Debut novel revisits unsolved political assassination

FAMILY BUSINESS: Career journalist Steve Berg turned to his screenwriter son for help with his debut novel. Author photo courtesy of Berg

For decades, Steve Berg’s job was to do anything but write fiction.

After five years as a reporter with The News & Observer in Raleigh, he was hired by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For 30 years, he worked as a feature writer, political correspondent and editorialist in the Twin Cities and Washington, D.C. Getting the facts right on each assignment was of the utmost importance and inventing anything was out of the question. But as retirement loomed, the prospect of becoming a novelist grew increasingly appealing.

“I like to read fiction and I thought, ‘Is this really hard, or is it easy?’” Berg says. “And I found out pretty quickly that it was really hard for me to make stuff up.”

Now based primarily in Asheville — he and his wife, Dixie, keep a condo in Minneapolis and visit during the summer — Berg persevered in his quest to become an author. His debut work, Lost Colony: The Hennepin Island Murders, was published in October.

‘Minnesota nice’

The novel begins in 1986 with a dramatized telling of a real event: the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme — a crime that remains unsolved. The tale then jumps ahead 30 years to Minneapolis and the grisly murder of an activist priest on the altar of a Swedish American church. Reporter Span Lokken is assigned the story and joins forces with Maggie Lindberg, assistant to the murdered priest, to investigate. Together, they discover a link between the two bloody acts.

Berg says anchoring Lost Colony on a historical event helped bridge his journalism past with his fiction future. Creating a protagonist who was a reporter also helped further stoke his imagination.

“I couldn’t imagine trying to write something about characters that I didn’t know anything about. So that’s why I wrote about journalists,” Berg says. “And the same thing goes for the setting. I couldn’t imagine myself writing about Louisiana, for example, because I’ve never lived there.”

Though much of the story takes place on the fictional Hennepin Island, which Berg set in the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the place is influenced by the author’s history with the Twin Cities.

“It’s kind of an exotic place — ‘exotic’ meaning there’s a lot of water, there’s a lot of fog, and there’s a lot of moody, kind of gnarly stuff going on that you wouldn’t expect,” he says. “There’s a phrase called ‘Minnesota nice,’ where everybody’s supposed to be chirpy and like Betty White. When actually, there are many dark places in people’s hearts.”

Despite writing about a journalist, Berg stresses that he’s nothing like Span Lokken. The author describes his protagonist as “on this long, slow-glide path to retirement,” doing just enough not to get fired yet constantly at odds with his editors. For Berg, it was the opposite.

“I was a pretty happy journalist. I came to work every day, I got in the elevator, and the walls didn’t close in on me,” he says. “I tried not to hang around with the people who are always conjecturing about how horrible their job was. Because it’s not a horrible job.”

In figuring out what type of story to tell, Berg tapped into his Scandinavian heritage and his love of Nordic noir novels. He did research to see if anyone had written something similar to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) but set in the U.S. His search came up empty.

“But I’m mostly a fan of film noir. I just love to watch those old black-and-white movies,” he says. “The mood [of Lost Colony is more similar to] movies like The Maltese Falcon. Or the Coen Brothers — they’re both from Minneapolis and they mix bizarre humor with crime novels all the time. They’re probably more of an inspiration than the Stieg Larsson-type stuff.”

The long game

However, even with these helpful guideposts, Berg struggled with the writing process.

“In 2014, I remember I took a trip to the California coast to a little town that I like out there, and I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be a great place to write a book,’” Berg says. “I did start it out there, but it took me forever. I would start and stop, and I kind of relied on my son [Alex Rollins Berg], who’s a screenwriter in New York [City]. He kept me going and encouraged me a lot. He gave me some plot ideas and kept me going.”

Berg also struggled with keeping a schedule.

“Successful fiction writers, novelists especially, are very disciplined. They get up in the morning, they sit down, they write whether they’re in the mood or not,” he says. “I can never do that. I’m not disciplined at all. So it’s been taking a long time to do stuff, as opposed to when I was in the newspaper business and you have deadlines — and you have to do it today.”

But when Berg dedicated himself to extended blocks of writing, he found what he calls “moments when your fingers are saying things that you didn’t know you knew.” Tapping into unexplored regions of his imagination proved especially fruitful in crafting back-and-forth dialogue between Span and police captain Larry Bender — banter often reminiscent of the hard-boiled detective stories the author loves.

The final product has earned strong reviews, and numerous readers have asked Berg if he’ll write a sequel to Lost Colony. He says he has an idea for a follow-up but has been working on some Asheville-set stories and is in no hurry to return to Hennepin Island.

The same goes for resuming his work as a journalist. He’s friends with multiple Asheville Watchdog writers but turned down their offer to do some occasional reporting for them.

“It was tempting,” Berg says. “But I am happy being, No. 1, retired, and No. 2, focusing on fiction,” Berg says.

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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