As a young child, L. E. Berry grew up enthralled with recitals by his grandmother, Oretta, performed in the oral tradition of griots, the West African storytellers. He developed his love for a good story along with an appreciation for vivid imagery through tales she passed down from the generations before her. Born into an Air Force family, Berry moved from place to place and lived at various military bases around the world. L. E. often felt like an outsider in the new communities. He used his creativity and his undeniable abilities in art, inherited from his mother, Anna, to communicate and to help establish friendships during his family's frequent relocations. Prior to suffering a stroke in 2011, L.E. Berry worked as an accomplished visual artist and digital motion producer. Albeit unforeseen, at the age of eleven, he had taught himself to draw using his left hand in case he lost the use of the right one. Through studies of Art History, L.E. Berry developed an interest in the art of the pre-Renaissance period troubadours and considers them the world's first Pop Stars. In fact, their literary expressions of romantic love inspired the narrative for That One Almighty Thing. As our Author of the Day, he tells us all about his book, That One Almighty Thing.
Please give us a short introduction to what That One Almighty Thing is about.
The story follows Anwar, who is the product of an illicit love affair between his mother, a Moorish storyteller, and an aristocrat during 1350s Provence. Anwar is forced into exile to escape the wrath of his paternal grandfather, who vows to eliminate this mixed-race heir to keep his bloodline pure. An orphan and outcast, Anwar survives fighting for acceptance at The Institute of Provence, a school for troubadours. When his mentor discovers Anwar's gift for puzzle-solving and code-breaking, he is enlisted to help uncover evidence of a nefarious cabal’s plot to oust Queen Joanna I. Later, after being forced into unjust conscription, he finds love with the cabal leader's private nurse. Soon after, he is framed for murder and must outwit his enemies before they have murdered everyone that he loves.
What inspired you to write about an orphan fighting for acceptance?
I believe that, at some point, many people would like their gifts to be acknowledged by those around them—or at least they would like to be left alone for long enough to discover what talents they might possess. This theme is also carried through for Pippa, Anwar’s fellow orphaned companion, and the struggle for gender identity that she experiences. In a truly intolerant era of history, Pippa risks burning at the stake for society’s fears about anyone viewed as “other”.
Why did you pick the 1350s Provence as the backdrop for your story?
I’m fascinated with the political and societal change that occurred just previous to the Renaissance. Troubadours, the world’s first Pop Stars, saw their influence waning with the decline of patronage at the time. I thought of ways to weave a story around both the era’s romance and its stark injustice and corruption.
Tell us more about Anwar Montan. What makes him tick?
Anwar starts out so confused at his place in the world and he and Pippa try to face down the elements lined against them. He has unwittingly inherited his mother’s gift for storytelling and learns to use it to comfort, assuage, cajole, and even to seduce. In a story created for Sofia, his love interest, he recites:
The inspiration that possessed the artist had a life of its own. He felt himself ebbing slowly into the canvas, stroking the paints on so lightly and with such finesse as to bring a reluctant teardrop to the eye of the goddess. "How can a mere mortal bring such divinity to bear, and with such clarity?" she asked.
The artist, locking his eyes with hers, peered into her soul and spoke not—but still, she heard him say... "You presume much of me—and the most of this is my mortality. For who am I, if not a vessel for divinity? And are not, then, these hands those of a divine being once left to the devices of a god?"
Anwar also does some code-breaking, which is, to some readers, an unexpected element in this kind of historical context. Why did you take this approach?
I decided early on that Anwar’s puzzle-solving ability would be central to his personality so I imagined the code-breaking as essential to his quest. The fun was in constructing a medieval heist sub-plot that would challenge him using the technology of the era.
In which way is this a coming-of-age story?
Anwar’s journey begins as a mixed-race boy trying to find his way into adulthood while facing prejudice and injustice. Pippa must find her way through adolescence under constant scrutiny and the mortal threat the outside world poses. Both character arcs require them to reach beyond the limits of their circumstances.
Do any of your characters ever take off on their own tangent, refusing to do what you had planned for them?
A lot of them do! Sofia, Anwar’s love interest, just refused to be written off. In my first draft plan she tragically died, but by the time those chapters were finished she ended up asserting herself and telling me “Don’t even think about killing me off!” She still survives...
How much research did this novel require from you in order to make the history part of it ring true?
The research is immersive and ongoing. I’ve tried to build the world with vivid detail and nuance, with much of the limited tech of the day re-imagined to plausibly serve the purposes of the story. I also spent days at Northern California’s Renaissance Fair whenever I could to discuss the combat techniques, lifestyles, and sporting activities of the time.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I was an accomplished visual artist prior to suffering a stroke in 2010 during which I lost the ability to use my right drawing hand. I had a fear of this exact scenario when I was a teen and taught myself to draw reasonably well with my left hand. I felt the benefit of this training in basketball, where I was also able to shoot and dribble very well with my left.
You used to work as a visual artist and digital motion producer. How has this influenced your writing?
The most tangible way the processes are similar is that in digital motion to create rich visual compositions, you must combine layers upon layers of video, audio, text, and graphics. Then you move the layers this way and that until the pacing, rhythm, and the look is just right. I use this experience to plot stories that weave elements together in much the same way.