Tom Clancy, technobard, gets grumpy talking about the Internet

The first hint of trouble comes when Tom Clancy’s publicist casually suggests, after finally arranging an interview with the author of the mega-selling techno-thrillers, not to ask Clancy about his family. ”Just don’t bring up anything personal like that,” she warns, ”or he’ll just walk out.”

No problem. There’s no up-close-and-personal hunt for Tom Clancy on the agenda. The idea is simple: Visit him at his home in Baltimore and find out what he thinks about the future of the Net. After all, who better to ask than the 50-year-old former insurance agent whose first book, 1984’s The Hunt for Red October, sold more than 5 million copies and paved the way for eight novels dense with detail about nuclear subs, radar, and weapons systems? In the last few months, Clancy has reportedly signed deals worth $100 million that include two more novels, a series of Net Force books, and a four-year book/multimedia deal with his Red Storm Entertainment unit, including a paperback tied to the November release of Tom Clancy’s Politika, the first CD-ROM game from Red Storm.

The interview with Clancy is set for 10 a.m. at his harbor-front condo in Baltimore. Since his estrangement from Wanda, his wife of 28 years, Clancy has moved out of their 24-room estate overlooking Chesapeake Bay. He left Wanda once before, in 1995 (she claimed, for a woman he met on the, uh, Internet). He reconciled with his wife, then moved out again in April, and is reportedly involved with a former TV news reporter named Alex Llewellyn. (”No comment,” says his lawyer about Llewellyn. ”You want to get me killed?”)

It is now 10 a.m. but the concierge at Clancy’s condo says he is ”indisposed.” At 10:35, we — writer, photographer, photographer’s assistant, and makeup artist — are summoned. We knock on his door; no answer. After several minutes, we knock again. Still nothing. Finally, Clancy, a tall, thin man wearing his trademark tinted aviator glasses, appears and ushers us in. We haven’t even shut the door behind us when Clancy strides off into a corner office adjacent to the sparsely furnished living room. The phone rings, and he suddenly bellows, ”Success ruins your life!”

Ten minutes later, Clancy emerges from his office. The photographer asks if he can look around for a spot to take his picture. Clancy nods. ”Just let me know if you find any naked women,” he says. He takes a call from someone who sounds like some military bigwig. (Conservative Clancy is friends with the likes of ex-FBI director William Sessions and former Veep Dan Quayle.) The caller is offering him a ride on a destroyer. ”Roger that,” Clancy says at least five times during the conversation.

After he hangs up, he sits down on the leather sofa with a pack of cigarettes and stares grumpily at the wide-screen TV, which is blaring an old black-and-white British costume epic at top volume. Questions are asked about how often Clancy uses the Internet (he’s an America Online member), whether he believes the Web is dangerous when it comes to information like how to make nuclear bombs, how he thinks the Net will evolve.