- It is a rainy morning and I, Douglas Harrington, have made my second pass around the block in search of a parking space. I see a spot between a Mercedes and a Lexus, I am after all in Garden City, a Manhattan gentrified and wealth impregnated turn of the last century village with chic shops and seven digit residential real estate to match.
I park and look up at the corner red brick, three story building trimmed in white carved exterior accents and moldings. Stately and proper, it seems like the perfect location for the writing office of one of America's most prolific and popular authors. My notepad, recorder and camera are all resting in the usual pockets of my Brooks Brothers navy blazer. I swallow a splash of mouthwash and spray on some cologne to disguise the smell of the half dozen cigarettes I have smoked in the Chevy on the long drive west from The Hamptons. I am not ready to part with the cigarette I already have lit, so I find an awning on the street and take a few more drags in the rain before I head up upstairs to my interview with Nelson DeMille.
The prolific author in the library of his foreign language publications.
As imitation is the greatest form of flattery, I hope I have done justice in the opening paragraphs' homage to the first person narrative style that has endeared millions of devoted fans to author DeMille. A narrative style he first introduced in his immensely popular novel "The Gold Coast" (1990) and a style that he has not departed from since, "Publishers don't usually like novels written in the first person. One of the jokes in the business is that suicide notes are written in the first person. They loved the first few chapters in the third person, but I decided to change it."
He went on to explain, "John Sutter's voice was so ironic and witty and upper class, it just seemed like the way to do it." Although his early works were written in the third person and his novel "The Lion's Gate" (2000) alternates between first and third person narrative, DeMille states, "I can never write in the third person again."
Changing his narrative tense was certainly not a suicidal decision for DeMille, as although he had written six books prior, "The Gold Coast" marked a turning point for an author whose previous, well established reputation had been that of an espionage and war novel writer. In what DeMille described as his "First attempt at writing literature," he admitted his publisher was "not happy" with the author's change in genre style. It turned out to be his most popular book that has been in continuous print for 19 years, garnering DeMille an entirely new audience, namely women readers who now make up 60 percent of his reader email correspondence. "With 'The Gold Coast' I found an entirely new audience - 20 years after its publication I have teenagers today that write to me as fans of the book."
An average teenager himself who read Sherlock Holmes novels, there was no immediate family lineage that might have been a specific inspiration for DeMille to become a writer. He was raised on Long Island in the middle class, Elmont home of a stay-at-home mother and a Canadian born house builder. His father, however, was a voracious reader and history buff, a passion he passed on to his son. "He was not rich by any means, but would indulge his passion for books. He had a library full of English classic literature and that is what I would read."
DeMille revealed that he is named for Lord Nelson, his father's favorite historical figure. His middle name, Richard, was in honor of King Richard The Lionhearted, both biographies were given to him by his father to read as a child.
In 1966, after his third year at Hofstra University as a political science major in preparation for law school, DeMille decided to drop out for a year and travel before returning to complete his education. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and any change in draft classification was a swift and efficient notification. Sooner than he anticipated, DeMille joined the Army and was a First Lieutenant in command of an infantry platoon during some of the fiercest fighting of the Southeast Asian conflict. Among other commendations, he was decorated with the Bronze Star.
Whether aware of it or not at the time, all these aspects of his life converged to form the writer he was later to become. "I never thought about writing until maybe the end of my last year in college. I probably should have been an English major, as a number of professors would write on my papers, 'You write well.' One professor actually accused me of plagiarizing. I thought, 'Well that's a compliment, since I didn't.' It was a natural gift, that is the only way I can describe it. It probably came from a young mind, as early as five or six, that was formed by reading, reading and reading. Reading good stuff, mostly classics."
After graduation he did indeed sit down to write. "I think it was because of Vietnam. Like a lot of veterans, I didn't want to talk about it, but I didn't have a problem writing about it. I started out just scribbling down my experiences because I felt I had to, whether it was ever published or not." He went on to state, "If I had not been in Vietnam, I don't think I would have ever become a writer." Although his first published novel, "By The Rivers Of Babylon" (1978), was not set in Vietnam, DeMille admits his military experience did provide him with the tools to write it, "I understood the hardware. It was Vietnam, but it was set in the ancient city of Babylon."
Although fiction, DeMille takes great care in researching the events, skills, demographics and history of the settings, characters and plot lines in his novels. Often his books are motivated by a real life, real time event that plants the seed. Never more evident than in his novel "Night Fall" (2004), which was based on the 1996 TWA Flight 800 tragedy that occurred off the coast of Westhampton Beach.
"That was a tough book, I didn't want to be insensitive to the victims or their families. It was the first book I had ever attempted whose facts were based totally on non-fiction events. I didn't want to be Oliver Stone
. There has to be good reason why you are taking fact and fictionalizing it, something other than entertainment." DeMille felt that there were so many unresolved and conflicting opinions regarding the plane's mid-air explosion that he felt the need to examine the incident in a genre that would afford it the freedom for reasonable speculation, "It can synthesize the various theories of what happened." He conceded, "I wouldn't do it again. It was very difficult not only in terms of the craft, but it was difficult emotionally." Particularly so, as the author was not only considering the impact of the novel on the families of the victims, but had just two days before the incident put his own daughter on the same TWA 800 flight. As apprehensive as DeMille might have been about this particular non-fiction based novel, the response as usual was positive, "A lot of email on this book and almost all of it positive, readers thanked me for writing it. Some family members, but particularly from TWA employees who liked the book."
Nelson DeMille with his # 1 pencil and writing pad, never a computer or typewriter!
Although DeMille frequently has reoccurring characters in his novels, such as John Corey in "Wild Fire" (2006), "Night Fall" (2004), "The Lion's Game" (2000) and "Plum Island"(1997) and Paul Brenner in "Up Country" (2002) and "The General's Daughter" (1992), this past year marked the publication of his first sequel, "The Gate House." It is the continuing story of John and Susan Sutter from the "The Gold Coast" and includes the son of the novel's other central character, Mafia don Frank Bellarosa. Motivated in part by hordes of fans who obviously loved the best selling book but were disappointed with the unresolved parting of the Sutters, DeMille received pleas from his readers to continue their story. "One reader actually sent me a five page outline on how he thought I could continue the story." It picks up 10 years after the conclusion of the original novel and according to DeMille was not an easy write. "A real sequel is taking that story and totally integrating it with the story that came before it. It has to make sense, you have to pick your time lines. The time frame between "The Gold Coast" and "The Gate House" is 10 years, in 10 years what happened? The back story you have to fill in, but even then your editor asks, 'Even if they were in love, why did they really part?'" More so, as always, DeMille thought of his readers, "So many people read "The Gold Coast," there were millions of people that read it and loved it, so the question was do we leave well enough alone or do we give this a shot?" Give it a shot he did and it has now proved to be his largest selling novel.
DeMille's NYPD/Terrorist Task Force Detective John Corey is being reprized again in his second venture into the sequel format with his upcoming novel "The Lion," due out for Father's Day in 2010. A continuation of the plot of "The Lion's Game," DeMille says that there may be one more John Corey novel to follow, but that will mark the end of his contractual multi-book relationship with his publisher, "The next one will be his last book [John Corey]. You get to a point when you want to end on a high note. I am going to end my commercial contracts. It is time to move on to actually selling a book, as opposed to fulfilling a multi-book contract. I hate writing against a deadline
. I want to go back to being the writer I was, where I can write what I want to write, the way I want to write it." DeMille went on to say, "When my contractual agreements are over, I will be able to write what I want to write. Not something I am obligated to write because I was given an advance based on an outline. I want to go back to being a freelance writer. Maybe some screenplays, although that may kill me, maybe some short stories, and perhaps a memoir." He said there are still more novels to come, this time on his terms and timetable.
After moving from his administrative offices to the sanctum of his private writing office, I told the author that I thought his first person narrative style lent itself to a Hemingway meter and DeMille admitted, "He is one of, if not, my favorite author."
Nelson DeMille poses for a photo with fan Phyllis Kessler at the East Hampton Library's Authors Night reception.
Humbly and very embarrassed by the compliment, DeMille turned the conversation to craft, "You have good days, you have bad days. I re-read everything. Before I write the second chapter, I re-read the first. I re-read the first and second before I work on the third and so on. Maybe by the 30th chapter I only go back and re-read the six previous chapters. You can't forget what you are doing and why you are suppose to be there. The action may take place over three days, but it took you three months to get there. You owe it to the reader."
This is an author who is not only adored by his readers, but adores them in kind, "I really respect my readers, I really care about my readers." Indeed, as this comes from a writer who composes his novels in the antiquated style of longhand with a number one pencil on a legal pad, but cares enough about his readers to have a very interactive website created that he, although he has no idea or interest in how it actually works, requests his assistant, Diane Frances, to check it three times a day and relay the messages to him sent from his readers. (www.nelsondemille.net).
That same connection between writer and reader was exemplified at the recent East Hampton Library
's Fifth Annual Writers Night, wherein he sat for three hours and signed books donated to the cause and then joined supporters as the literary centerpiece at a private dinner party hosted by Jane Friedman.
An author for three decades, Nelson DeMille's literary impact has been profound, if not seminal. He has taken us through his own journey from espionage and war novelist to the literature of his gift as a chronicler of our own Long Island Gold Coast in a manner similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Great Gatsby
There is no better summer beach read than a Nelson DeMille novel - 20 years ago it was "The Gold Coast" and this year it is "The Gate House." Undoubtedly, next summer we will all be shaking grains of beach sand out of our copies of "The Lion."
Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com