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My Life and Times with Clive Cussler

My Life and Times with Clive Cussler

Authors tend to be solitary creatures, so the idea of collaborating with one another is a rather odd event. That said, when Clive Cussler called me up some years back and asked if I’d like to work on his Oregon Files series of adventure novels, I said yes even before we discussed salary. Clive liked to say, tongue firmly in cheek, that he made the money while I did the work. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing and editing are two entirely different disciplines. I know a legendary editor in New York whose only attempt at writing a novel churned out one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And most authors can barely edit themselves, let alone someone else.
That said, Clive wore both hats with ease. I read the first books in the series to familiarize myself with characters and plotlines and then handed in an outline with a few sample chapters for our first book, Dark Watch.

Clive then invited me to his Arizona home to discuss my work. I’ll never forget what transpired. He told me that he liked what I’d come up with, but the smuggling of nuclear waste as a plot device had been done to death. He told me to come up with something else—and promptly left for a nap, giving me a one-hour deadline.
Fortunately, I work well in a state of panic. I worked in a human trafficking angle, and we were off and running.

Our system, and the system he employed with all of the other co-authors, was this: once the outline was agreed upon, I would write a third of the book and wait for his feedback. Clive had a great attention to detail and as a writer of complex plots understood that a minor tweak in the beginning of the story had repercussions throughout that had to be considered. He did not ask for structural changes to the plot without giving it a lot of thought, and for that I was always grateful.

That isn’t to say he didn’t put his stamp on each page. He knew when I was overwriting a scene, or becoming too enamored of my research, or telling rather than showing, or falling into any of the other traps that befall an author. He loved his fans and took the time to make sure each of the books that bore his name also had his style of writing— his signature adventure plots loaded with intrigue as exciting as we could make it.

After writing seven books this way, no matter how smooth the collaboration had been, I grew restless and went back to writing solo novels. It was nice to answer to no one for a change—but like being in the Mafia, I couldn’t really escape. Clive invited me to helm the Isaac Bell series and I turned him down flat. For a day.

Then I got the brilliant idea of introducing Isaac Bell into the Raise the Titanic storyline—retconning is the term for it, meaning retroactive continuity of a pre-existing narrative. I pitched the idea of turning a Cussler book on its head with a prelude set in the modern world and the rest in the past. Clive was actually angry that he hadn’t thought of that himself.

Working on that book, which was published as The Titanic Secret, was like our first effort all over again. Very soon we were onto another Bell adventure, this time set in Panama at the time of the canal construction.

We again upended the Cussler formula and gave the book Agatha Christy-type twists. It was two thirds complete when Clive died rather suddenly. I soon learned that his son, Dirk, would be taking over Clive’s role. I was sure life would be just like before. Oops….

Dirk didn’t like how I’d structured this story and felt that, with Clive not around, deviating from his classic formula wasn’t such a great idea. After cursing Dirk for several days, I reluctantly agreed, and for the first time in my professional career had to rewrite one of my books.

To his credit, Dirk understood the ordeal he’d asked me to endure and worked with me closely to minimize how much I’d have to redo. In the end, we put out arguably my best Isaac Bell novel. Since then, collaborating with Dirk has been just about as easy as it had been with Clive.

I’m not sure how other co-authorships work, but I know for myself that keeping my association with the Cussler name is as simple as remembering to write the best Cussleresque novels that I can. And so, here we are now with The Heist.