NPR’s Margot Adler interviews Eric Van Lustbader at ThrillerFest.Click here.
Expanded Books interviews Eric Van Lustbader about his newest thriller The Testament. Click here.
Eric Van Lustbader sits down with fellow thriller writer Steve Berry to discuss his newest blockbuster, The Testament (On-sale Sept 5, 2006). Lustbader and Berry talk about the history of secret societies, the hero as Outsider, the rise of extremist religious groups, and the future of thrillers. Click here to listen.
Your blockbuster bestsellers The Ninja (1980) and The Bourne Legacy (2005) have both revolved around secret organizations and the role of the outsider operating on the peripheries of society. In The Testament you focus on two feuding secret societies: the Order of Gnostic Observatines and the Knights of St. Clement. What do you find so intriguing about individuals and organizations that operate outside of the “normal” world? And why do you think your readers are so fascinated by these secret societies?
I grew up feeling that there was a secret history to the world, one we weren’t being taught in school. No doubt, this came from the fact that I began to write at the age of seven. A writer, by definition, is an outsider. He needs to have the ability to stand back from society – to detach himself from it – in order to see it for what it really is and to comment intelligently on it. Even though I write fiction, it’s been my goal from the beginning to introduce readers to different civilizations, different histories, especially the histories of secret societies. I’ve always wanted them to come away from my books learning or understanding something new – especially about themselves.
And, of course, there are the outsiders within the Voire Dei, as the main character, Bravo’s world is called. The women of Voire Dei are outsiders even from their fellow order members. The important question of women’s roles within the Voire Dei is one of my favorite aspects of the book. And then there’s Bravo. As The Testamentbegins, he’s something of an outsider to the “normal” world, because with his training his father has prepared him for the world of Voire Dei. In this sense, he’s very much like Nicholas Linnear, the protagonist of The Ninja, who is half-Caucasian, half-Asian.
By now, my readers understand that much of what is interesting occurs in secret societies because they operate outside the law. It’s the most natural thing in the world for most people to harbor a fantasy to be free of rules and regulations. They also have an increasing hunger to know all the things they’re not being told or think they’re not being told.
Both the Order of Gnostic Observatines and the Knights of St. Clement operate in a clandestine world called the Voire Dei, or the truth of God. The Voire Dei seems like the ultimate society of outsiders. Why do these groups occur again and again throughout history and what part does faith play in the formation of these groups?
Human nature being what it is, there are always individuals who choose or are forced to operate outside of society. These individuals can, of course, work alone. Some do. But others seek to form a new society – a secret one, hidden in the shadows. Some feel protected there, others see it as a base from which to accumulate and wield power, without the interference of society.
Faith, I think, plays an enormous part in secret societies, whether they be religious or secular. Faith is one of those wonderful elastic concepts that can be applied to many things: faith in God, faith in an ideal, in a goal, in loyalty, in being of like mind. These last two are by far the most important areas for me because they cover the entire spectrum from religious orders, to criminal families, to terrorist cadres.
Do you believe such societies are actually at work right now?
To my knowledge, the Order of Gnostic Observatines and the Knights of St. Clement, though based on hard research, don’t exist today – at least, not as I’ve depicted them. Then why, one might ask, did I create them at all? The answer is simple: the story dictated it. The origins of what is happening now began with the Crusades and came to a climax in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was logical, then, for my story to start there. It was also logical that the story involve religious orders, since in that era power was concentrated in Christendom’s religious center. The story, like all good stories, dictated conflict. To that end, I created two opposing religious orders: one that was the strong right arm of the pope, the other that was a breakaway order, labeled heretical by the pope as a way of stopping it from gaining power. This much is historical fact. The motives and missions I attribute to the orders in Bravo are, however, my own invention.
You are known for the historical detail with which you imbue your novels. How do you incorporate your background of research into the historical and sociological implications of religious conflict into the writing of The Testament?
Ever since majoring in Sociology at Columbia College, I’ve been fascinated by how history informs the thinking and actions, not only of individuals, but of groups and, even, countries. That’s why, before I wrote a word of my first Thriller, The Ninja in 1980, I steeped myself in the history, legends and lore of Japan. It seemed logical to me to have whole sections take place in the Japan of 1947-49, because the events that transpired then literally created the action in the present. Ever since then, each one of my 25 thrillers has had a historical basis.
For The Testament I turned my historical eye toward Europe and the Middle East because it seemed to me that current – and future world events – are being informed by what happened in the Middle East during the Crusades, and for several centuries afterward, when the “Levant,” as the Middle East was known then, was forcibly opened up to trade by the Venetians, the Genoese, the Florentines (all separate Italian city-states at the time) and well as the Spanish, the Flemish and other European countries. But the Levant was really opened up by the pope during the Crusades, when almost all the power and money in the world was concentrated in his hands. In the rise of the fundamentalist Christian movement in the United States, and the informing of some American foreign policy by religious beliefs, history seems to be repeating itself.
You mention the Crusades and the way history seems to be repeating itself. Do you believe the world is currently embroiled in a religious war?
The evidence is there for anyone to see. At the present time, it’s mainly a war within religions, involving escalating enmity between fundamentalists and secularists. You can see the damage it has already inflicted not only in the Middle East, where everyone’s attention is currently focused, but also in Russia, Ukraine, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc., countries that have massive Muslim populations. I think it’s going to be a major part of our life for decades to come.
But calling it a religious war is making something complex appear simple. Islamic extremists certainly talk of America’s growing involvement in the Middle East in terms of an invasion, a new Crusade that endangers their radical interpretation of Islam and their way of life. In fact, however, it seems clear that beneath the rhetoric they believe that we’re in the Middle East to protect our strategic oil interests.
On the other hand, you have the secular government of the United States waging a war on terror. But high up within that government you have Christian conservative elements with policy-making authority, men who sometimes invoke the name of God in the performance of their policies, which only serves to strengthen the extreme Islamic contention that they are, indeed, waging a holy war.
Would it be dangerous for the Bush administration to label the “War on Terror” as a religious war? What are the implications? Wouldn’t it fracture the essence of American democracy if the US was to use its power against a certain group?
It would be terribly dangerous because labeling it “a religious war” would, as you say, target a specific religious group – at least in the minds of many. This would be completely wrong. I’ve gone to great lengths in my novels to have characters say that Islam is a religion of peace. The vast majority of Muslims here, and around the world, are wonderful, thoughtful, law-abiding citizens, who contribute in all ways to their families, their communities and their countries. The war I am speaking of is between and against extremists of all types. Muslim extremists – to take one example – target not only Westerners, but also secular Muslims.
But this is a new kind of war. Because it is less about territorial aggression than exporting and safeguarding religion and culture there is more opportunity for dialog, more ways, it seems to me, to find a solution that does not necessarily lead to continuous war and loss of life.
You mention that there is more opportunity for dialog in this new kind of war-and indeed, there are Muslims that assist Bravo in the book. Is there a way to build bridges between religious groups in order to bring peace?
Yes, absolutely. Personally, I don’t believe that violence on our part is the way to battle Muslim extremism. In fact, I think it only continues the cycle of hate and violence. What we have to understand is that the hatred of the West – particularly America – is taught in fundamentalist schools from a very early age. Every year, there is a new crop of young men prepared to go out as suicide bombers, and give their lives for their cause. The only way to break this cycle is to find ways to reeducate these people.
In this respect, the moderate Muslims (the vast majority) are our best resource. This kind of initiative takes time – something Americans have difficulty understanding or even believing. We’re part of an instantaneous society that wants everything immediately. In the meantime, we do have to be vigilant and beef up our security organizations. The best way to do that is to find the people who are fluent in all forms of Arabic, who are Arabists, who really understand the people who want to hurt us, and can help us be more pro-active against terrorists, not simply reactive.
It will surprise some readers that Bravo is intent on making sure that the Quintessence does not fall into the hands of the Pope or those working for him. What is behind the Order’s longtime devotion to keeping the Testament and the Quintessence hidden?
There are a number of considerations here, all of them complex and moralistic in nature. For one thing, the Quintessence is the literal presence of God on earth. It was (presumably) made by Him. So in a very real sense, the Quintessence is not of this earth, not subject to earthly laws. For another, the temptation to do evil with it was a subject much debated in the Order’s inner circle. Human nature being what it is, there is a tendency within individuals to want power and, having it, to want more. The Quintessence represents the ultimate power – extended life, perhaps (who knows?) even immortality.
If a pope lived behind his lifetime, perhaps that would be a good thing. But what if it wasn’t? What if the pope was corrupt, or corruptible? What if, even worse from a religious/humanistic point of view, the use of the Quintessence corrupted him? Finally, we come to an even larger question. Human beings have a natural life span. What would happen if you introduced a substance that radically extended that life span? The implications – for war, territorial rights, massive overpopulation, world-wide famine – are as staggering as they are terrifying. These are the conclusions the Order arrived at. One might logically ask: then why not destroy the Quintessence? The answer is simple: who among us could destroy something that God made?
Is there an actual historical record of the “Secret Gospel according to Mark,” also known as the “Testament of Jesus Christ?” And if so, are there implications in it that Jesus was not the son of God?
The so-called “Secret Gospel” was discovered in 1958 by Prof. Morton Smith at the Mar Saba monastery, near Jerusalem. The document is part of a letter apparently from Clement of Alexandria, a “Secret Gospel of Mark,” which he claims is in the custody of the Church in Alexandria. It is being kept secret, the letter states, because the Gospel recounts a story of Jesus performing a miracle.
[Jesus] could admit his followers to the kingdom of God, and he could do it in some special way, so that they were not there merely by anticipation, nor by virtue of belief and obedience, nor by some other figure of speech, but were really, actually, in….”
This contention is as radical as it is heretical. To many Christians the idea that Jesus could perform magical feats was a dangerous departure from the usual historical/religious scholarship which is steadfast in its belief that there was nothing supernatural to what the historical Jesus did or said.
Like all good novelists I’ve taken a “what if” stance. What if the Gospel of Mark is correct? What if Jesus was a miracle worker? Jesus anointed Lazarus when he resurrected him. What if that oil was the Quintessence, the Holy Grail of all Alchemists, which they called the Fifth Element: God-stuff. Extrapolating further, what if the Disciples used the Quintessence to resurrect Jesus? Would he still be the son of God? These are controversial questions both from a religious and a historical perspective that The Testament asks and seeks to answer.
From Jenny to Camille to the Anchorite nun, you’ve created a variety of strong and powerful female characters – what is the role of women in The Testament? Is there room for women in the religious war?
Why wouldn’t there be? From the time I first began to write, I created strong female characters. I suppose that’s because most of my best friends are women. I was never the kind of guy who sat around watching sports with my male friends and drinking beer. Women fascinate me, so I’ve always written about them. Frankly, I think women are particularly suited for the religious wars. Here’s why: 1. Their first instinct isn’t to shoot first and ask questions later. 2. Because women in general are more flexible, they’re most likely to come up with alternative solutions to situations that seem cut-and-dried to men.
Why did Bravo’s father feel the need to hide his involvement in the Order from Bravo? Why was Jenny brought into the order at a young age and Bravo protected?
Bravo’s mother – who knew what Dexter did and how dangerous a life it was – made it clear that she didn’t want Bravo exposed to the order, as Dexter wanted. Bravo’s parents came to a compromise: Dexter would train Bravo in mind, spirit and body, but would keep from him any knowledge of the Order. Neither of them ever spoke of what would happen when Dexter felt Bravo was needed in the Order. However, in Dexter’s mind, Bravo was destined to take over for him when he stepped down as Keeper.
Jenny was her father’s only child. The one ray of joy in an otherwise unfulfilling marriage. He made it his life’s work to see her inducted into the Order, despite many others’ objections because she was female. The ways in which women are treated in both Orders down through the centuries is a major theme in Bravo. How these difficulties shaped the lives of the two main female characters – Jenny and Camille – is both profound and poignant.
How did your experience writing The Bourne Legacy shape this book?
Legacy can easily be read as a strict action adventure story. But, for me, the pleasure and the unique quality of the novel has come through the developing father-son relationship between Bourne and Khan. This character arc is what drives the book.
The very same thing can be said for Bravo. Many readers will no doubt read it as an action-adventure filled with fascinating tidbits about medieval life and lore. But, for me, what drives the novel is, again, the father-son relationship, so very different than the one I created in Legacy.
Astute readers may wonder why I seem so fixated on father-son relationships. In fact, this began all the way back with The Ninja. Nicholas’ father is, to my mind, one of the best characters I ever created. If it wasn’t for him, there’d be no story. The answer is long and complicated, but the short version is that my father, who died several years ago, was my best friend and confidant. My relationship with him was complex, sometimes difficult, but always immensely rewarding.
Does this book come from a more personal place than your previous bestsellers? Do you identify with Bravo?
I think all my books come from a personal place. That’s how I write. I always have and I always will. I don’t believe you can write a compelling novel unless part of you is involved on a personal level. That’s not to say that my novels have a particular political or moral axe to grind. I think that’s for other writers. I try to stay strictly agnostic. I’ve prided myself on making my antagonists as real as my protagonists. Everyone – even the darkest of individuals – have reasons for doing what they do, even if it’s only the misguided notion that what they’re doing is right. Motivation is everything. Without it, any character is just a cardboard cutout, and of no use to me.
What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?
I would hope that through reading Bravo they’d gain a better understanding of how the world works. An understanding of how the past always informs the present. A sense that there are solutions, there is always another way. A realization that a knowledge of history is essential in coping with the complexities of modern-day life. It’s true what they say: knowledge is power.
You have written both thrillers and fantasy novels. What appeals to you about writing thrillers?
Growing up, I was always on the outside of society looking in, and even though that was where I’d chosen to be, it was a lonely existence. I grew up with a tangible fear of being “normal” – of marrying, moving to the suburbs, having 2.5 kids and a dog. As a Sociology major at Columbia College, I came to understand my own nature and, eventually, to recognize the burning desire inside me to write about the special nature of “the outsider: the struggle of “the outsider” to find oneself and to come to terms with who one is. This is what the thriller is all about — living outside of society.
What kind of experience was it writing the latest Jason Bourne novel?
It was pure fun. It was also intense — the novel needed to be finished in time to coincide with the release of the film “The Bourne Supremacy.” Curiously, this intensity deepened the fun for me. I’ve had three careers: teaching, music business executive and writing. One of my first jobs in the music business was writing forCash Box, an industry newsmagazine. Having a weekly deadline was a lot of pressure, but it was pressure I thrived under. I think this asset stood me in good stead on this project.
Was it difficult to take on such a well-established and popular fictional character?
It might have been for someone else, but it wasn’t for me. Quite the opposite, in fact. I knew Jason Bourne inside and out; I knew what made him tick. This knowledge made it extraordinarily easy for me to write a novel with him as the lead character. In fact, it seemed altogether natural. I think this is because Jason Bourne’s situation is very emotional. I am a writer who believes in character first, and though the storyline in The Bourne Legacy moves like a shot, each and every character in it is real and three-dimensional. The novel is very emotional.
What do you think is the enduring appeal of the Jason Bourne character?
There’s no question in my mind that Jason Bourne is Bob’s most intriguing character, and the reason is simple: he is, in all important ways, a blank slate. Having amnesia makes Bourne instantly sympathetic — add to that the fact that his first wife and children were killed and you have an instant hero with whom everyone empathizes. For a writer like me, this conceit is manna from heaven. Imagine, at any moment, the doorbell or the phone may ring and it’ll be someone from Bourne’s past. This makes it possible to spin out endless story lines that for any other lead character would be difficult to impossible — readers would say, Hey, how come I didn’t know about that in the previous book? You’re not playing fair!
It’s been said that since 9/11, many readers have shown a new interest in reading espionage thrillers as a way to better understand what is happening in the world today. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I think this is true, but I also think that readers want even more from their thrillers these days: they want to gain insight into history — how we got to this place. I’m extremely encouraged that so many thriller readers want to learn about faraway people and places — things they never knew or were taught in school — as well as wanting to be entertained. This is wonderful for me because my approach to writing has always been that I want the reader to learn as well as to be entertained.
There have been times when certain espionage thriller novels have come very close to predicting future world events. As a thriller writer, how do you keep yourself so well informed as to create realistic scenarios about the world of international espionage and terrorism?
I could say I simply keep my eyes and ears open, but I don’t know whether that really covers it. So much of what a novelist does is unexplainable, except to other novelists. Everything I see, hear and feel is eventually grist for the mill, whether I realize it at the time or not. I think the best writers are also exceptionally well attuned to the zeitgeist — the tenor and the tempo of the times. As a confirmed conspiracist (something else Bob and I had in common) I’m always on the lookout for unexplained phenomena either in the present of in the past. It’s tremendous fun to spin out hypotheses from this sort of starting point.
Where do you think the thriller genre is headed in today’s post 9/11 world?
It would be nice to say that I know, but it would be untrue. I doubt anyone does. Anyway, in this case, like many other things in life, the journey, it seems to me, is more important than the destination.
When you are not writing, how do you like to spend your time?
Thinking up ideas for my next novel! That’s only half a joke. I also travel to Europe a lot, to clear my head by being in new and unfamiliar surroundings. I have my garden. I read constantly, as I have done ever since I was a small child. And I’m on the Board of Trustees and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of City & Country, my former elementary school and the very best progressive private school in the country.
Your first bestseller was The Ninja. How did you come to write it?
I’ve written over twenty international bestsellers, but the first one is always the greatest thrill. I had become interested in Japanese woodblock prints and found my way to the Ronin Gallery in New York, which was at the time a nexus for a group of Japanese-Americans with whom I became friendly. It was from one of them that I heard about the ninja. I immediately thought of an interview I’d read with Alfred Hitchcock, one of my favorite film directors. He was talking about “North by Northwest” and he was saying that what drew him to the story was the idea of a chaotic incident undermining an otherwise placid existence. I thought of the ninja as an agent of chaos and began to speculate what would happen if a ninja appeared in modern-day Manhattan. The rest, as they say, is history, except for the first ten publishers who turned the manuscript down!
Every author can name at least one author that inspired him or her to write, who is yours?
To start with, Raymond Chandler and Victor Hugo. Later on, Frank Herbert, Bob Ludlum, Don DeLillo, Barry Unsworth. An eclectic list, to be sure.