When Tom Clancy told me he was going mad

Clear and Present Danger x650

Tom Clancy, who has died aged 66, made a huge impact with his first novels in the 1980s – “The Hunt For Red October”, “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger” (pictured), which in turn became major motion pictures.

In 1989, I interviewed Clancy for a national Miami-based magazine called Inside Books that folded before it could print the story. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran it after I was hired as Arts & Entertainment Editor.

Clancy told me planned to quit and he shared his views on the hard work of writing, his “insider” knowledge, the war on drugs and Oliver North.

By Ray Bennett

LOS ANGELES (1989) – Tom Clancy, America’s best-selling supertech thriller write, has just about had it with writing and he goes so far as to call his craft a form of mental illness.

“I’m gonna burn out,” he says. “I’ll end up in a rubber room somewhere.”

The 41-year-old former insurance salesman says he’s going to put his high-tech wizardry to work as a consultant to the National Space Council in the executive office of the president.

“I believe we owe our country something more than taxes every April 15,” he says, “and it’s time for me to pay something back. And maybe find out if I’m really Jack Ryan or not.”

Fictional CIA analyst Jack Ryan is the hero of three of Clancy’s four bestsellers in the past five years: “The Hunt For Red October”, “Patriot Games” and “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” (“Red Storm Rising” is the fourth).

Tom Clancy x300Ryan is also featured in Clancy’s fifth novel – “Clear and Present Danger”, about a US military mission against the Colombian drug cartel – which is due out on Aug. 17. Ryan will be portrayed by Alec Baldwin in the movie version of “The Hunt For Red October” (part of an all-star cast including Sean Connery, James Earl Jones, Richard Jordan and Sam Neill) due for release next spring.

Clancy says he doesn’t yet know the details of his Space Council job. He just knows he has to get away from writing, “Writing is a self-induced form of mental illness,” he says on the phone from his home in Maryland.

“Think about it, it really is. When you write fiction, you create an imaginary world filled with imaginary people, perceive the imaginary world through their eyes and their minds, and communicate what you see to other people, and do so very convincingly.

“If you do that for too long, you’re not gonna get back out because what I’ve described is schizophrenia. Writing is, by any reasonable definition, a form of mental illness. You’ve got to get away from it once in a while.”

Clancy’s idol, British thriller writer Frederick Forsyth – “the best in the business,” Clancy says – also made headlines when he announced that he was quitting after his first three hit books.

“We talked about the strain of writing and the pure hell of turning out a book,” Clancy says. “His views are pretty much the same as mine – it’s damnably hard work, and you can’t do it forever.”

The bespectacled son of a Baltimore mailman, with a passion for military hardware and books, Clancy says learning the discipline of writing was “absolute hell. I am by nature a fairly lazy and undisciplined person. Writing books is the hardest work I’ve ever done. You run into Stephen King, who turns out two or three long and quite excellent books a year, and frankly I wonder how the hell he does it.”

When Forsyth quite, after “Day of the Jackal”, “The Odessa File” and |”The Dogs of War”, his fans had to wait five years for another book. Today, Forsyth says, “I never actually said I was quitting. I just said I had no plans to write, which was perfectly true.”

Clancy is also hedging his bets. He speaks of wanting to write an historical novel “someday” but he has no current book contract. With the millions from his previous books, he has purchased a book-lined new home in Prince Frederick, Md, where he lives with his wide, Wanda, and their four children.

He plans to settle into his home and enjoy the family. He says he’s going to work for the government in order to keep his brain occupied. “It’s something I think I ought to do,” he says. “You get to the point where you write a lot about the way things ought to be, and if you do too much of that, as I probably have, you end up having a moral obligation to put your money where your mouth is.”

At least, with “Clear and Present Danger”, he is going out with a bang. It’s vintage Clancy with a plot taken from today’s headlines. A crack UD Army team of night fighters is let loose in the Colombian jungle to take on the drug cartel. When drug lords assassinate the head of the FBI in retaliation, a renegade sernio CIA man’s dirty tricks leave the soldiers abandoned. Enter Jack Ryan, a mysterious espionage agent named Clark, a KGB-trained mercenary, Southern cops, the Coast Guard, fighter pilots and all the sophisticated gizmos and military hardware Clancy fans have come to expect.

Clancy denies prescience in selecting his plot. “The idea came to me in London a couple of years ago,” he says. “If that’s fortuitous planning, well, then, I guess it is. I’m not going to argue the case.”

But he gets furious if you mention Oliver North in the same breath as the US government renegade (named Cutter) in “Clear and Present Danger”: “Oh, I know Ollie North and, no, Cutter is not intended to be Ollie North. Absolutely not.”

Not even in the sense that North was convicted of breaking laws? “No, no, no,” Clancy insists. He says he’s not exactly sure what North was convicted of, although he agrees: “Co. North did things he should not have done.” However, he also declares, “I am delighted that the federal court in Washington decided what he did was not worthy of imprisonment. And any parallel between my book and that whole affair would be an invidious comparison.

Clancy thinks there is something for the government to learn from his book, though. He believes that to send the military to deal with drug lords is a good idea and would be supported by the American people. As long as there were strict controls.

“It is a good idea if, first, there is a political consensus that this is something that must be done. Second, if possible, the American people should be made aware of it. Third, and probably most important of all,” he says, “if the military is to be involved in this effort, it must be given a simple, understandable and coherent mission statement.

“One of the most dreary aspects of Western civilization is the fact that we very often send military units into situations they don’t really know how to handle if they don’t have a proper mission statement. You don’t use military forces unless you’ve got a very clear idea of what you want them to do. Unless we could use them in the way for which they are trained and prepared, we shouldn’t use them at all.”

That’s not the only contentious issue Clancy tackles. One of the drug lords in “Clear and Present Danger” observes that if the United States legalized what he sold, he’d go out of business. Clancy agrees but states forthrightly: “That is not an option for a democratic society. What kind of message are we giving to our citizens if the government says, “OK, go ahead and use drugs’ and then taxes them and makes off of the drug addition of its citizens? No, that is not something the government should do. Absolutely, 100%, no.”

Clancy portrays the extent of drug money invested in American business as widespread and in the billions. He says it’s a true picture but adds: “Before you make too big a deal about my research along those lines, it’s just a matter of reading the daily papers.”

Clancy reads a lot. Although he had a teenage fascination for ancient Egypt, and has renewed it recently, he says there was never one book that captivated him when he was growing up.

“Somebody blasted George Bush during the last election campaign because he could not list one book that influenced his life,” Clancy complains. “It is my firm belief that anybody who can list one book that influenced his life probably doesn’t read very much. I’ve got several thousand books in my library, where I’m sitting now, and they’ve all influenced me to one extent or another.”

It is reading, he says, that’s the secret source of all the supertech tactics and weapons systems he writes about in his books. Yes, he’s ridden in tanks and fired sophisticated arms, and, yes, he has friends in the military and the FBI, “The information they give me is about as controversial and secret as white milk,” he says.

But, no, he has no connection in the CIA. “It’s just plain false,” he insists. “It is not true. I take it as a compliment because it means I’m doing my job right.”

He is, though, as fed up with being asked about it as he is with writing itself. “I’ve managed to fool a lot of people,” he says, “and it’s decidedly uncomplimentary in terms of how I bring that about. The fact of the matter is, I do not have an inside source, nobody gives me this information.

“I do, however, have the intelligence to figure it out for myself. It’s not really all that hard if you think. I wish people would give me credit for thinking.”

(N.B. On that Space Council government job, it was learned later that then Vice President Dan Quayle had invited him along with many others to consult on a NASA proposal. It did not end well. See the Washington Post)


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