September 08, 1986 12:00 PM

Tom Clancy hefts the hollow, 105-mm cannon shell off the floor and raps the three-foot-long tube with his knuckle. It’s a souvenir from the time the Army let him drive an M-1 tank and fire two live rounds at a paper target—all part of the research he did for his second and latest supertech thriller, Red Storm Rising (Putnam, $19.95), which hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list last month. “I fired this one myself,” says Clancy proudly, “1,310 meters away, and I pinwheeled it twice,” which in tank talk means he hit the bull’s-eye. “Driving that tank was a boyhood fantasy I waited 30 years for.”

Since the success of his first novel, 1984’s The Hunt for Red October, the insurance agent from Prince Frederick, Md. also has spent a week aboard a U.S. Navy frigate, talked shop with helicopter pilot Prince Andrew and even dined with Red October fan Ronald Reagan. For the uninitiated, Red October is a virtual primer on modern naval warfare, detailing what happens when a Soviet skipper defects to the West with a nuclear-armed submarine. Similarly, Red Storm Rising plots another superbloc confrontation that propels the reader through World War III, while skirting a nuclear shootout.

Although Clancy, 39, expects to earn about $1 million in royalties from his first book and—judging from Red Storm reviews—may top that figure with his latest effort, he insists that success hasn’t changed him. “I’m pretty much the same nerd I always was,” he says. “Maybe I tip more in restaurants.”

Clancy’s nerdy self-assessment has its roots in a childhood fascination with military hardware to the exclusion of the usual boyhood sports. His thick, tinted glasses, ready wit and rapid-fire speech add to his techno-freak image. However, this same affable, candid manner has helped him sell insurance for the family business, which he runs with his wife, Wanda, 38, in nearby Owings. Nowadays, when he’s not writing policies or at home caring for his four children—ages 10 months to 13 years—Clancy is usually hunched over his Apple Macintosh computer writing his third novel, Patriot Games. Games is about international terrorism, he says, and spotlights Red October’s American hero Jack Ryan.

Clancy wears glasses to correct a myopia that prevented him from joining the Army during the Vietnam War. Despite his nearsightedness, the 6’2″ son of a Baltimore mailman and a department store credit employee briefly joined Army ROTC while majoring in English at the city’s Loyola College. There, already dreaming of becoming a writer, he met and later married Wanda Thomas, who at first was put off by his boyish passion for weaponry. “He was into his ‘nuclear’ thing,” Wanda recalls. “A lot of technology. But it’s just like his first book. I enjoyed it, even though it’s not something I would have picked up on my own.”

In 1976 Clancy read a news story about a mutiny aboard a Soviet frigate in which an officer and some crew members tried to defect to Sweden. “That mutiny rattled around in my head for years,” he says. Eventually, he imagined the frigate as a submarine, and the urge to write his first book took hold. As added impetus, Clancy heard the sea stories of some of his insurance clients and ex-submariners, and he also discovered a $9.95 hobby-shop war game called Harpoon. Clancy soon became a friend of the game’s creator, former naval officer and current naval analyst Larry Bond. (Bond later became an adviser and, according to Clancy, a co-author on Red Storm.) Clancy wrote the first draft of Red October in six months, and in 1984 it was printed by a small, academically oriented publisher in Annapolis, Md.

“I broke all the rules,” he says, still bemused at his feat. “I didn’t have an outline, didn’t have an agent, didn’t make a proposal and went to a publisher that didn’t do fiction. But it’s more fun this way. If you plan things ahead, you lose spontaneity.”

Now, seated in the book-cluttered, map-lined study of his new five-bedroom house, war gamester Tom Clancy is still having fun, despite the scheduling pressures of talk shows, lectures and book signing, as well as writing and one-day-a-week insurance selling. “I never saw the sense in growing up, in turning into some big-shot jerk just because I wrote a couple of books,” he says. “Besides, when you have to go home and change diapers, that keeps your feet on the ground.”

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