ICONS: Clive Cussler (1931 – 2020)
The Extraordinary Life of a Legend
By Dawn Ius
It’s difficult to adequately describe the impact of a literary legend—even more so when that icon is Clive Cussler, the undisputed “Grandmaster of Adventure.”
Though born in Aurora, Illinois, Cussler spent the majority of his life in California, where he began his writing career to fill the time he spent alone after the kids were settled in bed and his wife went to work night shift at the local police department. His first published novel, 1973’s The Mediterranean Caper, wasn’t exactly an overnight success, but it introduced Cussler’s most famous character—globetrotter Dirk Pitt, a death-defying adventurer and sea expert, named after Cussler’s son.
By the time of his death on February 24 of this year, Cussler had published 26 additional Dirk Pitt tales, including 1976’s Raise the Titanic!, the novel many readers cite as their first introduction to Cussler, and the book that firmly established him as a master in creating a blend of high adventure and high technology stories that almost always included lost ships, sunken treasure, beautiful women, and snippets from his personal adventures woven into the fabric of each larger-than-life tale. Like Pitt, Cussler was an accomplished diver, a seeker of shipwrecks, and an avid car collector. Cussler even wrote himself into later books—sometimes in a cameo role, but then with more significant relevance.
In the late ’90s, Cussler created The NUMA Files, the first series featuring a co-author, and later developed another co-author brand with The Oregon Files.
All told, he authored or co-authored more than 80 novels, hitting the bestseller list for almost 70 of those titles and racking up sales in the multi-millions. His books have been optioned for everything from movies to video games, but perhaps more importantly, his work has inspired generations of adventure thrillers.
It wasn’t only his writing that captured the imagination and adoration of his fans—Cussler himself was larger than life, a thrill-seeker with a tremendous heart and a true passion for his work. He liked to have fun—and was funny—and when it came time to deliver a story, he knew what his readers wanted. As his millions of fans would attest, he was always right.
To gain more insight into his tremendous literary influence, we talked to five people whose lives and careers were immeasurably enriched by Cussler’s extraordinary body of work: Neil Nyren, Cussler’s editor at Putnam for 18 years; Paul Kemprecos, co-author of the early NUMA Files books; Graham Brown, co-author of the most recent NUMA Files series installments; Boyd Morrison, co-author of The Oregon Files series; and J. H. Bográn, an author who says reading Cussler’s adventures is what inspired him to be a writer.
What was your first encounter with Clive Cussler’s work, and what was your response to what you read?
J. H. Bográn: I discovered Clive Cussler in the early ’90s as I was still learning English. A co-worker from the US brought me a box of his old paperbacks. The first one I read was Night Probe! That book happens to be unique and pivotal to Dirk Pitt lore because two things happen there: there is a character that was based on James Bond, and by the end of the novel the US and Canada became one country. I was spellbound. For a second there, the suspension of disbelief rose so high I thought that the joining of the countries had really happened. Hey, don’t judge me, I was 19 and had no access to the internet. After that I went on to read all of his books. Not only did they help me expand my English vocabulary, he taught me that I could read a book series out of order.
Graham Brown: I remember as a kid flying on an overnight flight to London to visit my grandparents and it seemed like every other person on the flight was reading this book called Raise the Titanic! I was too young to understand, but I knew what the Titanic was, and I remember asking my dad if someone was really going to raise it from the bottom. I was seven years old and instantly intrigued with the idea. How would they do this? What would they find? One of Clive’s great gifts was always to ignite the synapses of the imagination.
Paul Kemprecos: My first encounter with Cussler’s work was Raise the Titanic!, his break-out novel. Frankly, I didn’t know what to think. My interest in adventure books goes back to the lost world novels of H. Rider Haggard, but this was like nothing I had ever read. Clive’s imagination seemed unfettered. The Titanic hadn’t even been discovered yet, and here was his dashing hero Dirk Pitt, raising the ship to get at a cache of exotic material that was at the center of Cold War intrigue. Pitt had a touch of Bond’s wry humor and way with women, but his confidence and can-do attitude were all-American—although Clive told me that when he got stuck, he went to Scottish thriller-adventure author Alistair MacLean for inspiration. You can see glimpses of MacLean’s high adventure on the high seas in Clive’s writing, but it was clear in Raise the Titanic! and the novels that followed, that, like Pitt, he was forging his way through uncharted literary seas.
Boyd Morrison: Raise The Titanic! was my first Clive Cussler read, and everything about it blew me away. I eagerly awaited every book of his after that. It also opened my eyes to the thriller genre in general, and I’ve been a voracious reader of adventure fiction since that moment. I know I wouldn’t be a writer today if it hadn’t been for Clive’s influence, and many readers have noticed a similarity in style between my books and his, which is probably one reason he thought I’d be a good fit as a collaborator on the Oregon Files series with him.
What do you think are some of the defining aspects of Cussler’s novels?
JHB: In the early books he insisted on using the metric system, to the chagrin of his American readers. However, I think international readers from countries where the metric system is the norm must have been grateful. Another aspect is his use of a prologue to set up the story. This is important because prologues have garnered a bad rep in recent years and most beginner writers are told to avoid them. While I’ve learned that some readers skip them, when they’re well done, they become an integral part of a story.
GB: Aside from the obvious—historical plots mixed with modern-day action and exploration—Clive’s books are great adventures and specifically adventures of the type most readers would love to join in real life if given the chance. His books and characters are also relentlessly optimistic, something we could use more of in the world these days.
PK: Cussler’s books are defined by big, worldwide plots, no shortage of yellow-toothed villains, and incredibly important stakes, like the fate of the world, high technology, and ancient mysteries that have confounded mankind for thousands of years. He loved long-lost secrets in old ships and he jumped at the chance to have Pitt use out-of-date vehicles or boats of any kind, especially autos from Clive’s fabulous antique car collection. I suspect Cussler’s main reason for writing Atlantis Found was the chance to have Pitt and his partner Al Giardino get behind the wheel of the massive snow cruiser Admiral Byrd had built for Antarctic exploration.
BM: His gift for breakneck pacing, larger-than-life characters, and clever premises hooked me right from the start. He also had a great eye for detail and made plots that could have been ridiculous seem exceedingly plausible. You could tell he knew what he was talking about because he actually lived it. Clive was a diver, a seeker of shipwrecks, and an avid car collector. All of those passions made their way into his books, allowing the reader to become easily immersed in the stories.
Cussler’s body of work is extraordinary. Why do you think readers respond so well to his novels?
JHB: It may have to do with the characters that have been well developed over the years. Yes, they have changed—the playboy, a-different-girl-per-novel Dirk eventually got married—but after many books, the characters feel like friends, and even though you know they can’t die, the danger feels palpable in the stories.
GB: My answer would be similar to the question above. Having spoken to hundreds of Clive’s fans, and having read all of his books myself, they all contain that magic ingredient which is impossible to quantify—but when reading Clive’s books you feel like you’re not just watching but living the adventure along with the characters. At least I always did.
PK: Well, they’re great escapism for one thing. And they’re fun! Cussler always said that he was more of an entertainer than a writer, and his habit of including himself as a walk-on character in his books was done purely for amusement. (His publisher opposed it at first.) His appeal was universal, attracting readers from all over the world. Readers like learning new things, and they could always be assured that at the end of a Cussler ride, they would have completed a curriculum that included science, history, archaeology, oceanography, and undersea technology, all for the cost of a single book. And no matter how awful the Bad Guys are, the Good Guys always won.
BM: What really set Clive’s books apart from the imitators was his desire to make his books fun. The best example of that was Clive’s idea to insert himself into his Dirk Pitt novels as a literal deus ex machina. He originally did it as a joke that he thought his editor would delete, but it’s become a staple of the series now, and readers can’t wait to see when he will pop up to save the day. His protagonists enjoy their time with each other, with plenty of good-natured banter, and his readers love seeing them conquer the dastardly villains with a wink and a smile at just the right moment. The reason fans kept coming back for more over the course of 80-plus books was because they loved the feeling they got from reading them, like visiting with an old friend who was always up for a good story and a laugh.
How would you describe your working relationship with Cussler?
GB: It was hard work, and he was certainly demanding in knowing what he wanted out of a novel. He’d give you a lot of leeway and then he’d break out the red pen. More than anything, it was always a lot of fun. Clive was an incredibly kind man. Smart enough and confident enough that he didn’t waver. The exact opposite of insecure. Which made it easy for him to be so generous, and also made it easy to deliver the kind of work I’ve been so proud to be a part of.
PK: Cussler was one of the first writers of commercial fiction to take on a co-author. I learned later that even before I knew him, he had been pushing my first publisher to put my books out in hardcover. He gave me a couple of stellar jacket blurbs, so he was familiar with my writing. It was a gamble for him to take on a writer of regional detective books to co-write high concept adventures. He must have figured that we were on the same wavelength. He gave me a lot of latitude, while keeping a tight rein on protecting the formula. Typically, I’d make a proposal, and if he gave the go-ahead, I’d start writing. About a third or halfway through, I’d fly out to his Arizona home, we’d go over the story, and then I’d write it with his suggestions. Clive had an amazing instinct for what worked. In our first book together, he suggested that the hero suddenly appear from the depths of the sea to pull the heroine down out of the way of danger. In another book he suggested that I make the villain a giant Viking of a woman, and that I give her evil henchman a twin. Good stuff.
BM: Clive was a joy to work with, a truly humble man who nevertheless had strong views about storytelling. He’d been my writing idol for so long that it was surreal the first time we were sitting in his office and tossing plot ideas back and forth. As far as our process worked, we would get together at his place for a few days to brainstorm the high-level ideas for the story, and then I would go home and write 100 pages. I’d send them to Clive, he would revise it and send it back to me, and we’d keep going like that until the book was done. And he made the job fun, whether it was driving in one of his classic cars or simply sitting on his back patio trading stories over a glass of wine. Just thinking about it makes me sad that I’ll never be able to do that again.
Neil Nyren: Clive and I had a great working relationship. As long as I didn’t try to push him anywhere he didn’t want to go, or fancify up his prose, he was happy to consider any editorial comments, and usually agreed to most of them, which is all an editor can ask for. Once he was done with the book, though, he was done—time for the next one! He didn’t even care about the galley proofs—he had someone else look at them.
And with four books a year, there always was a next one right around the corner—which, of course, also meant four titles to come up with, and four jackets to create. We’d volley back and forth, discuss what had worked well in the past, calculate what’d work well in the future, try to avoid repetition, which was sometimes not easy. Sometimes, I’d come up with what I thought was a brilliant title idea, only to have him go over to his bookshelves and say, “Let’s see…nope, used something like that in 1991.” Or I’d send him a jacket sketch, and he’d say, “I fell asleep just looking at it. Try again.” It was always in good humor, though, and we always did keep trying until we had the one he liked.
What I learned from Clive—and his co-writers did the same—was just how well he knew what his readers liked: the adventure, the historical elements, the gadgets, the exotic locations, the intertwined narratives, the arrogant villains, the pushed-to-the-max heroes and heroines, the touches of humor. He knew his fans liked it PG, too—no obscenities, no sex scenes, nothing the whole family couldn’t enjoy. That’s why, year after year, the sales stayed strong—he kept growing new readers while keeping the old ones. It was an impressive thing to behold.
What did you learn from working with him?
GB: On writing: The most important thing I learned was to get my own ego out of the way. We’re not writing to impress ourselves, we’re writing to entertain. On life: I learned a lot about taking chances when you feel the moment is right. When the opportunity arrives, you have to be as big as the moment. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t tell yourself you’re not equal to it. Go out and grab it.
PK: I learned that I was prone to over-write. I told him I’d rather put words in and cut them later, but Clive called me “the adjective kid,” or “the description kid” and penciled out paragraphs and pages that slowed the action. I learned not to set boundaries on my imagination. Write it, no matter how unbelievable. What could be more unbelievable than a battle he described on the surface of the moon? Clive hated cliché. What made his books appealing was their “freshness,” he said. His reaction to a cliché character proposed by one publisher was “retch.” He said that even if the plot takes the reader all over the globe, the story has to bring the reader back to the US. He also insisted that the story involve a treasure, although that could take many different forms.
BM: Clive had a knack for knowing whether a plot idea or action scene worked or not, so I work hard to anticipate how he would punch holes in an idea. It causes me to spend a lot more time analyzing how to plot out the story so that it makes sense. He also taught me a lot about streamlining a story so that only the most important and relevant information is included, stripping away everything extraneous so that the story will rocket along. To Clive, pacing was everything, and entertainment was his goal. It’s mine as well.
How has he influenced your own work?
JHB: Again prologues. I thought they were an essential part of a good book. The first two novels I wrote (Treasure Hunt and Heir of Evil) have prologues set in the past, and I made sure important information is there so readers must either start there or have to come back to it later. I’ll add that I always mention three authors who inspired me to become a writer: Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, and Ken Follett. Collectively they made storytelling look so easy that even a non-native English speaker like myself thought I could do it.
GB: It’s almost too large of a question to answer. Even before I worked with Clive, his way of telling a story was a big influence on me. Having done a number of books with him now, I have a better understanding of how that style came about. No doubt it has imprinted on me to some extent. But also, to take joy in what we were doing—Clive used to say if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. That applies to writing and life. If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing, no one is going to enjoy reading it. And if you don’t make the most of your life and enjoy the moments, then you’re missing out on the great gift we’ve been given.
PK: Even before I started writing with Clive, I used “Cussler-like” elements in my private detective series. In particular, my books began with a historical event that intersected with the present, such as the sinking of a pirate ship or a World War II German super-sub. And there was always at least one scene where the hero got in trouble underwater. After writing with Clive, I authored two Cussleresque adventure novels. When I went back to my PI, I couldn’t resist using underwater schools of robots in the story. In my latest book, I came up with artificial wings that Cussler would have loved. I’ll probably have to outfit a whole gang of bad guys with them.
BM: He always admonished me not to “overwrite,” and I constantly assess whether I actually need some word, sentence, or paragraph. If I think Clive would cut something, I do it. He was also great at ending each chapter on a cliffhanger, propelling the reader to finish just one more, which ends up making it an all-night read. I try to emulate his attention to detail, ingenious plots, and flat-out pacing because I want to create an experience where readers can’t put the book down, just as he did for me.
What do you think is Cussler’s most important contribution to the genre?
JHB: From discovering treasures to worldwide threats, he definitely raised the bar on what can be accomplished within the expanse of a single book. He blurred the line between action adventures and thrillers. I also believe the myriad of two-man teams always bantering and bickering at each other in books and films is influenced by his Dirk Pitt/Al Giordino dynamics.
GB: To begin with he helped invent it—there were spy books and detective books and science fiction books, but there were not many “adventure novels” when Clive started writing. He was a huge part of bringing that genre to life. He paved a road with his stories, one that so many of us have followed.
PK: Cussler summed up the secret of his success each time he wrote, “Here’s to adventure!” in his signed books. What he demonstrated was readers are hungry for a well-written adventure story that embodies fresh ideas. In a side benefit, Cussler’s work has inspired a host of talented writers who are carrying on his tradition.
BM: His most important contribution, other than providing hours of enjoyment for millions of fans, is his effect on the writing community itself. Not only was he generous with giving endorsements to up-and-coming writers, but he inspired dozens of us to become writers ourselves. I don’t know of any adventure writer today who wasn’t influenced and energized by Clive’s novels, and I think he will continue to spur new writers to create their own stories for years to come.
What were some memorable moments working with him?
NN: I’ve shared a couple of the most memorable moments in the Publishers Weekly piece, but here’s something most people don’t appreciate—how much he liked to help other writers. I edited Tom Clancy, too, and Clive never got tired of tweaking me that he was one of the first authors to give a quote for The Hunt for Red October. Throughout our relationship, he’d call me up and say he’d just read a manuscript somebody had sent him that he thought was pretty good, would I take a look at it? Sometimes it was from the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, sponsored by the Clive Cussler Collector’s Society, which awarded cash prizes to unpublished authors. And just before I retired, the last book I edited while I was still in the office was a sea adventure from a young writer that featured the woman captain of a salvage boat. It was called Gale Force, and it tickled Clive no end that the hero was a woman. He called it “one of the most outstanding adventures of the year”—and he meant it.
One more story to tell: Clive died on February 24th. On March 3rd, many of us who knew him received an invitation to come out to Phoenix to “celebrate his life with your stories, songs, and laughter.” People were planning to come in from all over the country…but you know what happened next. Nine days later, we got another message: “Right out of a Cussler novel, a pandemic virus, COVID-19, puts the world on hold and now Clive’s Celebration of Life has been postponed. Updates to follow as the plot unfolds.”
Clive’s agent, Peter Lampack, wrote me, “Why do I hear Clive’s laughter from above?” I replied, “Because he would have found it hilarious.”
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