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Remembering Tom Clancy, 66, blockbuster novelist of high-tech spy thrillers

October 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Best-selling author Tom Clancy has died in Baltimore at the age of 66. His espionage novels ushered in a new genre of military thrillers and spawned successful films. What made Clancy's books so popular? Gwen Ifill talks to NPR book commentator Alan Cheuse about the late author's characters and strong imagination.
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GWEN IFILL: Author and novelist Alan Cheuse joins us. He’s an English professor at George Mason University and a book commentator for NPR.

Welcome.

ALAN CHEUSE, NPR: Thanks.

GWEN IFILL: What was it about Tom Clancy that captured the poplar imagination? That’s an amazing number of books to sell.

ALAN CHEUSE: I think he created a character, particularly in Jack Ryan, that people could associate themselves with. We were in this mess after the Cold War.

We’re fighting small wars all around the world. And Ryan is the kind of guy that people would like to think they might be if they were in those situations.

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GWEN IFILL: Except that he didn’t just create a character. He also created — he took you inside. He was a military an intelligence expert, but he was really just an insurance salesman.

ALAN CHEUSE: Right. Well, he has a wonderful imagination, and he created a world that — well, he brought together the old hero, the traditional hero, a good guy who wants to help make the world work better. He wants to set things right.

And he also — by doing all this research and becoming friends with all these technological wonders and military hardware people, he made that old heroic world familiar and contemporary and showed an ancient hero fighting a new — on a new front.

GWEN IFILL: A series of new threats.

ALAN CHEUSE: A series, yes, in that way. There’s a Jack Ryan family saga. His son is now in the last novel — that came out a couple years ago, “Locked On,” he — the son is fighting battles that the father used to fight, and the father’s running for president again.

GWEN IFILL: So it seems like authenticity, however, having those details right, they were the coin of his realm.

ALAN CHEUSE: Well, he didn’t have a lot of critics, as far as I know, from inside these agencies that complained about him. They loved his work, because I think he made them known as much as they could be known, because a lot of the work is secret, to the general public.

GWEN IFILL: What did his success do for the publishing industry? Were there a lot of copycats?

ALAN CHEUSE: Well, he did spawn a whole series of would-be novelists like himself, some OK, some not-so-OK.

He created a school, like Rembrandt, within his own industry, because he — if he had written as much as the publishers wanted him to write, he wouldn’t be alive as long as he did live. He would have died. He would have been typing until midnight every night. So he had people come in and work on books with him.

GWEN IFILL: it’s kind of like the Jack — Tom Clancy factory?

ALAN CHEUSE: Yes. Well, I think of it as a Rembrandt studio. He’s a wonderful artist in his own right.

GWEN IFILL: And, in its way, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery in this case?

ALAN CHEUSE: Yes.

And then there’s a new generation of writers, too, who — people who learned from him and learned that there’s a tremendous public appeal to writing about military in a serious way.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and, Alan Cheuse, thank you for filling us in.

ALAN CHEUSE: Pleasure.