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Interview: 1997


We've all seen Nelson DeMille's books in the paperback racks. They're prominently displayed, and people buy them like crazy. It would be easy to conclude that he's a "bestseller writer" --- as if that were a bad thing. Well, he is. And much more. Read on.....

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Looking back over your books, I was --- like many of your readers --- impressed by how prescient you are. Again and again, you seize on a situation, write a novel about it, and then, sometimes years later, there's a news story that mimics what you invented.

NELSON DEMILLE: It doesn't take a big brain to spot a major trend. As a history major, I have an ability to look at the past and the past is prologue to the future. Human beings only act in a finite number of ways. Extrapolate that to leaders, and you can see what's coming. In 1987, for example, I went to the USSR and said, "This place is finished, it has l0 years left." People laughed. But you could see --- no one cared, there was no loyalty to the government, it was like a mass depression. The hottest movie was a Rambo which Rambo killed some Russians. And they all cheered.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Still, to be right so often in identifying "hot" topics...

NELSON DEMILLE: It's partly coincidence. I also predicted the IRA taking over St. Patrick's Cathedral during the St. Patrick's Day parade --- a logical scenario, but it hasn't happened. And we don't need a worldwide plague at the moment.


NELSON DEMILLE: Plague fascinates people. I saw the plague once in Vietnam, at Khe Sahn. Hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers had died of bubonic plague. I think that siege was broken more by plague than by bombers. There was a total breakdown of sanitation and civilization. So you think: What if this gets into major cities, where people travel a lot? This could spread around the world in a week. We focus on possibilities like this now more because of the end of the Cold War. You can tell in American fiction we're focusing more on love stories and domestic dramas. And, for external focus, you have the plague.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: How did you think of MAYDAY, your novel of a passenger jet shot down by a runaway Navy missile --- which you wrote in l979?

NELSON DEMILLE: I wrote it with Tom Block, an airpline pilot. We decided to reissue it in January of l996 and signed a contract that March --- long before the explosion of the TWA plane. The premise is valid.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: As fiction --- or as fact?

NELSON DEMILLE: I think the TWA plane could have been brought down by a terrorist or an errant missile. Which is personally disturbing, because my daughter had been on the same plane four days before.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Now I understand you're writing about Vietnam again.

NELSON DEMILLE: I didn't think I was going to. but I spent three weeks there this winter. It's remarkable what's going on. For us, the war is frozen in time. But they have put the war to rest more than we have. Their war ended in 1975. And the whole country is full of kids. They have erased many signs of the war. It's rare to see American military debris on road.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Can you talk about your first experience of Vietnam?

NELSON DEMILLE: I was an infantry officer with the First Cavalry. The draft compelled me to sign up. I wasn't political --- though maybe I was more patriotic than the average guy. I was aware there were two sides, but I thought I was above it. It sounds cynical or callous, but I was looking for adventure.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Was the war a watershed event?

NELSON DEMILLE: I came to it at 25 --- I was much older than the average soldier. I just looked at it as another degree, another university. It didn't do the people in Vietnam much good, but it did me some good.


NELSON DEMILLE: I felt like an old soul, seeing through the moment. I thought, This is a hell of an experience. After World War II and Korea, no one thought there would be another war. Sure, I was scared of getting killed. Once I got there, I saw that being clever didn't matter --- you could be killed. I went through many stages: panic, anxiety, peace. Twelve months of combat is a long time --- after a while, you come to terms with it. What amazed me was that the average American boy could go from a civilized culture to a war zone --- and behave like a warrior.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Do you think that suggests Americans are, just beneath the surface, pretty uncivilized?

NELSON DEMILLE: It's not the culture, it's the genetic make-up of the male.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Are you an exception?

NELSON DEMILLE: No, I'm implicated. I liked my gun and steel helmet. I don't hunt now. I haven't even camped overnight since Vietnam --- but that's true of a lot of veterans.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Did you have dreams of Vietnam after the war?

NELSON DEMILLE: For five for six years.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: And what about writing? As you write about Vietnam, do you relive the scenes you experienced?

NELSON DEMILLE: Often. Then you realize you're sitting here and are safe. On this recent trip, it was so immediate to be surrounded by long-forgotten sounds and smells. On the anniversary of the Tet offensive, three of us --- all former combat veterans --- ended up in Hue. It was a poignant night. We all knew exactly where we had been on the evening of Tet 1968. There were other Americans at this hotel, and we told them our stories. It was emotional --- and cathartic.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: And now you're back on Long Island, a very unlikely place for a writer of your popularity to live.

NELSON DEMILLE: I don't know if I'd like to live in Manhattan anymore. As you grow older, you want fewer people around. I had two kids here. I married again. My second wife and I kicked around where to live. We have unlimited choices --- from the Andes to the Riviera. I have a job that gives me that freedom. I have the money. And I no longer can use the children as an excuse for staying here. I have thought of Europe for a year. My feeling is: if you're going to move, move to a different cultural environment. I have friends who have moved from Long Island to Westchester --- and they've said, "What did I do?" It's better to be a stranger in a strange land than a stranger in your own country.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Any unrealized ambitions here?

NELSON DEMILLE: My books sell to the movies. Each sells about 2.5 million paperbacks. Now, if you sell 300,000 paperbacks, you know where you are. And if sell l0,000 hardcovers, you know where you are. The frustration of my publisher and agent --- and sometimes me --- is that I'm at the bottom of the pinnacle. If there are l5 top-selling authors in America, I'm number 15. People say, "But you write better than Clancy and Grisham, you should do better." Well, maybe my stuff falls in between. It's not Cheever and Updike, and it's not Grisham and King. The funny thing about publishers is that they do very little market surveying. They ask me who my readers are based on my fan mail. They still believe in word of mouth and anecdotal information. In 20 years of publishing, I've had one market survey --- in England.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: To be ranked #15 a cast of thousands --- I'll take it. Anyway, it would be very hard to do market research on novels.

NELSON DEMILLE: Yes, novels are by their nature hard to market. A non-fiction book that tells you how to flatten your tummy tells you everything in the title. PLUM ISLAND is you have to sell DeMille. When you buy a novel, you're investing l6-l7 hours. You go to a movie, even with the driving and picking up the baby sitter, it's not that much time. Writing a novel is self-indulgent --- and then asking people to read you is the height of ego.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Are your work habits self-indulgent?

NELSON DEMILLE: Yes. I don't want to write most days. I grind out the first half on a book, then I go on an intensive schedule: 6-7 days a week, 12 hours a day.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: When you write, do you think about actors (in the possible film) or characters?

NELSON DEMILLE: My idea of an actor is Cary Grant. My idea of an actress is Julie Christie. I know what Harrison Ford looks like, but I'm thinking of Bogart and Stewart. Which must make me a novelist.