On February 27, as I was reading the New York Times obituary of Clive Cussler, a few words drew me up short: “His books reached the New York Times’s bestseller lists more than 20 times.” I cast my eyes heavenward and asked Clive to please forgive them. It was actually more than 70 times. I know, because I was his editor for about 50 of them.
Nobody could write adventure novels the way Clive could—those heady mixtures of history, technology, exotic locales, and astonishing set pieces in which heroes raced against the clock to defeat the plans of men hungry for money, power, and domination. The writing wasn’t fancy (his inscription to me in the first book we did together, 1999’s Atlantis Found, was, “With deep appreciation for making me literate. Nice try.”), but it was enormously effective—swift, lean, propulsive, and a blast to read, just the way his readers liked it.
Clive knew it, too. By the time he came to us at Putnam, he’d already had a few publishers and nearly a dozen bestsellers, beginning with Raise the Titanic!, and we organized a lunch in New York City for him to meet a few more members of our team. (I’d already met him earlier, when my boss and I flew out to Scottsdale, Ariz., to introduce ourselves.) I was seated next to him, and he leaned over to tell me a story.
The last time he’d switched publishers, he said, it was to a major house with a justly famed editor. When Clive turned in his first manuscript, however, it came back heavily revised—pencil marks all over the pages. This did not please Clive. He took the manuscript and, on the top of the first page, he wrote one word: stet. Nothing more. And then he wrote the same word on the top of every page in the entire manuscript. And then he sent it all back. A couple of days later—as he told it to me—he got a panicked call from the editor asking him to come to the house’s New York office to talk. Clive declined, stating that “it would be... inconvenient.” That book was published the way he wrote it.
Now, I know that Clive could not possibly have had any ulterior agenda in telling me that story, but even so, in the 18 years we worked together, I was always very careful to make sure that Clive’s books were published just the way he wanted them.
He made sure that was the case with his co-writers, too. Just before he came to Putnam, Clive had experimented with writing a spin-off series with a cowriter, and he liked it so much that he went on to create three more new series, all with cowriters. He kept a firm hand on them all, though. He and the collaborators came up with the plots together, then they sent him the manuscripts in thirds. With each third, he gave them thoughts, corrections, and suggestions, and whenever the writers want astray, he hauled them back in or just rewrote the pages himself. If it happened too often, he’d thank the writer for their time and find someone else. He knew what his fans liked—and he was always right.
In 2009, four of those cowriters held a roast of Clive at Thrillerfest, and they all got off some gently amusing digs at him. I had the honor of being master of ceremonies and told some stories of my own, not only about Clive but about the writers themselves. (“Let’s be honest,” I said. “How roasty is it going to be? The man sends them paychecks. You can see them now, thinking, Do I want to say that line—or do I want to eat today?”)
It all went over well, and when we were done, and Clive had had a chance to get in some digs of his own, I had the opportunity to say a few closing words. I decided to quote something Clive himself said, from an interview he gave for the book Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed.
“I’ve always considered myself an entertainer rather than a writer,” he said. “Many writers try to cram their stories down readers’ throats. Others try to get their stories across on philosophy, or the environment or anarchy in the streets of Copenhagen. I feel my job is to entertain the readers in such a manner that when they reach the end, they feel they got their money’s worth. No message, no inspirational passages, no political ideology, just old-fashioned enjoyment. If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing.”
So thank you, Clive, for so many books and so many stories—and so many years of great fun. I treasure them all.
Neil Nyren joined Putnam in 1984, was made editor-in-chief in 1986, and retired as executive v-p, associate publisher, and editor-in-chief at the end of 2017.