Nelson DeMille completely rewrote his latest novel The Quest, set largely in Ethiopia during the civil war, from a 1975 version published while the Ethiopian struggle was still ongoing. The book follows a team of journalists into the jungle as they pursue a tip about the existence of the famed Holy Grail. PW spoke to DeMille about how he approached revising the contemporary novel turned historical thriller.
You’ve said in interviews that The Quest (1975) was your “first big book.” What do you remember about how you came to write it?
For me, it was a big book! The events of the book, the Ethiopian revolution, were taking place as I was writing it. I’d never written that way before. Probably most writers don’t. When I finished the book there was still a war going on; I didn’t know the fate of the emperor Haile Selassie. It was a little slice of history in the making.
How has the new book evolved from the original?
Just in terms of word count, the original book was 75,000 words, and now the book is about 140,000 words. The potential was always there for a romantic triangle, but I added a little more love story. I also gave it a better ending. You start to wonder what happened to these people’s lives 40 years later, and going back I had this feeling that I wanted to leave them in a better position than when we last saw them. Originally, the character Frank Purcell was a 30 year old freelance journalist. My other main character Henry Mercado, another freelance journalist, was in his late 60s. And then, of course, there’s Vivian, who’s in her middle 20s. In terms of the two male characters, when I was first writing the book I could identify with Frank Purcell; I was his age—that was my character. But now 40 years later I am identifying more with Henry Mercado. I think I can see it now from both sides.
How did you come to the idea of linking the legend of the grail to Ethiopia?
There are so many grail legends, and some of them are a real stretch. The most famous, of course, is King Arthur and how the grail wound up in a castle in Glastonbury (my postulation in the book is that it never made it to England). But if you read enough of these stories, you see there are not only many strands of the legend but also many conflicting elements. As a writer of fiction, you get the chance to choose the best, juiciest pieces. Some cynical people might say, why are we making such a big deal over tableware? But I found it fascinating that this cup that is mentioned only in passing in the New Testament has taken on these powers and legend. It’s not strictly theological; it’s not part of any church doctrine. This is more of a people’s religion.
Parts of the novel set especially those involving the sadistic General Gestachu, are often disturbing; yet you punctuate the intensity of those scenes with an obvious awe for Ethiopia’s beauty and history. In fact, readers might find themselves tapping their fingers during the interlude in Rome in anticipation (and dread) of the return to Ethiopia. What about this setting is most compelling to you?
It’s interesting that you say that. Some people love the Rome scenes. The Ethiopian story, again, was taking place at the time I was writing the book; it was a very brutal revolution on both sides. I call this book “Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code,” but there is also an element of Dr. Zhivago there, an ancient regime coming to the end. I was an infantry office in Vietnam at the end of 1968, so the jungles of Vietnam were still in my head. At the time, reproducing the graphic violence in the jungles of Ethiopia wasn’t too much of a quantum leap from what I’d experienced myself 5 years ago. I love the Rome scenes myself; they were expanded from the first book. When I wrote the original I had never been to Rome. I was a young man with limited resources. But I’ve been to Rome about a dozen times since then, and I was surprised that I got a lot of it right. The research I did at the time, of course, was contemporary, so what I was trying to do now was reproduce the middle 1970s. I had a hard time of it. I was suddenly doing research over simple things like what restaurants were open in Rome and what were the prices in lira. The book is a time capsule.
Will you revisit any of your other early novels?
This was a special situation. The other early novels ought to be sent into oblivion. I was just learning how to write! None of them have the story that The Quest has. To relive them wouldn’t make any sense.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another John Corey book. I’ve been doing this book tour and whenever I give that answer, everyone in the audience cheers. So I’ve figured it out; everyone likes John Corey! The author is a little tired of John Corey, which happens with any continuing character. It certainly happened with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, which is why [Doyle] killed Holmes. I’m learning not to write for myself so much but to write for my readers. I get the message loud and clear!