Clive Cussler: A Tribute
Clive Cussler passed away on February 24, 2020.
How do you say good-bye and thank you to a writer who has been one of your major influences?
Born one year after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — the creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of The Lost World — Cussler not only carried the banner of adventure literature into the twenty-first century, garnering the title The Grand Master of Adventure along the way, he created one of the most popular and influential series heroes of the past fifty years, Dirk Pitt.
Most publishers considered the adventure genre to be passé in the sixties, but where the literati saw stagnation, Cussler saw opportunity. Cussler was an award-winning advertising copywriter — you can thank him in part for The Ajax White Knight — who did his research after he decided to seriously turn his hand to writing, and instead of being deterred upon discovering that almost no one was producing the kind of classic old fashion adventures he enjoyed reading as a boy, he decided that he had the field to himself.
It is one thing to decide you want to write a novel or series and quite another to follow though, much less get your work published, but Cussler did all that and more.
I discovered Cussler and Pitt in Raise the Titanic! (1976), arguably the greatest adventure novel of the second half of the twentieth century and the first in a string of bestsellers Cussler authored or co-authored over the next forty years. (Two earlier and less successful Pitt adventures, The Mediterranean Caper and Iceberg, were published in 1973 and 1975, and the first Pitt novel, Pacific Vortex, written in 1965, was not published until 1983.) As a sixteen-year-old tyro I devoured the book’s no-nonsense yet devil-may-care writing, got swept up in its unabashed imagination, and was captivated by its decent but dangerous protagonist. It spoke to me and I wasted no time trying (and failing) to write my own Cussleresque novel, but Clive Cussler had left his mark, and that influence is evident in almost everything I have written since.
As the years passed and I developed as a writer, I learned something more from Cussler. Research and his marketing acumen were invaluable tools when it came to getting his novels published and then promoting them, but the trait that set him (and most great popular genre writers) apart was his innate sense of what people liked to read. Maybe because of this Cussler often downplayed his writing skills in interviews, preferring instead to emphasize that he was an entertainer who took pride in giving his reader’s their money’s worth. I brought this up in a list of questions I sent him in 2009 while working on The Clive Cussler Adventures: A Critical Review (2014) and asked if he did not also take pride in the quality of his plots and characters. Cussler admitted, “Yes, that I do. The fact that so many people and children have enjoyed my books and been influenced by them is a great source of satisfaction and joy.” The quality and popularity of Cussler’s novels now stand as testaments to how much he cared and how hard he worked as a writer, something I found out the first time I spoke with him.
In 1989 I wrote Cussler to inquire about adapting his Pitt adventures into the comics medium. He was open to the idea and at one point mailed me a letter asking if I would telephone him to discuss the topic. I called the same morning I received his letter and happened to catch Cussler while he was in the middle of working on his tenth Pitt novel Dragon (1990). At first Cussler sounded dazed and did not recall my name or why I was calling — which didn’t make me nervous at all 😉 — but after a few moments he remembered and apologized, explaining that when he was really into writing a scene he forgot about everything else going on around him. There is a term for this: creative ferment, and I can tell you firsthand that it is not something you experience unless you are putting everything you have into your work.
Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!, The Scorpion) once wrote that fellow comics writer-artist Mike Grell (The Warlord, Jon Sable Freelance) did not just write exciting action stories, he enjoyed living many of the same types of adventure his heroes did, and the same could be said for Cussler. In 2011 an eighty-year-old Cussler, himself an Air Force veteran, visited troops in Afghanistan as part of a USO-sponsored group of popular authors in cooperation with the International Thriller Writers. A lifelong marine and maritime history enthusiast, Cussler founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving maritime history through the survey and recovery of shipwreck artifacts. Cussler was also a fellow of the Explorers Club of New York and Royal Geographic Society in London, and in 1997 was awarded a Doctor of Letters from the Martime College of the State University of New York.
Clive Cussler lived the life he wanted to live. How many of us can say that? How many of even have the courage to try? Cussler also wrote the kind of stories he wanted to write and in the process delighted millions of readers like me who cannot get enough of his recurring travel-guide thrills, cliffhangers, narrow escapes, and last-second rescues mixed in with nautical settings, evil conspiracies, and search for lost treasure. Noted story consultant Robert McKee once complained that the 1992 novel Sahara has “something unbelievable happening every two minutes,” never appreciating that is the point.
The passing of Clive Cussler is sorrowful, made even more so as the news comes when I am staring down the barrel of turning sixty. I had already been wondering where all the time has gone and how much things have changed, and knowing there is no more Cussler and there will soon be no more new Cussler novels has only augmented the situation. For what it is worth, though, I find some solace in remembering one of the best scenes from the great film Rocky Balboa (2006) where the sexagenarian title character says, “You know the older I get the more things I’ve got to leave behind. That’s life.”
Yes, it is. That is life. So, in the end, the only thing to do is to just say it.
Good-bye, Mr. Cussler, and thank you.