Carl Nelson

Originally published on Writer’s Monthly

Profile/photos by Leah Peterson

Carl Nelson’s novel, Secret Players, was judged Best Thriller of 2003 by the San Diego Book Awards Association.

My interview with author Carl Nelson took place right before Thanksgiving. He and his wife, Barbara, were gracious enough to allow me into their home, decorated for Christmas with tree and lights for grandchildren about to arrive. His wife and I discussed the dinner preparations while Carl warmed me up a piece of pie for our coffee.

Carl Nelson with wife Barbara

Carl retired from the navy in the winter of ’82 and started writing about his experiences in South Vietnam in the form of a novel. After 17 rewrites and many non-fiction books, his first novel, The Advisors, was finally published in 1999. In the meantime, 7 non-fiction books by him have been published, including the best-selling Import/Export: How to Get Started in International Trade (3rd Ed., 2000 McGraw-Hill).

Of the five novels he has written, Carl has had two published. The second one, Secret Players, is something of a historical novel. He has a third book in the works but, being slightly superstitious, won’t talk about it until something concrete has formed. The novel under wraps is a stand-alone sequel to Secret Players. If it’s anything like this latest work, it’s sure to be a hit.

I thought Carl, an author with so many works in print, would be pretty confidant about his future books getting picked up by publishing companies. I was a little surprised to find out that he has his worries just like me, along with many other writers. He worries that he might have weaknesses in his marketing. A weak query letter, for example. This makes me feel a little better in some way, that even he, a published author with a best selling book, has some doubts. He thinks that possibly his age might be a factor. It’s possible that publishers might look at him and think that he doesn’t have enough years left in him to truly be a big money earner with his books. But, in my opinion and his, he’ll prove them wrong by writing for a long time still to come.

Carl Nelson’s novel, Secret Players, was judged Best Thriller of 2003 by the San Diego Book Awards Association.

When Carl retired in ‘82, he started writing almost immediately. He started with what he knew something about: the military and war. He discovered that writing didn’t take up all his time and because he had wanted to go for his doctorate for many years, that seemed to be the perfect time. When that was accomplished, he went to work on cross-border trade and started teaching, which gave him practical experience with trading across the border. His trading experience prompted him to write a book about how to do international trade.

His journalist daughter was staying with them at the time. She helped him with the publicity part of getting his first non-fiction book published, (Import/Export). She did all the hard publishing part. They basically started a business to sell the book and wanted to incorporate how-to videos along with speaking and training to sell to schools. During the 2nd year, she got married and that business didn’t fit in her life anymore. He found he didn’t want to do it either.

Not too long after, he received a phone call from a small press whom he sold the rights to the book to. It was perfect timing. That small press was bought out by McGraw/Hill soon after. From 1988 to now, Import/Export is the best selling book in its category for its purpose. People love it all over the world. It gets revised every 5 years.

Carl did a lot of teaching and speaking with Import/Export at San Diego State and other schools. He then wrote other books about economic development, business protocol and international business. That list includes Your Own Import-Export Business: Winning the Trade Game (GBTC, 1988); Global Success; International Business Tactics of the 1990’s (TAB McGraw-Hill, 1990); and Managing Globally: A Complete Guide to Competing Worldwide (Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 1994).

So, let’s go full circle and rewind a bit to where Carl’s first War novel came out after so many rewrites in 1999. The Advisor is about sailors and marines in the delta in South Vietnam.

Carl was more than 33 years in the navy, and retired as a captain in ‘82. During his time in the service, he commanded a guided missile cruiser, a destroyer and did four tours of duty during the Vietnam War. His wife, Barbara, and three children went everywhere with him. Well, that is to say, they moved over seas with him. He went on the ships alone.

During their time in Japan, he was gone much of the time. When he was out at sea, it was a comfort to know she was always there. He was away 13.5 years out of their 33 years in the military. Barbara hung in with him and propped him up. He calls her his Magnificent Wife.

Carl is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He married Barbara the day after he graduated. During his time in the military, he sailed through the North Atlantic and Europe, lived in Japan and Vietnam and traveled to most of the world’s countries. He served on the faculty at Annapolis and West Point. He has taught at University of Redlands, Webster University, U.S. International University and U.C.S.D. He’s even listed in most Who’s Who of the World.

When he came to San Diego, it was to the command of a small salvage ship, after which he was the executive officer of a destroyer in Vietnam. After retiring, he went to graduate school to get a degree in economics.

When he was young, he had a slight interest in economics. He studied engineering in Annapolis. But it wasn’t until graduate school that he became very much interested in the economic state of things. While in the military traveling so much, he could see the economic development among other peoples of the world. Then, when he had a chance to study international business, finance and trade for his doctorate, he became fascinated. He’d like to think that his work, even his fiction takes into account his economic, political and military background; all things that interests him.

I’d say he’s right. One review of his new novel, Secret Players, by Ellen Tufts of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, calls it ‘a sweeping historical novel.’ She also says, ‘…it seems to me not fair to market [Secret Players] other than as a great slice of American life during the Cold War.’ She later compares the book to Gone with the Wind and The Forsythe Saga.


It must be Carl’s rich tapestry of life experiences, which he draws from, that make his writing so fascinating and accurate.

Besides the military career and the teaching, which is quite enough to fill up one person’s life, he worked for the World Trade Center’s newsletter as their interviewer at one point in time. He interviewed the top CEO’s in San Diego and then wrote short bios of them. It was fun. He enjoyed it.

I asked him if he loved teaching and if he missed it. He told me that he had many more international students in his class than Americans. The international students gobbled up the information. Americans didn’t seem to come to his classes much. He told me that he hasn’t taught in the past few years. He’s still on the faculty but he’s taking some time off.

He’s taught quite a few different economic subjects and he’s not sure he misses teaching so much right now. He enjoyed teaching for a very long time but he thinks he might not be so good with youngsters anymore. He has really enjoyed watching them finally grasp an idea in the past, but for now, it’s not his cup of tea.

I asked if he had any advice for those looking into World Trade. He told me it would help to be bilingual and tells people they should be. He then jokes with me, "I’ve been learning Spanish myself for the past 20 years." He’d like to see the world have one language. "It’s a terrible inconvenience to have so many languages." he says.

I asked him if he had any comments on our current economic situation. He told me, "The private sector is going pretty well. Of course, it’s better when we just leave it alone. We only mess it up when we tinker with it. The American economy is a miracle and it will just go on and on."

Carl then goes into my very own, private mini-economic lesson. I felt very privileged to get a one-on-one with him. He told me that it might be better to be pro-deficit because it helps our money stretch farther. "The deficits change and tend to…. Well, we aren’t in a deficit with everybody…and the deficits seem to move with labor costs, and wherever we have the most deficits, that country is growing faster, and because they are growing faster, the world is getting better, and our world is awfully good."

Then I asked him what he thought about our current war and America’s actions. His reply: "We might not have needed to invade, but now that we have, we own Iraq. It could be the 51st state. We won the war. We beat’em up. They’re poor and small, so that’s not really so much to brag about. If we can turn it around and help them recover, it will be a good thing for the world in the long run." I’d have to say I quite agree.

This interviewer/reader, for one out of what I know must be many, can’t wait for his 3rd slice of historical intrigue to be published.

Copyright 2004 Leah Peterson. All Rights Reserved.

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