FORT WORTH, Texas — – Clive Cussler is a man with a wild imagination.
Anyone who has read his adventure novels – in which swashbuckling Dirk Pitt saves the world from megalomaniac villains, recovers historic sunken ships, finds fabulous lost treasures and romances beautiful women – knows there are no limits to how big he can dream.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Forty years ago, when Cussler’s debut thriller, “The Mediterranean Caper,” was released, he didn’t dare imagine that he could one day become a publishing powerhouse.
“I expected nothing like this,” says the man with more than 100 million copies in print and so many New York Times best-sellers that he literally has lost count. “When I started writing, I just hoped for a nice little paperback series.
“At that time, I was thinking, ‘Gosh, if I can make $10,000 a year, we can live in some little mountain community and really enjoy life.’ ”
“The Mediterranean Caper,” re-released in July for the first time in hardcover, didn’t make much noise when it initially landed on bookstore shelves, but fame and fortune were just around the corner.
Cussler’s breakthrough came in 1976 with “Raise the Titanic!” In it, Pitt not only found history’s most famous sunken ship (nearly a decade before the doomed vessel was found in real life), but he also brought it back to the surface in one glorious piece.
That book turned Cussler into a best-selling heavyweight practically overnight.
Yet as ambitious and prescient as “Raise the Titanic!” was, Cussler kept topping himself with even more outrageous and inventive plots.
“I consider myself to be more of an entertainer than a writer,” he says. “My job is to entertain the readers in such a manner that, when they reach the end of the book, they feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth.”
Today, at age 82, he is still cranking out over-the-top adventures, as many as five a year with assists from a team of co-authors (including son Dirk Cussler, who collaborates on the Dirk Pitt books).
“I can’t retire,” Cussler says. “My readers won’t let me.”
They will have to wait until 2014, however, for the next novel featuring Dirk Pitt, his sidekick, Al Giordino, and the rest of the National Underwater and Marine Agency team.
“My son Dirk (who was 3 years old when Cussler named his character) is working on that one now,” Cussler says of the 23rd book in the series. “It has to do with a treasure in the Kodiaks and artifacts from the Aztecs.”
‘The Mediterranean Caper’
In the meantime, think of “The Mediterranean Caper” as a satisfying stop at a desert oasis for readers who can’t wait till next year.
The book isn’t as wild a rollicking roller-coaster ride as some subsequent Cussler gems – such as 1981’s “Night Probe!” (which Cussler rates as his best plot), 1992’s “Sahara” (skip the movie, read the far superior book) and 1996’s “Shock Wave” (with Pitt and Al lost at sea for weeks aboard a battered sailboat).
Still, “The Mediterranean Caper” is a solid start to a great series, with Pitt and Giordino fully realized from the get-go and other key NUMA members soundly established as well.
The book opens with a World War I-era German biplane laying waste to an unprepared American Air Force base on the Greek island of Thasos. Pitt, at the right place at the right time, as is his way, saves the day, engaging in an aerial dogfight from the controls of an unarmed World War II flying boat.
The thrill ride that follows includes Pitt meeting a billionaire shipping magnate and international drug smuggler, a battle to the death with an enormous killer canine (while Pitt is armed only with a butter knife), Pitt’s escape from an inescapable centuries-old Greek labyrinth and NUMA’s climactic assault on an underwater cave that leads to the villain’s secret lair.
The birth of Dirk Pitt
Here’s how this remarkable series was born.
“I was in advertising at the time, 15 years, when my wife decided to go back to work,” Cussler remembers. “She found an interesting job with the local police department, working nights as a secretary and dispatcher. Meanwhile, I’d feed the kids and put them to bed and have nothing to do the rest of the night. So one day I decided, ‘I think I’ll write a book.’
“I didn’t have the great American novel burning inside me, but I felt I could try my hand at popular fiction. I spent three or four months studying all of the great heroes: Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Travis McGee, Mike Hammer, all of them.
“And when I finished, I thought, ‘What can I do that’s different?’ That’s when I decided to put my hero in and around water. That’s how Dirk Pitt was born.”
Even though Cussler jokes that his fans might storm the castle if he calls it quits, he doesn’t need to keep working, and he certainly has nothing left to prove as a storyteller.
“But what else would I do?” he asks. “I can’t just go play golf every day. I’m not into that. And this is something I know how to do, something I enjoy doing, so I just keep it up.
“Don’t be surprised if one day they come into my office and find all that’s left of me are old bones, covered with cobwebs, hunched over my desk at the computer. That wouldn’t be a bad way to go.”
In addition to his Dirk Pitt novels, which Clive Cussler has been writing with Dirk Cussler since 2004’s “Black Wind,” the celebrated author is juggling four other series.
His 11th Kurt Austin adventure, “Zero Hour,” co-written with Graham Brown, was published in May; this series features Austin’s highly skilled special assignments unit from NUMA.
His next book, “The Mayan Secrets,” written with Thomas Perry, comes out Sept. 3; it’s Cussler’s fifth “Fargo Adventures” book, focusing on Sam and Remi Fargo, a husband-and-wife team of treasure hunters.
The ninth “Oregon Files” book, “Mirage,” written with Jack De Brul, is due Nov. 5; this series features the crew of a ship called the Oregon, which looks like a run-down freighter but is in fact a high-tech vessel from which the team fights international crime and terrorism.
And “The Bootlegger,” the seventh of the “Isaac Bell Adventures,” written with Justin Scott, comes out in March 2014; Bell is an early 20th century investigator who works for a Pinkertons-style detective agency.
How does Cussler manage to keep all of these balls in the air?
“My co-authors do most of the writing,” Cussler explains. “I usually come up with the plots. Then we get together to hash out the plot details and the characters. Then they go off and write. After about 50 pages, they send me their work and I sit down to do rewrites and edits until we finish the book.”