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Childhood Obsession Turned Bestselling Novel

Aug 16, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

When I was about five years old, I became obsessed with Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. I didn’t know who Captain Kidd was, but I somehow knew he buried his treasure on Long Island, where I lived then and still live.

I also didn’t know then how big Long Island was (it’s long), so I figured that the treasure was buried on Jones Beach, the only beach I knew, where my parents took me most summer weekends. I excavated piles of sand over the years, and I don’t need to report that I never found the treasure chest.

Goonies Treasure MapAs I got older and wiser, and got a car, I realized there were lots more beaches on Long Island. Also, I did some research and discovered that the likely location of the treasure, if it existed at all, was Gardiners Island, a privately owned island that lies between the North and South forks of Long Island. Not even close to the thousand cubic yards of sand I’d already dug up. Also, it occurred to me that even a stupid pirate wouldn’t bury his treasure right on the beach. Erosion and all that. The treasure — Captain Kidd’s or anyone else’s ill-gotten booty — would be inland, maybe under a big oak tree or near a prominent rock. Obviously, I needed a treasure map. They sell them at gift shops out on the North Fork. Complete with dotted lines, drawings of rocks, trees, and a big X. About five bucks.

broken lockCaptain Kidd’s treasure is a local legend here on Long Island, but buried treasure, in general, is a universal topic of myth, books, and movies. The idea that there is a fortune buried under the ground, waiting to be found, captures our imaginations and appeals to us (little boys) on several levels. There is, first of all, the history of how it got there — pirates, buccaneers, action, adventure, and probably murder. Also, I think we’re all hardwired to unravel ancient mysteries, to journey out on a quest that will bring us honor and fame, not to mention some loot. On a somewhat higher level, we’re looking for the truth.

Ben Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, admonished his fellow citizens to stop wasting their time and energies digging up the countryside to find buried treasure. He pointed out that if these treasure hunters stuck to their trades, they’d be better off financially and so would their families and communities.

Good advice. But like most good advice, it went — and continues to go — unheeded. Everyone wants to turn a quick buck, and digging holes in the ground is not that much work if the reward is a treasure chest brimming with gold and jewels. As long as it doesn’t become an obsession or your day job.

My day job became writing novels, and my weekend treasure hunting ended about the same time I discovered girls. I did, however, continue to collect information about Captain Kidd and his treasure, along with other possible treasure troves along the East Coast and the Caribbean. Sad to say, most of the gold was reputed to be in sunken ships at the bottom of the ocean and not in the backyard of my rented summer house in Sag Harbor.

Write about what you know. So, I did. Captain Kidd’s treasure. The book was titled Plum Island, and you’ll be happy to know that it was a big bestseller, and all that stupid digging in the sand at Jones Beach finally paid off. Okay, that’s a stretch, but as writers, our hobbies and interests, our past jobs, and our obsessions can really be turned into gold, on the page. Fiction writing is the art of making up a lot of crap, but the best fiction is made up of crap we know. Stuff we’ve lived and which probably looks like crap, but if we think about it, it’s really gold. On the page.

Nelson DeMille is the author of By the Rivers of Babylon, Cathedral, The Talbot Odyssey, Word of Honor, The Charm School, The Gold Coast, The General’s Daughter, Spencerville, Plum Island, The Lion’s Game, Up Country, Night Fall, Wild Fire, The Gate House, and The Lion. He also coauthored Mayday with Thomas Block and has contributed short stories, book reviews, and articles to magazines and newspapers. Learn more at

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27 Responses »

  1. Why couldn’t I have been obsessed with something good like that? This does remind me of when Vance was in elementary school. Our neighbors cat got lost and they offered a reward for it. As the days passed, they kept upping the reward. Vance spent countless hours searching for that cat all over the neighborhood. Sadly no one found him. I wonder if that will pay off for Vance somehow?

  2. I love it! What always amazes me is a writer’s instinctive ability to turn those interests, hobbies, jobs, etc., into captivating stories. I never see them in the things I do, so I’m eternally grateful that there are those out there who do and who share the resulting stories with all of us!

  3. We will all enjoy your childhood passion page by page. Doesn’t every writer put at least a small part of his/her self into the books we long rememer as our favorites?

  4. This is why I think that the older writers get, the more interesting books they write–they have experienced more and have a lot more to say. Additionally, this is also why it seems so difficult for younger people to write books about anything other than themselves (and of course, there are exceptions), because they haven’t yet had all these rich experiences from which they can mine for stories/characters/etc.

    It was so great seeing you at Hachette at the beginning of the summer! A copy of THE LION is being shipped to me as I write this, and I am really looking forward to reading it.


  5. I am so hungry for your words because I have read all of your books, more than once (or twice or thrice) and now I’m finished and you have no more books for me. I look forward to your monthly emails and even they make me laugh out loud. I was getting antsy and about to do something destructive (drink more wine? Switch to vodka?) when lo, and behold…a Nelson DeMille blog. Bless you.

  6. It’s no wonder Nelson DeMille is my favourite author! He tells me, by popular demand, his next book will be another John Corey/Kate Mayfield thriller – excellent!

  7. Having met you and been a recipient of your wit and wisdom at a Border’s book signing in Philadelphia I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you, for much reading enjoyment.

    I also learned not to loan a book personally signed by the author to anyone other than a close friend or relative.

    Other than the Talbot Odyssey, I’ve read all of your books with relish (no hot dogs). I bought Talbot but despite several false starts I couldn’t get into it. As you mentioned in the blog it doesn’t matter to you whether we read it or not so long as we buy it.

  8. Nelson, Old Friend!
    Thank you for the many stolen pirated hours enjoying your treasures!
    I’ve loved escaping into your excellent and well-crafted stories.
    Thank you for the gifts of many laughs! I always look forward to your letters.
    Your wife is a lucky woman, to live with a guy with a super (twisted, sarcastic, entendreed, raunchy, clever, etc.) sense of humor!
    What’s next? I’m ready!
    With Light, Love and Laughter,

  9. Boy can I relate to this. As a little girl growing up on the eastern seaboard I spent many hours wondering about buried treasure. I know I spent many an afternoon digging up the beach near my house. But also beaches from Maine to the coast of Massachusetts anywhere my family went I would go off and dig. It’s funny to think back to this as I was so certain then that I’d find something!

  10. Very interesting. That makes a lot of sense.
    The Lion was a great read, as all your books are. My favorite of them all is Spencerville.
    I would love for you to write a sequel so that we can know what happened to Keith and Annie!

    • Spencerville???? I had the opportunity to meet Nelson DeMille at a book signing in Huntington, Long Island. I blurted out the only thing I have ever wanted to ask him, “Spencerville…what were you thinking?????” Fortunately, he laughed and said, “I don’t think I WAS thinking.”

      • Lynne, I have a theory about Spencerville. All during the book, I was convinced that it was NOT written by Nelson DeMille and after much thought, consideration and exhaustive research, I am quite sure it was written by his wife (at the time).

        At the risk of repeating something that has been said over and over… Nelson DeMille is my absolute favorite author, and believe me, I have been around the bookstore a few times. I have bought (and read) every book he has written so far. I’m actually reading The Lion now. Despite my desire to literarily (I believe this is really a word, but I may be taking poetic license in the meaning) devour every DeMille book, I try so hard to slow down, savor every word of his books, in order to make them last as long as possible.

        When I receive an email update from DeMille, I am positively giddy.

        • Neva … how interesting! My pals & I also discussed this theory back then – Spencerville did not seem like a typical DeMille novel. Not very well written, and a poor plot. Totally unlike any of the other books he has written so well. My fav is still Nightfall.

  11. Thank you for sharing a part of your personal history. It is very telling and very true!

  12. I almost totally agree with Minnie about the more life experiences one has, the more “crap” they can make up! Only problem is, we get old, the brain gets soft and then we start repeating ourselves – hence, “same crap, different day” 🙂 Nevertheless, thanks and love you NDM ;P

  13. Nelson,
    I grew up on another Long Island beach, Rockaway Beach. I thought I was alone digging for treasure……no wonder I never found any!

    I, also, have read and greatly enjoyed your books. I BEGAN with The Lions Game and have long awaited the release of The Lion……….I’m on the list at my public library (I’m an old guy and can’t afford new books) and have lots of people ahead of me I also scour yard sales for a “stupidly” tossed out copy. I’ll get there, eventually…..keep ’em coming!
    Jim O’Connor

  14. Nelson,

    I can’t wait for the new John Corey and Kate Mayfield book.
    Your the only “other man” my husband allows in our bed.

    God Bless


  15. All of your books are great. But as Tom Hall said above, SPENCERVILLE is far and away the best. And in my opinion, it is one of the best books ever written, by anybody. After reading it I try try to forget it so I can read it again in a year or so and try to pretend I’m reading in for the first time. Further adventures of that story would be wonderful.

  16. I admire the fact that you still have stories to tell, characters to amuse us and have not “sold out” as many of our well-known authors have done. I remember you telling me during my first interview in Dayton, OH, many eons ago: “I will stop writing when I have no more stories to tell.” Fortunately, your stories still flow, quality work that begs to be read.

    Thanks and keep writing!

  17. Lots of people here are mentioning their favorite DeMille book being something that I would consider recent. The books mentioned are great, no doubt. But hey folks, You gotta go way back!

    There exists fantastic reads in the likes of The Charm School (1988) and Word of Honor(1985). These are the first two page turners that I read that made me a die-hard DeMille fan many years ago. If you can get copies of them read ’em. I promise you will share my praise. More recently, we all know and love The Gold Coast, where “the Great Gatsby meets the Godfather”. What a great story! And lets not forget Up Country.

    All of these that I mention here are the ones that sit at the top of my DeMille favs list, along with Plum Island and The Generals Daughter. What great works! Thank you Mr. DeMille!

    So, fellow DeMille fans, who gets the award for best male lead character in a recent DeMille novel? The nominees are John Corey and John Sutter. Who would you chose?

    And here’s a one for all of you to do some research on: Who is Jack Cannon?

    Gary M

  18. I would like to place an order for 10 (no, make that 20) more John Corey novels…and another 20 or so of whatever Mr. DeMille would like to write.

  19. Thanks for the good news about a new John Corey/Kate Mayfield novel, but please don’t forget John Souter, he needs to return. Isn’t there another Dellarosa kid lurking about? Just do me a favor and write a little faster, I can’t wait!

    P.S. After reading the above blogs I will bide my time by reading Spencerville. It is one of the few books of yours that I have’nt read. You made me curious. Congratulations on The Lion, I loved it.

  20. Nelson, Back in 2000, a very nice relative gave me the hardcover of Lion’s Game while I was recovering from a bone marrow transplant. It is the very first thing that I had the patience and strength to read. I read it from cover to cover and couldn’t wait for the sequel. Imagine my pleasure when my wife bought The Lion for me this Father’s Day. I have read about ten of your books and I love them all. Your humorous take on John Corey especially makes books with him as the protagonist my favorites. Thanks for writing for us, and I promise to keep reading them as they arrive …

  21. I, too, cannot wait for the next installment of anything Nelson DeMille writes. I wait with baited breath, come on Nelson, please write faster. The first NDM book I read was Spencerville. It was okay, so I figured I’d read some more. Well, two turned to three and so on. I have read every one of his books. My favorite by far is The Charm School. I have bought at least 3 copies of it as I have leant it out to others to read and forget who I leant them too. And of course I have to re-read it as it is the best book I have ever read. I am off to the book store for yet another copy… so that being said, if you like NDM and haven’t read The Charm School- go get it.

  22. I have read and re-read your works over and over again and one of my favorites is Plum Island—if you read my e-mail you will know precisely why. Actually youor e-maill is probably read by someone in your publishing house—-however—-

    As a five year old on Washingtons Vashon Island–population 5000 then—now filled wth yuppie scum——–My friend and I lived across a very old ravine with a creek at the bottom.
    We apparently had no idea where Long Island was and thus dug in our environs, dislodging many interesting pottery treasures from the 19th century but alas, no treasure chest filled with gold and jewels.

    I have loved all of your works even some Joe Stryker, Jack, and am currently reading Gatehouse for the 4th time——they never get old. I love John Corey and Paul Brenner because they are such smart-asses. In point of fact I was married to John Corey until I discovered he was a coward and serial cheater. Then I almost drowned off Port Townsend in the area where Puget Sound hits our “gut” the Straits of Juan de Fuca—–headline Local woman washed up on beach with married lover—-Mother socially mortified.

    Cannot wait for the Panther-getting new computer, but I hate them, prefer handwritten correspondence and cannot find the button to put the book titles in italics. I don’t often look at website unless I am researching other than Chanel——just decided to look up yours and cliked this link.

    Bonne chance toujours!


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