Last week, ahead of the release of his highly-anticipated new thriller, The Cuban Affair, I was able to reach bestselling author Nelson DeMille by telephone. Over the course of forty-five minutes, I asked DeMille questions ranging from when he knew he wanted to be a writer to which actor he would like to see play John Corey.
The legendary author held nothing back, stopping only when one of his famous one-liners caused one of us (usually me) to break out into laughter.
To kick things off, I asked him when he knew he wanted to be a writer.
“When I was in college, and I started to read the classics–guys like Hemingway and Fitzgerald–I thought, these writers are so good. I said I could never do this. But I started thinking about it and I started thinking about the life of Hemingway and, in those days when I was a kid–which was a long time ago–male writers had a reputation for hard-drinking, womanizing, and traveling to exotic places, which sounded like something I wanted to do,” said DeMille, as he let out his famous chuckle, which, by the way, is hopelessly contagious.
“We kind of idolized writers in those days, I think, more than we do now. But I got the bug when I was in college, and did some creative writing for the first time in my life–although I never took a creative writing course.”
While DeMille might have gotten “the bug” to write in college, it would still be several years before he actually got started on his dream of crafting a novel. That, however, didn’t deter him from writing. In fact, it only strengthened his desire to get to work on a story.
“I spent three years in the army, one year in Vietnam, and I came home with this burning desire because, you know, that was my adventure. That was sort of my Hemingway adventure and I wanted to write an America-Vietnam War novel. I never ended up actually writing it, but it did get me into the process of sitting down and getting my thoughts together and writing about something I knew. Years later, I wrote Word of Honor and Up Country, which were kind of my Vietnam novels, but they weren’t written at the time when I came back, which was 1969.”
As we chatted, nearly thirty-nine years since his first book came out, I asked him about that novel and if he ever thought, back then, that he’d still be writing today.
“That’s a good question,” said DeMille, pausing to think. “After By the Rivers of Babylon, which was a bestseller, yeah, I thought I had arrived very quickly. My four years before that with paperback pulp was more of a hobby, and I didn’t think it was going to be a living. But what started as a hobby became a career, and then it became a life.”
“After Babylon, I knew if I could get the second book written, that I’d be on my way. Turns out, my second book, which was more of a procedural, was also a big bestseller, so I realized I had the talent and business sense–because publishing is a business—to make this a career. They were just starting to pay big money in those days, and they hadn’t really before, so I was able to go from poverty to very comfortable within a year, which was a good thing.”
The Cuban Affair is DeMille’s twentieth novel to date. We talked about how this book was something he’d wanted to write about for a long time, and he explained the original inspiration for the story idea.
“Cuba has always interested me, and I think it interested all of us, really. When I was growing up, I had a Cuba refugee family move in down the block. They’d lost everything in Cuba and that was a profound experience for me as a young man. When I was in the army, I had two company commanders who were officers of the Cuban army who had escaped Castro and gone back during the Bay of Pigs invasion. I was fascinated by that.”
“Being a political science and history major, Cuba kind of always stays in my mind. I go to Florida a lot and, ya know, it’s there. You go to Miami and you see hundreds of thousands of very successful Cuban Americans, and you realize they came from a place that’s not so successful. And then I guess it was really President Obama’s opening up of Cuba that made me finally decide that, before things change too much, it’s time to address it in some kind of a novel. All I needed was a plot!”
As it turns out, DeMille actually settled on creating a new character before he came up with the book’s plot. I asked about his creative process, and why he didn’t bring back his series protagonist, John Corey, for this book.
“I had no story and no character, but I pitched it to my agent and they were very excited about it and the publisher was excited so I knew I was on the right track. Usually, I come up with a scene and location, and then I work from there. I don’t come up with the characters first, except, of course, for with the John Corey books, which is a series.”
“With a series, you’re starting with the main character because you have no choice, and then you come up with a plot. But when writing a standalone, I try to come up with a place that interests me, like Vietnam or Russia, that I want to write about, and then I go there. The same thing happened with Cuba. It’s sort of me going back to my standalone style before I wrote the John Corey series.”
In regards to why he opted to create a new character to star in The Cuban Affair rather than bring John Corey back, DeMille first stated that it had nothing to do with anything legal-wise, as he’d just switched publishers, but that it was his own decision.
“You know, I wanted to start fresh. Legally, there were no issues taking the character or anything like that. I was honestly just starting to get a little tired of John. I’m always reminded of Sherlock Holmes and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off but then had to bring him back. I was starting to feel like John Corey had outlived his usefulness. And while all the books have been successful, I didn’t know how much more attention to give this guy and I was relieved to find out that Simon & Schuster felt the same way and that they would rather start new.”
Before Corey fans panic, DeMille did quickly add, “It doesn’t mean there won’t be any more John Corey books, I just needed a break. I had to create a new character, but I also like the idea of doing a standalone of new characters. Series are great, and the readers love series–they love Mitch Rapp and Jack Reacher–and I give a lot of credit to the authors who can do that, but I was coming to the end of my line with John Corey and wanted to do a standalone and something different.”
Would The Cuban Affair have worked as a Corey book? It’s something I asked, and DeMille’s answer was very insightful.
“It certainly could have been John Corey in Cuba, but I really didn’t want to do that. You always take a chance. Publishers are worried you might lose some of your readers, and that happens sometimes. But in the end, the author has to like what they’re doing. I knew it would take me about a year and a half or two years to write this book, and if I’m having a good time writing it then the readers will hopefully have a good time reading it.”
As readers dive into The Cuban Affair, which is in bookstores starting today, you’ll see that DeMille’s new character, Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, is another sarcastic, larger-than-life type of protagonist that the author is known for. I’ve always wondered how DeMille comes up with his characters, and he took me inside his process which, amazingly, is something he does over the course of just a few days.
“So everyone was on board with a new character, all I needed to do was create one. Some of my older characters from past books are, well, they’re old enough to be eligible for social security now. So while I could have gotten away with another John Corey book, the mandate here was to create a new character around thirty-five years old, which seems to be the magic age in Hollywood and in publishing.”
“I wanted to make him a war veteran, but it couldn’t be Vietnam. It couldn’t even be Iraq, really, because that would have been pushing it, so Afghanistan was the war. That was the start of it, and I just went from there. I knew I wanted him to be in Key West since the action would obviously take place in Cuba. I don’t know anyone who’s a native of Key West, though I’m sure there are, but I made him from Maine. I thought it was clever on my part because Portland, Maine and Key West are connected by U.S. Highway 1. That’s how it all starts, and it just goes on and on.”
“Within about two days, you should have your character down. Once you’ve got the guy’s bio, then you have to kind of give him some life and breath. I decided to start the scene in The Green Parrot [a bar that’s featured in the book], and once I made all those decisions, all of a sudden things really started to come to me. I didn’t need to do anymore outlining, all I needed to do was write the scene on The Green Parrot and then the scene on his fishing boat, The Maine, and then from there, it just kept progressing.”
DeMille, who was very polite and generous with his answers, seemed to enjoy talking about the writing process. New characters and stories clearly interest him, so I doubled down on that and asked him about his ability to introduce new characters on the fly, a trait that he’s known for. While some other authors write introductions for characters, which can go on for paragraphs, DeMille’s style is much different, and his take is fascinating.
“I might have been guilty of that years ago,” he said, speaking of how early in his career, he too had written character intros differently, “but you learn as you get older.”
“I learned from my son, who is a screenwriter, who said to me ‘look at it as a movie,’ and that’s how I approached it. Readers might not know anything about anyone, but they’re going to spot the hero right away. So while you might not know anything about him, you see him doing something, and whatever he’s doing is more important than you going on and on about his background, which will develop as the story develops.”
“All I knew upfront with Mac was his age, that he was ruggedly handsome, and that he was an Afghan war vet who came from Maine. If you have any awareness of American culture, you’re probably thinking, ‘Here’s this New England family, educated, spent time in the United States Army and saw action in Afghanistan, and now he’s chilling in Key West.’ What more do you need for the first five pages? You just go from there–a good reader will be able to imagine the rest of it on their own.”
The other thing Nelson DeMille is known for is his wise-cracking characters. So I asked him about that, and if the humor in a book is important to him, or if it just comes naturally because that’s how he is in real life. As it turns out, DeMille’s take on humor and sarcasm is deeper than you might think.
“You have to be funny,” he said, again chuckling. “Some books are just deadly dull because all the humor is gone. There’s a lot of truth in wise-cracking and lots of truth in jokes and sarcasm. You have a character who sees the world the way that it is, and sees the irony of the world, and he makes fun of it. He’s not depressed by it, it doesn’t throw him off, he rises above it all and makes wise-cracks.”
The author then added, laughing, that “it’s probably a New York thing. I’ve lived here so long and it’s almost like a sport.”
Let it be known that if wise-cracking was, indeed, a sport, Nelson DeMille would be the world champion.
After already briefly touching on John Corey, I asked DeMille if he thought he might ever bring back his fan-favorite character. If you panicked from his initial response, this answer should make you feel a tad better.
“Yeah. I hate to say it, but one of the deciding factors is the movies or television. The Corey character is with Sony TV, and they are negotiating with ABC TV for a Corey series. They want to make a pilot, and if they do, it’ll be this October. They already have a screenplay–which I’ve seen, and it’s good–and if the pilot does well, and if it’s a series, and if the series is successful on ABC, then I’d be crazy not to do another John Corey novel.”
Fear not though, Corey fans, DeMille didn’t stop there.
“You know, there might be other reasons to do another John Corey, too. I know earlier I said I was tired of him, but what I actually meant to say was that I’m tired of writing about Islamic terrorism. That got old after a while–I mean we’re living with this stuff every day–and I got tired of writing that subject matter. If this was the Cold War and my guy was an espionage or James Bond-like character, I could probably do it forever because it’s so fascinating.”
“My last book with John Corey, Radiant Angel, had nothing to do with Islamic terrorists. It actually involved Russia, and I suppose I could keep doing that, but John and I needed a break from each other.” He then added, “I would never say never to anything.”
Switching gears, I asked the author who he’d like to see play John Corey if it were up to him.
“Corey has been around for about fifteen years now, so the actors in my head have changed. The guy I like, and I know him, is Alec Baldwin. He’s a little old, but so is John Corey. If I had to pick one actor, I would pick Baldwin.”
As readers will soon find out, DeMille’s latest novel is packed with vivid descriptions of Cuba, where most of the book is set. That’s no accident, by the way, as DeMille works very hard at getting locations and scenery correct.
“I do a lot of research for all my books and I almost always go to where my books are set, like Moscow and Vietnam. The only place I didn’t go was Yemen.”
“I went to Cuba for this book. Once you get your feet on the ground in the country, and you know you’re writing a book about it, everything sort of falls into place. In the old days, I did a lot of library research. Now, thank God, you can do it on the internet. I interviewed a number of Cubans because I know a number of Cuban Americans, and the research can take me as much as six months sometimes if the book is complex. But the setting becomes another character in the book, and that’s the matrix that you need in order to make the whole thing resonate or else it isn’t going to work.”
As for the twists and turns, DeMille said he doesn’t always know them ahead of time before he sits down to write. The Cuban Affair, though, was a different story.
“I don’t normally, but this one I knew from the beginning. If you’re a good reader, you’re going to know right away that things aren’t going to go according to plan for the characters. And so there’s a twist which propelled me into doing this kind of action-adventure, escape-and-chase type of story. There has to be that moment of revelation, and it better be a big one, where things all start to make sense and the reader is surprised. I knew that moment when I first got into the book.”
Interestingly, the book is set in the very recent past. DeMille made it known that while other authors have made careers out of being headline-beaters with their plots, he takes a different approach.
“I set it slightly in the past on purpose. I wrote Charm School, a Cold War thriller, in 1987 and the hardcover came out in 1988. By the time the paperback came out in 1989 or 1990, the Cold War was over. Events had overtaken the book, and you always have that problem when you’re writing a novel because it’s not a daily newspaper–you have sometimes around two years from conception to publication. So I set this one in the past for that reason.”
“Everything I saw when I was there in October of 2016, I reported on accurately. I wasn’t going to keep changing the book, and it turned out Castro died. Had I tried to set the book in today’s world when I was writing it a year ago, I would have had to of gone back and make a lot of changes. Not only Castro dying, but the 2016 presidential election, too. I had no intention of doing that.”
“In my mind, you have to just pick a time in history, and that is when the book is set. If something really dramatic happens that’s good or will help the story, you can dig back into the plot and go back and change it, and that’s fine. Otherwise, you just have to eventually surrender it to the printer.”
Just before saying our goodbyes, I asked DeMille about his next book. While he didn’t have any details to provide yet, he did tell me that his twenty-first book will, like The Cuban Affair, be a standalone novel.
“I like the idea that I have, but I have a lot of research to do. It will be a new character, a standalone for sure. I like the idea of a new character again.”
The Cuban Affair, the latest must-read thriller from Nelson DeMille, is now available wherever books are sold.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck is the editor-in-chief of The Real Book Spy, and one of the thriller genre’s most well-recognized critics. He currently lives in southwest Michigan with his wife and their five children.