AN INTERVIEW WITH James Michener

The king of the best-sellers talks about friends and enemies, getting older, television and of course Texas, his new novel of the Lone Star state

Glance at a bookshelf in this country or almost anywhere in the world, and you’ll probably see one of the lunch-box-sized novels of James A. Michener. With 35 books in print in 16 languages, Michener is one of the best-selling authors of all time, pied piper to millions of readers for whom he is not only a novelist but a historian-or “docunovelist,” as he has been called. Beginning with Tales of the South Pacific (1947), the first book of short stories to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (and the basis for the eternally popular musical, South Pacific); and continuing with The Fires of Spring (1949); The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953); Sayonara (1954); Hawaii(1959); and The Source (1965), Michener has become everyman’s guide to the world. In the late Sixties he turned his attention to his own country, producing non-fiction works on politics (Presidential Lottery, 1969); the environment (The Quality of Life, 1970); and youthful rebellion (Kent State-What Happened and Why, 1971). The Michener tradition of huge books, huge readership and huge profits endures: His novels from the Seventies (Centennial, Chesapeake) and the Eighties (The Covenant, Space and Poland) have all topped best-seller lists, with The Covenant alone accounting for one-fourth of all fiction sales during the week before Christmas, 1980. Perhaps the world’s richest author, Michener has donated more than $15 million to charities, museums and educational institutions. But neither his output nor his income has earned him the respect of literary critics, who have always denied Michener entrance to the ranks of “serious” writers. “Don’t read it, lift it,” cracked a critic of one of his books. “If it gives you a hernia, it’s art.”



NO MATTER. The Michener juggernaut rolls on. Texas, his latest effort, will have a first printing of 750,000 copies, the largest ever for a work of fiction. Even before it was completed, Texas was snapped up by ABC for a 10-hour miniseries. And the 78-year-old Michener seems far from retirement. While his editors were still proofing the final chapters of Texas, the author flew off to Alaska in search of yet another site big enough to contain a Michener novel.

The buoyant determination found in Michener’s global cast of characters may stem from his own belief that if he could make it, anyone could. At the age of 19, Michener learned that he was a foundling adopted by the people he thought were his real parents. His adoptive family was quite poor, and their hardships during the Depression made an indelible impression on the young Michener. A sports scholarship took him to Swarthmore College, and following his graduation in 1929, Michener spent more than a decade in teaching before World War II broke out. From 1944 to 1946 he held the post of naval historian in the South Pacific. On his travels through the islands, he began to sketch out the stories that would become Tales of the South Pacific. The rest, as they say, is publishing history. D spoke with Michener in Austin, where he has lived for the four years that Texas was in progress.



D: Why a book on Texas? What is it about the state that captured your imagination?

Michener: Texas is not necessarily unique, but it has unusual qualities. It was a free country for a while; it has a very challenging border with another country, Mexico. It has the dramatic heroes, the great battles, the interesting occupations like cattle, oil and other big enterprises. The state is very favorably positioned right now.



D: How is the book organized? Do you have representative characters who stand for different aspects of the Texas experience?

Michener: I wouldn’t call them representative, but we do follow the fortunes of four or five families through the years. We have a saying in the business that a book about something, a thesis book, usually doesn’t turn out well. I don’t have a guy representing electricity, cattle and oil; the selections are a little more accidental than that. But obviously, I wouldn’t come here at all if I weren’t going to deal with the Mexican border problem, for instance.



D: Is the illegal alien problem Texas’ chief worry right now? Some people believe that with the contrasting economies of Mexico and the U.S., there is really no solution to the problem.

Michener: I deal with that in great detail. It will be a major Texas problem for the rest of the century. I wrote a long book about Spain and I know the Spanish tradition fairly clearly. The fact that our nation is unable to pass an immigration law is almost incomprehensible.



D: What are the forces that have made Texas what it is today?

Michener: I’m astounded that Texas was a frontier state for so long. The frontier was always just a few miles away. In 1860, the frontier was just 10 miles west of Dallas. It’s sobering to look at the census of 1900. Lub-bock had less than a hundred people. Ama-rillo had very few people because nobody had gotten there yet. There’s a big argument as to what the population of Dallas was in 1850. Some sources say less than 4,000 people. There’s nothing comparable to this late development in the East. The largest Texas city for long into this century was San Antonio, and it was very small.



D: How about the sheer size of the state? How has that been important?

Michener: It’s been very important and will continue to be. You’re getting more population and may one day be the largest state; more size means more seats in Congress and more leverage through your industries. Texas is much better situated right now than 15 other states I could name.



D: Do certain cities figure prominently in the novel?

Michener: Yes. The problem for someone like me coming here is that you can’t just remain within the triangle of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. I’ve gone up to Jefferson, down to Brownsville, out to Wichita Falls, Midland, Lake Jackson, El Paso, Alpine… The book won’t be parochial, that’s for sure. I’ve been to almost every county.



D: How do you work? Suppose you wanted to know more about the Hispanic influence in Texas. Would you head for a library, or what?

Michener: My wife and I have taken a lot of time on this; we’re not in a hurry. I’ve been to almost all the towns along the Rio Grande from Brownsville over to El Paso. What I would probably do is go down to Del Rio, hook up with the Border Patrol and just see what they were doing. I’d kick around and meet some of the local people. I do things very casually, but I always go back, hit the town two or three times.



D: What happens when you come to information you need and can’t find? How do you bridge the gap?

Michener: The fundamental difference between me and a historian is that when I reach such a point I can work around it. He can’t. That’s why my job is easier to do. And you decide, fairly early in the game, that you’re not going to try to cover everything. I don’t try to cover banking in this book, or the East Texas oil fields. They’ve been done so well. Harry Hurt’s book Texas Rich is the great one on that subject. What I do, I do in considerable depth, but I do pick my spots.



D: Why do you ignore the East Texas fields? Oil has been so important…

Michener: Yes, but I move my fields to West Texas, in the Graham area south of the Burkburnett fields. You see, I can hardly have a big Spindletop scene where the giant gusher comes in. But just as exciting is the smaller well that comes in with 10 barrels a day year after year, and if the money is properly invested, it’s a fortune. Historically, we did have the Spindletop gusher, but artistically, that’s been done. Certain motion pictures and novels and Hurt’s book have done it well. My artistic impulse is always to go to a more difficult thing.



D: Do you have a sense of Texas’ future?

Michener: Yes, I brood about that quite a bit in the book. I don’t lay things out too heavily, but the perceptive reader will see. Since I’ve been in Texas, the state has suffered a lot of knocks. The Ml of the peso, the collapse of the Midland Bank, the layoffs at Texas Instruments, the hurricane that hit Houston, the freeze in the Valley last year. These are hard knocks, and Texas has reacted to them very courageously. The Texas Legislature gave a good example this time. With all the state’s budget problems, and even though the agenda was largely conservative, they still passed the indigent health care bill. People know you can’t walk away from indigents, or you’re going to have revolution.



D: Are you impressed by our current political leaders?

Michener: I know the past two governors very well, and I think they’re in the great tradition of Texas. So are your two senators, though they’re very different. Texas has had a very vital politics internally, but has probably not achieved the role nationally to which it has been entitled. You had three great figures in Johnson, Sam Ray burn and John Nance Garner, but they came pretty late, and there’s been nobody to follow up. The state hasn’t had the national pull of a California, a Virginia or a Massachusetts, but I think that’s coming.



D: Do you believe in the Great Man theory of history? Are there some indispensable Texans who changed the course of the state?

Michener: No, I don’t subscribe to that view, but I do believe that a state or a community is lucky to have strong people at critical times. I have enormous regard for Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. They set patterns. I also found myself liking Mirabeau Lamar, though I don’t think I would have accepted his politics at the time. I knew Lyndon Johnson fairly well and liked him. I think he’s had a bad shake from historians recently, but that will be rectified. I’m not a believer in great men, but I think that people make a difference within historical movements. Things are under way, but they give it a nudge.



D: You’ve had a success most writers can only dream about, but you literally began with nothing…

Michener: Yes, we were very poor, very deprived, but there was a lot of affection. It was emotionally very secure, but it probably made me more cautious than I would have been. I saw lives wasted during the Depression, businesses terminated all over the country. I’ve seen a lot of hardship, and I’ve always worked and lived as if everything might fall apart tomorrow.



D: You’ve been almost everywhere in the world. Did your love of wandering start early in life?

Michener: By the time I was 13 or 14, I guess I had seen almost every state, hitchhiking all over. But it was easy in those days. You didn’t have all the drugs and the heavy alcohol use. It was easier for a young person to move around without getting into trouble. The experience taught me that I was pretty tough and resourceful. I never was macho, but I didn’t scare easily. It really gave me a terrific background when I started writing.



D: You’re not one of those writers who’s never been off a college campus.

Michener: No, but I’m not sure that’s bad. I don’t advocate what I do for anybody else. I think I’ve stumbled onto an art form that’s just right for me, but I think the greatest books are written by someone just sitting in a room and thinking about his life and what he sees. I don’t think you necessarily need to travel. People like Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Henry James, these people travel intellectually.



D: But you’ve complained about what you call “the traditional English novel.”

Michener: Yes, but that’s for me. If someone writes a traditional novel like Trollope or Jane Austen, that’s wonderful. But the well-made little novel is not for me.

D: Which of your books comes closest to that formula?

Michener: I think The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It’s a beautifully handicrafted little novel. I could probably write one of them a year, and I might be better off if I had. But it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my form.



D: There’s a great story about how you were helped by DeWitt Wallace, owner of Reader’s Digest. Would you tell it?

Michener: Wallace took a great liking to my wife and me. We were the only Democrats he knew, I think. He invited me to work for him at least a dozen times, but I didn’t want to go on the masthead because then I would have been his boy. It was much better for me to freelance. But out of affection for me, he made one of the most extraordinary offers: He would support me in anything I wanted to write, anywhere in the world. They would pay all my expenses, and all he would require was right of first refusal on anything I wrote. I never took advantage of that offer, but it was always in the back of my mind that if things got really bad, I had a fallback position. My debt to Wallace has always been quite large.



D: You value your independence…

Michener: Yes, very much; it’s very important to me. I’m a true freelance in every sense of the word. It’s a hard life. I’ve had good luck in it, but there were years when I didn’t.



D: You’ve never had a book that was a real failure, though…

Michener: No, but I’ve had three things I didn’t finish. You’d have to call them failures, though the public didn’t know about them. I wrote large parts of a novel about Mexico that I didn’t finish, among other things.



D: What went wrong?

Michener: I really can’t answer that. I don’t know what happened. I just got off the track. I also did a substantial amount of work on a novel about Russia. I was deep into it, but some illness slowed me down, and it didn’t seem logical to go back. I’ve had failures, but with money in the bank and that backstop from the Digest could absorb it. It didn’t destroy me. But who knows? Under different circumstances I might had to buckle down and redo the Mexican and it might have been better for me if I had.



D: You seem to have a penchant for the big picture, the all-inclusive sweep, in your books. In Hawaii, you begin with the creation of the Hawaiian islands. Some of the first characters in Centennial are dinosaurs.

Michener: I do tend to see things in broad scope. The fate of a nation drifting here and there, the fate of a large corporation or a shipbuilding company. . . .My mind runs that way. I’m not much interested in the condition of a Texas county over a 10-year period. I’d rather see it over a long time.



D: Yet you’ve been heavily criticized for simply overloading the reader, not knowing what to select and what to leave out.

Michener: If you read my mail you’d find that every week someone writes to say that my books are too short.



D: Too short?

Michener: Yes. They feel a sense of sorrow as they come to the last chapter. They begin rationing themselves because they don’t want it to end. That’s so common it’s almost a characteristic of my readers. At the same time, other people complain that they’re too long, they take too much time. Both facts are true. But if you think I lose readers because of length, no. Look at the public reception of my work. It’s almost beyond parallel. I sometimes think of young writers struggling to get a foothold. Their problem is to get readers of intelligence. I’ve done that. I wish everybody had the good luck I had. I’ll never easily accept outside criticism that the books are too long when they’re among the most widely read books in the world in all languages.



D: Some of that criticism has been savage. One wit offered a reward to anyone who could stop you from writing; another lamented the fact that “whole forests” have fallen as a result of books like Chesapeake.

Michener: I’m a target, no doubt about it. But when you think of the tremendous success I’ve had, it’s got to be called into question by someone. Some people think that if it’s that successful, it’s got to be cheesy. Nobody criticizes without a basis for it, but Chesapeake is one of the most successful novels ever published. Why should I worry that one person didn’t like it when five million people did?



D: You give a lot of credit to the timing of your career, the fact that you came on the scene with World War II. How was that important?

Michener: If I’d come along 50 years before, I think I might have been very small potatoes. But World War II took an enormous amount of people overseas, and in the post-war period, even ordinary people were free to travel to Europe or Asia or India, and of course they were curious and wanted to read about these places. In my hometown when I was a boy, there was a man who was known as a great traveler. He had been to London-once. Now you go to these little towns and you meet a woman whose son works for Aramco in the Middle East and she’s been over there for Christmas, and her daughter’s married to a guy who works for IBM and he’s stationed in Guam. I remember missionaries coming to our church when I was a kid and talking about their work in Africa. My God, that could have been on another planet! I came along at a time when our horizons were expanding, and that was good for me.



D: Many writers stick very close to their personal experience in their work. It seems you’ve done almost the opposite.

Michener: In a way I have. I’ve been very hesitant-maybe reticent is the word. I’ve never made a big thing about my own personality. I’m more like Anthony Trollope than Norman Mailer. I’ve enormous respect for Mailer, he’s a hell of a writer, but he’s made his personality his main subject. I’m the opposite.



D: When Mailer doesn’t have a book out, he still has himself to talk about.

Michener: Yes, and he does it with brilliance, if not much reticence.



D: Do you like to do television talk shows? Many writers use them as vehicles for promoting their books.

Michener: I get invited on them constantly, but I tend to be not in the area where they’re filming. I tend to work out on the frontier. But if I were a young man trying to make my way in the profession, you could get me on those shows with a postcard. It’s very hard to make a living as a writer, and you’d better use every honorable approach that you can.



D: Really, aren’t you now beyond needing a Carson or a Griffin to further your career?

Michener: I don’t have to do it now, so I don’t. But these men were very good to me when I was starting out. If Merv Griffin were to call tomorrow and I were in the same area, I’d go on the show. I feel indebted to many people. To reach the position I’m in, a lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are of your own making.



D: You’ve said you’re an optimist about the human condition, but your books are full of inhumanity, violence, torture and bloodshed. Some of the battle scenes in Poland and the warfare in The Covenant reveal new depths of human cruelty. How do you stay optimistic?

Michener: Well, you pick your view of society. Look at these new videos coming out, the ones that sponsor Satanism and the degradation of women. If you look only at them, you can say that this country is in serious trouble-and so far as that is concerned, we are. But at the same time you have a whole host of kids who are not in jail, who are serious about their lessons, who are not on drugs. The best kids I see today are wonderful, but the fact that our culture is sponsoring this hideous view of human relationships scares the hell out of me.



D: Do you think the current group of college students is much different than those you wrote about in The Drifters and the Kent State book?

Michener: I don’t think they’re different, but the problems they face are different, a different milieu. During the Kent State period people felt that a revolution was at hand and that everything was going to be different. The so-called Greening of America. What a fake messiah that turned out to be. It was just another phase. A great deal of good came out of it, but there were terrible casualties.



D: Looking back, is it hard for you to believe that National Guardsmen fired on college students?

Michener: If you recall the situation at the time, you’re not surprised. Remember that at Wisconsin, kids blew up an entire university building. Paralyzed a man and destroyed all the research materials.



D: In 1961, you said you hoped you had 10 good years left. Now, 25 years later, you’re still going strong. What more do you want to do?

Michener: If my health holds out, I could write for the next 15 years. There are scores of books I’d like to do. I’ve been lucky; I’ve retained my health and my mental acuity. Lots of people don’t, not through any misbehavior on their part, just the slowing down of the clock. Time affects the projects you choose, and the time you have to choose them. If I could be assured I’d go on for another 25 years, I don’t know what all I would do. That’s improbable, but then it’s improbable that at my age I’d be bringing out a major book and planning others.



D: How do you evaluate a proposal for a new book, at this stage in your career?

Michener: I must get 15 letters a week from people suggesting I write about this or that. They think that because you can do some things, you can do anything. I look at it like this: If something big happened in Tibet tomorrow, I could make myself an expert on the country in three or four weeks, simply because I already know most of the surrounding countries. I’ve written about Afghanistan and I know India intimately. I know the past history of Persia. But suppose something even more interesting happened in Paraguay tomorrow. I don’t know anything about the surrounding countries. I don’t know about their wars, their dictators or what they stood for. It would take me years. Same with Ireland. I’ve always loved English history, but I’ve shied away from the Irish involvement because it dealt with things that were alien to me.



D: Do you maintain an interest in the countries you’ve written about?

Michener: Well, I never re-read my books. How interested are you in something that burned you up nine years ago? If you ask me a string of probing questions about Israel right now, I’d have to say that I’m no longer courant. When I finish a book of this length, I’m at a point where I could probably teach it on the Ph.D. level. Three years later I couldn’t do a good bibliography. You erase it. If you didn’t erase it, you might not be able to hold yourself together.



D: Are you still interested in South Africa? In The Covenant, you present several characters who have little hope for a peaceful solution to the apartheid problem.

Michener: I’ve kept my mouth shut since I did that book. I haven’t wanted to get into the debate. It’s a strange place. You can drive all over the entire country and not see as many police as you see in Austin. You’ll never see any brutality. But after you’ve been with a white family for awhile, you look at the pictures on the mantel and say, “Oh, I didn’t know you had children.” They say, “Yes, that’s Paul, he’s living in Sydney, and that’s Victoria, she’s in Montreal.” You ask when they’re coming back and they tell you, “Well, they won’t be coming back.” And then at night you see the black exodus out of the cities, and you realize what terrible losses the country is suffering. When I left South Africa in 1968, I said that I thought that the whites would be able to hold on until the year 2000 because they had all the armaments and were willing to use them. They control education and most of the economy. I was speaking descriptively, not passing any judgments. Since then all the countries around South Africa have changed their governments. I think the timetable has been moved up. The time will come when the country won’t be ruled as dictatorially as it has been, but I don’t know what the pattern will be.



D: Have you had good relationships with editors over the years?

Michener: Very good. I’ve been with one publishing company [Random House] my whole career. It’s been a happy, strong relationship. I’ve made them a great deal of money, which I hope they have spent carrying some younger writers. As Truman Capote said in his autobiography, he didn’t particularly like my books, but he was glad to be with a publisher that had them, because that gave him the freedom to do what he wanted.



D: We hear a lot about television creating a world of non-readers, the decline of books and so on. Does this seem like a serious problem to you?

Michener: You know, I came along with television, and it hasn’t hurt me a bit. I was aware of TV, and I decided that in an age of television, people were going to want to read longer books. I think American society is going to divide about 70-30. Seventy percent will get most of their education from television, and 30 percent will get it the way we always have-reading, studying, doing term papers in school. And 30 percent of a population of 250 million people is going to be 75 million people who are eligible to be your readers. That’s larger than the number of people who speak some of the languages of the earth.



D: Do you think much about your reputation, about how your books will stand up 50, 100 years from now?

Michener: By and large, I don’t bother much about that. There the books are; they’re in circulation. One would hope that maybe a hundred years from now, someone wanting to write about South Africa would say, let’s see what Michener thought about it at the time. It may be outmoded, but there it is, there’s that moment frozen in time. With all these books in circulation, they’re going to have to be somewhere. I hope they do someone some good.



D: Do you have any advice for hopeful writers?

Michener: Yes. On the first of January of every calendar year, Saul Bellow is a year older. Joyce Carol Oates is a year older. We don’t have many examples of people writing important books at the age of 90 or 100. Every year there are tremendous openings. The big companies have to publish about 300 books a year, and they’re looking around for them all the time. I’m not going to be writing them. Bernard Malamud isn’t going to be writing them. If I die at the end of next year, Random House doesn’t stop publishing.



D: Will you be getting around much to publicize the Texas book?

Michener: No, not a lot. I’ve been invitedto, but it’s terribly hard work. Again, if Iwere 28, you’d see me in every hamlet in thestate. That’s the difference between whenyou’re starting out and when you’ve beenthere. I doubt very much that at this stage Icould even slightly modify the reception ofone of my books. If by this time I don’t havea track record that stands by itself, I shouldbe ashamed.

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