Techno-Thriller King Tom Clancy

He was an obscure insurance agent in rural Maryland, who wrote a Cold War-era thriller that caught the attention of then-President Ronald Reagan.

“The Hunt for Red October” took off, and launched its author, Tom Clancy, on a career that made him a household name.

The first of my nine interviews with Tom Clancy took place in the summer of 1987, when being a bestselling author was still a bit new and exciting to him.

“Fundamentally, you write .. most writers, I think, really write for themselves. I write the kind of book that I like to read. I turn out the very best product that I know how to turn out, and if other people like it, fine. But mainly I have to please myself. The only review that really matters is when one citizen coughs up nineteen dollars and 95 cents and buys the book.”

Tom Clancy is one of the two or three authors people always ask me if I’ve ever interviewed.,Our talk that day in 1987 about “Patriot Games,” his third book, was my introduction to a man who was already being pigeonholed as a particular kind of author, one who could write convincingly about high-tech weaponry, perhaps, but not so much about people. Clancy bristled a bit when I brought it up.

Now, when you’re writing about submarines or airplanes, you have to describe what those people do for a living, and what those people do for a living is to use technology as a tool to further their mission. And in this particular case, there’s no such thing as a high tech machine gun, so I describe the machine gun the way it is, and go on from there. But, really, people make too much of this technological stuff. All writing is about people, not machines. Machines are just tools.”

Tom Clancy always took pride in the authoritativeness of his secret sources, the people in-the-know who he said were more than happy to assist him in getting not just the technical details right, but the political and human details, too.

I’ve interviewed people at the top of intelligence and security agencies from more than one country. I’ve come to the conclusion these people believe what they say, and the reason I came to that conclusion is quite simple: I don’t think a man or woman will risk his or her life for something he or she does not believe in.

“And these people are not .. you’re not an FBI agent for the money. You’re not a CIA officer for the money. You’re in that business because you happen to believe in it. If you wanted to make money, you could sell real estate and do better. People with the degree of intelligence that these guys have could do quite well in the ‘real world’ — they don’t have to be where they are. I have to believe that they do it because they believe in it, just as a fireman runs into a burning building because he believes that what he’s doing has value.”

BT: This being your third book, do you still have people come up to you and say, ‘Who’s this character, really?’

I get that all the time. People just don’t want to believe that an ordinary country insurance agent can get the kind of information I get. In a way, it’s amusing, and in another way it’s annoying, ’cause the information’s all out there, you just have to know where to look for it. That’s the amusing part — the annoying part is a lot of people think that I was given this information, or people have been giving me classified data of one kind or another for some years. Well, the fact of the matter is, that’s not true — I have never been exposed to classified material, to the best of my knowledge. And why can’t people just give me credit for being intelligent?”

BT: Please set modesty aside for a moment and tell me, what you have that other writers don’t.

“I have no idea, except maybe a lot of luck. I sit down and plug my words together, uh, and I try to tell a story. Now, whether I do that better or worse than anyone else is for the public to judge, not for me. I do the very best I can, and if people like it, so much the better.”

BT: Why do you like to write?

“Because it’s fun! It’s also terrible. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Sometimes it’s like digging a hole in the dirt, and other times it’s like driving a sports car. Sometimes it goes very well, sometimes it does not go so well. Writing is the only way I know that you can create your own little world and run it the way you want. It’s kind of like being God, in that respect. Fundamentally, writing is the most enjoyable activity I’ve ever come across. In retrospect, you even enjoy the bad parts. But I do not have the ability to express how much fun it is, to write a book.”

BT: What do you do to celebrate, when you finish a book?

“I take the family to Disney World. I do that for several reasons — first of all, because I like going there myself, and I would go there even if I didn’t have four kids. And secondly, sort of to reward the kids for taking good care of me, because in the last month before deadline, I’m usually not a terribly nice person to be around.”

In later years, it became, frankly, more difficult to interview Tom Clancy, as he became more impatient with my questions, a bit condescending in his answers, and generally more irascible.

Maybe at that point he’d stopped going to Disney World?

Da Bears: Stan & Jan Berenstain

If you’re of a certain age, and I mention a cartoon family of bears — Papa, Mama, Sister, Brother, Honey — you know I’m talking about the Berenstain Bears.

Stan and Jan Berenstain entertained and delighted children — and their parents — for generations, until their passing a few years ago.

I met the Berenstains in 2003, and I’m delighted to be able to tell you that they were every bit as humble, gentle, and good-humored as the characters that millions have grown to cherish.

We have a rhyme that we use: ‘A little bit furrier about the torso, but just like people, only moreso.’ And that’s what kids respond to. They see themselves and their moms and their dads in our books. We didn’t plan it that way, but that’s just how it worked out.”

Stan and Jan Berenstain published their first Berenstain Bears book when John F. Kennedy was president, 1962. By the time I met them, they had published nearly 300 books.

BT: Did you ever wish you had done frogs, or turtles, or rabbits instead of bears?

Stan: “Never once. A kid once said, why did you do bears? And we said, well, they sort of stand up and they dress ’em up in clothes in circuses. And he said, why didn’t you do monkeys? I said, they’re too much like people. Why didn’t you do fish? And it went on like that.”

Jan: “It’s fun to draw bears, too. They stand up,and they can be very human-looking. At least, when we draw them, they have human facial expressions.”

BT: The kids that you are writing for now are different from the kids you were writing for when I was a kid and reading you for the first time.

Stan: “Sure. Funny thing is, we’ve forgotten some of the more basic questions and issues. We’re just doing a book about bedtime. You’d think that would be the first thing we’d do. It’s called ‘The Bedtime Battle.’ And we’re just going to do a book about chores. We thought we’d used up all the basic subjects, but apparently… Jan says there’s no end to first-time inexperience.”

Jan: “First-time experiences. Life is a series of first-time experiences. Like, I locked myself out of the house for the first time recently. Now, can we do a kids’ book about getting locked out of the house? A little bit scary…”

Stan: “Some kids would like it, they’d like getting locked out.”

BT: Do you get ideas for books from fans, from kids?

Stan: “Yes! We got one just the other day called, ‘Mama’s Bad Day.'”

BT: Oh, I can see where that’s going!

Stan: “Some of them, though, are wonderfully interesting but not very practical: ‘The Berenstain Bears Go To Las Vegas And Break The Bank.’ That’s a real one. ‘The Berenstain Bears Learn To Do Karate And Beat Up All The Bullies In The World.’ We get a lot of those.”

BT: Are you able to deal with topics like that? Can you reassure smaller children?

Stan: “It’s difficult. We wanted to do a book about bullies, it’s such an omnipresent, perpetual problem, but we couldn’t think of how to do it. And then Jan or I or [our son] Michael or somebody thought of the idea of a girl bully, which isn’t quite as threatening, beating up Sister Bear. So when Brother Bear goes to protect her, he can’t hit a girl.

“The subject is there, and the principles are there. but it’s a difficult subject.”

In 2002, the Berenstains turned over authorship of some of their books to their son Michael. Stan died in 2005 at age 82. When Jan Berenstain died in 2012 at age 89, Michael took over full authorship — and today the Berenstain Bears live on.

Reluctant Heroine Rosa Parks

Most of us will live our entire lives without ever doing anything significant enough for the entire nation to pay attention to. Fewer still will be remembered by generations for decades to come. Only a handful will be so revered they have schools named after them, and a postage stamp in their honor.

One of those who has become such an icon is Rosa Parks, whose simple but profound act of civil disobedience in December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama lit a fire under the civil rights movement and helped propel a young preacher named King to his national prominence.

And even though I only got to speak with her on the phone in early 1992, I was nervous and excited…

The day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman would change American history in a way no one could have foreseen.

But today Rosa Parks is, for many, a distant figure in American history. But that day in 1992 she took time to speak with me about a new book she’d just written, for young people, to remind them that the history wasn’t all that distant after all.

“I had no idea that I was starting anything at all, other than to just let the people who had legally enforced racial segregation, to let them know that I was not pleased with that, as a person, and we as a people are not pleased with it. Plus it had the burden of humiliation and oppression…”

Source, Fair use,

In the way that we often compartmentalize people, some people seemed to think her life began with the bus boycott.

Some people seem to have that idea. So much of my activity .. none of my activity in my early life has been publicized.”

BT: You really led .. for many, many years you have been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights, the fight for equal rights.


BT: Have you accomplished the things you had set out to accomplish?

Some things have been accomplished, but as long as we have any kind of discrimination, I feel that all has not been accomplished and we have much more to do.”

The Montgomery bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks’ arrest helped propel the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the leadership role that quickly transformed him into a national figure, fighting for civil rights.

BT: Do you remember the first time you met Martin Luther King Jr?

“Yes, I do. It was in August of 1955, shortly after he had come into Montgomery to be pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and one of his deacons, who was an official of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP invited him to come to the meetings.

“He was very youthful, and I was surprised that such a young person was pastor of that church, a very prestigious church in Montgomery. He was quite friendly and he was very eloquent when he spoke a few minutes to us about conditions that concerned him and should concern all of us…”

BT: Over the years, what has been your biggest challenge?

I’ve had many challenges. Trying to help other people who were in trouble and having problems that were just insurmountable, especially trying to work in the system such as we had in Montgomery, where the courts were so unfair.

I can think of the Scottsburg case of Alabama, and there are many individual cases that were not publicized that I’ve worked on, when I was a secretary for the NAACP.”

Of course, one of the biggest challenges when interviewing a figure as prominent as a Rosa Parks is, what do you ask her that she hasn’t been asked a million times before?

So I asked her if there was one question she’s been asked a million times before:

I think the question is, why did I do what I did on that particular day and just that day? Many people seem to think it was something that was not my usual way of conducting myself.

“However, that day was different from any other day. What made it very significant was after people learned I had been arrested, they unified themselves and made that incident a one-day, spontaneous protest on December 5th. And then, of course, following that success it went on into a protest that lasted more than a year, 381 days, to be exact.”

BT: I guess the time must have just been right,the circumstances must have just been right, for for everything to come together,…

“I think that must have been.”

Rosa Parks died in 2005, at age 92. On her birthday in 2013, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a postage stamp honoring her.