Nelson DeMille: The Best-Selling Author Talks Castro, Crime & “The Cuban Affair”

Nelson DeMille / promotional image [NelsonDemille.com]

Readers all over the planet have been anxiously awaiting The Cuban Affair, the 28th novel by international best-selling author Nelson DeMille. At last, the book is here.

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In addition to being DeMille’s first effort for Simon & Schuster, Affair introduces a new hero from the mind that created the hugely popular ex–NYPD detective turned FBI agent John Corey along with other superstar literary characters such as Joe Ryker, Paul Brenner, John Sutter, and more.

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille / front cover image [Amazon]

This time, The Cuban Affair chronicles Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who runs a fishing boat in Key West. Mac gets an offer to run a charter to Cuba for a Yale educational group but, of course, there’s far more to the mission than just that.

CrimeFeed talked to Nelson DeMille about his new page-turning blockbuster, his experience doing on-the-ground research in Cuba, and what he believes the future holds for the island nation just 90 miles from Florida’s shores.

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CRIMEFEED: Your books are often connected to the big picture political events of their era. What led you to Cuba this time?

NELSON DEMILLE: I’ve always been interested in Cuba. I’m old enough to remember the revolution in 1958, when Castro’s troops marched on Havana on New Year’s Eve. So it’s sort of a generational thing.

There was also a Cuban refugee family in my neighborhood when I was growing up. They were church-sponsored and we all knew them, and I was always interested in what they had to say about Cuba.

Later, when I was in the army, two of my commanding officers had actually been captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion. They were ransomed back to the U.S. in exchange, I think, for trucks.

Then, of course, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. That happened when I was in college. From there, there were the hijackings and the Mariel boatlift. So it’s definitely a part of my generation.

You know how they say some books you’re born to write? I don’t know if I was born to write this one, but I came along at the right time.

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You traveled to Cuba in October 2015. What was that like?

I won’t write about someplace unless I go to it. In the past, that’s meant Moscow, Leningrad, Vietnam, and elsewhere. I had wanted to write about Cuba, maybe about the American POWs that might have been there, but places like the Villa Marista Prison — they’re not easy to get to.

My son went to Yale, and he got a letter about a Yale educational group travel opportunity to go to Cuba. He didn’t want to go, which was just as well. So I got together a couple of guys and our wives and we went with the Yale group.

The two guys I went with had been roommates of John Kerry at Yale. Kerry was still Secretary of State at the time, so he got us a one-hour meeting with Jeffrey De Laurentis, the new ambassador to Cuba.

One of the guys I was with Harry Bundy. He’s the nephew of McGeorge Bundy, who was the National Security Advisor to JFK, and was right there for the Missile Crisis. So Harry really wanted to go to experience some family history. There are displays around with a lot of pictures of McGeorge Bundy, so every time we saw one, George would say, “That’s my uncle!”

We had a great guide who enjoyed that. Our guide was very anti-Castro. He told us how terrible the regime was, and how the people are ready for change.

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Fidel Castro died while you were writing The Cuban Affair. Did that shape the novel?

Castro’s death didn’t affect the story. I specifically set the plot during the time I was actually in Cuba — October 2015. I did the same thing with Up Country. I was in Vietnam during the Tet holiday in 1968, then I went back during the Tet holiday in 1997.

When you’re writing a book set in the near past, the characters speculate about things that we already know. I keep an eye on the news when I’m writing, but I don’t chase headlines for the story.

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The Cuban Affair introduces a new hero, Daniel “Mac” MacCormick. He’s very skeptical and even cynical along the way. Is Mac a stand-in for you?

I would say all my lead characters in some way reflect me. Mac is much younger than I am. He’s 35. That seems to be the magic age for characters in literature — 35. In the movies, it’s 25.

This is my first book for Simon & Schuster. They wanted a new character. John Corey [the central figure of seven previous DeMille best-sellers] is younger than I am, but even he has aged. I wanted to bring him back, but Simon & Schuster suggested a fresh start and I thought, yeah, that’s a good idea.

Nelson at Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba / promotional image [NelsonDeMIlle.com]

The challenge for me came in Mac being a veteran of Afghanistan. Simon & Schuster wanted a flashback scene. It was easy for me to write Vietnam flashbacks in Word of Honor and Up Country, but these new wars were a whole different thing.

I had to write young, to make Mac’s dialogue sound like he was 35, and I had to get his music references right. The flashback writing was a real challenge, but I think I pulled it off.

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Can you predict what might happen going forward with Cuba?

Jeffrey De Laurentis was very up front with us. He said Raul Castro doesn’t want to get old and die in office like his brother. And just today I saw in the news that Raul has enacted a five-month transition period in which he’s likely going to step down.

Jeffrey told us the guy that is in place to take over from Raul is very open and very liberal — “liberal,” meaning in terms of the Castro regime. So I think Cuba will be the premier destination of the Caribbean within the next 10 years.

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How do you foresee the change happening?

Back in 1987, in The Charm School, I had a character say about the Soviet Union, “I don’t give it another 10 years.” In ’87, that seemed crazy, but the Soviets didn’t even have three years left at that point. They barely had two!

The Soviet model, I think, is what’s going to happen with Cuba. When the change comes, it comes quickly. I don’t see a violent revolution happening. I could be wrong, but I think it will be quick, like the Soviets.

“Nelson and Fidel,” October 2015 / promotional image [NelsonDeMille.com]

Obama made the right move by opening things up. I think he may have given a little too much without getting enough back. Trump is saying we need to get something back. I just hope Trump knows what he’s doing.

It’s always carrot-and-stick. The president has to work the stick, and the diplomats take care of the carrot.

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What do you think will be the deciding factor in Cuba’s change?

The Cuban people have had enough. They’ve been suffering for too long, even down to issues like food and basic goods and services, while the people in power have been holding on to that power for 60 years.

It’s not like the Soviet Union, that completely blocked off the people from the outside world. Everyone in Cuba has at least one relative in Miami. They know what’s going on. They know the prosperity and the life that goes on in the Cayman Islands, which are just 30 miles away from them.

The Cubans are 11 million educated, industrious, inventive people who have had enough. So my prediction is that within 10 years, those 11 million people will march into the 21st century.

Main photo: Nelson DeMille / promotional image [NelsonDemille.com]