This is How You Write a Best-Selling Thriller

An Interview with Steve Berry

/ by Noah Charney

Steve Berry is a rare breed of author: the perennial best-seller. Rare and admirable, as any of us would love the certainty that our next novel will be a best-seller. But this does not come easily, and there is a great deal of hard work behind Berry’s thrillers, which may be page-turners, but are deceptive, if you think them simple. Berry does research as if he were writing non-fiction, and I can attest to the level of depth into which he delves. He spelunks into history with the attention of a scholar. One of his forthcoming books in his Cotton Malone series—about a not-quite-retired US Department of Justice operative who runs a bookstore in Copenhagen when not chasing or being chased in search of historical treasures and truths—involves The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the subject of one of my non-fiction books. Berry interviewed me several times after reading my book with remarkable detail, asking insightful questions that lay to rest the lazy man’s comparison of his books to Dan Brown’s. Both sell millions of books and write conspiracy theory chase thrillers involving historical facts and treasures, but their level of research, in my personal experience (Brown cites the organization I founded, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art in Inferno) and in the resulting novels, is miles apart. In short, knowing a lot about the true history behind a Steve Berry novel is not annoying and detracts nothing from the enjoyment of reading it. Not necessarily so for Mr. Brown. I was fortunate to interview Berry years back, and so, after being interviewed by him for his future novel, it was good to circle back and ask him a fresh round of questions. As a writer of non-fiction, academic works and the occasional thriller myself, I’ll be taking careful notes…


Noah Charney (NC): You specialize in thrillers that are based on historical mysteries. What about a historical fact or mystery jumps out at you, in order to prompt you to build a novel's plot around it?


Steve Berry (SB): I look for subject matters that others have not touched, those historical tidbits that are usually found in the footnotes of a book. Aspects of history that are relatively unknown but, hopefully, readers will want to know more about. I especially do not want to plow a field that others have already worked. I want something fresh and different.


NC: When teaching, I've often described what I call "the treasure hunt instinct." When we humans hear that there is a secret, something hidden, something lost we yearn to know it. This is fertile ground that you tap in your novels. I wonder about your thoughts on it as a human trait, why we have that in us?


SB: It goes way back to the dawn of humankind. We’ve always wanted to know what lies just over the horizon, which may have been the greatest secret of all. It’s in our genes to be tantalized by the unknown. We can’t help it. But that’s great for novelists like me.


NC: How did you come up with Cotton Malone, and does it ever feel constricting to have such a popular character who you've "lived with' for so many hundreds of pages? Conan Doyle famously felt burdened by the popularity of Sherlock Holmes.


SB: He was born in Copenhagen while I was sitting a café in Højbro Plads, a popular Danish square. That’s why Cotton owns a bookshop there. I wanted a character with government ties and a background that would make him, if threatened, formidable. But I also wanted him to be human, with flaws. Since I love rare books, it was natural that Cotton would too, so he became a Justice Department operative, turned bookseller, who manages, from time to time, to find trouble. I gave him an eidetic memory, since who wouldn’t like one of those? At the same time, he is clearly a man in conflict. His marriage has failed, he maintains a difficult relationship with his teenage son, and he’s lousy with women. In another words, he’s human. And I’ve never felt burdened by him. I enjoy our visits together.


NC: What is your research process like? Having interviewed you in the past, and having assisted you with a few questions on your research, I can attest to the fact that your research is wonderfully thorough. You read many books and interview experts prior to writing (unlike certain other historical mystery thriller writers who will go unmentioned).


SB: My books are 90% kept to history, with 10% of fiction woven in. I try to get it right. I really do. It’s important. I use around 300 to 400 sources for each novel, most of which are physical books. There is usually at least one trip associated with each book, where I have to visit a particular place because the answers I need are not found in the books. I’m not perfect. Mistakes are made. But I try to correct them as fast as I can. There’s also a Writer’s Note in the back of all my books that tells the reader what’s real and what’s not. I think it’s important that be done.


NC: Most of your novels take place in Europe, but you and your protagonist are American. But Cotton Malone for some time has been an expat, living in Europe. Any particular reason for the Eurocentricity of your novels?


SB: I love the place. Old to the United States is 250 years. Old to Europe is thousands of years. There’s so much history and heritage there. And the stories. So many. I also think that American audiences enjoy visiting overseas locales, particularly ones they can ultimately go and see for themselves. It’s important that the locales I use are all accessible. I’ve heard from a lot of readers who have gone to see them.


NC: Ever been tempted to write pacy, narrative non-fiction? You'd seem a natural for it, since your novels are based on careful research, with just some fictional elements peppered in. If so, is there a topic that you'd most enjoy publishing non-fiction on?


SB: Not at the moment, but I won’t say never.


NC: Any tip or preferably a magic recipe for writing good pacy, tense thriller text?


SB: Stuff has to happen all the time. It’s a thriller, which by definition has to thrill. I’m not saying I get that pacing right 100% of the time, but I try really hard. Another thing for me, the story needs that “oooh factor,” something from history that gets the reader to say “ooooh.” Then you need a “so-what?” That something from history still has to matter today. All of that works together to keep the suspense and pace going.


NC: You've got a book forthcoming on my pet topic, The Ghent Altarpiece. What about it drew you to it as a plot driver for a future Cotton Malone novel?


SB: Come on! The most stolen work of art in history? That, in and of itself, is amazing. It’s going to work great for a thriller. I’m looking forward to visiting Ghent soon to see the altarpiece.


NC: Your readers are eager for movies to be made out of your novels, and they seem a natural fit. Is that in the works, or any reason you can share as to why not?


SB: There’s been a lot of talk about doing it, but no one has come and actually bought the rights. Maybe one day. It would cool to see it on the screen.



Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

NC: Tell me about History Matters? What is a project launched through it that you are particularly proud of?

SB: Over 4.8 billion artifacts are currently held in public trust by more than 30,000 archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, research collections, and archaeological repositories around the United States. A lack of funding currently places over a third of these items at risk of being destroyed. That’s why, in 2009, my wife Elizabeth and I started our foundation, History Matters.

During the past seven years we’ve traveled coast to coast, working with both local communities and professional entities on over 80 projects, raising $1,000,000 for historic preservation. Places like the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut; the Lincoln Log Cabin in Charleston, Illinois; historic cemeteries in Raleigh, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, and Jekyll Island, Georgia; the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut; museums in Seattle, Washington and Pleasanton, California; historic buildings in Beaufort, South Carolina and Berryville, Arkansas; and the rare book collection for the Library of Virginia and the Smithsonian Libraries.

I tell people all the time. Look around your house. There are countless photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, heirlooms, keepsakes, and memorabilia. Imagine if these were forever lost, never to be seen nor held again. 

In school, history can seem the most tedious of subjects. So many facts, figures and dates that mean little to nothing. But history is not something obscure or unimportant.  In fact, it plays a vital role in our everyday lives. We study our past in order to achieve greater influence over our future. It is from history that we learn what to champion and what to avoid.  Decision-making around the world, every day, is based on what came before us.  Why? Because history matters.

NC: What’s your favorite museum and restaurant in Europe. And what should we see/eat there?


SB: As museums go, I love the Cluny in Paris. It’s the best medieval museum in Europe. Restaurants? That’s a tough one, since I’ve eaten in some really amazing spots, none of which were fancy or expensive. That’s the thing about Europe, you can get a terrific meal just about anywhere.


NC: Thanks, Steve. And in Ghent, I recommend stoverij at the Rechterge Rechters restaurant next to the cathedral. They quote an “American author” who said that this was the best stoverij in the city. That was me. Enjoy!

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.