Tom Clancy Tribute: Co-Author Reveals the Guts of the Master's Books
The late Tom Clancy became famous as a writer of military thrillers with his first novel, "The Hunt for Red October"--later made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin--and went on to write many more bestselling books about Cold War espionage, the CIA and special ops in contemporary wars. Clancy often employed the help of co-authors, one of whom, Jerome Preisler, got a call out of the blue one day in 1997 asking if he wanted to be the writer for Clancy's newest project, "Power Plays." Eight Tom Clancy novels later, Preisler's life had changed irrevocably. Here, Preisler takes us behind the scenes into the high stakes and secret access of writing a Tom Clancy series. As Preisler says, there was "no wiggle room."
It started with a couple of phone conversations that left me wondering what I'd gotten myself into.
The first call from my publisher came sometime in the summer of 1997. Tom Clancy had developed an online strategy game called "Politika" about Russian politics after the death of then-president Boris Yeltsin. I was asked if was interested in writing an accompanying book that would be part player's manual, part Russian travel guide. I'd have maybe six months to do it.
"Sure!" I said, having no clue whether I could pull it off. The caller said he'd get back to me.
Weeks passed without any news. Then, after Labor Day, my phone rang again.
"Things have changed. Tom wants a series of novels called "Power Plays." The first title will be "Politika." There'll be a mini-CD packaged with each copy of the book. This represents a major investment. A lot would rest on your shoulders. Want it?"
"Sure!" I said, and gulped.
"Great. And one more thing. Book's due in six weeks. Minimum length: 110,000 words. Though we can deal with 90,000. We'll send you the series bible, do whatever you want with it."
I hung up with my heart in my throat. It was the career opportunity of a lifetime. But it was also terrifying. Six weeks. Whatever happened to six months?
Many pots of coffee later, I made the deadline. "Politika" was delivered in October. In November it hit the stands. The initial print run of 1,000,000 copies was a sellout. It spent 10 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
I doubt any of my previous books ever sold more than 2,000 copies. Big difference.
Our "Power Plays" series ran for eight books. I learned research skills by necessity. The combat tactics, weapons info and geopolitical information had to be spot-on. Thankfully, Tom's imprimatur guaranteed incredible access. I contacted the naval base in Brunswick, Maine to ask for a tour of certain restricted areas. They'd never given me the time of day before. Mentioning Tom got me an enthusiastic: "Sure!"
Where had I heard that before?
It was daunting to co-author a Tom Clancy series. The expectations challenged me as a writer, making me raise my game to a new level. I had to be more disciplined than ever about my work schedule; after the first book was turned in, I would have approximately 10 months to plot, research and write each novel. The deadline left no wiggle room--my publisher had pre-sold the books to retailers as holiday releases. Nor was there room for error when it came to the factual details of technology, ballistics and geography. When I wrote "Bio-Strike," for instance, I consulted with polymer engineers and geneticists to design a newfangled biological weapon that that would be scientifically feasible. And then there was the more routine stuff of which action thrillers are made. How does a human body react when hit with a bullet of a particular caliber, at a given distance, striking at a particular angle? I had to find out--call a cop, a forensic pathologist or a trauma room doctor. Winging it wasn't an option.
I also remember having to avoid using one or two American cities for my locales. I won't say which ones here. Nor can I say why--no one would ever give me a reason. It just came down to me from Tom. "Change the city! You can move the action north or south in the same stage, but change it!"
No big deal, I'll move it over. Ahem. I'd only choreographed an entire action scene using precise details relating to City A, including a chase through a famous park and zoo.
But, to paraphrase the old Jackie Gleason tagline, how sweet it was to hear Tom Clancy was pleased with my work.
Rest in peace, Tom. Semper Fi. And thank you.
Jerome Preisler is the New York Times bestselling author of over 30 novels and nonfiction titles, including "Code Name Caesar: The Secret Hunt for U-boat 864 During World War II." His latest book is "Daniel's Music: One Family's Journey from Tragedy to Empowerment through Faith, Medicine, and the Healing Power of Music."