So. It's five years later for Tom Clancy, the rural Maryland insurance agent who wrote a novel even though he had never published a thing except for an article and two letters to the editor, and sold it for $5,000 to a local publisher who didn't do fiction. And watched agape as the $5,000 ballooned to a million dollars. And watched, more coolly, as another publisher signed him for three more novels at $3 million. And watched, now with a slightly ironic smile, as he signed yet another contract this summer. For $4 million. For one book.

How's life, Tom?

Easier, he says. Not a lot. "I've got a family to feed," he says. "Up to a year ago I was going to the office quite regularly. Now I can't afford to."

The office is his wife Wanda's grandfather's insurance agency that they bought before he started to write and that they have finally got paid off. It's a good living, he says, and in fact she's down there right now.

Perhaps the full impact hasn't hit yet. A couple of years ago he bought the sprawling new house, knotty pine throughout, five bedrooms, split-level, cathedral ceilings, paintings on the walls, thick rugs, glass tables, and a brand new shiny grand piano. He and the children are wandering about in it, looking a little bit as though they had just this minute been wished there by a magician. The house is in a neighborhood of sprawling new houses, set among the tobacco farms of Calvert County. It is barely a mile from his old place in Prince Frederick.

Oh, and there's the new Mercedes. And the month he spent in England with Wanda and the four children, "my first multiweek vacation in four years." That's about it.

Oh yes, the camp. His daughter happens to mention it. On the beach, yes. He did buy a sort of summer place.

The camp turns out to be an 80-acre farm with prime frontage on Chesapeake Bay.

Aside from that, not much is new, except that he has to work like a fiend to make the January deadline for his next thriller, this one about the Strategic Defense Initiative. "Deadlines, deadlines," he mutters.

Even the excitement over his first novel, "The Hunt for Red October," wasn't all that exciting, really. Once he had put together the story about a defecting Soviet submarine and handed it in to the Naval Institute Press at Annapolis, "I drove home and waited three weeks before I learned that they liked it. That was February of '83. They actually didn't decide to buy it until November. It all happened gradually."

As the publishing world loves to tell it, what happened was that the Press printed 14,000 copies and then watched bug-eyed as the thing sold 300,000 hardbacks and 2 million paperbacks. Clancy made half a million from that and another half from movie rights. Then came the $3 million contract with G.P. Putnam's and Berkley Books, and Clancy had to incorporate himself.

He pays no attention to the slow grinding of the mills of Hollywood. "I'm not the guy to ask about that," he says.

Sitting tensely forward on a curving 20-foot sofa, he fingers a lovely blown-glass chess set he bought at Disney World. "My son broke one of these knights," he muses, picking up the pieces one by one. "Here it is. I don't have time for chess anymore. No time for hobbies."

He brightens momentarily. "I did learn snooker in England. I played it there, hadn't touched a cue in years, but I won. A fun game."

The main thing is, he says, that he hasn't changed inside. Success can ruin your life, he says.

"You don't want to let it turn you into a jerk. I drink the same kind of wine, watch the same TV programs, read the same kind of books. But more hard-covers."

Has read every thriller there is. A lot of science-fiction. Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God." Has met the writers he idolizes.

"Fred Forsyth, a great guy. We had lunch at the ambassador's house in London. I told Fred that 'Day of the Jackal' was the best thriller of all time. The truth. It's brilliant. Wish I could write like that."

He leads the way to his study. In a large room on another level his children Michelle, 14, Christine, 12, and Kathleen, almost 2, watch cartoons on TV. Across the hall Tommy, 4, sprawls on a bed watching different cartoons.

"Don't answer the phone," Clancy orders. He is expecting six calls, one from overseas. Rubbing his bare arms, he walks into the study. The house is cool, and he wears an undershirt beneath his Izod polo shirt.

The tiny study is definitely the engine room of this liner. Three walls are covered to the ceiling with books -- all freebies, he says -- and the fourth is covered with signed photos of Clancy with various celebrities. The floor is covered with manuscripts sent him by publishers for comment and letters from all over the world that his part-time assistant answers and files. Pieces of war games are scattered about, and technical manuals, weapons catalogues and copies of the Clancy novels.

He is a tech freak, he admits, and "the military has the nicest toys, though it's really a rather unpleasant business." His eyes kept him out of the service -- he wears thick dark glasses even in the house -- but he did make the ROTC at Loyola College in his native Baltimore, where he graduated in 1969.

His desk looks lost in its corner nook. A few pages of notes lie beside the trim little word processor on which he is writing his latest. He needs a bigger desk, he says, one he can spread all his stuff out on. He figures he will have to get a bigger house.

"I try to avoid outlines," he says. "I get the general idea, then write as it happens day to day. Writing is a discovery process. It's not a question of thinking up the plot, it's a question of time. The great limiting factor."

When's he's rolling he writes four to six hours a day, "all I can stand," and if he doesn't come up with five pages he considers he hasn't earned his money.

Clancy isn't rolling yet because he still hasn't settled down from the uproar over his new book, "Patriot Games," which is No. 1 on the hard-cover lists just as his second, "Red Storm Rising," tops the paperback list. It is a heady life. Cabinet members seek him out. President Reagan invited him and Wanda to a state dinner and chatted with him in the Oval Office. He met Prince Andrew, spent a week on a missile-carrying Navy frigate, toured a few submarines.

"Every sub I've been in was at the dock," he says. "A sub is big compared to a tank." He hauls out a 105-mm shell, long as your arm and thick as your thigh. "I fired two of these from an M1 tank."

Both were hits. This was a boyhood dream for Clancy. His eyes kept him out of a lot of things. He is 6 feet 2, considers himself a rather unhandsome nerd. "The worst thing about success is the damn photo sessions," he says.

"Surprising how little it's affected us," he says. "It made no difference to the neighbors at all, the people in the stores, the people we know. Zero difference."

The conversation has lasted half an hour, and he seems relieved. When he opens the wide front door, the August heat presses in against the conditioned air. As the visitor drives away, the people sitting on the broad porch of a sprawling new house down the road wave cheerily