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Plum Assignment

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AS A YOUTH, NELSON DEMILLE—the author of blockbuster bestseller Plum Island—was drawn more to the sword than the pen, fantasizing about life as an explorer or soldier of fortune. But it was still a jolt when the Army drafted him right after he dropped out of Hofstra University in 1966, sending him to Vietnam as an infantry officer a year later. During intense fighting shortly after the 1968 Tet Offensive, DeMille was taking a breather, he says, when “this guy broke out of the bamboo with an AK-47 aimed straight at me. I should have been dead. But for some reason he didn’t fire. His gun might have jammed. One of our guys, who was more alert, got a burst of three rounds off. Got him in the heart.” From the pockets of the dead Vietcong soldier, DeMille saved a love letter and some photographs.

DeMille’s wartime experience started him keeping a combat diary and, he says, “got me into a writing process.” But, he adds, it “didn’t get me published.” Years of stubborn effort did that, and DeMille, 53, today holds the No. 1 spot on bestseller lists with his ninth novel, a thriller centered on murdered researchers from a real-life U.S. animal disease lab on a remote island off the east end of New York’s Long Island.

Like the blunt-talking 5’8″ author himself, DeMille’s swaggering leading men recall the heroes of Ernest Hemingway, who happens to be DeMille’s literary hero as well. “There are no sensitive ’90s men in my books,” he says. “I always think of Humphrey Bogart, a real man’s man without being obnoxious.” DeMille’s women are similarly self-possessed: romantic, he says, “but not mushy.”

DeMille grew up in a not-so-romantic middle-class Long Island housing development his father, Huron, a builder, helped construct in Elmont, N.Y., after World War II. His mother, Antonia, a homemaker, raised Nelson and his brothers (Dennis, now 50 and a contractor; Lance, 40, who owns a carpeting company; and Clark, who died at 30 in 1981 of a brain aneurysm). The hard-charging fullback captain of his high school football team, DeMille also plowed through his dad’s leather-bound editions of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck—respected authors who also sold well. “It’s not a sin to be entertaining,” DeMille points out.

Still dreaming of adventure after Vietnam, DeMille considered arms smuggling or antiterrorism but instead landed work investigating insurance fraud before launching a writing career. After an Army pal introduced him to the editor of a series of pulpy police novels, he published his first fiction as an entry in the series in 1974. That led to more assignments, and four years later DeMille’s first real novel, By the Rivers of Babylon (a Middle Eastern thriller), was auctioned to Harcourt Brace for a Babylonian $412,000.

Though he may not have attained the fame and fortune of John Grisham (called by DeMille “a good storyteller but not necessarily a very good writer—Tom Clancy is the same way”), with a $25 million multibook contract DeMille does well enough to afford his three-story, $1 million Victorian house in suburban Garden City, N.Y. (Susan Lucci is a neighbor). He shares the six-bedroom home with his wife of nine years, Ginny, 50, a former book publicist he met in 1981. “She brings me back to reality when I get too full of myself,” DeMille says.

Both of his children by his previous wife, Ellen Wasserman DeMille, are budding writers: Lauren, 19, a student at Columbia College in Manhattan, and Alex, 17, entering his senior year at Garden City High School.

While his children bud, Hollywood is bidding for film rights to Plum Island, and several of his earlier books are in development. Michael Douglas will star in the movie version of DeMille’s 1992 bestseller The General’s Daughter, and Bruce Willis has called DeMille to say he would like to play one of his characters. Meanwhile the demands of book promotion tours have slowed DeMille’s working pace: “I haven’t written a word since February,” he grumbles.

While DeMille’s fiction writing has been interrupted, he did publish an article in June about his first trip back to Vietnam since his war days. A year before, he had turned over the Vietcong soldier’s letter and pictures to a U.S. veterans’ group working to locate missing troops. Maybe, he says, “it will help somebody find their lost son.”