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Tom Clancy, one of the best-selling authors in the world, has died at the age of 66. He was being treated for an undisclosed illness at a Baltimore hospital. Beginning with the publication of "The Hunt for Red October" in 1984, Clancy wrote a string of best-selling thrillers, many of which were turned into blockbuster movies. Clancy's fascination with military history and hardware began as a hobby when he was selling insurance in Baltimore. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Tom Clancy didn't mince words when he talked to would-be writers. Here he is speaking to members of the military at a writing workshop in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

TOM CLANCY: If your objective is to write a book, get a computer and write the damn book. Yes, you can do this if you try hard enough. It's a lot easier than you realize it is.

NEARY: Clancy was speaking from experience. He wrote "The Hunt for Red October" in his spare time while he was still in the insurance business. After it was turned down by major publishing houses, he turned to the Naval Institute Press, which had never published fiction before. Fred Rainbow had worked with Clancy on a couple of pieces for the institute's magazine Proceedings.

FRED RAINBOW: He went from a person with very thick glasses and an insurance agent to a rock star.

NEARY: "The Hunt for Red October" rose quickly to the top of the best-seller list and was Clancy's first book to be made into a film. It was a tense Cold War drama with the U.S. and the Soviet Union vying to gain control of a runaway Russian sub.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER")

ANTHONY PECK: (as Lieutenant Commander Thompson) He's heading right into the torpedo. What's he trying to do, kill himself?

SCOTT GLENN: (as Commander Bart Mancuso) Thompson, we have a firing solution on the Russian Alfa. Can we shoot back?

PECK: They didn't shoot at us. I can't attack a Soviet submarine without authorization.

NEARY: After the book and film came out, Fred Rainbow says Clancy had a big fan in the White House.

RAINBOW: He became what I would call a pet rock of President Reagan. He loved to have him over for dinners because it was the great American dream, an insurance agent, best-selling novelist, best-selling flight movie. You know, this was Ronald Reagan's delight, so he opened a lot of doors to Tom Clancy from that point on.

NEARY: Clancy went on to build an empire. Among his best-selling books, "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Sum of All Fears" were turned into movies featuring major stars. Jack Ryan, who he first introduced in "The Hunt for Red October," became a recurring character in his stories of military maneuvers and clandestine operations.

BRAD MELTZER: I think what makes Tom Clancy is that people cared about Jack Ryan.

NEARY: Thriller writer Brad Meltzer.

MELTZER: He gave America a character that represented America right back at them. They saw this character that was like us. They saw someone who was terrified about the Cold War but wanted to do something about it.

NEARY: Clancy, says Meltzer, has left an indelible mark on the thriller genre.

MELTZER: I, in my books, write thrillers that are full of government secrets, that are researched with people at the highest levels of that government, and I wish I invented that genre. I didn't. Tom Clancy did.

NEARY: And Clancy never stopped. His next book is due out in December. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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