Author Nelson DeMille on Dan Brown, Ayn Rand and his Holy Grail Novel
Bestselling author Nelson DeMille has made a career out of timely thrillers set against the threat of war--from the Cold War to the War on Terror. But early in his career in 1975, long before Dan Brown revived the religious-thriller genre with "The Da Vinci Code," DeMille penned a novel about the Holy Grail called "The Quest." Thirty-seven years later, DeMille has updated and republished the book, which should please his fans and Dan Brown fanatics alike. DeMille spoke with Bookish about resurrecting his early work (which would have been "another 'Da Vinci' knockoff--except that it was done 25 years before"), why we're still as fascinated by the Holy Grail as we were in the days of "Monty Python" and "Indiana Jones," why most anti-terrorism thrillers are "overdone" and what everyone can learn from Ayn Rand.
Bookish: What are you most excited about regarding the release of "The Quest"?
Nelson DeMille: I'm most excited about being able to rewrite a book--it's the first time I've ever done that--and bring it back. It was my first best book--or my best first book, I should say--it didn't see much of the light of day back in 1975. The process was interesting, to rewrite one of my own books 37 years later. [There were] some winceable moments. I felt like my own editor--I was a man in my 30s when I wrote it.
One of the challenges was keeping the flavor: I didn't want to change so much that it sounded like it was written today about the '70s. Some of the words and usage have changed--some of the spelling, punctuation, the dialect.... You don't want to make it so modern that it sounds like you really wrote it yesterday. One of the words I stuck to was the word "Muslim"; it was written "Moslem," which was more common then. My main character smokes--I let him keep his cigarettes. He's a man of the '70s. A lot of us were surprised when we saw "Mad Men" on TV--that era coming alive again. You realize how much has changed in terms of things like smoking, how men treated women, the language that was used. Some of the stuff I wrote [in the '70s] was probably offensive by today's standards.
["The Quest"] had a good story--this was why I wanted to bring it back. I wouldn't bring back a lot of my paperbacks, believe me. But this one in particular was a book that needed more attention when I wrote it. I didn't have those kinds of skills [then], quite frankly, to bring the story alive that I wanted to bring alive.
Bookish: Describe the moment when you first knew this would be your next book.
ND: I didn't have a lot of stuff [published] before my first big bestseller, which was "By the Rivers of Babylon." But one of them was "The Quest," so I proposed it to the publisher. The impetus was Dan Brown's book, "The Da Vinci Code," and of course the thinking was, "It sounds like you're doing another 'Da Vinci' knockoff"--except that it was done 25 years before. Religious thrillers had a hot moment in the '70s. It was Dan Brown [who] reinvented the genre. Audiences were buying it; they actually came back.
Bookish: Why do you think the Holy Grail continues to fascinate us?
ND: The Holy Grail has become an expression--"the Holy Grail of…" It's part of the consciousness, the culture. The actual Grail was a Kiddush cup in the Jewish Passover--a beat-up, old thing. It had no magical powers. It's an interesting evolution: By the early Middle Ages, the Grail had become big. But why the Grail, why not something else? What are the artifacts people think of--religious relics of saints, a piece of the cross? Nobody says these have magical power. The Grail has magical power--that's what fascinates people.
Bookish: What do you think the "Indiana Jones" movies got right and wrong about the Holy Grail? Are you a "Monty Python" fan?
ND: I am a big "Monty Python" fan. The "Indiana Jones" movies were brilliant; it wasn't even right or wrong. These legends have been all over the board--I think anybody writing about them, making movies, [has] a lot of leeway. I placed my Grail in Ethiopia--I [came up with] reasons why it ended up there, at a Coptic monastery, as opposed to someplace else.
[In 1975,] there was no "Da Vinci Code," there were no blockbusters. There were [stories] starting to come out about the Shroud of Turin, the Lance of Longinus. I think it was partly the times, many people looking for something. This book is going to do well, I think, because it's just a good story. It is an "Indiana Jones" story; it's a real adventure, at the same time it has a mystical and spiritual element. There are characters who are spiritual and believe; our main character is very cynical and skeptical. He's after the story. The point of [the Holy Grail] is, if you believe in it, it will be real to you and it will have these powers. But if you don't believe in it, it's not going to be [anything].
Bookish: What was the most interesting thing about the Holy Grail that you discovered in your research for "The Quest"? What's the most outlandish conspiracy theory you came across?
ND: Not too many conspiracy theories, but one of the things that was outlandish was the whole Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. There's really no reason why this thing from Jerusalem would have wound up in Glastonbury. But, Britain was part of the Roman world, so it is possible that Joseph of Arimathea could have wound up in Britain because it was part of the Roman world. But really, that's more British nationalism; that's why these things were written, to try and make Britain the center of the world. The point is, nobody knows if it exists. But, it persists in legend, it persists in literature, it persists in people's consciousness and imagination. It's very universal.
Bookish: After writing "The Panther," you hinted that your next John Corey novel would be set in Afghanistan. What about that setting is most compelling to you? Are there any plot tidbits you could share?
ND: Well, it's John Corey out of the country. He's supposed to track down terrorists, and he's been doing it in New York. It's a bit like "The Panther," [which is] set in Yemen, in that it's John Corey out of his home turf, having to deal with a hostile atmosphere. He's a New York City cop, from this urban environment, who now finds himself--as with Yemen--in the middle of nowhere. We see that he's resourceful; he can handle it.
The anti-terrorist books are one of the genres that people are interested in, but they're kind of overdone. [It's] probably all men who write in the genre. My books, I think, appeal to women, too. More than half of my fan mail comes from women. Women tend to write more. Guys aren't going to sit down and tell you how great you are; women will. My terrorist thrillers, so to speak, have another dimension to them, where women can read them. They're not just straight anti-terrorist [books] with the superhero kind of guy. The guy's a little complex--but people who usually read these books want their heroes one-dimensional, straightforward. I'm trying to do something different.
I had fun with it for a while. I often say that if the Cold War went on, I'd still be writing Cold War thrillers. I find the Cold War fascinating; I find the war on terrorism, quite frankly, dull. I find the enemy dull. They're not Russians, they're not cool. [The Cold War] was incredible--it was nuclear armageddon, it was something to write about. The war on terrorism, as important as it is, in many ways and to many people--it's almost like you're reaching when you're writing a book about antiterrorism. I don't think antiterrorist books have the same passion or literary quality--I'm not talking about mine, obviously--as some of the Cold War books that were literature, like the [John] Le Carre [books].
Bookish: Over the course of your life, what's the book you've most often recommended to people and why?
And, "Atlas Shrugged." It's a book that was political without being political--it wasn't conservative, it wasn't liberal. It was a whole new philosophy--objectivism, which somehow appealed to me, and is still appealing to people. It's a book written about 60 years ago, now, that still has a following. It's an interesting philosophy. I'm kind of a libertarian; I keep to the side of the aisle, I like to do my own thing, I'm a "slow government" kind of person. This appealed to me--it was a synthesis, in many ways, of ideologies coming together. You certainly couldn't call [Ayn Rand] conservative: She was an atheist, she believed in free sex and free love, so the religious right never would embrace this. She was ardently anti-socialist. That's the book I recommend. It won't change anybody's mind, but for younger people--like my children, who I insisted read this book--it made them think outside the box.
Nelson DeMille is the author of 17 acclaimed novels, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers "Night Fall," "Plum Island" and "The Gate House" and New York Times bestsellers "Wild Fire," "The Gold Coast" and "The General's Daughter." For more information on the author, visit www.NelsonDeMille.net. Twitter: @NelsonDeMille. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NelsonDeMilleAuthor.