400 physical books, extracting from them pages of nuggets I might need while writing the novel. There are six months of preliminary research before writing to get things in some semblance of order, so I can get started. Then, while writing, there are 12 additional months of research as the novel takes shape. In addition, every book involves at least one on-site trip, taken only when I can’t find what I’m looking for in the books. At every stage my goal is to keep the story 90% accurate to history, tripping things up only 10%.”
Most recently, that scholarly approach has led to the entertaining, if alarming, “what-if” of The 14th Colony. “There are flaws and loopholes galore in both the Constitution and the applicable laws that have never been fixed by Congress, despite their knowing about them. So I decide to use those in a novel. This one is my take on the good old-fashioned spy novel, a genre that died in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. There’s a ticking clock, a first for me, counting down to noon on January 20th. And there’s some other cool stuff: a secret meeting between Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, which actually happened in June 1982; Cold War intrigue and a few ominous leftovers; the Society of Cincinnati, America’s oldest secret organization; and the only country on Earth that has defeated the United States not once, but twice, on the battlefield—Canada.”
Berry’s many fans can look forward to 2017’s The Lost Order, which involves the Smithsonian Institution and an obscure real-life Civil War treasure. Berry also promises to reveal just how Cotton Malone acquired his first name.
Despite his writing triumphs, Berry isn’t content to sit back and figure out new threats for his hero to overcome. Along with his wife, Elizabeth, the model for Cotton’s love-interest, Cassiopeia Vitt, he runs History Matters. “It’s a foundation we started in 2009. We work with local communities to raise money for historic preservation. We’ve helped buildings, museums, books, documents, artifacts, you name it, raising nearly a million dollars. We do it together, as a 50/50 partnership.” The beneficiaries of the Berrys’ hard work include the Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta; the Library of Virginia, in Richmond, Va.; the John Jay Heritage Center, in Rye, N.Y.; and the Mark Twain House, in Hartford, Conn.
Berry has extended his passion for history into the classroom. “To make history interesting, it has to be a story. That, more than anything else, explains the popularity of books like mine. Sure, there’s an element of facts and figures that have to be absorbed, but the more those can be placed in the context of a story, the more interesting they become. A few years ago I was invited to Tennessee to speak with middle and high school history teachers, and we discussed this exact concept.”
In a field crowded with authors seeking to attract readers by concocting more and more elaborate conspiracy theories, Berry stands out for his combination of painstaking research and entertaining ideas, and for his off-the-page activities, giving his time and money both to the preservation of history and to training educators so that the past resonates with today’s students. “I’ve read history all my life, so the passion was there from birth.” Millions of readers are glad that he’s been able to translate that passion into thoughtful escapism.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.