09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
GINGERLY SHIFTING HIS 6'3" FRAME on the living-room sofa, Clive Cussler just can't get comfortable. He puts the blame on a pinched nerve in his back suffered during a recent trip to a Denver amusement park with his two grandchildren. "I shouldn't have ridden all those roller coasters," he confesses—but in a tone that suggests he'd do the very same thing tomorrow. No less than you'd expect from someone who bungee-jumped for the first time on his 60th birthday last year and leads diving expeditions to find historic shipwrecks. And someone who, despite the steely hair and slight paunch, bears a striking resemblance to a certain hero whose escapades Cussler chronicles in his best-selling novels.
Over the course of 11 books, including Raise the Titanic and Treasure, some 60 million armchair adventurers around the globe have joined Cussler and his alter ego, Dirk Pitt (who happens to be 6'3" and an avid scuba diver). Their latest excursion, Sahara, reached No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly list within a month of its appearance early this summer and is still hovering at the top. "A sizzling yet thoughtful thriller," raved the Chicago Tribune's Richard Martin, who called it "a cram course in rip-roaring action that's also rich in history, geography and science." The book's appeal is as old-fashioned as its hero. "By today's standards, Pitt is corny," says Cussler. "He still helps old ladies across the street. He always wins.... He's the guy with the white hat who rides into town, shoots the villains and rides off into the sunset."
Right now daylight shimmers through the sliding glass doors of his mountainside retreat near Golden, Colo., illuminating a grand panorama. It's the same inspiring view of the Rockies that Cussler sees from the downstairs office where he slowly spins out—each book takes up to two years to complete—the trademark plots he laughingly calls "horribly convoluted." Sahara, for instance, opens with a Civil War naval battle, jumps to a desert plane crash during the mid-'30s, then joins Pitt on the same African sands 40 years later as he hunts the source of the toxic red tides that are poisoning the oceans. "There's no literary merit in my books," says Cussler. "I'm writing for entertainment. I like people to reach the end and feel they got their money's worth."
The only child of a homemaker and a German-born accountant, Cussler grew up in Alhambra, Calif. At home he devoured six books a week, but his motivation ended at the classroom door. "I was the kid who stared out the window," he recalls. "I fantasized myself on the deck of pirate ships—Cussler at the bridge." He did make it to Pasadena City College, then dropped out to enlist in the Air Force during the Korean War. He longed to see combat but was stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to scuba dive between supply missions throughout the Pacific.
In 1954 he and a friend bought a Mobil gas station in East Los Angeles. Cussler's successful sales promotions at the station got him interested in a new career—advertising. By the early '60s he was creative director of the high-powered D'Arcy advertising agency in L.A. Wanting to write something besides ad copy, he hit on the idea of an adventure series. "When I started out," he remembers, "people in publishing would say, 'Don't waste your time. Nobody buys adventure.' " His third book, the best-selling Raise the Titanic, proved them wrong. After that, his popularity grew to the point where, he says laughingly, "I'm considered the 'old daddy of adventure.' "
Over the years Cussler has had two love affairs. One was with Barbara Knight, an art student he met after coming home to Alhambra from boot camp. The other was with cars. He courted Barbara in a midnight-blue 1954 modified Jaguar XK120 he credits with helping to run off the competition. The couple are still together after 37 years of marriage and three children. But Cussler spreads his automotive affections around. Millions in royalties—he won't say how many—have bankrolled a harem of 75 vintage beauties he houses in a Colorado warehouse. (His prizes include a 1930 L-29 Cord just like the one driven by Dirk Pitt.) Cussler is also fascinated by deep-sea exploration. The novelist's experiences locating 60 shipwrecks have inspired several of Pitt's exploits.
The Cusslers divide their time between Colorado and a winter home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. They also enjoy spending time with their children. (Terry, 34, and her two offspring live in a Denver suburb; Dirk, 31, is a financial analyst in Phoenix; and daughter Dana, 28, works in wardrobe for a Hollywood production company.) These days Cussler is plotting his 12th Dirk Pitt novel. "It's getting harder all the time to dream up this stuff," he says. "There's only so much in you." Still, he soldiers on with Dirk. "Now the readers have gotten into Pitt," he explains. "When you're hooked on a series, I suppose these people become like friends."
VICKIE BANE in Denver