Cathartic Thrills

AirplaneA few years ago I was on a book tour in Spain, where I spent two days in a hotel being interviewed by reporters. Interestingly, nearly all of them posed a similar inquiry: What’s it like not to write serious fiction?

I admit, at first I was thrown by the question. But in the end I answered it with an inquiry of my own. How many times have seen a person reading War and Peace on an airplane? None of the reporters answered me, so I offered the answer for them. None. Then I asked a second question: How many times have you seen someone reading a thriller on an airplane? Of course, the answer was obvious. Many. I followed up these two questions with a statement: I doubt that Tolstoy could have written a popular thriller. Which is similar to my doubt that I could write like Tolstoy. That doesn’t make either one of us better than the other, it simply makes us different.

It’s true, no thriller will ever win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize for Literature. They rarely win anything (except of course the Thriller awards, bestowed each July by the International Thriller Writers, of which I am currently the co-president). And it could be argued that no thriller will change the face of world literature. Great analyses will not be written about them, and rarely are they favorably viewed by any of the major book review outlets.

Those things also don’t make them bad, they simply make them different.

Thrillers perform one simple task: they entertain. For a short while they allow readers to escape their own world, to forget their own troubles, and to just have a good time. Luckily, the genre is packed with a multitude of sub-genres, each geared to its particular audience, who savor those subdivisions with a zeal that has long helped to sustain publishing houses.

A few months ago I received an email from a reader. He’d gone through a difficult divorce, then was involved in a car accident. While recuperating he’d read a number of thrillers, including all of my Cotton Malone series. He wanted me to know that my stories had helped him through a difficult time. They’d allowed him time to relax, and he said that without them his recovery period would have been unbearable. And he’s not alone. Nearly every week I receive emails from servicemen and -women stationed overseas. They too want me to know that my stories were a welcome relief from the horrors they witness every day.

So what’s it like not to write serious fiction?

Not bad.

Not bad at all.

Steve Berry is the New York Times bestselling author of The Balkan Escape, The Paris Vendetta, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Venetian Betrayal, The Alexandria Link, The Templar Legacy, The Third Secret, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Amber Room. His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages and sold in fifty countries. He lives in the historic old city of St. Augustine, Florida. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have founded History Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our heritage. Visit to learn more about Berry and the foundation.