Nelson DeMille eats his lunch standing up in his Garden City, Long Island office—half a pound of tuna salad, straight up, no bread. "Atkins," he says, taking a sip of black coffee. "I've got to lose some weight."
At 63 he has reasons to need all the energy and good health he can get. After raising two children, he is about to become a father for the third time—his 41-year-old fiancée is due to give birth in October. They're just now settling into a new house that took years to build.
There's also the TV series he's developing based on one of his characters, Paul Brenner. And, of course, there's the new book. Wild Fire (Warner), his 14th title and fourth featuring retired NYPD John Corey, will be released to great fanfare in early November. Wild Firecenters on an elite men's club in the Adirondacks and Corey's attempts to foil a post-9/11 nuclear plot.
For DeMille, a lifelong Long Islander who takes readers on thrill rides around the world, life is good and getting better. Stocky but dapper in a navy blazer, he has the air of a man who is exactly where he wants to be.
Bar Stool Research
Nelson DeMille is not a John Grisham/ Stephen King blockbuster-level novelist, but he is a bestselling author (each paperback sells about 2.5 million copies) with millions of fans.
Fourteen books is a lot, but it could also be... a lot of the same. Not so with DeMille's work; love it or hate it, each book is different. He's written action/ adventure, police procedural, legal thriller, military mysteries (The General's Daughter and UpCountry), a spy novel (Night Fall), the unclassifiable (Spencerville—The Great Gatsby meets The Godfather meets The Odyssey). "They're not interchangeable," says DeMille. "That's why I wind up doing a lot of research for each one."
Research often means travel. "I think you really feel better as a writer to say, 'I stood in the middle of Red Square' when you've written about it. Before I went to Red Square, a scene I'd set in it would have had traffic. There's no traffic in Red Square. I've been to every place in all of my books except for Baghdad. I was getting ready to make a trip there three years ago—but world events intervened."
Sometimes research means picking up the phone to call the extensive network of experts that he has cultivated over the years. DeMille has spent a lot of time observing and getting to know the type of people he puts in his books—FBI agents, cops, lawyers. "I met a lot of these people while researching The Lion's Game"—the book in which Corey gets a new partner, FBI agent Kate Mayfield—"many of them at 26 Federal Plaza, where I spent time with the Joint Terrorist Task Force, which I called the Anti-Terrorist Task Force in my novels. Most of the others I met here on Long Island in local bars."
The bars, coffee shops and small restaurants stretching down the street from his office are filled with the people who do those jobs and who are—not surprisingly—fans of DeMille's work. DeMille says these people are more candid with him as a novelist than they would be with a journalist who might quote them by name. Sometimes they give him information, but often what he gets is less tangible. "Mostly, I just get a feeling for their attitudes, their jargon, their relationships with each other.... Also, I get to know a little of their personal lives, their wives, girlfriends, kids, etc. A lot of this is just through listening and osmosis—not direct questioning. Mostly, we just drink."
Knowing the culture is key, because DeMille wants his fiction to ring true. That's also why he listened when a woman who also happened to be an FBI agent talked about his character Kate Mayfield. "She told me that Kate was too much of a type, first of all, and second, that after 9/11, Mayfield should be much more of a 'question authority' figure. She said everyone in the agency had become like that in the post-9/11 world."
In addition to being an FBI agent, Mayfield is the wife of retired NYPD John Corey, a man whose speech is peppered with off-color jokes and whose idea of heaven involves pigs-in-a-blanket and Scotch. Corey has appeared in four books: Plum Island, The Lion's Game, Night Fall and, now, Wild Fire."
"Women like John Corey," DeMille says. "That surprised me, because he is the antithesis, I thought, of what women want. I guess I tapped into something, though, because most of my fan mail on those books is from women, and at signings, I'd say 60% to 70% of the attendees are women."
He admits that those attendees are looking for something—or someone. "I think they're coming to see John Corey, but they are sorely disappointed. The sarcasm and the cynicism Corey has—well, he's a very easy character to create—the curmudgeon with the heart of gold. He has a lot of self-confidence, too, which comes from his experience. It's why I wanted him to be retired. He no longer has anything to prove, and he can spend the rest of his career making people prove things to him."
As WildFire nears its release date, DeMille is also working with producers (Ridley Scott) and screenwriters on a television series featuring another recurring protagonist, Paul Brenner, the warrant officer who first appeared in The General's Daughter and returned in UpCountry.
After talking for a couple of hours at his office, DeMille wants to show me the new house. As he maneuvers a late-model Audi along the manicured streets of the town he's called home for 30 years, DeMille describes his start as a full-time writer: "I was married with a baby on the way, and I'd written a few books that were really works for hire. I decided someone had to make a living, so my next book was going to make some money."
That book was By the Rivers of Babylon, published in 1978. It was a hit with critics and readers—and a main selection of Book-of-the Month-Club. That was a particular honor, given that DeMille's father was a lifelong member of BOMC. Before we get to his house, DeMille decides to swing past the Garden City office of Bookspan, the club's parent company. "It's a wonderful building," he says, pointing out its crenellations, mullioned windows and heraldic accents, before turning back to take me across town to his house.
That house also has... crenellations, mullioned windows and heraldic accents. Really. "We've been building this one for four years," he says. "It's almost done."
The quiet, affluent neighborhood sits at the edge of the all-male Garden City Golf Club ("I'm not a member, but I do play as a guest," says DeMille). We walk to the door, and DeMille waves to workmen who are meeting in the garage near racks of large, jagged pieces of slate. He explains that laborers come over each summer from Normandy just to create slate roofs for Long Island homeowners.
That sounds a bit baronial, albeit practical—which describes the interior of DeMille's house, as well. There's a full suit of armor in the front hallway and a large walk-around fireplace that would fit in well at Hampton Court (complete with andirons featuring knights' helmets). It sounds idiosyncratic, but it's remarkably tasteful and appealing, And it fits its owner perfectly. Here in his custom-built manor, DeMille is lord of all he surveys—and the view from here is a fine one.
|Bethanne Kelly Patrick is the editor of AOL Books (http://books.aol.com). She lives and writes in Arlington, Va.|