Tom Clancy died today. He was 66 years old.
He might not seem like a likely influence for a writer like me, but I'm here to tell you that he was. Kind of a big influence, actually.
I first read Clancy's The Hunt for Red October flying out to Wisconsin as a college freshman. I flew out to school alone, with little more than a backpack and a suitcase (I've told many people how I arrived at my dorm without a pillow, believing in some odd way that they'd have pillows for us).
I started reading Red October in the terminal waiting to board. I read most of the way on the plane -- this was in 1991, and e-books were little more than a twinkle in some science fiction writers' eyes.
I got to my room, realized just how dumb I was, pillow-wise, and after heading down to search for a store where I could buy one, resumed reading.
This was a hell of a book. I'd read military thrillers before. Clive Cussler was big with my father, and he and I would devour Dirk Pitt's adventures, but Tom Clancy was a new one for me.
I sat reading on my unmade bed, leaning against my brand new pillow (which I still have somewhere), and might well have spent my entire first night at school in that fashion if one of my neighbors hadn't come knocking on my door. There was a party happening in the suite on the corner, would I like to come?
I didn't give it much thought -- the book would still be there in the morning -- and that party led pretty directly to meeting a good number of people I spent the next four years being friends with.
And -- listen -- I'm not going to tell you I spent the whole night pining away for that book. Because I didn't. And just like that I'd made some new friends, which led to some more new friends. I finished Red October a day or two later -- fully engrossed while I was reading it -- but that's not what stuck with me.
It's the first book I read heading out into the world as a burgeoning adult. That it's a great book is somehow secondary; that book brought me to college.
I picked up Red October again last year. This was during the editing of The Seven Markets and I grabbed it for the Kindle, thinking it might be nice to revisit the book. I might have watched the movie a month or so before; I can't remember exactly.
Here's what I do remember:
There's a sequence of events in the book where Clancy describes what the Russian sailors, evacuating their submarine, would now go through after being rescued by an American ship. Their interrogations. The offers to remain in the US, if they liked. The hardships they'd face upon returning to the (then) Soviet Union.
Was this detail necessary to the story? Not in the least. But the details really stuck with me. They struck a cord in my mind about another book I'd been tossing around in my head (and which I'm hoping to begin working on in 2014), Painted Ocean.
Ocean is nothing like a book Clancy would have written, but I'll still owe him a debt. A lot of my main character was created as I considered what those Russian submariners would go through before they found themselves settled and on dry land again.
I can't explain it more than that because, right now, this moment, my main character, Simon Cole, only exists in my head and in the notes I've written about him. But when I do get to tell his story, some of his DNA is going to come from Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October, and that bit he wrote about the Russian sailors and the hardships they would now face.
Thank you, Tom. Thank you and good sailing.