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Interview: February 8, 2002

February 8, 2002

Nelson DeMille is the author and coauthor of over a dozen novels and a recurring presence on bestseller lists. His newest book, UP COUNTRY, features the return of the popular character Paul Brenner of THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER in a tale of suspense and seduction. In this interview with's Kate Ayers, DeMille reflects on his Vietnam experiences and the importance of location which forms the backdrop for his powerful storylines.

TBR: Your newest thriller, UP COUNTRY, takes retired Chief Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, whom we got to know and love in THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, back to Vietnam, where he once was an infantryman, to investigate a 30-year-old murder. In your research for this book, you too returned to battlefields from your tour of duty there. Was that your first trip back, and can you describe your feelings while there --- or did you do that through your main character here?

ND: My January 1997 trip was the first time I returned to Vietnam since I left in November 1968. I had very mixed feelings when I returned, and I think I described most of them through my character of Paul Brenner.

TBR: How cathartic was the trip? In the book, Paul faces some heavy memories. It must have been that way for you, too. One theory is that the return trip helps replace the bad memories with good ones. Did you find that to be true?

ND: I went back to 'Nam with two friends, also combat veterans who had been there in 1968. I think this made the trip easier. Also, it turned out to be true that the new memories replaced the old and bad ones.

TBR: You actually found a letter on the body of a Vietnamese soldier, much as Victor Ort does in UP COUNTRY. Was this the real seed for the idea of this book or did it first occur during your association with the Vietnam Veterans Association?

ND: The letter I found on the body of a Vietnamese soldier stayed untranslated for about 25 years, and when it was translated for me by the Vietnam Veterans Association, it turned out to be a love letter from the deceased man's girlfriend. I used the idea of this old letter as the spark that ignites the plot.

TBR: I loved this answer by Paul Brenner, in response to a question about why he felt he survived. "The dead, if they could speak, would tell you why they died, but the living have no answers." Do you wonder why you made it sometimes? Often, almost never, daily?

ND: I believe that every person who has been in combat, or has lived through any catastrophe, wonders why he or she lived when so many others died. And as Paul Brenner says in UP COUNTRY, there are no answers.

TBR: I found a quote attributed to you: "Somehow our devils are never quite what we expect when we meet them face to face." Did you confront any devils in Vietnam in 1997 when you revisited? Assuming you did, how did they compare with what you expected?

ND: Combat veterans can and do deal with the ghosts, demons, and devils of the past, mostly by putting it out of their minds and moving on with their lives. But when you return to a combat zone, you know you're going to have to confront this again. This, to a large extent, is what UP COUNTRY is about.

TBR: Apparently, you'll be bringing John Corey of PLUM ISLAND back sometime in 2004. So can we hope to see Paul Brenner again?

ND: I will be bringing back John Corey, who we saw in PLUM ISLAND and THE LION'S GAME. Corey, in the next book, confronts the Libyan terrorist, Asad Khalil, who escaped in THE LION'S GAME.

TBR: I understand Paramount Pictures is developing a movie based on this book. Since John Travolta played Paul Brenner in The General's Daughter, would you like to see him do the sequel? If not Travolta, who fits Brenner's personality, in your mind?

ND: Paramount Pictures has bought UP COUNTRY with the idea of John Travolta reprising the role of Paul Brenner. A second choice for me, and I think Paramount, would be Bruce Willis.

TBR: I've heard you write with a pencil. In this age of PCs and laptops, it's amazing, and quite charming, that you still use a writing stick. How did that begin and why do you continue?

ND: I use a pencil because I can't type and I don't want to learn. Also, I like the process of pencil and paper as opposed to a machine. I think the writing is better when it's done in handwriting.

TBR: I read an interview with you where you said, "I start with a location and figure out a premise. Then I invent the characters, give them a biography, and get to know them. At that point, the characters take over the book. The plot is absolutely the last thing." Do you think this would work for new writers, or is this just a DeMille quirk?

ND: My books are heavily researched in regard to a locale, so I like to start with a place that I've already visited, or that I'm interested in. Then come the characters who will act on this stage. Then the storyline, or the plot. It seems an odd way to write a book, but if you think of some of my novels - BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON, CATHEDRAL (St. Patrick's), THE TALBOT ODYSSEY (The Soviet weekend home on Long Island), THE CHARM SCHOOL (Moscow), and the place-named books, THE GOLD COAST, PLUM ISLAND, and SPENCERVILLE, and recently UP COUNTRY (Vietnam) - you can see how time and place are central to my writing.

TBR: An answer you gave to the question, "What authors do you read," elicited a response something like, "I tend to read dead authors, so if I like their books, I don't feel tempted or obligated to write to them." So, I won't ask that here, but can you tell us who most influenced your writing?

ND: I think I was most influenced by British writers, especially in regard to creating an atmosphere of time and place, along with lighter plots with more characterizations. These writers are too numerous to mention, but they are classics of English literature as well as more contemporary British writers. As to American writers, I was most influenced early on and strongly by Hemingway.

TBR: What's next from the pencil of Nelson DeMille?

ND: I really don't know what's next, but the book after next will be the above-mentioned John Corey vs. Asad Khalil. By that time, we'll know better what is happening in the war on terrorism. I'm about to start a 30-day cross-country publicity trip, and I'm sure when I return I'll have the idea for the next book.