Arts and Culture

Colorado and the Cusslers: An Ongoing Literary Legacy

The jacket photo for the new Cussler book Celtic Empire.
The jacket photo for the new Cussler book Celtic Empire. Rob Greer
Clive Cussler and his son, Dirk, had a system for writing books together. They’d first meet up to formulate a plot. Then Dirk would write in Colorado, where the Cusslers have long had a foothold. Clive would assess his son’s chapters from his home in Arizona, and the process would progress digitally for the most part…until the last page was written. That’s when Clive would fly to Colorado to meet Dirk, and the two of them would select a car from the Cussler Museum in Arvada to ride around in, celebrate, and take a photo for the book jacket.

Clive passed away earlier this year, but not before making his mark on both the literary world and Colorado. The popular classic car museum is only part of that. Cussler was also part of the inaugural group of honorees for the Colorado Authors Hall of Fame in 2019. His favorite bar was Shaner’s, which used to sling drinks on 17th Street back when Clive worked in advertising in downtown Denver. Later, he lived in Telluride with his wife, and loved life there as well.

“Arguably my father’s best work was written while he lived in Colorado, so it certainly spurred his creativity,” says Dirk. “He loved the beauty of the mountains and the rugged history of the state, particularly the early mining stories in places like Leadville and Silverton. I can easily picture him as a mountain prospector, had he lived 150 years ago. And certainly one of his favorite scenes from all his books takes place in Colorado, where he has Dirk Pitt drive a Duesenberg down the ski slopes of Breckenridge.”

A love for both cars and literature came naturally to Clive, who grew up in Southern California, “in the heart of the early hot rod culture," says Dirk. "He saved every nickel and dime he could while in the Air Force during the Korean War so he could buy a Jaguar roadster when he was discharged. There was always an interesting car in our driveway growing up, and when his books began to sell, he promptly started to collect classic cars from the 1930s.”

Clive was especially drawn to designer town cars owned by the wealthy. When Cussler’s collection grew to a certain point, the family made the decision to open it up to the public so that these pieces of automotive art could be admired, and secured a spot at 14959 West 69th Avenue in Arvada. (The museum is currently closed because of the coronavirus crisis.)

But the cars were still secondary to the Cussler family’s love of a good yarn; the Dirk Pitt series is nearing the half-century mark, starting off with the 1973 novel The Mediterranean Caper. And yes, Dirk Pitt was named after Dirk Cussler, so it only makes sense that the real-world Dirk would come to write about the fictional Dirk.

“I was nearly out of high school by the time [the] books became popular, so there was no permanent psychological impairment,” says Dirk. “My father really modeled the character after himself, so that’s who I think of when I see the name.”

Millions of fans worldwide would agree with that sentiment. Clive Cussler made quite a career on the stories of Dirk Pitt, the most recent being Celtic Empire, the 25th in the series and a finalist for this year’s Colorado Book Awards. Dirk will be one of several authors doing a Zoom reading and Q&A this Friday, April 24, for exactly that reason.

click to enlarge The jacket photo for the new Cussler book Celtic Empire. - G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS
The jacket photo for the new Cussler book Celtic Empire.
G.P. Putnam's Sons
“Like most of the books in the series, the spark for the plot came from a historical tale,” says Dirk. “The legends of early Ireland describe a tribe of ancient warriors called the Scottis, who conquered the Emerald Isle and later migrated to Scotland. The tribe took its name from their matriarch, a woman named Scota, who was allegedly the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh. It sounds a bit bizarre, an Egyptian princess conquering Ireland thousands of years ago, but the legend is actually told in the early histories of Ireland. So we created a hunt for the ancient princess in Britain in order to save the world from a deadly scourge, and tried to have fun with it from there.”

Fortunately for fans, Celtic Empire won’t be the last literary collaboration between the Cussler father and son. Before Clive passed, he and Dirk were working on the next book, The Devil’s Sea, which Dirk says should see print later this year.

“Books are more important than ever as an alternate way of staying connected to each other,” Dirk says. “While the world has seemingly come to a sudden standstill, we still crave shared stories. What better way to escape from the current reality than by reading a good book?”

Dirk Cussler will be one of several authors participating in the Colorado Book Award finalist readings at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 24. For Zoom access and more information, see the Colorado Humanities website. 
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen