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Riding Shotgun for Clive Cussler: An Origin Story by Michael Barson

Today, Monday, July 15, Clive Cussler will awake to find himself 88 years old. How many authors get to reach that point, let alone remain as active as Cussler has? As of last week he was still co-authoring four adventures a year for Putnam with a variety of writers, one of them his son Dirk, who began co-Authoring the flagship Dirk Pitt series in 2004, some thirty years after its debut (with The Mediterranean Caper, a Pyramid paperback original).

But Clive Cussler was not always published by Goliath G.P. Putnam, and therein lies a tale…. During the Eighties and Nineties, his Dirk Pitt books were a fixture on the bestseller lists for Simon and Schuster. And then, one day something happened that led to him joining Putnam in 1999. 

As Clive himself explained it to me during one of our many book tours together, he was in New York City one day visiting his agent, and decided to drop into the S&S offices at 1230 Sixth Ave to say hello to his editor. Being Clive, he didn’t call first, but instead arrived at their waiting room and asked the receptionist to let Mr. Korda know that Mr. Cussler was sitting outside. So Clive sat down to wait. And waited, and waited. After a half hour or so Clive got up and told the receptionist to let Mr. Korda know that he was leaving. And he did. According to Clive, he never went back to the S&S offices. But he did tell his agent to find him a new publisher. Six months later he was signing with Putnam for a new Dirk Pitt adventure, Atlantis Found.

After hearing that story, I often wondered… Was Mr. Korda inside at a meeting, entirely unaware that his star adventure author was cooling his heels out in the lobby until seeing the message when it ended? Or was he possibly out at a glamorous lunch, returning an hour or two later to discover that he had inadvertently alienated one of his star authors? At this juncture we will never know. But the effect of this (probably) unintentional slight was seismic.

I well recall the excitement at Putnam when we learned a major bestselling author would be joining our already star-studded lineup. Though I had never read any of Cussler’s adventure thrillers, I was well acquainted with his name from scanning each weekly iteration of The NY Times fiction list. Atlantis Found was given a publication date of December 6, 1999; an unusual date for a Putnam release, but done at Clive’s specific request, because he was convinced that sales would be boosted by the book’s appearance during the height of Christmas gift-buying season. He probably was right. Our announced first printing of 750,000 copies was probably exaggerated a bit from the actual release number, but it immediately made Clive Putnam’s second biggest fiction author, behind only Tom Clancy. 

The book was an immediate smash, appearing in the Times bestseller list at #4 and staying there for several weeks. It never managed to climb any higher because of a peculiar situation: the top three spots were occupied by the hardcover editions of the first three Harry Potter books. Of course those were children’s books, but at the time there was no separate list to keep such a phenomenon from swamping the adult fiction lists. Clive was not happy about that situation, and he let it be known. Soon afterward The NY Times changed its policy and launched a separate Children’s bestseller list, which remains to this day.

The 1999 book tour for Atlantis Found was unlike any other I had been involved with up to that time. It began with a three-day launch in New York City that included stops at West Point, the CUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, where Clive received an honorary PhD, an indie bookstore in Ridgewood NJ, which told us it was the second largest turnout they’d ever had, and a Borders down in the World Trade Center, two institutions that are long extinct. And then it was on to the rest of America. There were many rollicking moments in several major markets, but the peak was probably at the Tattered Cover Bookstore Denver, where signing took almost four hours. In part that was due to the fans who had lugged along forty previous books for him to sign (they had to wait til the end of the line to get them all done) but it was also due to Clive’s propensity for drawing a little picture on the title page for some of the female fans in the line, which usually involved the caption, “we’ll always have Paris.” And for anyone who presented an early edition of Raise the Titanic!, his breakout book, a little cartoon of that legendary ship sinking beneath the waves was Clive’s standard bonus. 

When we parted ways at the Denver airport, with Clive flying home to The Scottsdale area for some final signings and me bound for my suburban NJ home, we shook hands and Clive thanked me for showing him such a good time. “This is probably the last time you’ll see me though,”  he warned me. “I won’t be doing any more book tours. I’m too old.” I was shocked to receive that news. (At that point Clive was 68, one year older than I am now as I write this.) 

And with that he handed me one of the half dozen bottles of tequila he had been gifted at each of his tour stops, and which I had been dutifully lugging from tour stop to tour stop. “Enjoy it,” he said with a twinkle. 

I don’t remember drinking that bottle of tequila, but I do know that I went on at least ten more book tours with Clive between 2001 and 2014. They were some of the most enjoyable times of my life. Several of them included his son Dirk, a terrific guy himself. And seeing Clive interact with his hordes of fans,  who literally were age 8 to 80, taught me a valuable lesson about the power of pure storytelling.

Happy 88th, Clive! You’ll have to get your own shot of tequila today.. But put it on my account.