How Nelson DeMille Began His Writing Career

By Nelson DeMille

Forty years ago when my first hardcover novel, By the Rivers of Babylon, was published, I never thought I’d be writing a piece about the book’s fortieth anniversary. In fact, I didn’t think I’d be writing for forty years. But I am, and I just published my twenty-first hardcover novel, The Deserter. Apparently, I’m doing something right.

Prior to By the Rivers of Babylon, I’d written about ten novels for small paperback publishers, for which I was paid the princely sum of $1,500 each. Even back in the ‘70s this was not good money, so I wasn’t quitting the day job, and writing was more of a kitchen table hobby than a career.

In retrospect, some of these paperback pulpers may not have been worth even $1,500. But they did give me a lot of writing experience and I was consciously or unconsciously honing my writing skills for the day I would write my big hardcover novel—the one that was going to make me rich and famous. The one that was going to be titled By the Rivers of Babylon.

My paperbacks were mostly police detective novels, featuring a fellow named Joe Ryker, NYPD, and another cop named Joe Blaze. Both of these detectives would, today, be brought up on charges and dismissed from the NYPD. But this was the day of Dirty Harry, Serpico, Batman & Robin, and other iconic and heroic cops who were the thin blue line that protected us from the crime and the criminals that were rampant then. These books had a following which could be attributed to the times in which they were published, and not for their literary merit.

Related: Which Nelson DeMille Book Should You Read First?

At some point, I got tired of my two Joes and I tried a World War II novel. Then after reading Jaws, I wrote a novel about great white sharks. Both of these books were written under pen names for reasons I can’t clearly recall. And then I was asked by my publisher to write a biography of TV journalist Barbara Walters, who had just signed a record-breaking five million dollar deal with ABC News. I had no experience in writing biography and I had no interest in the subject, but the advance was $2,000 and I signed up for The Five Million Dollar Woman: Barbara Walters, wishing I was Barbara Walters.

My pen name for that instant biography was Ellen Kay, which was my then wife’s first two names. The book did okay, but I was clearly going nowhere as a writer, no matter what name I used on the cover.

I was beginning to think I was wasting my evenings and weekends writing at the kitchen table, when Fate intervened. I’d written an ambitious 20-page proposal for a novel about the biblical plagues of Exodus returning to the modern world, and through a friend I’d gotten this proposal into the hands of an editor, Joe Elder, who was at Fawcett, a respected paperback publisher.

Joe liked the proposal and he’d also read some of my paperbacks and liked my writing. So I signed a contract with Fawcett for $15,000—ten times what I was making for my previous novels. Then Joe left Fawcett which was not good, and I was assigned a new editor. Joe then decided to become an agent, and I became his first client. Joe Elder took me to see Berney Geis, who was what we called a packager, a cross between an agent and a co-publisher. Berney had published Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and a William Peter Blatty book before Blatty became rich and famous for The Exorcist.

Berney, too, liked my writing and offered me $50,000 to scrap the Fawcett deal and sign on with him. The average salary in those days was about $10,000 a year, so . . . but I’d committed to the Fawcett deal, and I honor my commitments, as I explained to Mr. Geis. He, in turn, explained the realities of life to me and said he’d take care of the Fawcett deal for me. I had a wife and a baby on the way—and an agent in the room who wanted ten percent of that $50,000—so I asked, “Where do I sign?”

As it turned out, Berney had an idea for the book he wanted me to write, the book that would be titled By the Rivers of Babylon. I wasn’t keen on his idea or the idea of anyone telling me what to write—but Berney was enthused, and he was confident that I was the man who could write this book, and his enthusiasm was as contagious as the biblical plagues I wasn’t going to write about.

Bottom line, I took the money, took some but not all of his editorial advice and wrote a book about an Israeli peace mission whose plane, a Concorde, is forced down by terrorists in the ancient ruins of Babylon. Berney had wanted the aircraft to be forced down in Egypt, to parallel the Jews’ captivity and exodus, but I’d just read a book about Babylon and I wanted to save myself some research, so I swapped the Egyptian captivity for the Babylonian captivity. To continue the biblical parallels, this was the Genesis of By the Rivers of Babylon.

After about a year of writing and intense editorial sessions with Berney and his excellent editor, Judy Shafran, Berney put the book up for auction and sold it to a major hardcover publisher for the mind-boggling sum of $425,000. Berney got half for his efforts and my agent got 10%, leaving me with . . . well, a lot of money. I was about to become half rich and famous.

Babylon was published in July 1978 and was a Book-of-the-Month Main Selection, a Reader’s Digest condensed book, and translation rights were sold around the world in fifteen languages. The New York Times was on strike that summer, so I never knew if Babylon would have been on the Times Bestsellers list. But sales were very good, and I decided that Babylon would have made the list. Maybe Number One. Maybe not.

Forty years later Berney Geis has passed away, and Judy Shafran, who has retired, remains a close friend. And I’m still writing. My twenty-first hardcover novel, The Deserter, was published in October 2019.

Babylon and all my novels have remained in continuous print since publication, and I suspect they will continue to be printed after I’m gone—or they will live on into Eternity as eBooks. Good stories are immortal, and each generation finds something new in a book that has been published in another time.

The events portrayed in By the Rivers of Babylon—Mideast terrorism—were a fairly new theme in 1978, but terrorism is still with us, unfortunately. When you read By the Rivers of Babylon you’ll note that much of what I wrote in 1978 about the Arab-Israeli conflict remains true today. Hopefully, forty years from now, this won’t be true, and Babylon will be ancient history. Either way, it remains a great story, and in the words of a Boston Globe review, it is filled with the things that make every generation’s heart rate quicken—“Heroism, madness, treachery, sex, savagery . . . superb!”


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