When New York Times best-selling authors Steve Berry and Lis Wiehl made their joint debut at the Warren County Public Library (WCPL) in Bowling Green, KY on June 13 no one could believe it was the first time they met. The authors were there to discuss their most recent novels, The Kings Deception by Steve Berry and A Matter of Trust by Lis Wiehl.
It was a remarkable evening made more memorable by the authors’ comfortable, informal conversation about the legal profession and writing, included shared insights, laughter and a lively, informative question-and-answer session. Berry’s three decades as counsel for the defense versus Wiehl’s equal time as a prosecutor and law school professor served as a basis for mutual ribbing and made it seem this was an occasion reuniting old friends rather than introducing two new acquaintances.
Steve and his wife, Elizabeth, received an unexpected surprise when they found his parents, sister and niece waiting to greet them. They were in town from Georgia for his nephew’s baseball tournament in Bowling Green. Steve shared with the audience that his father Sam’s given name is “Harold Earl” just like his most popular protagonist Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone. The capacity audience gave the authors a warm southern welcome and queued up eagerly in a line that snaked the length of the CEC Parish Hall. Conversation made the wait pass quickly and I took the opportunity to visit with Steve Berry’s gregarious family. Sam shared with me that his favorite Steve Berry book is The Templar Legacy, which generated the largest number of letters from Catholic readers.
“They need to remember Steve is writing fiction!” Berry’s mother told me, “Sam would read 24 hours a day if you let him.” His sister is partial to The Alexandria Link and The King’s Deception but admitted to liking them all. She is proud her brother persisted in his attempts to become a published author after 85 rejections.
BookTrib readers may be surprised that Bowling Green in south-central Kentucky is not a cultural wasteland or literary flyover zone as some of our friends predicted when we moved to Glasgow, KY (approximately 35 miles from Bowling Green) several years ago. In a town of 60,000 with an additional West Kentucky University student population of 20,000, Warren County Public Library has become a major stop on author book tours and a favorite tourist destination for book lovers. It’s not just ‘Corvettes and Caves’ but also a mecca for visiting writers and their avid fans. WCPL’s charismatic marketing manager, Jayne Pelaski, despite tight budgetary constraints, choreographs free, ticketed author events that attract crowds from surrounding states. Executive Director Lisa Rice, library staff and board members own the American Library Association slogan: “Authors are my rock stars” and are as eager to enjoy the evenings as any fan.
The roster of authors presented during the past year includes many New York Times best-sellers, a Pulitzer Prize winner and recipients of a myriad of awards and honors. Among them: Mary Alice Monroe, Jeff Shaara, Michael Bolton, Bernice McFadden, William Paul Young, Sandra Brown, Lisa Gardner, Mary McDonough, comedian Jimmie Walker, Neil White, Rick Bragg and Craig Johnson. WCPL in partnership with WKU and Barnes and Noble, is also responsible for the creation and annual production of SOKY Book Fest, one of Kentucky’s largest literary events for 15 years. Local and Kentucky authors are not overlooked with weekly “Cabin Fever” talks in January and book launches throughout the year.
Here’s an example of the lively banter we enjoyed during Berry and Wiehl’s visit.
STEVE: It’s kind of interesting you were a prosecutor.
LIS: I was a federal prosecutor and you were a defense lawyer. So I was on the right side of the law and you were on the wrong.
STEVE: I was on the side that made a lot of money.
LIS: And I was on the side that didn’t make a lot of money.
LIS: Was Queen Elizabeth I an impostor?
STEVE: There’s a pretty compelling case for it. That woman had a lot to hide. It all adds up to one thing: she had a very devastating secret of some sort. She’s always described as an extremely manly woman…. There’s a really easy way to find out [if my theory is correct]. Let’s open the grave and let’s see what’s in there. Is there a 70-year-old woman and a 40-year-old woman? The Daily Mail ran a big article while we were in Britain last week. The headline was “Author calls for opening Elizabeth’s grave.” If we could do that it would be wonderful. Elizabeth’s tomb is one of the few, if not the only, royal grave that has never been opened. Even during the English civil war when they desecrated all of them but they didn’t touch that one. That one’s never been sealed up since 1603.
LIS: If you were a prosecutor you could get that.
STEVE: Do you find writing fiction liberating?
LIS: Of course! To use a snapshot or a historical perspective and then to change the names to protect the innocent, protect the guilty I should say, and come up with stories that are based on reality because of experiences …that you and I have had, shared experiences…that’s amazing and completely liberating… do you agree?
STEVE: It’s fun to do; it’s great. I get asked all the time, ‘Did being a lawyer help you become a novelist?’ and I’ll be very honest with you—no, it didn’t do anything and I’ll tell you why. When you write as a lawyer, the object of legal writing is to say it over and over and over until it’s true.
LIS: OK, that’s a defense perspective.
STEVE: The object of legal writing is to persuade. The object of fiction is to entertain.
LIS: And inform. We get to go from ‘true’ and create our own world.
STEVE: Writers spend 10 percent of their time writing and 90 percent of their time thinking about what to write. That’s the way it works. For me it’s probably 95:5 percent. I think about novels constantly.
LIS: It’s the same thing in the courtroom though. What the jurors see is maybe 5 percent of the real work… everything has been done before we get into the courtroom. Once we’re in the courtroom then we’re putting on a show.
STEVE: Yes, that’s true. It’s a controlled show with evidence.
LIS: But it’s the 90 to 95 percent research, the work that goes into the behind the scenes, the gathering of the evidence before you even get to the picking that jury, that’s all. All the rest is the frosting on the cake.
STEVE: A novel is the same way. You’re spending all that time thinking about it then you put it together and do it.
STEVE: What changes have I seen in the publishing industry? My print runs are down 50 perce3nt from five years ago and my eBook sales are up 10,000 percent. More people are reading than any time in human history and there is more information available for you to read than in any time in human history.
STEVE: How has writing changed our lives? I never thought I would make my living writing. My life didn’t change, the world did.
LIS: In the words of Joseph Campbell, I am living my bliss.