In Nelson DeMille’s latest novel, Up Country, his hero, a retired criminal investigator for the Army named Paul Brenner, returns to Vietnam ostensibly to investigate a 30-year-old murder. Throughout the book, which is a terrific read, Brenner ruminates about his two tours of duty there, as a grunt with the 1st Cavalry Division and as a military policeman.
This is highly autobiographical: the author, who moved to Long Island as a child, joined the Army after spending three years at Hofstra University and, commissioned a second lieutenant, served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader with the 1st Cav. Uniform.
Of his experiences in Vietnam, he said in a recent interview, “I felt like an old soul, seeing through the moment. I thought, this is a hell of an experience. After World War II and Korea, no one thought there would be another war. Sure, I was scared of getting killed. Once I got there, I saw that being clever didn’t matter - you could be killed. I went through many stages: panic, anxiety, peace. Twelve months of combat is a long time - after a while, you come to terms with it. What amazed me was that the average American boy could go from a civilized culture to a war zone - and behave like a warrior.”
When he got out of the Army in 1969, DeMille returned to the States and went back to Hofstra University, earning his bachelor’s degree in political science and history. He married and had two children, divorced, and remarried.
Demille in Vietnam 1968
“I wanted to write the great American war novel at the time,” he said in a recent interview. “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.”
And after working as an insurance fraud investigator, he began writing full-time around 1976, carving out what has become a highly successful career as a fiction writer. His first major novel, By the Rivers of Babylon, was published in 1978.
Other books by Nelson Demille also include Cathedral, The Talbot Odyssey, Word of Honor, Night Fall, Wild Fire, Mayday, The Charm School, The Gold Coast, The General’s Daughter, Spencerville, Plum Island, and The Lion’s Game. Most of Nelson Demille's books have been best-sellers. All are still in print.
He is a member of The Authors Guild, the Mystery Writers of America, and American Mensa. He holds three honorary doctorates: Doctor of Humane Letters from Hofstra University, Doctor of Literature from Long Island University, and Doctor of Humane Letters from Dowling College.
In a recent interview, DeMille discussed a letter he had found on the body of a Vietnamese soldier. The idea of a letter that remained untranslated for more than a quarter of a century became the spark that ignites the plot in Up Country.
To research the book – all of his novels have a firm foundation in the places in which they are set – he returned to Vietnam in 1997 with two friends, both veterans. “Combat veterans can and do deal with the ghosts, demons, and devils of the past, mostly by putting it out of their minds and moving on with their lives,” he said. “But when you return to a combat zone, you know you’re going to have to confront this again. This, to a large extent, is what Up Country is about.”
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