Nelson DeMille has a dozen bestselling novels to his name and over 30 million books in print worldwide, but his beginnings were not so illustrious. Writing police detective novels in the mid-1970s, DeMille created the pseudonym Jack Cannon: "I used the pen name because I knew I wanted to write better novels under my own name someday," DeMille told fans in a 2000 chat.
Between 1966 and 1969, Nelson DeMille served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. When he came home, he finished his undergraduate studies (in history and political science), then set out to become a novelist. "I wanted to write the great American war novel at the time," DeMille said in an interview with January magazine. "I never really wrote the book, but it got me into the writing process." A friend in the publishing industry suggested he write a series of police detective novels, which he did under a pen name for several years.
Finally DeMille decided to give up his day job as an insurance fraud investigator and commit himself to writing full time -- and under his own name. The result was By the Rivers of Babylon (1978), a thriller about terrorism in the Middle East. It was chosen as a Book of the Month Club main selection and helped launch his career. "It was like being knighted," said DeMille, who now serves as a Book of the Month Club judge. "It was a huge break."
DeMille followed it with a stream of bestsellers, including the post-Vietnam courtroom drama Word of Honor (1985) and the Cold War spy-thriller The Charm School (1988) Critics praised DeMille for his sophisticated plotting, meticulous research and compulsively readable style. For many readers, what made DeMille stand out was his sardonic sense of humor, which would eventually produce the wisecracking ex-NYPD officer John Corey, hero of Plum Island (1997) and The Lion's Game (2000).
In 1990 DeMille published The Gold Coast, a Tom Wolfe-style comic satire that was his attempt to write "a book that would be taken seriously." The attempt succeeded, in terms of the critics' response: "In his way, Mr. DeMille is as keen a social satirist as Edith Wharton," wrote The New York Times book reviewer. But he returned to more familiar thrills-and-chills territory in The General's Daughter, which hit no. 1 on The New York Times' Bestseller list and was made into a movie starring John Travolta. Its hero, army investigator Paul Brenner, returned in Up Country (2002), a book inspired in part by DeMille's journey to his old battlegrounds in Vietnam.
DeMille's position in the literary hierarchy may be ambiguous, but his talent is first-rate; there's no questioning his mastery of his chosen form. As a reviewer for the Denver Post put it, "In the rarefied world of the intelligent thriller, authors just don't get any better than Nelson DeMille."
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DeMille composes his books in longhand, using soft-lead pencils on legal pads. He says he does this because he can't type, but adds, "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."
In addition to his novels, DeMille has written a play for children based on the classic fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin."
DeMille says on his web site that he reads mostly dead authors -- "so if I like their books, I don't feel tempted or obligated to write to them." He mentions writing to a living author, Tom Wolfe, when The Bonfire of the Vanities came out; but Wolfe never responded. "I wouldn't expect Hemingway or Steinbeck to write back -- they're dead. But Tom Wolfe owes me a letter," DeMille writes.
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Nelson DeMille gave us some insight on his (surprisingly thriller-free) literary tastes and favorite pastimes.
What was the book that influenced your life the most, and why?
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read this book in college, as many of my generation did, and I was surprised to discover that it said things about our world and our society that I thought only I had been thinking about, i.e., the ascendancy of mediocrity. It was a relief to discover that there was an existing philosophy that spoke to my half-formed beliefs and observations.
What are your ten favorite books?
I'll list only novels here:
Who are some of your favorite writers?
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maughm
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Magus by John Fowles
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- 1984 by George Orwell
My favorite writers – again, only novelists – listed alphabetically:
When you're not writing or reading, how do you like to spend your time?
- Saul Bellow
- John Cheever
- John Fowles
- Graham Greene
- Ernest Hemingway
- W. Somerset Maugham
- George Orwell
- Philip Roth
- J.D. Salinger
- Edith Wharton
Writing doesn't leave much time for hobbies, unless you consider that I began writing as a hobby and have made the hobby into a profession.
I generally unwind by having dinner with close friends.
I was an athlete in high school and college, but my only athletic activity now is walking and bike riding – I had enough organized sports when I was younger.
My favorite pastime is world travel – I've never been to a country I didn't like or didn't find interesting.
In the Works
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DeMille has just completed a novel titled Night Fall that will be published on November 22, 2004 by Warner Books.
The novel features former NYPD Homicide Detective John Corey from Plum Island and The Lion's Game, who now works for the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force.
The book begins on July 17, 1996 with the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, then jumps ahead five years with Corey and his wife Kate Mayfield
from The Lion's Game attending the fifth anniversary of the crash on Fire Island. After the memorial service, Corey learns of a clue that strangely suggests that the crash was not an accident.
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