A Conversation with Steve Berry
Question: The subject of The Alexandria Link is the Library of Alexandria. What exactly was it?
Steve Berry: The grandest collection of knowledge in the ancient world: part university, laboratory, research institute, and zoo. An impressive complex of buildings and gardens (situated in two separate locations), resembling a Greek temple, each with richly decorated lecture and banquet halls linked by colonnaded walks. Founded in the fourth century bce, the library was staffed by Greek scientists, philosophers, artists, writers, and scholars, and contained a vast collection, more than 700,000 scrolls and papyri. If any book was found aboard a ship that visited Alexandria, the law required it to be taken to the library and copied, the tradition being that no manuscript should not be available in Alexandria.
Q: What was Alexander himself like?
SB: Complex, to say the least. He lived a short life, thirty-three years, from 356 — 323 bce. He was first king of Macedonia, then conquered much of what was then the civilized world – Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Asia all the way to western India. He’s been physically depicted in a variety of conflicting ways, which seems to only add to his mystique. A warrior of the highest order, he possessed a shrewd political sense that enabled him to convert bitter enemies into long-lasting friends. He was also a visionary: a Greek who became a Persian, rejecting the petty nationalism that clouded much of his time’s political thinking. Before Alexander, eastern ideas flourished. After him, western thoughts dominated. He ushered in the Hellenistic Age of Greek dominance which, together with the later Romans and Christianity, formed the foundation of what is now western civilization. An amazing legacy.
Q: What eventually became of the Library of Alexandria?
SB: One version holds that it burned when Julius Caesar fought Ptolemy XIII in 48 bce. Caesar ordered the torching of the royal fleet, but the fire spread throughout the city and may have consumed the library. Another version blamed Christians who supposedly destroyed both the main library in 272 ce and the secondary one, in the Serapeum, in 391– part of their effort to rid the city of all pagan influences. A final account credited Arabs with the library’s destruction after they conquered Alexandria in 642. The caliph Omar, when asked about books in the imperial treasury, was quoted as saying, If what is written agrees with the Book of God, they are not required. If it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them. So for six months, scrolls supposedly fueled the baths of Alexandria. But no one knows which version is true. The more likely explanation is that as Egypt was confronted with growing unrest and foreign aggression, the library became victim to persecution, mob violence, and military occupation – no longer enjoying special privileges. As with so much that man creates, it simply faded away.
Q: Is there a chance that the library is actually still in existence?
SB: What a find that would be, but sadly, it’s most probably gone. Still, we can imagine that it survived.
Q: Given the recent talk about efforts to bring all written material together into one comprehensive and accessible digital library, was the Library of Alexandria ahead of its time?
SB: No question. Even ancient man recognized the logic and convenience of having knowledge both assimilated and organized. Unfortunately, the Library of Alexandria represented one of the first and last attempts of that age to accomplish the task. After its demise, it was not until the Middle Ages, 800 years later, that man again managed to duplicate the endeavor.
Q: How did you become interested in the topic?
SB: I’ve had an interest in the Library of Alexandria for many years, and knew that I wanted to eventually do a book on it. Libraries are fascinating. I currently serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Camden County library, so the institutions have a near and dear place in my heart.
Q: What about Poussin’s strange painting, The Shepherds of Arcadia II, and the odd markings at Bainbridge Hall in England, which you also work into the novel? Any idea what those really mean?
SB: Impossible to say. Both are fascinating. Why Poussin painted the reverse image of one of his earlier works remains a mystery. But that curiosity, as well as Poussin’s actual life, fit well into the plot. The markings (along with Poussin’s reverse painting) at my fictional Bainbridge Hall are based on an actual monument which stands at Shugborough Hall in England. Many an expert has tried to decipher their meaning and none have offered any satisfactory explanation. I actually think my interpretation might make the most sense.
Q: The prologue of The Alexandria Link is set in Palestine in 1948 – just as the state of Israel was being established. This was obviously a crucial time in the history of that war-torn area, but is also a tough subject to address. What led you to write about it? How did you research the time and place? And what were the challenges involved?
SB: I struggled with this prologue, debating whether to use ancient times or stay current. I settled on 1948 because what happened to the Arabs during the nakba has great relevance to what’s happening in the world today. That’s the thing about the Middle East conflict: history plays a pivotal role. Researching all those events was easy. There are countless books. The challenge came in balancing the many conflicting claims. And, believe me, there aren’t two, but one hundred and two, sides to every story.
Q: For the first time in your career, you bring back characters in this novel. Cotton Malone and a few others return from your recent bestseller, The Templar Legacy. Was it easier to work with characters you already knew, or was it harder?
SB: A little of both. You can’t assume that readers of this book will have read The Templar Legacy, so there’s a certain amount of character development that has to be included with each story. What recurring characters offer, though, is an ability to grow. Readers can learn more about these personalities as they face differing situations. Like old friends, the more you see them, the more you know about them. That’s different from my first three novels, The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Third Secret, which were all stand-alones.
Q: I assume Cotton and the others will be back. Can you give any clues as to what adventure awaits them?
SB: All I can tell you is they will all be back in The Venetian Betrayal. Visit my website for details: www.steveberry.org.