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Interview: May 27, 1997

May 27, 1997

On May 27, l997, THE BOOK REPORT welcomed Nelson DeMille, one of America's best-loved novelists and the author of the just-published PLUM ISLAND. The TBR interviewer was Jesse Kornbluth (BookpgJK). Our host was MarleneT.

Bookpg JK: Nelson DeMille! A great AOL/TBR favorite -- at last. Welcome.

N DeMille: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Bookpg JK: Nelson, every one of your books is different. Every one takes us into a completely new world. How did we get to the world of Plum Island and advanced biological disease and, at the same, 300-year-old mysteries?

N DeMille: We get to Plum Island the same way we got to the Charm School. Most writers are fascinated by terra incognita. Readers don't want to read about the mundane world. They want the Island of Dr. Moreau or Shangri-La or King Kong's island -- what was its name? And there are too few of those islands left in this world... unfortunately. But Plum Island is one of them.

Bookpg JK: For those who don't know of it, what happens on Plum Island?

N DeMille: It's the U.S. Animal Disease Research Center. There, diseases like anthrax, mad cow disease and, possibly, ebola are studied. It's also rumored to be a biological warfare center.

Bookpg JK: Were you able to visit it?

N DeMille: They gave me permission to visit for a day. I was always supervised. They're trying to shed the "mystery" image.

Bookpg JK: Is letting Nelson DeMille on your island the shrewdest way to do that?

N DeMille: The people who work on the island are trying to calm the fears of local residents. To say "no" is not a good way to do that. They'd rather say "yes" and then show you what they want.

Bookpg JK: How do you construct a story like this? Do you start from situations or characters?

N DeMille: I usually begin with the premise. Then I create a character who would do well in that book. It doesn't do much good to have a hard-boiled detective at a tea party -- except for comic relief.

Question: Which of your novels is your personal favorite (if one is) and why?

N DeMille: My personal favorite was GOLD COAST. I wrote it consciously as a book that would be taken seriously and would -- I hoped -- be thought of as a modern American classic.

Bookpg JK: Did you have a conscious intent with PLUM ISLAND?

N DeMille: No. This is one of what I'd call my "entertainments" a la Graham Greene.

Question: I've heard that you wrote a book called MAYDAY, but I can't seem to find it anywhere. Is it still in print?

N DeMille: MAYDAY will be reissued in December of this year by Warner Books. It has to do with a runaway Navy missile knocking down a commercial airliner. It was written in l978. And it was scheduled to be reissued long before TWA 800 went down.

Question: I LOVE your new book PLUM ISLAND. I finished it in a day. Tell me, do you plan to use John Corey again? He is a great creation. 

N DeMille: I have no plans to use him -- in the near future, anyway.

Bookpg JK: At the end of the book, John makes some broad philosophical statements that struck me as, perhaps, being very close to your sentiments, Nelson. I'm thinking of two: One, "We live inside of microchips with a million paths opening and closing every nanosecond. What's worse, someone else is pushing the buttons." And two, "The meaning of life has not much to do with good and evil, right and wrong. It has to do with cutting the right deal." In PLUM ISLAND, your detective is a very jaunty, cutting talker. This strikes me as dark stuff indeed. Is John just possibly your alter-ego?

N DeMille: All one question, huh? I'm not the first to make an observation about modern technology controlling human beings. A man like John Corey, who uses little technology, would be wary of the power of technology. As far as cutting the right deal, it's a cynical statement, but a true one. That's closer to John's world. He understands that a lot better than he understands technology.

Question: Is there any topic you won't write about?

N DeMille: I would probably avoid racial topics. They're much too explosive in this society. They're much too explosive for any author.

Question: Was the town of Great Neck a model for GOLD COAST?

N DeMille: Great Neck is definitely part of it. But it's more Lattingtown, Locust Valley, and Oyster Bay.

Question: What are you working on now, and can we expect to see any of your books as movies?

N DeMille: I'm working on a novel based on my recent return trip to Vietnam after 29 years. Almost all of my books have been optioned by Hollywood and are in various stages of development.

Question: Can you describe your writing day?

N DeMille: Exercise and errands in the morning. Correspondence and phone calls in the afternoon. Creative writing at night.

Bookpg JK: In other words, you like the anxiety to build until you are forced to write?

N DeMille: I just write better at night. And you have to do errands when the stores are open and the phone calls when people are there.

Bookpg JK: This reminds me a bit of Pat Conroy's day. His point was that if you're a real writer and want to leave behind a body of good work, you really don't have time to do much else but write and take care of your errands. It's like the priesthood. Do you see writing as a calling?

N DeMille: Everyone who gets into writing sees it as a compulsion. The Greeks talked about muses. Some are born to sing, others to sculpt. There's very little cross-over in the arts. It's partly a genetic predisposition.

Bookpg JK: Were there writers before you in your family?

N DeMille: Yes. No one published. My father was a good writer.

Question: Where did you get the idea for GOLD COAST?

N DeMille: I have lived near the Gold Coast most of my life. I was inspired in part by Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY and, in part, by Puzo's THE GODFATHER. The novel is Gatsby meets Don Corleone.

Question: My all-time favorite book -- not just of yours, but in general -- was THE CHARM SCHOOL. Where did you research that? It made me want to RUN to the USSR. And, of course, just after I read it Communism was out.

N DeMille: The idea was suggested to me when I was in Vietnam in April, l968. A U.S. Air Force pilot firmly believed that American pilots were winding up in the USSR.

Bookpg JK: But, of course, in l968, you were a soldier hoping not to die, not a writer collecting plots. What an incredible memory you must have for good ideas!

N DeMille: War is a wellspring of ideas for fiction. Ever since the Odyssey and probably before...

Bookpg JK: Your humor is present throughout PLUM ISLAND. In many ways, it's more like a tough-guy romantic comedy than a mystery/thriller. Do you laugh when you write?

N DeMille: Yes, I laugh at my own jokes. I think that kind of American humor -- humor we hear every day -- is sorely lacking in American fiction.

Bookpg JK: Yes, John Corey is a guy who actively thinks about sex and doesn't hide it. He wears the occasional designer logo, and mocks himself. He has terrible eating habits. He is, in short, someone we might know... or even be. That level of realism is very unusual. Which makes me wonder: Who do you read for pleasure?

N DeMille: Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, Mark Helprin, Evelyn Waugh. That's about it.

Question: Do you have any book signings scheduled? If so, how can we find out about them?

Bookpg JK: THE BOOK REPORT will find out Nelson's tour schedule and post it.

Question: I loved WORD OF HONOR as I am a member of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and go there often. The story was also wonderful. Did you do your research at Hamilton?

N DeMille: Yes, I did. I had been there when I was in the Army. I found it a fascinating place.

Question: What did you do before you started to write professionally?

N DeMille: College. Army. Construction. Question: I admire your work a great deal. How long does it take you to create a book and does it depend upon the subject matter?

N DeMille: Thank you. Fourteen months for a lightly-researched book, eighteen for a heavily-researched book. That's writing, research, and rewrites.

Bookpg JK: Do you give yourself a break between books or are you a prisoner of publishers' needs for a book every two years?

N DeMille: I generally give myself half a year break between books. It feels like total freedom. Mark Twain said, "Only authors and uncaptured criminals are free from routine."

Question: I just read THE CHARM SCHOOL. Very fascinating! Do you think anything like that has ever really existed?

N DeMille: I think so, yes. The Nazis, for instance, did have a similar school. And I have no doubt that the Russians made use of American POWs from WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

Question: Do you work with a computer to do your writing, or do you still write the old-fashioned way... yellow legal tablets?

N DeMille: I still use yellow tablets with #1 pencils. Very soft pencils.

Question: What inspired you to write BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON?

N DeMille: I was a history major at college. The Babylonian captivity fascinated me. And it inspired me to set this modern thriller in the ancient city of Babylon.

Bookpg JK: We're out of time, Nelson, but I don't want to end without saying that I can't recall a guest author who has inspired as much deep loyalty among his readers as you do. It's quite clear that the "keenly awaited event" of each of your books is much more than hype. And we hope that you'll come back when you publish your next book -- if not before. Thanks so much.

N DeMille: Thank you all for your sharp questions.