by Betty Webb
As Dirk Pitt and creator Clive Cussler get set to retire a new generation of hero and storyteller emerges.
One of the scariest chapters in “Trojan Odyssey,” Clive Cussler’s new thriller, is the one where his seafaring hero Dirk Pitt says, “I’m getting too old for this.”
Even scarier than that, though, is hearing Cussler him self say, as he looks up from his computer in his large, comfortable office, “Yes, Dirk’s definitely thinking about retiring. And so am I.”
Dirk Pitt’s chiseled brow made his first appearance in 1973 in the debut novel “Mediterranean Caper.” Since then, Pitt has fought and snorkeled his way through 16 novels, including “Raise the Titanic,” “Sahara,” “Inca Gold,” “Shock Wave” and “Atlantis Found.”
But Pitt’s exploits are nothing compared with his creator’s. As far as Cussler is concerned, art most definitely mirrors life.
Cussler has sold more than 125 million books; posted 19 consecutive New York Times best sellers; founded the National Underwater & Marine Agency, a real-life nonprofit organization based upon the NUMA of his novels; discovered the long-lost Confederate submarine the Huntley and numerous other historical ships; is a fellow in both the Explorers Club of New York and the Royal Geographic Society in London; and has amassed a large enough collection of classic custom cars to make Donald Trump’s mouth water. Cussler was also awarded a Ph.D. from the State University of New York for his first nonfiction work, “The Sea Hunters,” which he proffered in lieu of a Ph.D. thesis. It’s the first time the university has ever done that.
Ask Cussler how he’s managed to do it all, though, and he gives you a blank look.
“Well, I like to write.” His millions of fans like to read him, too, so of course they panic when Cussler and Pitt start muttering the word “retirement.”
Not that they haven’t been warned.
A few years back, Cussler began writing a new series (“Serpent,” “Blue Gold,” “Fire Ice,” “White Death,” etc.) with Paul Kemprecos. Although Pitt is mentioned in the series, it is only in passing. Then came “The Golden Buddha,” the first book in yet another new series, this time written with Craig Dirgo, Cussler’s co-writer on “The Sea Hunters.”
Dirk Pitt was nowhere in evidence.
In an interview with the Tribune three years ago, Cussler admitted that the Dirk Pitt series might start winding down or at least undergoing a major change.
“I’m getting pretty tired,” Cussler said then. “I’ve always been fortunate enough that I could maintain the books at a certain level, but I’d like to find someone who could continue the Dirk Pitt books. If only….”
He didn’t complete the sentence, but in a recent interview at his Paradise Valley home, he let slip what he wanted to say then, but wasn’t ready to.
“Dirk is going to write the Dirk Pitt books now,” Cussler says, with a big grin on his face.
Has Cussler actually lived with his hero so long that he has begun believing Dirk Pitt actually exists? And can write his own books?
“My son Dirk, from whom I named the Dirk Pitt character, is working on a brand new Dirk Pitt book as we speak,” Cussler says. “I’ve seen the manuscript, and it’s pretty good. Of course, I’m tweaking the plot a little and doing some editing and rewrite, but the kid has talent, no doubt about it.”
Then he drops another bomb.
“I meant it, though, when I said that Dirk Pitt was retiring. The new hero of the Dirk Pitt books will be Dirk Pitt Jr.”
For those of you who haven’t kept up on Cusslermania, Dirk Pitt the elder fell in love in “Pacific Vortex,” but the woman didn’t survive the final chapter. As it turns out, though, she didn’t die, but was so badly injured that she didn’t want Pitt to see her. Without ever telling Pitt, she gave birth to his children. Twins. A girl named Summer, and a boy named…
A book or two ago, Pitt found his two children and began building a relationship with them. Wonder of wonders, the twins turned out to have all their mother’s and Pitt’s courage. Much of that courage is on display in “Trojan Odyssey,” a delightfully improbable yarn that begins with the Trojan War.
How improbable? Let’s just say that Greek scholars are going to be rioting in the streets over the book.
Which delights Cussler to no end.
“There is absolutely no conclusive proof that the Trojan War took place where everyone believes it did,” he maintains. “And ‘certainly no conclusive proof that the war involved Greeks.”
Heresy, to be sure. But Cussler says he has his ducks in a row.
A voracious reader, mainly of nonfiction, Cussler once read this startling hypothesis in Iman Wilkens’ book, “Where Troy Once Stood: The Mystery of Homer’s Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ Revealed.” The book claims that the Trojan War was actually fought by Bronze Age Celts, and that Troy was located near – hang onto something sturdy – Oxford, England.
“It may sound crazy, but Wilkens makes some pretty good points,” Cussler says. “When the Trojan War was supposed to have happened, the Greeks didn’t have any navy to speak of, so the war – at least as Homer described it in ‘The Iliad’ – is pretty improbable. And not only that, do you really think the Greeks would have risked everything just because someone’s wife decided to run off with another man? I doubt it. That war was fought over tin, not Helen. And Odysseus was probably a Celt, not a Greek.”
Cussler grins wickedly.
An admirer of outrageous theories (he still questions the validity of the moon landing), Cussler loves to trot the wildest of them out in his novels. This sly trait has won him an entire world of fans, many of them conspiracy theorists.
But most of his readers are just regular people who appreciate an exciting yarn, however improbable. As a result, his books have been translated into 40 languages in 100 different countries.
“Well, we do have a little trouble selling the books that’ve been translated into Icelandic,” he says, laughing. “And I’d certainly love to get the royalties from the black market copies that have ‘been printed in Russia, China and Cuba. I’m getting a lot of fan letters and e-mails from there, but so far, not one royalty check.”
Missing royalty checks notwithstanding, Cussler still does well financially. Yet his 4,100-square-foot Paradise Valley home is not the dripping-with-gold mansion one might think a multimillionaire author would own. The house is lovely, certainly, but it is furnished with handcrafted Mexican and South American artifacts and paintings, not priceless European antiques.
Cussler’s famous sense of humor is evident in the furnishings, too. Sitting on a bench in the living room is Cussler’s very own Mini-Me, an almost life- sized dummy crafted to look just like the writer. One of Cussler’s favorite pastimes is to hide behind a door and speak into a microphone, making little Mini-Me blow raspberries as startled visitors pass by.
“God, I love this,” Cussler chuckles, as one visitor fairly leaps into the air. Cussler’s more-than-6-foot frame shakes with laughter.
It is only lately that Cussler has begun to laugh again.
In January, Barbara, his wife of 48 years, died of cancer. Although he continued to honor his commitments – many of them personal appearances for charity organizations – it was obvious to anyone who knew him that the writer was devastated. His voice was hoarse, his eyes sunken.
These days, he is looking better. His eyes are lively again, his love of laughter once more in the ascendancy.
His writing, Cussler says, saved him.
“The best advice I can give to anyone who is going through this kind of thing, is to work,” he says. “I was in the middle of a book when Barbara died, and that helped me tremendously. I don’t know what I would have done without that.
Then he changes the subject.
Cussler is an intensely private man, not comfortable talking about his emotions lets his writing do speak him.
And it does.
On the dedication page of “Trojan Odyssey,” Cussler has written, “In loving memory of my wife, Barbara, who walks with the angels.”
This article originally appeared in the Scottsdale Tribune newspaper on November 24, 2003. Reprinted by permission of Betty Webb. Visit her Web site at: http://www.bettywebb-mystery.com/.