Novelist Steve Berry, thrilled to be preserving America’s history

October 17, 2012

His historical thrillers with an international bent have sold more than 14 million copies and been translated into 40 languages, but author Steve Berry spends a good chunk of each year helping preserve the nation’s nonfictional history.

The former small-town lawyer (Camden County, Ga.) will be doing that all day Thursday, hosting a writing workshop and reception at the National Museum of Natural History, a fundraiser to benefit the Smithsonian Libraries’ rare books, special collections and preservation programs.

This sounds pretty standard — a lot of famous authors lend their names to a pet cause — until you get to the part where Berry runs the nonprofit organization that sets up such fundraisers, then pays his own expenses to the event and donates the time.

History Matters has raised nearly $400,000 in three years, he says, at about 35 events. The nonprofit’s causes include preserving a tattered flag of the city of Houston and restoration work on Mark Twain’s house in Connecticut.

“I was out in Oregon for an event a few years ago, and an archivist was talking to us about how there are millions of old documents about this country’s history, and every second of every day ink fades off a page and you can’t read it again,” he says.


Steve Berry runs a nonprofit that benefits projects that preserve American artifacts, from an old flag to Mark Twain’s house. (Kelly Campbell/KELLY CAMPBELL)

Berry grew up in Atlanta, then practiced law and was elected as a county commissioner in a tiny southeastern corner of Georgia, where he lived for the next three decades. He’d been a history buff since high school, and this interest eventually sparked his second career as a novelist.

He wrote five books that collected 85 rejection letters before “The Amber Room,” a thriller about the famed Nazi looting of a Russian art treasure, finally broke through (“plotted cleverly and written with style and substance,” said Booklist at the time).

Globe-trotting titles such as “The Romanov Prophecy,” “The Templar Legacy” and “The Venetian Betrayal” followed, and the success of these allowed him to leave his law practice and move to St. Augustine, Fla., in 2009. His latest, “The Columbus Affair,” opens with Christopher Columbus ordering the execution of a spy from the Spanish Inquisition.

This kind of thing, the author says, is a lot more fun than the old days: “Thursdays were divorce day in our courthouse. I would do six or 10 a day. They’re still down there, every Thursday. I don’t miss that at all.”

About the time he left the law practice, he hit on the idea for the fundraising project. The pitch: He and his wife (Elizabeth Berry, executive director of International Thriller Writers) would travel to events hosted by local historical groups and run day-long seminars on the art and business of thriller writing, and the host would pocket the proceeds.

It’s working: The event last week, for the Twain home, netted $70,000, he said.

Thursday’s seminar at the Smithsonian will be more intimate. About 40 people have paid the $175 fee for the writing class, cocktail reception and tour of the libraries’ rare-books collections.

“It’s the first time we’ve done an event like this,” said Tina Muracco, director of development for the Smithsonian Libraries. “We met Steve last year [at the National Book Festival], and he approached us with the idea. It just seems like the perfect fit — our libraries with his genre.”

Steve Berry: A Writer’s Workshop

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Seminar, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; reception, 6:30-8:30 p.m. $175 per person. For more information, call 202-633-2241.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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