I’ve never met Clive Cussler in person, but I did send him a fan letter back in the early 90s when I was struggling on a conventional typewriter, and he answered the letter, along with a few more I wrote. Then he agreed to read my first novel, gave me an endorsement on it as “powerful and accomplished, mystery at its best,” and finally later, around 2003, I got a phone call from him on an interview request. This is the transcript. Cussler and his crew of volunteers have discovered more than 60 historically significant underwater wreck sites. Owner of a fleet of classic cars, Clive divides his time between Colorado and Arizona. Among his many books is GHOST SHIP.
JONATHAN LOWE: You have a degree in maritime history, yet you worked in advertising, then in a dive shop on a lark, where you started writing. This was what, the mid-60s?
CLIVE CUSSLER: Yes, that would have been the mid-60s. But I got the degree, though, in 1999 or 2000. Sometime around then.
JL: How long had you been diving before NUMA?
CC: Started diving when I was in the Air Force. We were in Hickam Field in Hawaii for a while in 1951, and my friend Don Spencer and I sent for a dive tank and regulator from Cousteau in France, who’d started manufacturing them. I think we might have had the first tank in Hawaii, and I remember we went into the hanger and filled it up with a couple hundred pounds of stale air out of a compressor, and just ran into the water. So I would have started diving in 51.
JL: Finding lost shipwrecks isn’t easy, is it?
CC: Oh, no. Sometimes you get lucky, but I would say most of the time it’s difficult. The ghost ship Marie Celeste, we found that in the first hour. The Civil War submarine Hunley took me fifteen years.
JL: Is it the location that makes it difficult? Do the wrecks shift or drift?
CC: No, it’s just that the records aren’t good. I always give the example that, say, a plane crashed in your neighborhood. . . you could come back in two hundred years to find that site, but of course everything has changed, and you don’t know where to begin. Maybe they gave you a street, but maybe the streets not there. And they didn’t say it crashed two hundred yards from the old rock, you know? So you can see how difficult it is to find the exact spot. That’s the same way it is with shipwrecks. Nobody puts a big marker up and says here it is. So when you come by later, there’s no GPS coordinates.
JL: Like in the story The Gold Bug by Poe, where they drop the line through the skull to find the treasure.
CC: Yes, but even then they had a ball park.
JL: How many expeditions have you mounted by now?
CC: Oh my, there must be a hundred or more.
JL: The two Sea Hunters books outline some amazing successes, like the Hunley, Carpathia, Marie Celeste. Is there a ship still out there that beckons you, though, or still nags at you?
CC: For sure. John Paul Jones, the Bon Homme Richard. I tried for that four times, haven’t found it yet.
JL: Where did that sink?
CC: In the North Sea off Yorkshire.
JL: How goes SEA HUNTERS TV series? Will it air here?
CC: I don’t know. It’s under National Geographic, and airs internationally. What’s so funny with Geographic, I narrate the program overseas, but here they run a few of them under Mysteries of the Sea or something, and I’m cut out of it. (laughs)
JL: So you don’t know what’s going on?
CC: Well, somebody told me, and I don’t know how true it is, but they didn’t want to upset Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic.
JL: Your novels have been wildly successful, I think, due as much to the research behind them as the pacing and characters. Are you doing research for some lost shipwreck when it occurs to you that Dirk Pitt might wade in?
CC: Not really. I haven’t really combined the two. I had Pitt looking for a Pharaohs barge in the Nile one time, but we really haven’t crossed paths. I don’t know why. I think it’s just because the storyline doesn’t work as far as following anything I’ve done.
JL: Are there any more Pitt adventures in the works?
CC: Yes, I’m about two thirds through the next one.
JL: Really? I thought you were just continuing with Kurt Austin.
CC: No, those are just spinoff series. I come up with most of the plotting and they’ll start the writing, and I’ll edit, that sort of thing.
JL: So you switch off with Craig Dirgo and others.
CC: Right. Together we just finished a fiction book which has nothing to do with NUMA or Pitt or anything. In one book, Flood Tide, I had this ship that looked like an old beat up tramp steamer, had all the exotic gear, and people who ran it were like corporate mercenaries, they go around the world, like a Mission Impossible plot.
JL: Where did the name Dirk Pitt come from?
CC: My son’s name. He was six months old when I started writing. His name is Dirk, and I used it for fun, really. I was looking through an encyclopedia about the British prime ministers during the Revolutionary war, Pitt the younger and Pitt the elder. So I thought, well, that works, because I wanted a one syllable name.
JL: I was thinking, you know, like one letter less than James Bond, and easier to type than Brandon Tartikoff or something.
CC: (laughs) Well, that’s it. It’s easier to say Pitt jumped over the wall than that. I think that’s why Fleming wanted a simple name. James Bond. There was an ornithologist by that name too.
JL: What does your writing schedule look like these days? Do you work nonstop on a project?
CC: Pretty much, but I get so many interruptions. I mean, an expedition, or I have to go out to L.A. to fight over the screenplay or the movie. Or I have to speak here. There’s always something. But I try to work nine to six. Some nights now too.
JL: You know what would be great is a full cast and sound audiobook of a Pitt or Austin book.
CC: Yes, it would.
JL: Most big publishers don’t have the time to spend on productions like that, though.
CC: No, they don’t. Usually it’s just a guy sits there and reads.
JL: Do you ever get fan mail from people about your audiobooks?
CC: Yes, I do.
JL: Have you ever been on the Tonight Show? Leno’s a car buff.
CC: No, I never have, but I remember I talked to him at Pebble Beach one time and I asked him: “How come you don’t have more cars on the show?” And he said he had Carroll Shelby on one time, and the audience just had no connection with him. So producers got after him, and other than a brief bit with him in a car now and then, that’s about it.
JL: Who are your own favorite authors?
CC: When I started out the one I leaned on the most was Alister McLean. And then Hammond Innes, in his eighties now and still writing. I like Nelson DeMille. But I don’t have time to read. I had lunch one time with James Michener, and just for fun I said, “Have you read any good books lately, Jim?” And he laughed and said “I don’t read,” then clarified it by saying he doesn’t read fiction because he’s always working. I’m pretty much the same way. About the only fiction books I’ll read is like in your case, try to help a new author with a quote. I gave a quote for The Hunt for Red October for Clancy.
JL: Really? Clancy? That’s amazing.
CC: If you ever find an original, those things sell for about a thousand bucks. And then there’s Stephen Coonts, for Flight of the Intruder. Tells you how long I’ve been around, doesn’t it?