America’s Greatest Living Thriller Writer (as titled on the front cover of his latest novel, The Cuban Affair), Nelson Demille writes his books with a pencil and paper from his home in Long Island, New York.
It’s a process that works for him. The Cuban Affair (his 20th novel) has hit-the-ground-running by heading straight to number one on New York Times Bestseller list.
Demille is no stranger to success though. An earlier novel of his, The General’s Daughter, was made into a major motion picture, starring John Travolta as the protagonist Paul Brenner. This was part of a string of other Paul Brenner novels which sit alongside other notable works, like the John Sutter series and the John Corey series.
The Lion and The Panther are two must-reads out of the Corey series. The protagonist is an ex NYPD cop who left the front lines under a dark cloud and now — with his FBI agent wife – is chasing down some of the world’s biggest and baddest criminals.
As well as holding a degree in Political Science and History and being a member of Mensa, Demille has a great sense of humour. This combined with his thrilling writing style creates characters with depth and stories which touch on real life political situations.
According to Demille, after 35 plus years with his book publisher’s, Warner Books, it “became Grand Central” and it was time for a change. With the change to New York-based publisher, Simon & Schuster, also came the opportunity to introduce a new character.
Having read a couple of the Corey books, I felt there a lot of similar characteristics between John Corey and Mac, which Demille confirmed. “Yeah he’s got a lot of the same characteristics as John Corey, but maybe a little bit more sophisticated. He’s not a cop, he’s a college grad and was an army officer as well. But I was conscious of that. He does have that kind of dry sarcasm that Corey has.”
I’ve found most writers can’t resist the temptation to drop themselves into their novels. I was sure Demille wasn’t any different, especially when I came across a grumpy novelist in the book named Richard Neville who was visiting Cuba with his wife…So I put it to Demille how I found Neville to be an interesting character. “I was having fun with that,” Demille says. “Mac and Sara are going through Cuba with the educational group, which is what I did. I just stepped to the side, and I created me, along with this group. I was with a group”. As much as I thought Demille was like Neville, there was another gruff character, Mac’s 70 year old employee, who also was ex-military, had a collection of funny t-shirts and no-bullshit attitude that seemed more to me like the man himself. “That’s a good observation. I was Jack, and I was also Richard Neville… I was Richard Neville at an earlier age. And I was Jack for sure; he’s my age group. I wrote Up Country (a Paul Brenner Series Book), which was set in Vietnam in 1997. I also put myself in that book as a guy who served in Vietnam and went back to Vietnam in 1997 with a bunch of other guys. But then I realised right then Jack is really a little bit more me, and so I’m there twice. My younger self and my present self. Good observation”.
Note. He said good observation twice, coming from a member of Mensa is a compliment.
“It’s easy to create yourself, put yourself in a book as one of the characters. Mac is not me, but Mac is kind of John Corey, and maybe John Corey’s me. So, I’ve got to talk to my shrink about all of this”. I told you he has a great sense of humour.
You were in Cuba exactly two years ago in October 2015…
-I just realised that the other day. It doesn’t seem that far away, but it takes a while to write a book. I was about a third into [The Cuban Affair] before I went to Cuba. When I came back I had better ideas and I realised I’d made some mistakes in the initial draft. I had to go back and rewrite them. But I’ve done that before. Like when I wrote Up Country, I went to Vietnam. But when you’re writing a book, you can’t do the research when you want. Especially with the kinds of tours, because the group tours of the places that are not easy to get to or from. So I had to start the book in both cases before I actually got there. But once I was there, I felt really confident that I knew what I was talking about. By the time I’d finished the book, and by the time the publishers had started to print it out, two years have gone by. And I froze the book in October 2015. So the death of Castro didn’t really affect it, neither did the election of Donald Trump and the roll back of Cuba. So that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re writing a novel. It’s not a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine.
Looking at your pictures, it looks like you had a great time there?
On the other side of the world, I encourage all my friends to go to Cuba. It’s really good cocktail party chatter for about six months afterwards. Plus, you can bring Cuban cigars back.
You say writing is a very long and lonely experience. Taking from 12 to 18 months to write, and another 6 months to get published. Why do you do it?
Well…money. I mean there’s nothing else I can do. I’ve thought about getting out of it several times, but I remember something Robert Benchley once said. “I’d love to quit, but I’m too rich and famous.” I feel that way sometimes. I was kind of getting a little stale in parts, when I was 37 years with the same publisher. And I realised I needed to change. So I fired my agent first. And then I found a new agent, and they found me a new publisher, Simon & Schuster. They kind of energised me again. It’s not instant gratification. You have to train yourself to go to work every day and not get praised. But either way, you’re criticised. Once you’re an established name, once you’re on a bestseller list, and sales are good, you get away with a lot. But some authors get sloppy, because they become lazy bestsellers, and they don’t really treat each book as though it’s the first. That’s why it takes me two years.
How do you plan your books?
I don’t over-outline. Some authors are really required to send in to the publisher a comprehensive outline. I am not. I wouldn’t do it, even if they asked. Because I don’t know where the book is going. If I knew where the book was going, I would’ve already written it. It just builds on itself. I have a general outline, and I’ve got to know generally where it’s going. But I don’t know what I intend to do. I know where it’s going to start, and I usually know where it’s going to end. In this case, I knew it was pretty obvious there’s going to be a chase on the high seas. Other than that, I had no idea what was going on in the middle, until I actually got to Cuba.
You write using pencil and paper, but the problem is, what happens when you make a mistake or you need to move a paragraph?
You can cross out, erase and draw a line. Every day when I write stuff, I keep it in a safe. There’s only 1 copy. I’ve got to the stage when in the morning my secretary comes in, takes it out of the safe and types it and backs it up and puts it on my desk. I work with it in hard copy.
Do your younger readers enjoy your style of humour? It’s not politically correct and I’m intrigued will it appeal to a range of readers.…
Good question. I try not to be too political, but I’m a product of my generation. We know the fans are out there. They’re just not being spoken to. The same way Trump knew where his voters all are. Mac is not really politically incorrect. Jack certainly is. And Jack fills that void that Mac left.-My readers do tend to be middle age and older. We thought my readers would’ve been 60-70% male, versus the female. But in a recent market survey, we found that it’s about 50/50. And that’s good.
Are you planning a sequel for Mac?
I wouldn’t mind doing Mac’s second act and I wouldn’t mind them even going back to Cuba. But I’m not sure. Over time, the book ‘calls’ for a sequel, then I might think about another book…we’ll see what happens. My new publisher might want a John Corey book too. Bring John Corey back. When you’ve been around 40 years and got 20 books, and most of them are bestsellers, the decision becomes more difficult. But if you’re a middle-aged author, you can just kinda do what you want. Now I’ve got to really make a strategic decision before I devote a year and a half of my life to something, especially at my age. Let me ask you something, where in New Zealand are you?
I’m in Auckland.
I did a book tour of Australia and New Zealand. I started in New Zealand in 1987, went through Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland. I then headed up to Sydney, Brisbane then down to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
Well, New Zealand has changed a lot in 30 years.
I hope you’re not getting over crowded as a country – it’s so beautiful. I flew in, and thought I was flying over Scotland. Incredible view from the air. I’ll never forget that. I want to come back and show my new wife. I have a 10 year old. He’s about ready at that age where he can take the long trips, so we’re thinking about maybe doing that this summer, which would be your winter. And I think the climate will be okay, not that cold, anyway.
You should come down.
What’s the population there?
4.4 million. Oh….
So what’s the best place to eat in Long Island?
Well, I like Italian, but Long Island’s got a lot of good places, a lot of seafood places and we’re close to the city. Long Island is more provincial. I’m not a fine diner. I kinda like my pubs. There are plenty of pubs on Long Island, and plenty of steakhouses that are family oriented.
You’re a father of three children. Have any of them shown any interest in writing?
My youngest is 10, but my 37 year old son is a screenwriter and he’s currently working on a novel. My daughter is a psychologist; she’s got a two year old and she’s written short stories that have been published. I’m trying to talk her into taking the big step to a novel. Not non-fiction. I really want her to write a novel with a psychological background because she’s got the credentials for it. I’m trying to convince her to do this while I’m still here. They’re both natural-born writers. They both did start writing early; my son was eight and my daughter, I think, was 11.
In your earlier life in the armed forces, were there any valuable life lessons you learnt that have served you well?
Oh yeah, I guess that things can always be worse. It helps you to put life into perspective. Certainly it helps you understand that life is short, very precious. I was an officer and I had to give orders, but I also had to take orders. It certainly straightened me out. When I got in the army, I was 23 years old, and I was probably acting like an 18 year old. When I got out, I was 26.
I see you were an insurance investigator and you liked it because it got you used to the interviewing process. So how have I done today?
I was going to tell you actually before you asked…that some of these questions were different. You get the same questions often. The questions about the military were good questions and I did actually stop and think and told you about my kids. I don’t usually get that question, but it’s a question I like to answer. People love to talk about their kids, I’m sure. There is a technique, I guess. It’s the same technique journalists themselves use, and cops use and the courtroom drama’s which is all questions and answers, because people love it. People love the trick questions. They love the sly answers, the fumbling answers. It’s just entertaining.
I’ll give you the final word, Nelson. Tell our readers why they should go out and buy a copy of, The Cuban Affair…
Well, first of all, I sell well in New Zealand and Australia, I know that. Better than I do in the UK itself. Why?…I have no idea. I think that this is a classic action-adventure – chase and escape, adventure, sex and money. Does it get any better than that?