Before Steve Berry became a New York Times best-selling author and bought a condo in Hammock Dunes, he was a divorce lawyer.
“I wrote the novels to escape the practice of law,” Berry said. “I was a divorce lawyer, so I saw everyone at their worst.”
In his search for escape, Berry spent his spare time, for 12 of the 30 years he was a lawyer, writing book manuscripts and reading rejection letters sent to him from publishing houses. Before finally being accepted for publication, he had accumulated 85 rejections from five different novel submissions.
What kept him going through the disappointment, though, was the same thing that keeps every writer writing, he said. A little voice inside his head told him not to stop.
“Every writer has a little voice in their head that tells them to write and tells them to go forward … and never quit,” he said. “I hung in there … and then finally … I caught a break one day and I made it. But I made my own break.”
Throughout the 12 years, Berry admits, there were times he couldn’t help but consider giving up. But, in every instance, the little voice came back and urged him to get back onto the horse. And that makes all the difference.
A vast majority of writers who never make it, he believes, fail because they allow rejection to define them.
“You have to hang in there,” he said. “You can’t quit. If you quit, you’re out of the game.”
And now, Berry is not just in the game, he’s a key player, writing a thriller a year for Random House, one of the country’s leading publishers.
He has thought up the plot for his past four books right here, on Flagler County beaches — which he refers to as his “office.”
“(The beach) cleans my head out,” he said. “There’s just something about that place down there. It’s conducive to plotting. It’s very quiet. It’s very nice. … It cleans my head out and I can get things done.”
For five days a week, Berry’s goal is to write about 1,000 words before stopping. An entire novel takes him 12 months. In his career, he’s written 15 books and had 11 of them published.
Calling himself an “amateur historian,” he also loads up on sources, using between 300 to 400 per novel. About 90% of what he uses, he says, is in line with true history.
The other 10% he twists, “because it is a novel, and I’m here to entertain you.”
“I try to find something unique, that is different, that you may not know a lot about but you’d want to know more,” he said. For his new novel, “The Columbus Affair,” that something was Christopher Columbus, whom Berry found out in research might have been Jewish.
“We know nothing about Columbus,” he said. “(But) that’s the fun part — when you can find something from 500 years ago that, with just a little twist, changes everything today.”
Berry says he never sought out to be a commercial fiction writer. But he sees his 12 years of rejection as 12 years of craft training. And now, when he’s done working every day, he sees what’s on the page as a tangible product of his time and energy. A physical reward.
And for Berry, the same as any writer, “It’s a good day when that happens.”
AN EXCERPT FROM ‘THE COLUMBUS AFFAIR’
Tom Sagan gripped the gun. He’d thought about this moment for the past year, debating the pros and cons, finally deciding that one pro outweighed all cons.
He simply did not want to live any longer.
He’d once been an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, knocking down a solid six figure salary, his marquee by-line generating one front page, above-the-fold story after another. He’d worked all over the world — Sarajevo, Beijing, Johannesburg, Belgrade, and Moscow. But the Middle East became his specialty, a place he came to know intimately, where his reputation had been forged. His confidential files were once filled with hundreds of willing sources, people who knew he’d protect them at all costs. He’d proved that when he spent eleven days in a D.C. jail for failing to reveal his source on a story about a corrupt Pennsylvania congressman.
That man had gone to prison.
Tom had received his third Pulitzer nomination.
There were twenty-one awarded categories. One was for “distinguished investigative reporting by an individual or team, reported as a single newspaper article or a series.” Winners received a certificate, $10,000, and the ability to add three precious words — Pulitzer Prize winner — to their name.
He won his.
But they took it back.
Which seemed the story of his life.
Everything had been taken back.
His career, his reputation, his credibility, even his self respect. In the end he became a failure as a son, a father, a husband, a reporter, and a friend. A few weeks ago he’d charted that spiral on a pad, identifying that it all started when he was twenty-five, fresh out of the University of Florida, top third in his class, a journalism degree in hand.
Then his father disowned him.
Abiram Sagan had been unrelenting.
“We all make choices. Good. Bad. Indifferent. You’re a grown man, Tom, and have made yours. Now I have to make mine.”
And that he had.
On that same pad he’d jotted down the highs and lows. Some from before, as editor of his high school paper and campus reporter at college. Most after. His rise from a news assistant, to staff reporter, to senior international correspondent. The awards. Accolades. Respect from his peers. How had one observer described his style? Wide-ranging and prescient reporting conducted at great personal risk.
Then, his divorce.
The estrangement from his only child. Poor investment decisions. Even poorer life decisions.
Finally, his firing.
Eight years ago.
And the seemingly nothing life since.
Most of his friends were gone. But that was as much his fault as theirs. As his personal depression had deepened he’d withdrawn into himself. Amazing he hadn’t turned to alcohol or drugs, but neither had ever appealed to him.
Self pity was his intoxicant.
He stared around at the house’s interior.
He’d decided to die, here, in his parents’ home. Fitting, in some morbid way. Thick layers of dust and a musty smell reminded him that for three years the rooms had sat empty. He’d kept the utilities on, paid the meager taxes, and had the lawn cut just enough so the neighbors wouldn’t complain. Earlier, he’d noticed that the sprawling mulberry tree out front needed trimming, the picket fence painting.
He hated it here. Too many ghosts.
He walked the rooms, remembering happier days. In the kitchen he could still see jars of his mother’s jam that once lined the windowsill. The thought of her brought a wave of an unusual joy that quickly faded.
He should write a note and explain himself, blame somebody or something. But to who? Or what?
Nobody would believe him if he told them the truth. Unfortunately, just like eight years ago, there was no one to blame but himself.
Would anyone even care he was gone?
Certainly not his daughter. He’d not spoken to her in two years.
His literary agent? Maybe. She’d made a lot of money off his ghostwriting. He’d been shocked to learn how many so-called bestselling fiction writers could not write a word. What had one critic said at the time of his downfall? Journalist Sagan seems to have a promising career ahead of him writing fiction.
But he’d actually taken that advice.
He wondered-how does one explain taking their own life? It’s, by definition, an irrational act. Which, by definition, defies explanation. Hopefully, somebody would bury him. He had plenty of money in the bank, more than enough for a respectable funeral.
What would it be like to be dead?
Are you aware? Can you hear? See? Smell? Or is simply an eternal blackness. No thoughts. No feeling.
Nothing at all.
He walked back toward the front of the house.
Outside was a glorious March day, the noon time sun bright. Florida was truly blessed with some terrific weather. It was one reason he’d moved back from California after his firing. He’d miss the feel of a warm sun on a pleasant summer’s day.
He stopped in the open archway and stared at the parlor. That was what his mother had always called the room. This was where his parents had gathered on Shabbat. Where Abiram read from the Torah. The place where Yom Kippur and Holy Days had been celebrated. He recalled the sight of the pewter menorah on the far table burning. His parents had been devout Jews. After his bar mitzvah he too had first read from the Torah, standing before the twelve-paned windows, framed out by damask curtains his mother had taken months to sew. She’d been talented with her hands, a lovely woman, universally adored. He missed her. She died six years before Abiram, who’d now been gone three.
Time to end this.
He studied the gun, a pistol bought a few months before at an Orlando gun show.
He sat on the sofa.
Clouds of dust rose, then settled.
He recalled Abiram’s lecture about the birds and the bees as he’d sat in the same spot. He’d been, what, twelve?
Thirty-three years ago.
But it seemed like last week.
As usual, the explanations had been rough and concise.
“Do you understand?” Abiram asked him. “It’s important that you do.”
“I don’t like girls.”
“You will. So don’t forget what I said.”
Women. Another failure. He’d had precious few relationships as a young man, marrying Michele, the first girl who’d shown serious interest in him. But the marriage ended after his firing, and there’d been no more women since the downfall. Michele had taken a toll on him, in more ways than just financially.
“Maybe I’ll get to see her soon too,” he muttered.
His ex-wife had died two years ago in a car crash.
That was last time he and his daughter spoke, her words loud and clear. Get out. She would not want you here.
And he’d left the funeral.
He stared again at the gun, his finger on the trigger. He steeled himself, grabbed a breath, and nestled the barrel to his temple. He was left handed, like nearly every Sagan. His uncle, a former-professional baseball player, had told him as a child that if he could learn to throw a curve ball he’d make a fortune in the major leagues. Talented left handers were rare. But he’d failed at sports, too.
He brought the barrel to his temple.
The metal touched his skin.
He closed his eyes and tightened his finger on the trigger, imagining how his obituary would start. Tuesday, March 5th, former investigative journalist, Tom Sagan, took his own life at his parents’ home in Mount Dora, Florida.
A little more pressure and —
Rap. Rap. Rap.
He opened his eyes.
A man stood outside the front window, close enough to the panes for Tom to see the face — older than himself, clean-cut, distinguished — and the man’s right hand.
Which held a photograph, pressed to the glass.
He focused on the image of a young woman lying down, arms and feet extended.
As if bound.
He knew the face.
Excerpted from “The Columbus Affair,” by Steve Berry. Copyright © 2012 by Steve Berry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Berry is also the best-selling author of titles such as “The Jefferson Key,” “The Emperor’s Tomb,” “The Paris Vendetta” and “The Charlemagne Pursuit.” His work has been translated into 40 languages with more than 14 million printed books in 51 countries.
Berry, who reads 300 to 400 books on a single subject while researching for an historical novel, founded with his wife, Elizabeth, a nonprofit called History Matters, in 2010. The organization is dedicated to preserving historical texts and, for it, the couple travel the world raising funds for preservation projects.
For more on Steve Berry, visit www.steveberry.org.