The staff of The Big Thrill were heartbroken to learn of the recent death of legendary thriller author Clive Cussler. Cussler’s latest novel, co-authored with frequent collaborator Graham Brown, is slated for release on March 10 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and the following interview with Brown was completed several weeks before Cussler’s passing on February 24, 2020. While this won’t be the last you’ll see of Cussler in The Big Thrill, it might be the last time we’ll have the pleasure of promoting his latest work in our lineup of new releases. Cussler’s death leaves a vacuum in the thriller community that will never truly be filled; fortunately, his collaborations with writers such as Brown, Boyd Morrison, Jack Du Brul, and Justin Scott, not to mention his incredible generosity as a mentor to countless other authors, ensure that a new generation of storytellers is prepared to take up his mantle.
Digging up a Little-Known Pharaoh
By J. H. Bográn
Clive Cussler books have been around since the late ‘70s. Dirk Pitt and his friends—Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala in the case of the NUMA Files series currently co-authored with Graham Brown—are like old friends, and their exploits convey that same sense of familiarity to the returning reader. As with any of their adventure books, it all starts with a mystery set in the past. The latest installment, JOURNEY OF THE PHARAOHS, is about a little-known pharaoh by the name of Herihor.
Cussler is fascinated with stories of ancient Egypt and their travels to Europe in the old age, and so decided to build on that premise.
“Clive and I took a trip to Egypt,” says co-author Graham Brown. “We crawled through secret tunnels under the pyramids and dug up treasures in the desert… Okay, that’s how I wish it worked. Truth is, it’s mostly a trial and error process of looking through historical documents and trying to connect a few dots. We were looking for something that hadn’t been done before. Everyone knows about the important Egyptian figures such as Tutankhamun, Ramses, and Cleopatra, but the key is to find something else, something rare. That takes the book in new directions. In our case, we stumbled upon a historical figure known by the name Herihor—his name kept popping up, tugging at our sleeves for attention.”
The fact that Herihor was not of royal blood, and that he managed to split Egypt, fascinated them.
“He created two kingdoms,” Brown says. “And spent years in complete control of the Valley of the Kings, where all the other pharaohs and their treasures are buried. That created real possibilities. Add in the fact that he vanished from history and no tomb of his has ever been found, and suddenly we’re looking at this and realizing we have something here. It’s a great feeling when you’re putting these facts together and you know you’re on to something unique.”
Another staple of the series is that the action scenes are detailed and elaborate. Brown confesses the writing of them is nothing short of a love-hate-love relationship. He starts the process by envisioning the piece like a film in his mind—he must see it in hopes that readers do the same.
“The initial love part of the relationship comes when you visualize the scene and you can see it all in your mind,” Brown says. “Then you get to writing it and the scenes often come out over-written or under-written, but almost always bulkier than you hoped. Thus arrives the hate part.”
Love returns after wrestling with the writing, and re-reading it while trying to imagine it’s the first time. Brown says that, “Occasionally, there is a divorce and you have to toss it out and find a new way to move the action along.”
Death is a part of life, and some characters face this ultimate fate early on, which poses a challenge to any author.
“Nobody wants to read five pages of backstory on a character that gets a few lines before being blown to smithereens,” Brown says. “If the characters are integral to the story they usually have more background than what ends up on the page. You can’t put too much in or it starts to drag. And you never know—some of them may come back to life in a future story—especially if we never saw them actually perish.”
On the opposite end of that spectrum, being a series means certain characters are expected to survive the rigors of perilous adventures. In that regard, Cussler and Brown don’t go easy on the NUMA team members.
“I like to beat them up a little bit,” Brown says. “But they’re sort of like Achilles—they’ve been dipped in the river and no one has found their vulnerability yet.”
Dirk Pitt had a long-running relationship with Loren Smith and they eventually married. However, Kurt Austin, although he shares Pitt’s love for the sea, is from a different mold.
“Kurt is more of a loner. We’ve tried to paint him with a little bit darker of a brush than Dirk—especially in Ghost Ship. If he ever fell in love, it would probably be with a villain whom he was trying to save from herself.”
Dirk Pitt has expanded into several series and spin-off characters, and the idea of a combined story has been discussed. However, Brown says, “It’s very complicated in the book world. I think you’d end up with most of the characters being short-changed or a 2,000-page book.”
However, that doesn’t mean cameos are ruled out. In fact, for a series where the actual author has shown up, the groundwork is already laid. For those who don’t know, Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala crossed paths with Juan Cabrillo in the warehouse of the Maritime Museum on the island of Malta. It was an action scene where both parties were looking for something crucial in the warehouse, and both were under attack by their adversaries. The scene was visualized through Kurt’s eyes in The Pharaoh’s Secret, with a totally different view of events from Juan Cabrillo in The Emperor’s Revenge by Cussler and Boyd Morrison.
“It was Boyd’s idea to begin with. And I will never forgive him—just kidding,” Brown says. “Neither Boyd nor Clive nor I could ever recall it being done before—so that of course meant we had to make it happen. Honestly, it was great fun, but shockingly difficult. The tiny little differences in the way each of us visualized the setting and the characters meant we had to keep re-writing it. Tiny changes in point of view or in what had to happen for each different story caused more rewriting. I recall it taking about four weeks to get that one chapter correct.”
Both Cussler and Brown are already busy at work with the next NUMA Files novel, while on the side, Brown is “tinkering around with a science fiction story that will hopefully be—in the immortal words of Monty Python: something completely different.”
During conferences and book signings, the most recurrent question Brown gets from readers and fans is about his experience working with a living legend like Cussler.
“I can only tell you it’s been a hell of a good time,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about writing from Clive and even more about life and living it to the fullest. I was a big fan of his work, so when the call came in with the invitation to co-author the NUMA Files, I didn’t hesitate. However, I wondered how it would play out. Turns out—better than I ever imagined.”