Tom Clancy and PW rendezvous at 1340 hours, roughly 40° 43' N, 74° or W, approximately 30 feet above sea level and mere steps from the first booth in Costello's, a smoky, traditional restaurant and bar favored by many Manhattan journalists.
Clancy's trip to New York City from his permanent bivouac in rural Maryland has been agonizingly slow, limited to technologically primitive vehicles--several combustion-engine, rear-wheel drive automobiles and one unarmored, electric-powered civilian train with effective cruising speeds barely over 100 miles per hour.
Clancy is hungry (Amtrak was late), and while waiting for his corned beef sandwich, he eagerly sips a 12-fl. oz. soft drink cooled to about 50° F. He seems slightly ill at ease, perhaps because he is far from the disciplined, orderly military world that is at the heart of his two works of fiction: The Hunt for Red October, his wildly successful first novel about the defection of a Soviet submarine crew, and Red Storm Rising (Fiction Forecasts, July 11), published this month by Putnam, an epic work about a World War III fought with up-to-date non-nuclear weapons on land, air and sea.
"More than anything else, I'm a technology freak," he explains. "And the best stuff is in the military."
The fascination with high-tech gadgets began at an early age. "I read about the space program before there was one," the 39-year-old author says, smiling. He also dove into Samuel Eliot Morison's many works of naval history and sea exploration. In recent years he has culled most of his knowledge of equipment and tactics Armed Forces Weekly, Jane's Defence Weekly and various Naval Institute Press publications. (Poor eyesight kept him from serving in the military; it's one of his few regrets.) And ever since high school, he states, "I've wanted to write a novel." As an English major at Loyola University, he adds: "I wanted to see my name on a book."
These various interests and goals converged in The Hunt for Red October, much of which Clancy wrote during "downtime" at his family's insurance agency. (He still works there one day a week, noting, however, that "it's hard to get worked up over a homeowner's policy nowadays.") He submitted the manuscript to an editor at Naval Institute Press (affiliated with the Naval Academy), who had handled a short article by Clancy about the MX missile. Wanting simply "a professional's opinion" of the work-in-progress, Clancy had tremendous luck: Naval Institute Press had recently decided to try publishing fiction, and The Hunt for Red October became the press's first such work.
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As they say, the rest is history. Since publication in 1984, the submarine thriller has sold over 300,000 copies in hardcover and two million in a Berkley paperback, leading to a three-book, $3 million hard/soft deal with Putnam and Berkley. Asked if he was surprised by the book's reception, Clancy says, "I was thunderstruck, dumbfounded, bowled over, amazed. But I wasn't surprised."
The novel proved particularly popular with men in the military, from submariners to Pentagon analysts to the Commander-in-Chief himself, who pronounced The Hunt for Red October "the perfect yarn." In fact, President Reagan liked the book so much that he invited Clancy (and his wife) to the Oval Office for a private meeting. Commenting on the visit, Clancy grows quiet and says solemnly, "It was a neat experience." After a pause, he returns to his usual staccato delivery: "I've met a lot of people, and all have reinforced Clancy's Law of Society—that important people don't act that way."
He prizes the entree to his heroes in the military as well. Indeed, as he considers the changes in his life in the past two years, Clancy says, "The nicest part of it all is meeting the people in the service. The guys in uniform are like cops and firemen. They're basic, solid people, and they're in the business of risking their lives for people they don't know."
Since 1984 his new soldier and sailor friends have taken him under their wing and let him drive an M-1 tank and fire its gun, travel for a week at a time on American submarines (he had never been aboard a sub before The Hunt for Red October) and tour British Royal Navy vessels (where he met Prince Andrew). Evincing the same reverence that he displays for President Reagan, he says, "People who fight wars are the smartest people I know. The smartest person I ever met is a submariner." He pauses and shakes his head, adding, "They're also the happiest people I know. Sometimes it's disgusting how happy they are. They all look forward to going to work because there's always a challenge."
Clancy quickly notes that the job of leading the troops is not fun and games. "One of the things I tried to bring out in Red Storm Rising is the pressure and responsibility of a commander. He must accomplish his mission and keep his men alive. If he screws up and kills himself, so what? If he screws up and kills 50 men..." His voice trails off. Then he
goes on: "It's a lot of responsibility for 20-year-old men."
Does Clancy borrow from the classic military strategists, such as von Clausewitz? He laughs dismissively. "Clausewitz is like reading Nietzsche. No, like Hegel." He notes that Viscount Montgomery, the British World War II hero of El Alamein, "couldn't finish Clausewitz, and he went on to make field marshal."
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Discussing his idea of military warfare, he says, "Tactics are merely applied logic. Military operations are simple in theory, different in actuality." Then he quotes Frederick the Great, the masterful leader of Prussian armies, who said that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Clancy calls this "the aphorism of military life."
Returning to the subject of the challenges faced by today's fighting men using high-tech war equipment, Clancy says, "Playing the piano is child's play compared to learning to fly a plane. It takes a year to learn what all those buttons in the cockpit are for." Moreover, while on land "you can at least see the opponent, at sea all you see is a blank ocean. Warfare is a lot more abstract in the water."
In a preface to Red Storm Rising, Clancy notes that he and coauthor Larry Bond (a naval analyst and professional war gamer) "took lots of information from a variety of sources and synthesized it. We tried to come up with a logical overview of where such a war would go." For example, in the novel Iceland assumes a key role in the Atlantic. After a Soviet invasion of the island, bombers are able to attack Allied convoys resupplying Europe. Clancy comments: "No one has acknowledged that Russian airplanes are a bigger threat to convoys than subs." He states that "feedback from guys in the know says we portrayed it right."
Clancy scoffs at the idea that he has carried military analysis further than the professionals in Arlington and Langley, Va. "I've spoken with lots of military types, but I'm not the guru of the Pentagon," he says. "They won't tell me sensitive information. If they did, I wouldn't use it. I leave it to the Washington Post to publish government secrets. The information I use is available; it's a matter of putting it together and making sense of it."
How has success changed Tom Clancy? "Having money allows me to pursue my hobby," he says. His enhanced income has also enabled him to buy a new house--"although we were going to do that. My four kids will go to college. I bought a Mercedes. And I bought a Rolex." He waves a shiny wrist over the table. "The rest of the money goes to my financial guy," he continues. "I sign stuff, but I don't know what's going on."
In a more serious tone, he says, "Success could ruin my life. For one, I don't want to get into an ego trip." He illustrates the issue by discussing his overflowing mailbox. "It's getting to the point where I need a secretary. But I have a working-class thing about that. Having a secretary would make me feel like I'd taken an importance pill, and the deadliest disease known to man is feeling important." He shrugs, then adds, "The choice is not answering the mail."
Clancy states that he's determined to remain the "nerd" he's always been. "After all," he adds with enthusiasm, "I'm in it for the fun. Writing is so much damned fun. I play God. I feel like a kid at Christmas. I make people do what I want, and I change things as I go along."
Asked about his personal tastes, he says he reads "everyone," particularly writers of science fiction and espionage and action-adventure. Two of his favorites are Fredrick Forsyth ("the best thriller writer") and British author Gerald Seymour ("I can't understand why he doesn't sell well here"). Among his literary friends and acquaintances he counts Jack Higgins and Clive Cussler.
"One of the great things about the writing fraternity is that we're not in real competition," he says. "And we all suffer from the same thing--the matter of you and the blank videoscreen."
It would seem, however, Clancy's disks are rarely empty. Already he is working on his third novel, titled Patriot Games, which stars Jack Ryan, the Navy intelligence analyst who was a key character in The Hunt for Red October. The thriller following Patriot Games will also feature Ryan. And another book derived from The Hunt for Red October, tentatively titled The Cardinal of the Kremlin, is planned.
Asked for more information about Patriot Games, Clancy answers as though he is discussing official eyes-only material. "It's about terrorism, and it takes place before The Hunt for Red October," he says quickly. "That's all I can say about it."
But he will talk more about one of his themes, his love of country. "I wish I had served in the armed forces," he says, again mentioning his bad eyes. "I don't relish the idea of being shot at, but America has been decent to all of us. Too many people think they can take without giving back. It's not right."
He praises, too, what he calls "America's fundamental vitality. This is a magic place," he states, adding that his British service friends who are posted to the U.S. say they'll "miss the enthusiasm and optimism when they get rotated back." Lest anyone be misled by his relatively sympathetic depiction of some Soviet commanders in his two novels, Clancy comments,"The people over there aren't different. People around the world are the same." He shakes his head. "But the political system is different, very different."
In moments lunch is over, and Clancy gets ready to stop by his publishers' offices before catching a late-aftemoon train back to Maryland. He is cordial, but seems eager to get on his way. One senses that all in all he'd rather be aboard a sub or shooting more tank guns or puzzling over the meaning of intelligence intercepts—or at least at home writing about them.