Tom Clancy makes it look so simple Author's on target with his thrillers, at ease with fame


Tom Clancy is not the rough-tough human tornado that his gripping, action-powered thrillers might suggest.

The multimillionaire king of espionage novels that translate into blockbuster movies ("The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games" and now "Clear and Present Danger") weeps at sad scenes onstage or on the screen, counsels children in the throes of terminal cancer and will not, under any circumstances, allow himself to be coaxed or cajoled onto a roller coaster.

"Just thinking about a roller coaster makes [ill]," Clancy announces during a telephone interview from his $2 million Maryland estate.

From a man whose fictional heroes often dangle by a few fingers from speeding helicopters that undulate nauseatingly, this is a surprising admission. But, then, Clancy is a man of many contradictions.

Even his mansion fits the bill. It has both a peaceful, panoramic view of the Chesapeake Bay and, for Clancy's bull's-eye pleasure, an underground shooting range.

Clancy likes to flirt with danger.

He reportedly smokes two packs of cigarettes a day -- despite dire warnings from Wanda, his wife of 25 years, who is a nurse.

He also likes guns, especially 8 mm pistols, although he never carries one. He prefers shooting a .308-caliber sniper's rifle in the company of FBI and Secret Service agents.

What is it that draws Clancy to real-life, adventuresome government-types -- besides the obvious possibility of garnering insider information?

"They have the nicest toys," he purrs coyly.

It's an attempt to deflate the question.

Yet hitting one's target, moving beyond limitations and barriers, is a constant theme of Clancy's books.

L His good guys always win. They make the impossible possible.

"I have found," he says evenly, "that I had to concentrate completely on my target so I didn't embarrass myself. When I concentrated, I discovered that hitting my target was easier than it looked."

According to Clancy, concentration -- along with stubborn determination -- is what has made him, a mailman's son, terribly rich and famous (or, as he likes to say, without arrogance, "noticed and fashionable").

There are more than 28 million copies of Clancy's books in print, not counting his newest thriller, "Debt of Honor," which was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on Wednesday.

"The hardest part of any accomplishment is believing it is possible," he explains reflectively. "You choose to take a risk. The rest is easy.

"You summon up your energy and apply it to your dream, which you approach like a job. You just get it done."

One of Clancy's current projects is setting up "The Kyle Foundation," named after a young cancer patient whom Clancy befriended. "We were real close," he says of the boy who died shortly after Clancy took him on a vacation to Disneyland.

The foundation will help raise money to provide entertainment and education via computers to ailing children.

Clancy makes this, and everything else he does, sound simple.

Yet if things were this easy, practically everyone would be a smashing success. In reality, there are often big gaps between being where one is and where one wants to be.

Clancy doesn't walk away from a question about the emotions that a risk-taker feels. After all, "The Hunt for Red October" (1984), his first hit, was created under notable duress.

Back then he was an undistinguished insurance agent, a 1969 graduate of Loyola College who had received a meager $5,000 advance from his first publisher, The Naval Institute Press.

Clancy worked out of an office in his father-in-law's home in Owings, near Annapolis. He hunched over his computer, retired into his own interior and wrote his flamboyant page-turner in six months.

He neglected his "real" job -- and his wife, who was skeptical and distressed by his retreat.

"I was a zombie," he now admits.

Despite the outward attitude of bravado, the rush toward writing, Clancy was edgy, insecure, irritable, anxious, nervous. He knew he was taking his chances and, like ordinary mortals, he was scared.

"Writing is like falling in love," he says. "You make your personhood vulnerable. It's like proposing and the answer comes back 'no.' "

But the world said "yes" to Clancy.

'The perfect yarn'

"The Hunt for Red October" sold more than 500,000 copies in hardback and more than 2 million in paperback, thanks in large part to a little verbal boost from then-President Ronald Reagan, a man who has always appreciated show-business properties.

Reagan called the book "the perfect yarn" and his opinion was printed in Time magazine.

"Luck of the Irish," Clancy says of the endorsement.

His writing career soared.

Would Clancy call this twist of fate his destiny?

Dead silence on the other end of the phone.

Then Clancy shoots back: "Yes and no. Yes, because it was lucky. No, because I'm Roman Catholic and I shouldn't believe in destiny."

Then, lowering his voice to a soft growl, he adds: "But, ma'am, I do!"

Who would ever guess that Clancy, who has stellar friends in high places (Colin Powell is a buddy), is so blatantly superstitious that he's always eyeing symbols he believes are portents of blessings?

For example, he reveals that just before this interview he spied an eagle flying the heavens that cap his property.

"The ancient Romans considered an eagle sighting a bringer of good tidings," he announces.

Not-so-incidentally, I remind him that critics on some of the country's leading newspapers have praised the newly opened Harrison Ford movie, "Clear and Present Danger," which is based on Clancy's best seller of the same name.

L He seems genuinely surprised to hear what I assume he knows.

Perhaps this has something to do with his reported feud with Paramount Pictures over the casting and scripting of the film. Or maybe his reaction signals that he is more obsessed with writing than with moviemaking -- although movie rights add substantially to his burgeoning coffers.

Clancy, 47, is passionate about his work and claims he never suffers from that awful literary malady, writer's block.

"Writer's block is pure laziness," he says. "The writer with writer's block doesn't want to write."

Yet Clancy, whose thrillers vibrate, does not work from a preplanned plot. The amazing twists and turns of his dynamic storytelling are, he says, impromptu.

If he doesn't get blocked, does he ever get fogged in?

"When that happens, I just ask myself: 'What comes next?' Everything is a logical progression of everything else.

"I find my way through the fog, little by little. It's like driving through a fog. You move slowly, feeling your way along. Then, suddenly, the fog lifts."

Clancy writes every morning, after reading two newspapers and drinking lots of milk (not coffee) and after watching some television news. Five hours of writing daily -- but not before rereading what he wrote the previous day.

"I look at my own material objectively. I edit myself," he says.

"The Jesuits (at Loyola) beat the value of discipline into me."

Clancy, who now reportedly gets $4 million per book, knows that writing is his passport to the privilege of power. He's keenly aware of his skyrocketing celebrity. He puts it this way: "Insurance agents are not the highest form of life. Best-selling authors are a step below major stars.

"It's easy for a man to adapt to improvements in his life. My horizons have improved immeasurably."

'Just a nerd'

These days Clancy has everything money can buy, including a new soundproofed Mercedes.

He also has what the stature of his level of celebrity attracts: glittering friends everywhere, including, in his case, the top echelons of the military, Pentagon and the State Department.

He has always claimed that no one has ever given him the highly classified technical information that electrifies his books. Clancy insists, as always, that his information comes from the public domain.

Yet with all his ingenuity and creativity, with all his connections and cash, Clancy reverts to the contradictions that are part of his charisma as a writer and as a man. "I'm just a nerd," is the way he sums himself up.

Yet the schedule of this interview was changed three times and the hour Clancy requested that it begin was odd: 4:50 p.m., not a second sooner, not a second later. Only literary lions can roar like this.

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