No profit motive in diving wrecks, his cash is in cars

It’s hard to chart the precise coordinates where fact meets fiction when it comes to best-selling author Clive Cussler: His own expeditions in search of historic lost ships rival the seagoing adventures of his fictional underwater explorer Dirk Pitt.

Cussler was the quintessential California hot rod nut growing up in suburban Los Angeles, where a love of scuba diving, cross-country road trips and dune buggy desert treks in search of lost gold mines eventually led to a fascination with mysteries of the deep.

In the mid-1960s Cussler left his successful L.A. advertising career and moved his young family to Colorado to write a snappy adventure series featuring the towering, handsome Pitt, who solves centuries-old puzzles as chief of the fictitious National Underwater and Marine Agency, or NUMA.

Ten years later, his third novel, “Raise the Titanic!” became a runaway best-seller. (It spawned a film version Cussler would just as soon forget; in fact, he vowed to never sell Dirk out again, even for the princely sum of $10 million.)

Readers were instantly hooked on Cussler’s fast-moving plots peppered with equal parts deep-sea suspense and high-seas romance. Through 19 novels, the intrepid Dirk and rotund sidekick Al Giordino have plumbed the depths of such ancient legends as Atlantis (“Atlantis Found”), the Lost City of Gold (“Inca Gold”), Viking runes (“Valhalla Rising”) and the trove of Genghis and Kublai Khan (“Treasure of Khan”).

Cussler’s success allowed him to further blur the line between fantasy and reality when, in 1979, he established his own nonprofit foundation for undersea exploration and named it “NUMA” after his fictional government agency. To date, Cussler and crew have uncovered more than 60 ships of historic significance, including the Confederate submarine Hunley, the first submarine to sink a ship in battle; the U-20 that sank the Lusitania; and the Carpathian, which braved icy waters to rescue survivors of the Titanic.

Fact and fiction continued to merge when, in later books, Cussler gave Pitt a long-lost son named Dirk Jr.; today, Cussler’s son Dirk co-writes the Pitt adventures with his 75-year-old dad. Cussler has even taken to writing himself cameo roles in his novels lately, sailing briefly in and out of scene with a nod and a wink to his readers.

And about that hot rod hobby: The house that Dirk built now includes an enviable collection of more than 90 vintage rides, from a 1918 Cadillac once owned by Florenz Ziegfeld to a 1963 Studebaker Avanti, for public viewing May to October at the Cussler Car Museum in Arvada, Colo.

Bankrate flagged down the indefatigable Cussler at his home in Phoenix for a look back at a most adventurous life.

Bankrate: Did you grow up in modest means?

Clive Cussler: We were middle class I guess. My dad was an accountant and we lived in a nice little middle-class neighborhood in Alhambra, Calif. I remember money was fairly tight. We would go on a driving vacation once a year.

Bankrate: You grew up in the waning years of the Depression, right?

Cussler: Right. I can remember when I was a little kid, we had some tar paper shacks down at the end of the street where what we called the Okies stayed until they got on their feet.

Bankrate: Were you an adventurous kid?

Clive Cussler’s cash? It’s in his cars, baby!

Cussler: Sure. I grew up with four or five other boys my age in the neighborhood. We all went through the Boy Scouts and we used to build clubhouses and dig caves and build tree houses and boats in the middle of empty lots and play pirates. We would raft in the creek where Los Angeles State College now stands, and when the farmer who owned the property would cut all the hay, we would climb these big hay bales and move the tops of the stacks around until we had a French Foreign Legion fort. We were always doing something; in the days before computers and TV we were always busy. I think those were the days when my imagination kicked into gear.

One summer, I went back and spent the summer on my uncle’s farm in Minnesota. It was the most fabulous summer I had ever spent. When I was 19, I talked a buddy of mine into packing up this old ’39 Ford hot rod we’d built and we toured the United States for three months. I guess I was always kind of doing things like that.

Bankrate: Were you an athlete?

Cussler: No. I could have been pretty good; in football, I could catch any pass they threw at me and in baseball I was a good hitter. But no, my buddies and I were more into hot rods. I spent all the time that I worked after school back into my ’36 Ford. I didn’t have time to go out for sports; cars meant more to me.

Bankrate: You enlisted and served as an aircraft mechanic in the Korean War. What was that like?

Cussler: Yeah. I put in for the motor pool because I liked to work on cars, but the sergeant said, “You don’t want that, you’ll just spend all day changing sparkplugs.” So I went to aircraft and engine school, which was far more glamorous. I became a specialist in the Pratt & Whitney R-4360, which has 28 cylinders and 56 sparkplugs. I wound up changing far more sparkplugs on that than I would have in the motor pool on a six-cylinder engine. I flew with the Military Air Transport Service, back and forth from Japan to California. We brought supplies over one way and then brought the wounded back, and God, that was awful. Those poor nurses, I don’t know how they did it.

Bankrate: Did you have hopes of becoming a pilot?

Cussler: That’s interesting. Over at Hickam (Air Force Base), my buddies and I bought this old airplane, a 1938 Luscombe, and we fixed it up, and then we hired an instructor. I was up one day — I’d had three hours of solo time and was never really at home in the air — and the thing quit, so I dead-sticked it all right down onto a road in a pineapple field and, just as the tail came down, the left gear hit a pothole and the thing made a 90-degree left-hand turn, went over a few irrigation ditches and then just slowly nosed over upside down. All it did was break the wooden prop. I remember I was sitting in there upside down cursing when all the pineapple workers came over and pulled the plane back up and onto the roadway. I backed up my car and towed it to the little airport where we kept it and sold out to the other guys. I said “That’s it, I’m done.” I never had the urge to fly and I never flew again.

Bankrate: Water was more your medium anyway.

Clive Cussler’s cash? It’s in his cars, baby!

Cussler: Yeah, eventually. When we got out of the service, a buddy of mine and I bought a gas station in L.A., and we did pretty well. I was making $240 a month pumping gas when I married my wife. We chopped up this old ’39 Mercury and put big truck tires on it and took off the doors and we would tow it out in the desert and drive around. It was one of the early dune buggies — back in 1956 — and we would look for lost gold mines and ghost towns and stuff like that. Later on, that urge — I used to say if it’s lost I’ll look for it — went over into shipwrecks.

Bankrate: You went on to become a successful advertising writer in Hollywood. What was that world like?

Cussler: Yeah, I was in it about 15 years. I never made big money at it or was a vice president or anything, but I did pretty well. I remember when I started writing fiction, I thought well, I can’t do the literary type after all those years writing short, snappy ad copy. We were living in Costa Mesa and my wife went to work for the local police department in the evenings, so I would come home and feed the kids and put them to bed and, since I had no one to talk to, I thought well, I’ll write a book. Not having a great American novel in me, and not being able to write really literary, I thought it would be fun to write a little paperback series.

Bankrate: Writers such as yourself, James Patterson, Elmore Leonard and Stuart Woods who come out of the ad game seem to have a natural knack for writing books that sell.

Cussler: Yeah. I looked at it that way. I always looked at it from the standpoint of writing for the reader, unlike some writers who write for themselves. I never did that. Even writing today, I stop and think, what would the reader like to read at this point?

Bankrate: How did Dirk Pitt enter the picture?

Cussler: I tried to be different. Before I even wrote a word, I researched all these continuing series heroes — Edgar Allen Poe’s Inspector Dupont was the first, then Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer, Travis McGee, and of course James Bond — and I thought, what can I do that’s different? So I took my hero and put him in and around water. That’s how Dirk Pitt was born.

Bankrate: He appeals equally to men and women.

Cussler: People always have an adventure in the back of their mind, but maybe for the cost or being lazy, not that many people get involved in it. I was always surprised that almost 50 percent of my readers are women. But women like adventure. They dream about it. They would love to find some adventurous guy to take them off to Tahiti. People fantasize about it. I just create and offer them fantasy that they enjoy.

Bankrate: Were you able to support yourself initially?

Cussler: No, no. I wrote evenings and weekends for the first two manuscripts, then got an agent and decided I wanted to do that full time. So since I could write anywhere, we sold the house, stored the furniture and moved from Southern California and wound up in the mountains of Colorado. I wrote a book up there for a year and a half, going through the savings, still not getting published and went back to work in advertising. Then I broke through with “Raise the Titanic!” I remember when people would congratulate me on my overnight success and I would think, yeah, 11 years from the time I wrote the first word until the breakthrough.Clive Cussler’s cash? It’s in his cars, baby!

Bankrate: How did you come to turn Pitt’s fictional employer, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, into an actual nonprofit shipwreck-hunting organization?

Cussler: One year I was looking for John Paul Jones’ ship, the Bonhomme Richard, and an attorney, one of the crew, said, “You know, if you’re going to do this kind of stuff, you should form a nonprofit foundation,” which we did to search for shipwrecks of historic significance that were believed lost and gone forever. I had some great trustees who came on board: Dr. Harold Edgerton, who invented the strobe light and side-scan sonar; Peter Throckmorton, the dean of American archeologists, and Donald Walsh, the commander who went down a record 38,000 feet in the bathysphere, Trieste. Great guys came on board, and they said, “Let’s call it the Clive Cussler Foundation, since you’re funding it,” and I said, “I’ve got an ego but it ain’t that big!” So they said they thought it would be great fun to call it NUMA, like the books. That one they outvoted me on. Yes, Virginia, there really is a NUMA.

Bankrate: You were bankrolling this from the start?

Cussler: Um-hmm, always have. I used to try to get funding but … you know, if I said I was going for treasure, sure, people would write a check. But since I said there was no return on this, they said phooey. I just gave up and funded it myself.

Bankrate: People always remember Key West treasure hunter Mel Fisher …

Cussler: Oh God, yes. I knew Mel. People thought that I belonged in a rubber room under restraint because I have never looked for treasure. When people walk into my office, they’re always amazed because I don’t even have any artifacts. I’m kind of a pariah, a weirdo in that respect, but I’m held in esteem by archeologists and scientists. I never really had anybody doing publicity. I think the only press conferences we had were when we found the Lexington and the Hunley. I did hold one when I failed on the Merrimack, mostly to say we failed and why, so that somebody 200 years later wouldn’t waste their time looking for it, because it was hopeless.

Bankrate: You published “Raise the Titanic!” well before they found the Titanic, right?

Cussler: Oh, way before; Robert Ballard found the Titanic in 1985 and the book came out in 1975. In fact, the movie of the book came out in 1980.

Bankrate: Would you have liked to have been a part of that discovery?

Cussler: Yes and no. I thought it was fascinating, but since then, I’ve been invited to go down but I just didn’t. I used to tell them I’m so sick of the Titanic I can’t see straight. The History Channel is still going on about the secrets of the Titanic and all this crap. They’ve overdone it. I was amazed when we found the Carpathian, there was very little play on that. And that’s a wonderful story, how it responded to save the 700 Titanic survivors. I researched it and found that it had been torpedoed in World War I off Ireland, so we went after it, and after three tries, we found it. All the information goes over to the state or federal government or universities, places like that.

Clive Cussler’s cash? It’s in his cars, baby!

Bankrate: You’ve put so much money into this pursuit over the years. Have you gotten any money out of it?

Cussler: I suppose you could say I did. I did write a couple of nonfiction books on the shipwrecks, but I never went into it with any profit motive at all. As far as the wrecks and everything else, no — that’s money that’s gone. There’s no return on it.

Bankrate: Of course, your novels have done very well. Has NUMA been your primary investment?

Cussler: No, it would be automobiles. Before “Raise the Titanic!” hit, I was driving through the country one day with my wife and she pointed out a 1946 Ford Club Coupe like I had in high school that was for sale in front of a farm. So I went back, checked it out and bought it and drove it home. My son and I actually restored it out in the street because we didn’t have room in the garage. It’s the first car in the collection. So when “Titanic” hit, I started collecting in earnest.

Bankrate: How do you go about acquiring vintage cars?

Cussler: I have a woman broker. If I’m interested in a particular car, she’ll look for it. And then I go to the auctions. I just got back from the Otis Chandler collection auction in Oxnard, Calif. He owned the L.A. Times and he was a big collector.

Bankrate: What’s the size of your collection now?

Cussler: I think at last count it was about 94 or 95. I have them warehoused in Arvada, Colo. My daughter has turned it into a museum. It’s open to the public from May to October. I’m doing a car book on the collection so the crew is starting them and driving them around.

Bankrate: What are your plans for that collection?

Cussler: That’s the kids’. It belongs to them. The IRS had it appraised and we paid the gift tax and they own it now. That was some years back. I still buy a car now and then.

Bankrate: Do you handle your own finances?

Cussler: I was very fortunate, my son, Dirk, got his Bachelor of Science in business and worked at the General Accounting Office for two years, then went to Berkeley and got his M.B.A., then worked for Motorola for 13 years. He’s a financial analyst. Then he decided he wanted to write. He’s working on his third Pitt book now. He handles most of my business, and then I have a tax attorney and an accountant. Dana works on any kind of PR for the books and Teri works on the car museum and handles all of my personal finances. It works out very well.

Bankrate: What’s your next adventure?

Cussler: We’re looking for a lost airliner in Lake Michigan. It went down in 1955 with a hundred and some people on board. And we’ll go back next summer and look for the Bonhomme Richard. I’ve always said if I can find two wrecks I’d be happy; one would be the Hunley and the other would be the Richard. I’m halfway there.