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Garden City’s Own Nelson DeMille Talks to Garden City Life

For this best-selling author, there is no place like home

Christmas came early for this Nelson DeMille fan. In years past, bounding down the stairs behind my children on Christmas morning to find a Nelson DeMille novel on the top of my gift pile, or to see one peeking out from my stocking, was enough to put a smile on my face. But this year, on Dec. 11, I was granted a special wish: to sit down and chat with the man behind such famed characters as John Sutter, John Corey and Kate Mayfield.

I was introduced to DeMille’s novels back in 1991, as I commuted to work aboard the LIRR. As I sat in my seat, I recall seeing several other passengers engrossed in the same book, The Gold Coast.  My interest was piqued, so I purchased a copy. Before long, I wasn’t traveling through Woodside, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens to pick up the Hempstead line but was transported to “the Gold Coast, that stretch on the North Shore of Long Island that once held the greatest concentration of wealth and power in America.” I was hooked.

Fast forward 20 years. What does best-selling author Nelson DeMille have in store for fans now? After holing up in his Garden City office up to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, for the past several months, he is nearing completion of his sixth John Corey novel. The Panther is scheduled to hit shelves in September 2012. For those unfamiliar with Corey, “he’s a bit of a loose cannon,” DeMille admitted. Corey is a quick-witted ex-NYPD detective who now works as an agent for the fictional FBI Anti-Terrorist Task Force, which is based on the real-life Joint Terrorist Task Force.

Drawing inspiration from a friend who spent time in Yemen, DeMille chose that country as the setting for The Panther. “I wanted to get John Corey out of New York. I felt it was a little bit confining in terms of what he could do,” DeMille said. Corey and wife Kate Mayfield, an FBI agent, are asked to go to Yemen – Corey as part of the evidence recovery team and Mayfield as legal attaché with the embassy —  to find and identify a member of the group that blew up the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors, and arrest and extradite him to the states. “Like all my books, there’s some truth, some fiction,” DeMille said.

 As they await publication of The Panther, John Corey fans can whet their appetite for the character’s “un-PC” antics with a recently published short story, The Book Case, which is available as an audio download. “I am not a short story writer, and I find it very difficult,” DeMille said. “People think if you write a novel, certainly you can write a short story, but it’s a different skill, and it’s a different art and it’s a different craft.” DeMille wrote The Book Case for a friend who owns an independent book shop in SoHo and publishes an anthology every year.

The Digital Age has launched a new trend among some authors, in which they take a short story or a chapter or two of a book yet to be published and make it into an audio download or an e-book, as was done with The Book Case, he said. As the population grows, the number of people reading novels is not commensurate, he added. “We hope [e-books and audio downloads are] expanding the market and people are reading again. … You want the young people coming up to get into the habit of reading fiction. … Fiction is for pleasure, but hopefully you learn something, too,” he said.

Indeed, DeMille’s 5-year-old son used to not go to sleep unless he was read to, the author said. “Now he wants to read himself. He can’t really read, but he lays there in bed. I watch him on the monitor – reading, looking at the pictures mostly, but he knows some words, so he’s got the habit. This is the way he wants to go to bed,” he said.

Does DeMille see himself ever writing a children’s book? “Four publishers have come to me asking for children’s books, only recently because I have a 5-year-old,” he said. “I tried one and it didn’t really work out, but I am going to try again. I have a couple of good ideas.”

 DeMille expects to finish work on The Panther in January, at which time he may give it a whirl. “During my periods of unemployment, I try different things, like short stories, screenplays, and I think maybe children’s books would be the next attempt,” he said.

Speaking of screenplays, I couldn’t help but ask if there is any new news on the movie front. I, for one, would love to see John Sutter – the sardonic main character and narrator of The Gold Coast and its sequel, The Gate House – on the big screen. Although there has been film industry interest in The Gold Coast for two decades, “I don’t even ask my agent anymore,” DeMille said. A screenplay was written – not by DeMille – and Alec Baldwin had committed to taking on the role of John Sutter, but things have not panned out to date. Al Pacino has also expressed interest in the film adaptation over the years, DeMille added. In order to make a high-quality movie, independent producers rely on investors, who have been hard hit by the collapsed economy, he said.

DeMille’s The General’s Daughter was made into a major motion picture, starring John Travolta, in 1999, and, two of his earlier novels, Mayday and Word of Honor, were made into TV movies – the former a CBS TV movie starring Aidan Quinn, and the latter a TNT movie starring Don Johnson.

So, what inspired DeMille, a Hofstra University graduate, to become a writer? “I became interested in reading for the first time [while at Hofstra],” he said. A political science and history major, DeMille said he took many English courses, as well. A big fan of the classics, including modern classics – especially those written by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck – DeMille “was intimidated by these novels because they were classics and they were great.” But “two things made me say I have to sit down and try this. One, was that I was in the Army, I went to Vietnam, and I really have a story to tell.” Then, “the intimidation factor disappeared when I started reading popular, not just popular fiction but best-selling, mega-selling fiction. … Not only can I do this, but I have a story to tell, my year in Vietnam. I sat down and I kind of wrote some of it but nobody was interested in the Vietnam War then … but it got me into the process of writing,” he said.

DeMille cut his teeth on NYPD, vigilante-type “paperback pulpers,” which were popular in the 1970s. Once his run with original paperbacks ran its course, he wrote his first hardcover bestseller, By the Rivers of Babylon, in 1978 and has gone on to write 15 subsequent bestsellers.

“People ask me, ‘How do you become a writer?’” DeMille said. “Living in New York helps. Similar to if you were a painter in Paris in the ’20s. … You really have to be where the action is … it’s such a big industry in New York that you’re bound to run into people, then you’re going to run into more people. … By the time I was ready to sit down with a hardcover novel, I knew enough people [to point me in the right direction].”

OK, so who does DeMille read? “I still read the classics once in while,” he said. “I read mostly nonfiction.”

What advice does he have for aspiring writers? “You have to read, read, read. … You have to read with a critical eye. Why is this not reading well? Why is this reading well?” he suggested.  Additionally, “you want to read classics. You want to look at the language, even if you’re writing popular fiction, you want the language to be really good writing,” he added.

Avoid flowery language. “Write English and come up with a good little twist or turn phrase once in a while, but don’t make the whole book like that,” he said. You should set aside a block of five hours every week to write, he added.

Interestingly, DeMille’s other advice is to write longhand, because any writing can look like a finished product on a screen, he said. “I write all my novels longhand. … The stack [of yellow legal pads] is about three feet high when I’m done [with a manuscript]. … Too many writers think the computer is going to write for them,” he said.

DeMille can write from anywhere in the world, yet he’s remained here for 35 years. “Garden City’s been good. [It’s] a good place to bring up children, which is why I stayed here. I have a 5-year-old now, but I have [two adult children]. They had a great education, they both went on to Ivy League schools … and they made a lot of friends in the community,” he said. Sure, he and his wife have considered other places, from Florida to Europe to the Caribbean, “but ultimately we feel that this is home.”

It helps to have good neighbors, also. “Oddly enough, we go out with [fellow Garden City residents] Susan Lucci and her husband a lot. … It’s a running joke, who’s going to be recognized the most, and it’s always her, or course. … We keep score. She’s got three and I’ve only got one,” he quipped.

Not to worry, Mr. DeMille… you score high on the bestseller list.