When Bookworks, one of the truly great indy bookstores in my city, contacted me about a possible interview with Dirk Cussler, I jumped at the opportunity. I was fascinated with the idea of learning how Dirk started working with his legendary father, Clive Cussler, and how the two them could keep coming up with their action-packed plots — that span continents and centuries — for all these years. I also liked that my Albuquerque readers will have the chance to meet Dirk and Clive this Wednesday night.
Tell us about the new book Crescent Dawn.
As with most of the Pitt books, a historical element provided inspiration for the story. In this case, there were actually two events. I became interested in the loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire, a British cruiser that sank under mysterious circumstances in World War I, while transporting Lord Kitchener to a secret meeting with the Russian Czar. Dozens of rumors and theories abounded after the sinking, including speculation that the ship was sunk by the IRA or even the British government, rather than a suspected German U-boat. It all seemed to me like good fodder for a fictional sub-plot. At the same time, Clive was intrigued by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who traveled to Jerusalem in 327 A.D. to search for relics of Christianity. The trick was then to tie the two events into a contemporary-staged thriller.
What inspired you to start writing with your father?
About eight years ago, I quit my job in the tech industry, where I’d worked in corporate finance for almost 15 years. Kicking around to do something different, and with the writer’s bug nibbling at my extremities, I teamed up on a writing project with Craig Dirgo. Dirgo had co-written the two Sea Hunters books with Clive, which were non-fiction accounts of several of the NUMA shipwreck expeditions. Dirgo had also worked with us on a few of the actual searches. So he and I started working on a non-fiction historical book we hoped might lead to a series project . . . but ultimately went nowhere.
About that same time, Clive was working to finish Trojan Odyssey. He was 71 and supporting my mother, who was battling lung cancer. That made for a weary time, and I think he lost his passion for writing a bit. Seeing that I had a sincere interest in writing at that point, he called me up out of the blue one day and asked me if I wanted to take a crack at writing a Pitt novel. It was a proposition I never anticipated, but I eagerly jumped in with both feet. I never expected to be writing the Pitt books, but having essentially grown up with the series, and having a little extra insight on their creator, it’s been a completely fun experience. My father and I have a strong relationship, so it is of course quite rewarding to be able to work together with him, even if it did come a bit late in both our professional lives.
How do the two of you work together?
As fortune has it, my father and I only live about ten minutes apart in the Phoenix area, so we see each other several times a week, whether writing or not. We actually work separately, but meet often to discuss the current book’s progress.
What’s the division of labor?
Most of our joint work is at the front end. We’ll meet together regularly over the course of several weeks to kick around plot ideas and then hash out an outline. Once that is set, then I’ll go off and do the bulk of the actual writing, with my father editing along the way. I would say the challenges of working together are few, beyond the normal struggles of writing a book. It’s a real pleasure picking the brains of my father, however, as his creativity seems to have no bounds.
What do you think are the essential elements of good storytelling?
I might say that the three C’s of Character, Conflict, and Compulsion are at the heart of any good story. Writing action adventure tales, we don’t necessarily delve too deeply into the psyche of the characters, but it’s always important that the reader can empathize with one or more of the main figures. Some measure of action is required, typically driven by a conflict or odyssey of some sort that leads the characters forward, either physically or mentally. And it all must be done in a compelling manner that keeps the reader turning the pages, be it by mood, dialogue, style elements, or the conflict or action itself.
What’s up next? Any solo writing?
Clive and I have already been formulating some plot lines for the next Dirk Pitt book, so I expect to begin writing on that shortly. I haven’t yet found the time to complete a solo novel…but some day!
What’s going on with the real NUMA right now?
We’re currently involved with two ongoing NUMA search projects, one in Lake Michigan and one in the North Sea. We’ve been searching in Lake Michigan for a Northwest Airlines DC-4 that crashed in a thunderstorm back in 1950, and represented the worst air fatality accident at the time. In the North Sea, we are also trying to locate the Bonhomme Richard, the flagship of John Paul Jones which sank after battling a British squadron in 1779. We’ve spent several unsuccessful years looking for this one, but hope to try again next summer.
Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. I look forward to reading your — and your father’s — books for many years to come.
Dirk Cussler, an MBA from Berkeley, worked for many years in the financial arena, and now devotes himself full-time to writing. He is the coauthor with Clive Cussler of Black Wind, Treasure of Khan, and Arctic Drift. For the past several years, he has been an active participant and partner in his father’s NUMA expeditions and has served as president of the NUMA advisory board of trustees. He lives in Arizona.
Clive Cussler is the author of forty-two previous books, including twenty Dirk Pitt® adventures; eight NUMA® Files adventures; seven Oregon Files books; and two Isaac Bell thrillers. His most recent New York Times bestsellers are Spartan Gold, The Wrecker, and The Silent Sea. His nonfiction works include The Sea Hunters and The Sea Hunters II; these describe the true adventures of the real NUMA, which, led by Cussler, searches for lost ships of historic significance. With his crew of volunteers, Cussler has discovered more than sixty ships, including the long-lost Confederate submarine Hunley. He lives in Arizona.
(I’ll be out of pocket much of the day today, but will respond to comments as soon as I can this afternoon. In the meantime . . . enjoy!