The Paula Gordon Show
Place, Premise, Character, (Plot)

Nelson DeMille

      Nelson DeMille is the author of more than a dozen novels. His books have hit every major Best Seller list in this country and beyond. More than 30 million copies are in print worldwide. He has lived on Long Island most of his life, is a passionate traveler and a Vietnam veteran. Mr. DeMille prides himself on „breaking the moldš with each new book. Plum Island is his most recent.

Excerpts3:02 secs

      What does it take to write a Best Seller? „It‚s got to be entertaining,š according to Nelson DeMille who has graced every major Best Seller list in America and has thirty million copies in print worldwide. „Writers are entertainers. Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway were all writing őpopular fiction.‚ They were writing about basic human themes set in their own times.  They‚re now őclassics‚ because they wrote well.š

      DeMille‚s latest hit is Plum Island, published by Warner Books.  It‚s a thriller that combines a double homicide with fears both of modern biological technology gone awry and international terrorists plus local Long Island lore. Welcome to the ő90s.

      A history major in college, DeMille never took a writing course, admits he can neither type nor spell and he writes with a pencil. But he loves the English language with its rhythms, cadences and rich variety (500,000 words versus only 50,000 in Hungarian, the least of all the European languages.) DeMille is obviously pleased to report, „People may not like my books, but no one has ever said I can‚t write.š

      Real-life counterparts to DeMille‚s stories often appear as headlines years later (May Day was about a missile striking a commercial airplane years before TWA Flight #800, The General‚s Daughter predated the „Tailhook scandals in the military.) „I‚m not prescient. And I don‚t want to be an alarmist.  But when the esoteric has become common, it can be scary.š

      DeMille believes that before you can decide WHAT to write, you have to figure out WHY you want to write. „Sure, you play God when you write a novel. But if you set out to write őThe Great American Novel,‚ you‚ll fail miserably. On the other hand, if you talk down to your audience, you‚ll come out with trash.š His answer is what he calls „popular literature.š

      „I start with a location and figure out a premise.  Then I invent the characters, give them a biography, and get to know them. At that point, the characters take over the book. The plot is absolutely the last thing. If őthe plot thickens,‚ you‚re lost. And so is the reader.š

      „When someone tells me they want to write novels, I suggest they take two aspirin and go to bed.  It‚s a grueling life.š  That life has also richly rewarded Nelson DeMille who lives to travel. Does he have a secret to writing what sells in huge numbers? „I have no formula. I break the mold with every book.š

Conversation 1

Nelson DeMille tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell his success writing best selling novels started when he was a history major in college! He wants his books to be timeless but to give a sense of the human experience as great literature always has from Shakespeare back to the Romans. „Humans haven‚t changed much in 2,000 years.š

He talks about the present day realities that shaped his most recent best seller, Plum Island. He acknowledges that there are lots of scary things in the world as, increasingly, esoteric technologies have become common, starting with gun powder, ending in biological and nuclear weapons.

Conversation 2

Mr. DeMille never took a writing course, he says his spelling is atrocious and he can‚t type! But he does know how to write popular fiction that sells.  He says he and Ken Follette both began by reading the popular fiction of the day. The key is to be entertaining. That was what Dickens, Puzo, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Orwell all did -- they created popular fiction that became classics. „If you start out to write Great American Novel, you‚ll fail miserably.š

Mr. DeMille tells all the reasons NOT to write novels, suggesting one needs to know why you want to write before deciding what you want to write. He puts this advise into the context of the twenty novels he has written.

Conversation 3

Mr. DeMille is interested in deep human struggles, such as the one in Vietnam and the much longer one that‚s been going on a thousand years in Ireland. „Sure, you‚re playing God when write a book.š

His experience in Vietnam opened his eyes to the importance of perception versus reality. „Things are not what they seem.š He talks about the mass media, and compares it to having the luxury and time to write and read a novel.

Mr. DeMille‚s tells how he led his reluctant children to be good readers.

He often alternate his 12 hour writing days with days when he assembles information, has never be plagued by writer‚s block and writes with a pencil!

Conversation 4

Books are indeed magic carpets. Mr. DeMille describes how locations, his own imagination and literary license work together. He describes listening to people who became vital resources to him, especially the cops who told him stories that helped him write successful cop stories.

A lively conversation ensures, focused on the importance of language itself (a concern for a novelist who has been translated into virtually every language.) Mr. DeMille salutes English, criticizes French and bows to Hungarian. He bemoans the „tragedy that American kids don't speak the language, they grunt and groan.š

Mr. DeMille carefully describes the process he goes through in constructing a novel.

Conversation 5

When „the plot thickens,š it is not good. Mr. DeMille compares the stories one sees on television with those in novel. Mr. DeMille agrees with Bill Russell‚s comparison of a novelist‚s challenge to the process Christopher Langton uses creating „Artificial Life.š Mr. DeMille furthers the comparison to include method acting and the requirement to know one‚s characters. He puts today‚s novels in the context of novels from other eras and the experiences readers across the years bring to novels. He says when one writes a novel, one assumes a higher intelligence level than when writing television.

Mr. DeMille describes how he incorporates the changes in technology and the changes in the social milieu as he writes and revises novels over time.

Conversation 6

Novels are entertainment first. Mr. DeMille says it‚s „not fairš how many bad books are being published. He‚s sensitive to and appreciative of the reader who‚s willing to sit down with him for 16 hours.

He‚s quite proud that people may poke holes in his plots, „But nobody‚s ever said this guy doesn‚t know how to write.š  He believes a writer has to maintain a sense of wonder, and can never become jaded to experience. In his books, „I try to break the mold every time.š


The Commerce Club of Atlanta provided impeccable hospitality, as is its custom, when we recorded this program in the Miles Lane Room‚s alcove. We are grateful.

Additional Links:
Plum Island (1997), Spencerville (1994), The General‚s Daughter (1992), The Gold Coast (1990), The Charm School (1988), and Word of Honor (1985) were all published by:
Warner Books

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