When Tom Clancy feared losing his mind

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Tom Clancy, who would have turned 75 today, wrote best-sellers adapted into hit films such as ‘The Hunt For Red October’, ‘Patriot Games’  and ‘Clear and Present Danger’ featuring CIA man Jack Ryan but he told me in 1988 that he was finished with writing because he thought he would go mad.

‘I’m gonna burn out,’ he said on the phone from his home in Maryland.  ‘I’ll end up in a rubber room somewhere. Writing is a self-induced form of mental illness. 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 said – 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 told me. ‘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 said that learning the discipline of writing was absolute hell.’ I am, by nature, a fairly lazy and undisciplined person,’ he said. ‘Writing books is the hardest work I’ve ever done. Stephen King turns out two or three long and quite excellent books a year, and frankly I wonder how the hell he does it.’

When Forsyth quit, after ‘The Day of the Jackal’, ‘The Odessa File’  and ‘The Dogs of War’, his fans had to wait five years for another book. Forsyth told me, ‘I never actually said I was quitting. I just said I had no plans to write, which was perfectly true.’

Clancy also was hedging his bets. He spoke of wanting to write an historical novel ‘someday’ but he had no current book contract. With the millions from his previous books, he purchased a book-lined new home in Prince Frederick, Md, where he lived with his wide, Wanda, and their four children.

He planned to settle into his home and enjoy the family. Also, he was going to put his high-tech wizardry to work as a consultant with then Vice-President Dan Quayle’s National Space Council. He said he didn’t know the details of his Space Council job, he just knew he had to get away from writing.

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

Reading was the secret source of all the super-tech tactics and weapons systems he wrote about in his books. Yes, he had ridden in tanks and fired sophisticated arms, and, yes, he hds friends in the military and the FBI but, he said, The information they give me is about as controversial and secret as white milk.’

He insisted that he had no connection in the CIA. ‘It’s just plain false,’  he told me. ‘It is not true. I take it as a compliment because it means I’m doing my job right.’

He was, though, as fed up with being asked about it as he was with writing itself. ‘I’ve managed to fool a lot of people,’ he said, “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.’

Clancy’s time with the Space Council did not turn out well – see The Washington Post’s 1993 story – https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/what-ticks-tom-clancy-off/2013/10/02/66a20b38-2b7b-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html

He returned to writing thrillers and later video games. He died aged 66 in 2013. Jack Ryan has been played in movies by Alec Baldwin (pictured  top centre with Sean Connery and Scott Glen in ‘The Hunt for Red October’), Harrison Ford (photo above with Willem Dafoe in ‘Clear and Present Danger’), Ben Affleck and Chris Pine and on TV by John Krasinski.

I interviewed Clancy for Inside Books magazine but the publication folded before it could run. When I joined the Los Angeles Herald Examiner as Arts & Entertainment Editor, I ran it on the Sunday book page tied to the release of the novel ‘Clear and Present Danger’.

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