By Jeff Ayers
The author of more than fifty books—125 million copies in print—Clive Cussler is the current grandmaster of adventure literature. Dirk Pitt, the sea-loving protagonist of twenty-two of Cussler’s novels, remains among the most popular and influential adventure series heroes of the past half-century. In THE CLIVE CUSSLER ADVENTURES: A CRITICAL REVIEW, Steven Philip Jones explores and analyzes Cussler’s rich body of work—from the importance of Pitt to modern fiction to Cussler’s literary themes; from Cussler’s early influences to deconstructing the author’s classics, such as Raise the Titanic! and Iceberg. Cussler joins the pantheon of such acclaimed adventure writers as Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ian Fleming, and this overdue volume demonstrates that beneath Cussler’s immense popularity lies a literary depth that well merits scholarly attention.
Steven chatted with THE BIG THRILL about this fascinating perspective and examination of Cussler’s work.
What prompted you to write the book?
Oh, goodness, that’s a long story. Let me give you the Reader’s Digest version.
Around 1989 I was selling a lot of freelance comic book scripts to Malibu Graphics. This included a four-issue adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that sold out its initial print run of twenty thousand and went back for a second printing, which got me thinking, if an adaptation of a classic public domain novel could sell that well, how much better would an adaptation of a recent bestseller sell? It would depend on the bestseller, of course, and Mr. Cussler’s novels came immediately to mind. They were extremely popular, but had only been adapted in a newspaper strip of RAISE THE TITANIC! and the 1980 movie of the same book. I wrote Mr. Cussler with my idea, he liked it, and Malibu, Mr. Cussler, and his agent Peter Lampack tried to work out a deal, but they couldn’t come to an agreement.
A few years later I was reading THE TOM CLANCY COMPANION and, being a Clive Cussler fan, I thought there should be a CLIVE CUSSLER COMPANION. I imagined it having character biographies, a dictionary of settings and technology from the stories, breakdowns of the adventures, interviews, photographs, and illustrations. Something like that would require Mr. Cussler’s authorization and cooperation, so I pitched the idea to him, and again he was kind enough to consider it, but in the end he and Lampack rejected my pitch. A couple of years after that CLIVE CUSSLER & DIRK PITT REVEALED was published, and while it isn’t the companion I had in mind, it’s pretty good, although enough time has passed now that I would love to see it updated in a second edition.
About eight years ago while at the University of Iowa library, which is my second workspace and home away from home, I stumbled across a critical review book about one of my favorite film directors, Terence Fisher. I love review books, and I noticed this one was from McFarland Books. It dawned on me that McFarland published a lot of the review books I most enjoyed, and for whatever reason that realization gave me the itch to write a review book for them. By the time I left the library I had two ideas to pitch to McFarland, and after the missed opportunities I just described, it shouldn’t be surprising that one was for a review book on Clive Cussler’s adventures. More than my fondness for Cussler’s adventures, though, I realized there were no critical review books about them, and considering their popularity as well as the influence of Mr. Cussler’s best hero, Dirk Pitt, I believed there should be one.
Discuss how you broke down the essays and what you cover in the book.
THE CLIVE CUSSLER ADVENTURES: A CRITICAL REVIEW is a critical review in the purest sense. It is not critical in terms of being negative; it examines Mr. Cussler’s adventures by characters, themes, and execution in an unbiased way. Yes, I’m a fan, but this is an honest assessment of the good and the bad in the adventures. I really don’t know if I can describe how I broke down the essays, however, since so much of it happened in the way Robert Sampson describes in the book’s epigraph. I knew from the start I wanted to examine characters, themes, and execution, but from there I searched earnestly, stumbled from volume to volume, and let accident guide my mind as much as design. It’s just the way I work. For example, I knew I wanted to explore what made Dirk Pitt the popular character that he is, but I was well into writing the book before I chanced across two articles in a trade magazine for public sector employees called Public Voices. One is “Fuzzy Lines” that argues how bestselling literature, like Mr. Cussler’s and Tom Clancy’s, and public sector heroes like Pitt and Jack Ryan, blur the public’s opinion of what duties should belong to the public sector and private sector. The other is “Wonks and Warriors,” which classifies different types of public sector characters in popular films. It never occurred to me before reading these articles that Pitt is the first public sector adventure hero, something that merited attention in the book.
As for what the book covers, I go into detail about why I wrote it and why a review book about Mr. Cussler’s adventures is warranted and overdue, and then examine Mr. Cussler’s heroes, important supporting characters, and best villains and heroines. Next it looks at the adventure stories, pulp heroes, old-time radio programs, movies, B-serials, and television programs that may have influenced Mr. Cussler, and then takes an in-depth look at reoccurring themes and plot points, such as history affecting the present and character rebirths. I explore Mr. Cussler’s writing and the importance he puts on structure, and wrap things up with a chapter on adaptations and Cussleresque adventures, which are stories like Disney’s National Treasure and Atlantis: The Lost Empire that share several elements with Mr. Cussler’s adventures.
How do you feel about Cussler’s transition from an author to a publishing empire?
Well, he’s still an author. If he’s also a publishing empire, I say cool. It’s good work, if you can get it. Honestly, creating and riding shotgun over a number of different series, and being very successful at it, seems like a natural thing for a writer to do to me. My favorite author is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he did it with Sherlock Holmes, Professor Edward Challenger, and Brigadier Etienne Gerard, along with two Nigel Loring novels. Among pulp writers, who Mr. Cussler admits influenced him, Edgar Rice Burroughs built a true publishing empire with several series characters like Tarzan and John Carter, and I believe Robert E. Howard would have built his own empire with Conan, Solomon Kane, and his other series heroes if he hadn’t committed suicide. I miss Mr. Cussler writing the Pitt adventures on his own, but his solo run was going to end sometime, and I do enjoy the collaborations.
For a newcomer to Cussler’s work, how would you describe a typical Cussler novel?
Audacious. And a hell of a lot of fun. Mr. Cussler’s novels really are modern versions of old fashion adventure literature. Brave heroes racing around the world, racing against the clock, and doing something unbelievable every two minutes in quest of stopping the bad guy, saving the girl, and returning society to its status quo. It’s as simple and delightful as that.
Which one of Cussler’s novels is your personal favorite and why?
ICEBERG. Mr. Cussler has cited it as his sentimental favorite because it is a transition between his early, simpler adventures to the more complex adventures he has been writing starting with RAISE THE TITANIC! That is part of the reason I like it, too, but there is so much more! It features the apotheosis of Pitt from a local or microcosmic hero battling pirates and drug lords to a universal or macrocosmic hero capable of Herculean feats like raising the Titanic or uniting the United States and Canada into one nation. Several trademarks of the Pitt series are also introduced, such as Pitt using an antique vehicle as part of a rescue and Pitt doing something outlandish and unexpected to save the day, in this case fighting the bad guy on the corsair in Disneyland’s The Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Last but not least, ICEBERG uses the initiation quest pattern to tap deep into the heart of any reader who is an adventure fan. ICEBERG is not Mr. Cussler’s best book. That’s RAISE THE TITANIC! with VIXEN 03 coming in second. But ICEBERG is his most important. I have to admit, I like it so much, my review of ICEBERG was the first thing I wrote for THE CLIVE CUSSLER ADVENTURES.
Do you think his novels don’t get the true appreciation they deserve?
I think they do, actually, for the most part. Mr. Cussler’s fans are legion and they are loyal and do not give a hoot if critics like his adventures or not. Nevertheless, most of the reviews I’ve read are basically complimentary. Many will say something like Mr. Cussler’s adventures may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but these reviews will also usually admit they are page-turners, and Mr. Cussler claims that all he wants them to be. The one place where I think true appreciation is lacking is when it comes to unbiased critical reviews, but, hopefully, my book will help to change that. If people read my book and disagree with me, maybe they’ll be inspired to write their own unbiased review articles and books. I think a dialogue like that would be great. Come on in, gang! The water’s fine!
Talk about the issues with translating Cussler to film.
There shouldn’t be any issues with producing a Cussler film, at least not today, when computer technology makes incredibly complex special effects an easier proposition then just a few years ago. Creating a lunar colony or underwater outpost or an ultra-modern subterranean city is a lot easier now than it would have been a few years ago. Mr. Cussler’s adventures are lean, they are visual, and as someone who has written a few adaptations, I just don’t see where a competent screenwriter should have more problems transliterating Mr. Cussler’s stories than the average adventure novel. I remember taking a brief break while writing THE CLIVE CUSSLER ADVENTURES to experiment with writing a few pages of a radio adaptation of RAISE THE TITANIC! Granted, at that moment, I was writing about the book and knew it backwards and foreword, but I was surprised how quickly I was able to write ten pages that were exciting yet faithful to the novel.
That said, there is the issue of the film adaptations of RAISE THE TITANIC! and SAHARA. I mention screenwriter Nunnally Johnson in THE CLIVE CUSSLER ADVENTURES, and how he recognized different media place unique demands on telling a story, so he believed changes made while adapting a book into a film were fine so long as they did not violate the source material. Johnson calls this doing what is dramatically right, and I agree with him. Very little in RAISE THE TITANIC! is dramatically right, and for over a decade after that film was made Mr. Cussler stated very clearly that he would never let Hollywood adapt another one of his books unless he was given final script approval. He turned down quite a few extremely lucrative offers, which demonstrates how serious he was, so it should not come as a surprise that he was not going to be happy when final script approval was apparently taken away from him on the film SAHARA, which I argue in my book is really a pretty good adaptation of the novel. SAHARA is considered a flop because it couldn’t recoup the $160 million the producer spent making it, but the film opened number one at the box office, earned around $120 million, and is projected to earn revenues of $202 million by 2015. If the budget had been reigned in, SAHARA would have been financially successful. That’s sad, just as it’s sad that a Cussleresque film like National Treasure and its even more profitable sequel prove just how incredibly successful a Cussler film could be. I just do not know if anyone will ever get that chance again.
Any reaction to the book from Mr. Cussler or his collaborators?
I haven’t spoke or corresponded with any of Mr. Cussler’s collaborators, so I’m afraid don’t know their reactions. I don’t even know if they know the book exists. I do hope they like it, and I would very much like to at least swap emails with them sometime.
As for Mr. Cussler, he was kind enough to call me a couple of weeks ago to say that he really enjoyed the book. Actually, he called my cell phone first and left a message that said, “Steve, I especially enjoyed Clive Cussler’s adventures. That’s only because I’m Clive Cussler.” That definitely made my day! I called Mr. Cussler back and he said there were things in the book about his novels that he had forgotten, and he was very impressed with the work put into it, and that he was showing the book to friends. I can’t tell you how much his calling me and his compliments on the book mean to me.
If he reads this interview, thank you again, Mr. Cussler!
What is next for you?
Lots of books, lots of graphic novels, and hopefully more radio plays.
Caliber Comics, one of the most respected independent comics publishers of the 1980s and 1990s, has re-launched under the umbrella of Caliber Entertainment, and starting this summer I’ll have several graphic novels and books published by them. The earliest is my text Comics Writing, an introduction to writing scripts for the comics medium based on classes I have taught over the years. The first two graphic novels coming out are Talismen: Return of the Exile and Dracula. Return of the Exile reprints an award-nominated webcomic that features characters from the Talismen young adult series I co-created with Barb Jacobs, who wrote the EXILE story and did all the art. My contributions on Return of the Exile were helping to script it and a little editing. DRACULA reprints my adaptation of Stoker’s novel that I mentioned earlier along with an adaptation of “Dracula’s Guest.” Together they were the first full and faithful adaptation of Stoker’s stories into any medium. There will also be a companion graphic novel, Dracula: The Suicide Club, a sequel to the adaptations.
Earlier this year Jim French’s Imagination Theatre produced and syndicated an original Sherlock Holmes radio drama of mine, “A Case of Unfinished Business.” It’s the second Sherlock Holmes script I’ve written for Imagination Theatre, and I’ve submitted a couple of more original scripts that I am hoping will be accepted. I’m also having fun writing young adult adventure screenplay I have wanted to get to for several years. Beyond that, I’m a freelancer waiting for his next job.
Steven Philip Jones’ novels include KING OF HARLEM, BUSHWHACKERS, THE HOUSE WITH THE WITCH’S HAT and TALISMEN: THE KNIGHTMARE KNIFE. Steven is also the author of over 60 graphic novels and comic books as the non-fiction COMICS WRITING: COMMUNICATING WITH COMIC BOOKS. A 1990 graduate of the University of Iowa, Steven has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Religion and was accepted into Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop M.F.A. program. He makes his home with his family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
To learn more about Stephen, please visit his website.