Tom Clancy makes it look so simple Author's on target with his thrillers, at ease with fame

August 19, 1994|By Marian Christy | Marian Christy,Special to The Sun

Tom Clancy is not the rough-tough human tornado that his gripping, action-powered thrillers might suggest.

The multimillionaire king of espionage novels that translate into blockbuster movies ("The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games" and now "Clear and Present Danger") weeps at sad scenes onstage or on the screen, counsels children in the throes of terminal cancer and will not, under any circumstances, allow himself to be coaxed or cajoled onto a roller coaster.

"Just thinking about a roller coaster makes [ill]," Clancy announces during a telephone interview from his $2 million Maryland estate.

From a man whose fictional heroes often dangle by a few fingers from speeding helicopters that undulate nauseatingly, this is a surprising admission. But, then, Clancy is a man of many contradictions.

Even his mansion fits the bill. It has both a peaceful, panoramic view of the Chesapeake Bay and, for Clancy's bull's-eye pleasure, an underground shooting range.

Clancy likes to flirt with danger.

He reportedly smokes two packs of cigarettes a day -- despite dire warnings from Wanda, his wife of 25 years, who is a nurse.

He also likes guns, especially 8 mm pistols, although he never carries one. He prefers shooting a .308-caliber sniper's rifle in the company of FBI and Secret Service agents.

What is it that draws Clancy to real-life, adventuresome government-types -- besides the obvious possibility of garnering insider information?

"They have the nicest toys," he purrs coyly.

It's an attempt to deflate the question.

Yet hitting one's target, moving beyond limitations and barriers, is a constant theme of Clancy's books.

L His good guys always win. They make the impossible possible.

"I have found," he says evenly, "that I had to concentrate completely on my target so I didn't embarrass myself. When I concentrated, I discovered that hitting my target was easier than it looked."

According to Clancy, concentration -- along with stubborn determination -- is what has made him, a mailman's son, terribly rich and famous (or, as he likes to say, without arrogance, "noticed and fashionable").

There are more than 28 million copies of Clancy's books in print, not counting his newest thriller, "Debt of Honor," which was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on Wednesday.

"The hardest part of any accomplishment is believing it is possible," he explains reflectively. "You choose to take a risk. The rest is easy.

"You summon up your energy and apply it to your dream, which you approach like a job. You just get it done."

One of Clancy's current projects is setting up "The Kyle Foundation," named after a young cancer patient whom Clancy befriended. "We were real close," he says of the boy who died shortly after Clancy took him on a vacation to Disneyland.

The foundation will help raise money to provide entertainment and education via computers to ailing children.

Clancy makes this, and everything else he does, sound simple.

Yet if things were this easy, practically everyone would be a smashing success. In reality, there are often big gaps between being where one is and where one wants to be.

Clancy doesn't walk away from a question about the emotions that a risk-taker feels. After all, "The Hunt for Red October" (1984), his first hit, was created under notable duress.

Back then he was an undistinguished insurance agent, a 1969 graduate of Loyola College who had received a meager $5,000 advance from his first publisher, The Naval Institute Press.

Clancy worked out of an office in his father-in-law's home in Owings, near Annapolis. He hunched over his computer, retired into his own interior and wrote his flamboyant page-turner in six months.

He neglected his "real" job -- and his wife, who was skeptical and distressed by his retreat.

"I was a zombie," he now admits.

Despite the outward attitude of bravado, the rush toward writing, Clancy was edgy, insecure, irritable, anxious, nervous. He knew he was taking his chances and, like ordinary mortals, he was scared.

"Writing is like falling in love," he says. "You make your personhood vulnerable. It's like proposing and the answer comes back 'no.' "

But the world said "yes" to Clancy.

'The perfect yarn'

"The Hunt for Red October" sold more than 500,000 copies in hardback and more than 2 million in paperback, thanks in large part to a little verbal boost from then-President Ronald Reagan, a man who has always appreciated show-business properties.

Reagan called the book "the perfect yarn" and his opinion was printed in Time magazine.

"Luck of the Irish," Clancy says of the endorsement.

His writing career soared.

Would Clancy call this twist of fate his destiny?

Dead silence on the other end of the phone.

Then Clancy shoots back: "Yes and no. Yes, because it was lucky. No, because I'm Roman Catholic and I shouldn't believe in destiny."

Then, lowering his voice to a soft growl, he adds: "But, ma'am, I do!"

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