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Books by Nelson DeMille
- By the Rivers of Babylon
- The Talbot Odyssey
- Word of Honor
- The Charm School
- The Gold Coast
- The General's Daughter
- Plum Island
With Thomas Block
"I think the most amazing thing is when you go out to the set you realize that you sat there and wrote a novel. Which took a while but didn't cost anything, really. It just cost some time and some paper. Then you see a 70 million dollar production rolling with hundreds of people standing around doing nothing and other people working and airplanes and helicopters..."
Avid readers of Nelson DeMille's Plum Island or the more recent The Lion's Game could almost recognize the author on the street. Imagine John Corey, a featured player in both books, with some years on him along with the pleasant miles of a successful author. He appears better fed than Corey, but shares that character's cheerful wit as well as a seeming happy disregard for things that are boring and disguise themselves as rules.
Like Corey, DeMille is New York City born and the place has left its mark on the author's speech and perhaps even on the way in which he views the world. A veteran -- Vietnam -- and former insurance fraud investigator, DeMille has seen enough of the world of which he writes to bring the sort of absolute authenticity to his stories that his readers demand.
In DeMille's most recent work, The Lion's Game , we see ex-NYPD officer John Corey attached to the fictional Anti-Terrorist Task Force, based on the real world Joint Terrorist Task Force, an organization that keeps a fairly low profile. "I think maybe writers always look for organizations that not everybody knows about," says DeMille who, through contacts on the Force, brings a close-up view of this New York-based operation who, as DeMille writes, "are in the front line in the war against terrorism in America."
As The Lion's Game opens, Corey and company are awaiting a special passenger on a flight from Paris at JFK. The passenger is a defecting Libyan terrorist known as "The Lion." Before they can collect their terrorist, however, all hell breaks loose. The plane lands without radio contact and, when the airport's Emergency Service unit are finally able to enter the plane, they're in for a shock. Things are not as they should be on Flight 175 and, when Corey reaches the scene, they find even worse news: their Lion has vanished, leaving a tragic international incident behind him and unknown chaos and terrorism ahead.
What could be fairly standard thriller-type storytelling becomes a taut and highly enjoyable adventure in DeMille's hands. The Lion's Game includes all of the necessary elements -- an action-filled plot, believable characters and chapters filled with tension and surprise -- as well as some features not-so-standard in the modern thriller. There is a high degree of humor in The Lion's Game. A humor that makes an agreeable counterpoint to all of the machinations and tension necessary in this genre.
On meeting the author, it's not difficult to see where that humor has its origin. Nelson DeMille has the intellect necessary to create all of those spellbinding plots. But, also, he views the world through eyes that see the fun in every situation. He laughs often and from a very deep place. Most important, perhaps, when he laughs, he brings you with him.
At 54, DeMille is the author of 10 bestselling novels, including The General's Daughter, which recently appeared as a popular film starring John Travolta. The father of two, DeMille lives on Long Island with Ginny, his wife of 11 years.
Linda Richards: I enjoyed The Lion's Game a lot. It was fun, which surprised me. I wasn't expecting the fun, especially considering the subject matter. In some ways it's very dark. There's a lot of dark stuff going on.
Nelson DeMille: It could have been very dark. And most writers who are writing thrillers write dark thrillers. But people are funny. And cops are funny. Not only does the funny come from John Corey, but it also comes from Asad Khalil, unintentionally. He's making observations about American life through his eyes. He comes to America, he's been trained by the KGB and he's gotten information about America from KGB agents and also through his own observation. And some of his observations are funny. And probably right on. You have to lighten it a little bit otherwise people aren't going to stay with you that long. It's a long book.
Where did you even begin to research it? Because it is a big book.
The beginning was the Joint Terrorist Task Force in New York City. I knew somebody on it, which was my entree into it and the only reason I decided to write the book. I think maybe writers always look for organizations that not everybody knows about. This is an organization that really only formed after the World Trade Center bombing on February 26th, 1993. An Arab terrorist group for the first time struck in America. They planted a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center, in a parking garage. Tried to bring the whole building down. Had the building collapsed there would have been like 20,000 dead. Had the other tower collapsed it would have been 40,000 dead, plus the people on the ground. That's a lot of people. That's more Americans than were killed in the Korean War.
So, from that time on they decided that the New York City Police, who know the streets; the CIA, who know the foreign end of it and the FBI, who are in charge of the internal security, should come together in a task force in New York. It was a good idea on paper, but the reality was that they didn't always work well together. Well, they had to learn how to work well together. So it gives me a chance to have this conflict. You know, had John Corey been on the NYPD it would have been interesting but he was now out of the NYPD, working for the Federal government.
Which is a bit uncomfortable.
Quite. The New York City police have an intelligence unit, but most people who work for the Joint Terrorist Task Force are in the intelligence unit of the New York City police force. They're still cops at heart. I think the idea was to have him... he's not politically correct. They are. If you're a federal government worker you watch your Ps and Qs. You watch what you say to women, about women. You watch what you say in terms of ethnic slurs. But John Corey doesn't care about any of that, he just lets it rip and everybody is aghast at him. And it was kind of fun. It was fun for me and if it was fun for me I knew it was going to be fun for the reader.
It was fun and that surprised me. The Lion's Game was the first of your books that I've read and I was expecting a very dark thriller. And it was a thriller but the lighter elements helped to make it very engaging.
Thank you. And it was a different kind of story, too. Sort of like a Day of the Jackal in some ways, you know? The premise of the situation was just based on a fact: April 15th, 1986, the Americans bombed Libya. One of the bombs went into Gadhafi's house and killed his adopted daughter and wounded his two sons and wounded his wife and the premise [of The Lion's Game ] is that another bomb went astray and killed another whole family of Libyans inside this privileged compound and one of them escaped: Asad Khalil -- Asad meaning Lion in Arabic. He's a 14-year-old boy. He swears revenge. It's now 14 years later. He comes to America to exact revenge. That's the premise. That's kind of like the set up, and then the plot starts to follow from that.
How many books is this for John Corey now? I know he was in Plum Island.
Just Plum Island. This is the first time I've ever brought a character back. I did it because people who read Plum Island loved the character. They wanted him back. So I said, all right. Why not? I'll give a try. I've never done it before. It seemed easy to bring a character back, but it actually turned out to be more challenging than creating a new character because he had to be the same guy. I had to go back and read Plum Island. Years have gone by since I wrote the two books.
When did you write Plum Island?
It was published in 1997 and was mostly written in 1996. So, you know, you have to make sure that the guy sounds the same because in the internal chronology of the books, it's only three or four months apart. So I had to go back and read Plum Island and make sure I understood the character and how he thought and he acted and how he talked, especially. The dialog. Then recreate it in The Lion's Game.
Will he be coming back?
There's a possibility of a third book. But only a possibility. It will depend on a few factors. It might even depend on the movies. We just made a movie deal on The Lion's Game and Plum Island. It was actually done while I was on the road. But the day I left New York, Columbia Motion Pictures started negotiating. The deal is done, I just have to go home and sign a contract.
Thank you. They wanted both books and they wanted the characters. If it's successful for them they want to make a third movie. But that's down the road. I'm writing another book which is actually the same character as The General's Daughter 's Paul Brenner. So the second time I'm bringing a character back. But it's a much different part; it's not a sequel. That was also partly because Paramount wanted the sequel to The General's Daughter. It was very successful.
The Lion's Game wasn't a sequel, was it?
No. You could read Plum Island first or last. It doesn't matter. They're totally different. There are just a few references which you probably saw.
Yeah: poor old Beth.
Yeah, Beth. She didn't fit the plot.
How did you feel about the film treatment of The General's Daughter ?
It wasn't a bad movie. Travolta did a good job.
Did you like the film?
I liked most of it. They overdeveloped some stuff and forgot other stuff and put things in that weren't in the book that didn't need to be put in. You know, when you're dealing with a two hour movie you've gotta be sure you're right on. It kind of wanders a little bit. They overshot and then pick up sometimes the wrong stuff. But I mean, as a whole, the movie was powerful. It got terrible reviews from the critics, though.
Was it fun for you?
It was interesting to go see it.
I think it would be fun to see someone else's vision of your vision. A little maddening maybe.
It was a little frustrating. Starting off with the character of Travolta who really wasn't my character in the book. But he's a good actor so he pulled it off. I think the most amazing thing is when you go out to the set you realize that you sat there and wrote a novel. Which took a while but didn't cost anything, really. It just cost some time and some paper. Then you see a 70 million dollar production rolling with hundreds of people standing around doing nothing and other people working and airplanes and helicopters and... you know...
... and it's all about your vision.
70 million bucks is what they spent on this movie. But it did very well. Even though the critics didn't like it, it was the number seven box office grosser last year in the States and Canada. It was in the first 10. And overseas it did the same amount of money and then the videotape and DVD are doing the same. And then there's pay-per-view. And between all of that, they're going to gross about 300 to 350 million dollars.
So it's early days yet to know when The Lion's Game might see the screen?
Yeah. I mean, Columbia is the studio and I think they're going to put things on a fast track. They have the bucks. I think what they're going to do now is turn it over to a screenwriter right away and then pick a director and all that. I mean, it's possible for next Christmas. If they really want to do it. They seem very hot on it. Why, I don't know. They turned it down originally when they first saw the manuscript for it. They turned down Plum Island years ago. I think, if I had to guess, I would say that a major actor wants to be involved. They're not going to tell me that.
Tell me about the path that led you here to writing these immense -- in several ways -- bestsellers. Where did you start out?
I got out of the army in 1969. I was in Vietnam. I wanted to write the great American war novel at the time. I never really wrote the book, but it got me into the writing process. In the early 70s a lot of police novels were coming out. I had a friend in the publishing business. If you want to write, living in New York certainly helps, but you've got to know people in the business. And they said, "Why don't you do some paperback originals?" And I said, "All right." So I sat down and I tried a couple and it was fun. It was a hobby. I did five of them but it wasn't a full time kind of thing.
Was your name on them?
Yeah. Unfortunately. My name was on them. They're pretty awful. They're long out of print, although I see them sometimes at book signings. People bring them to me to sign. Not terrible, terrible but... then about 1976 I sat down and I said, "Am I going to give up the day job or not give up the day job?" And I started writing full time.
What was the day job?
I was an insurance investigator. Investigating insurance frauds and stuff like that.
I guess that was wonderful food for what you did later.
It got me used to the interviewing process. How to interview people. And there's a book there too. An insurance fraud book. I actually wrote an article on it once. A magazine article.
Being in New York doesn't hurt. One of my high school teachers was good friends with a literary agent who was one of New York's best literary agents. And I spoke to him and, you know. It's like if you lived in Detroit and you want to be in the car business you're in the right place. Ultimately, I really wanted to write a bigger novel. By that time I had found an agent. Sweating the paperbacks was not bad, because at least I had something to show to a literary agent. And I found a good agent.
And you had the vision for a whole book?
Yeah. I had an idea for a whole book, basically. So this was 1975 maybe, or 1976. People say write about something you know, but also, write about something you know is going to sell the first time, because you want to break in. And I wanted a major honker of a novel. I didn't want to do paperbacks anymore. At that time what was in was Arab terrorism, which was brand new in those days. The first hijacking was 1972, it was all new stuff. There was a good book out at that time called Black Sunday by Thomas Harris who went on to write Silence of the Lambs. People started to write in this vein this genre of Arab terrorism. So I said, "This is going to do something." And I wrote By the Rivers of Babylon. It's a big book like this one. I gave it to the agent and I said, "We've got to get a lot of money for this book, otherwise don't sell it."
There's different ways to sell a book in the business. You can go publisher to publisher. Or, if you're very gutsy, you can announce an auction. And with an auction you put a floor bid. And if nobody bids, you're dead in the water, you know? So the agent put a floor bid of $50,000, which was the minimum we would accept. Right down to the wire he hadn't gotten it.
They usually give the publishers seven or eight business days and on one of the last days he got a phone call: somebody had made the floor bid! So he took the floor bid and he went to the other publishing houses -- and there were more in those days -- and he said, "I have the floor bid. Would you like to top it?" Somebody topped it. Somebody topped it. Somebody topped it. And he ran it way up there into the six figures. It was a lot of money. And I didn't have any money: I was writing for $1500 a book. But I took a chance because, if nobody had bid I don't know what we would have done because they won't come back. An agent can't come back and say, "OK: we'll take $10,000." You can't do that. [Laughs]
Then the book turned out to be a Book of the Month Club main selection, which was great, a Reader's Digest condensed book and then we sold foreign rights. Sold movie rights then, even. That was the beginning; that was 10 books ago. So you have to take a chance sometimes. But it had to be a good book. If it wasn't a good book no one was going to bid anything. It needed an agent with some guts. Also, the literary world was starting to explode at that time, in terms of paying advances. Author advances, prior to that, had been, if you were lucky $5000. $7000. All of a sudden in the early 70s, publishers started paying money. They were starting to be more competitive.
There were starting to be some stars.
Yeah. The retail market was still almost nonexistent. The hardcover market, when they paid you for a book, if they paid you $10,000 for the hardcover rights, that was a lot. But then they started to pay now 80, 90 maybe $100,000 for the paperback rights, if they broke it out. Because these mass markets were now flooding all the racks. So, you know, 7-11s and the grocery stores, that's where the money came from then to fuel this fire. But then what happened after they started getting Walden's and Dalton's at local malls, followed by Barnes & Noble and now it's Price Club and Amazon and hard cover retail outlets. Plus the movie deals. The publisher controls the movie rights, if they can get a million bucks from Hollywood... then the whole foreign market opened up at the same time. Whereas at one time you were happy when you sold England, France and Germany. All of a sudden you're selling into Spain, Holland, Portugal, then you're selling it to the Far East and now we're selling it into Europe. The whole subsidiary rights process really became more sophisticated.
And you're a huge seller. I guess you'll see a lot of translations with The Lion's Game.
It'll be in every language except Arabic. [Laughs] None of my books are in Arabic. Most of the Arab countries will not buy American fiction because it's full of sex, violence, drinking and men and women even holding hands.
So that's a thumbnail sketch of the publishing business.
And also it's the story of how you got to be an overnight sensation. And I love it, because you were, really. You said, "I'm going to sit down and write a bestselling novel." And you did it.
Yeah. It seemed like an easy way to make a living. [Laughs]
People want to be writers and, of all the things you can do, this is the least amount of investment of money. You got a word processor and you got paper. If you do anything else, you know, if you want to make a movie or even if you want to be a corporate cleaner, you need a van and a machine. There's no investment here except this. [Taps his head.] And you got to invest the time. Some people want to be writers and you ask if they've written anything. "No I haven't." You want to be a writer? Sit down and write. There's nothing stopping you. All you need is a typewriter.
I've had a good career. I actually like the people in the business, which is good too. The Hollywood types can be a bit slimier [Laughs] but people in publishing are nice people. The publishing world we all know each other. Respect each other. You get a little cutthroat competition once in a while, but nothing really nasty. But it is a literary world. If you live in New York, you see more of it. Not that we all sit around the Algonquin Hotel sipping sherry, but there is a literary world there. | March 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.