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Steve Berry is the author of three stand-alone thrillers, The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Third Secret. His six Cotton Malone thrillers, The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Venetian Betrayal, The Charlemagne Pursuit, and The Paris Vendetta have all been New York Times bestsellers. His latest is The Emperor’s Tomb and an e-book original, The Balkan Escape. Read his interview with Chris Kuzneski:
Steve Berry: As a fellow writer, I’d like to talk about your process. You like to incorporate history into your modern-day thrillers. Do you let history dictate the plot, or do you find historical events that fit your needs?
Chris Kuzneski: Actually, I think it’s a combination of the two. First and foremost, I find an interesting subject—whether that’s a controversial figure or a legendary artifact—and use its actual history as the backbone for my novel. Then I create a scenario where the historical subject matter has a clear, modern-day significance. For example, what if a manuscript written by Nostradamus, the infamous French seer, suddenly resurfaced? Who would benefit from such a book? And what would they do to obtain it? That’s the basis of The Prophecy.
Steve Berry: Along those same lines, do you consider yourself a history buff, or is your research a by-product of being a writer? In other words, if you weren’t writing about it, would you still be reading about it?
Chris Kuzneski: I’m naturally inquisitive, so I would continue to read about the topics that interested me, but not at the level I do now. In all honesty, the amount of research I do before I start writing is completely unhealthy—and probably explains why I am single. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary part of my process. I’m never quite sure when I’m going to discover an interesting nugget that might make my book better, so I keep on digging and digging until my deadline forces me to write.
Steve Berry: Unlike most series in the action-adventure genre, your books are known for their humor. Do you find it difficult to balance the comedy and the suspense?
Chris Kuzneski: If you think about it, comedy and suspense shouldn’t coexist. I mean, the goal of comedy is to paint things in a humorous light, whereas suspense is all about prolonged anxiety. If you mix the two together, they’re bound to clash. So the trick is to alternate them. If done effectively, the two elements can complement each other. For instance, if I want to build suspense in my story, I’ll minimize the wisecracks for a chapter or two, which heightens the tension. But once the tension reaches a certain level, I want readers to catch their breath. That’s when I’ll sprinkle in some humor. Ultimately, I want to take readers on an emotional roller coaster, one with several peaks and valleys. That’s what thrillers are all about.
Steve Berry: The Prophecy is the fifth book in your Payne and Jones series. Can you tell us a little bit about your main characters?
Chris Kuzneski: Jonathon Payne and David Jones are best friends who once led the MANIACs, an elite Special Forces unit composed of the top soldiers from the Marines, Army, Navy, Intelligence, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Although they’re still in their prime, they retired from the military when Payne’s grandfather died and left him controlling interest in his family’s corporation. That occurred right before The Plantation, the first book in the series. Like many ex-soldiers, Payne and Jones miss certain aspects of their former life, most notably the adrenaline rush. To fill the void, they willingly help their friends (and total strangers) out of difficult situations. The person they assist the most is a historian named Petr Ulster. They saved his life in Sign of the Cross, and he has been repaying them ever since. Anytime his research takes him to a dangerous part of the world, he asks Payne and Jones to tag along—and they willingly jump at the chance.
Steve Berry: Speaking of travel, I love your books because the action takes place all around the world. The Prophecy starts in a blizzard in Pittsburgh, but seamlessly shifts to France, Switzerland, and Belgium. Where else have your stories gone?
Chris Kuzneski: I wish my books could earn air miles because my stories have spanned the globe. The Lost Throne opens in Italy, then jumps to Greece, Russia, and Finland. I had a lot of fun with that one because I’d spent some time in Greece and was able to incorporate my experiences into the story. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that with Sword of God since one of the plotlines is set in Mecca, a Muslim-only city in Saudi Arabia. That was probably the toughest book for me to write because information about Mecca is so limited. Of course, that was one of the reasons why I chose to set the book there. I wanted to give readers a glimpse of a world that few people are allowed to see. In terms of mileage, I think more ground is covered in Sign of the Cross than my other books combined. It has action on five of the seven continents—Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Oceania. As an inside joke, I referenced South America and Antarctica in the book because I didn’t want them to feel excluded. By comparison, I showed geographic restraint with The Plantation. It takes place in three countries—America, Mexico, and Nigeria—with most of the action near New Orleans. Since that was my first book, I spent more time with my characters and their backgrounds than I did with the setting.
Steve Berry: That brings up an interesting question. Do your books have to be read in order, or can a reader start with The Prophecy and go from there?
Chris Kuzneski: My books are written so that you can start at the beginning of the series, the end, or anywhere in between. To highlight my point, some of my foreign publishers have actually changed the order of my series to meet their individual needs. Most of the time, I tell readers to decide which subject interests them the most and choose from there. If you like religious thrillers, get Sign of the Cross or Sword of God. Stories about revenge? Go for The Plantation. A fan of Ancient Greece? Get The Lost Throne. And if you’re interested in Nostradamus or the fate of the world, you’ll love The Prophecy. Of course, if you ask Payne and Jones, they’ll tell you to buy all five.
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