Interview with a Master: James Michener

James Michener

James Michener

**Interview excerpt obtained from**

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: 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.

From Wikipedia:

James Albert Michener (pron.: /ˈmɪtʃnər/; February 3, 1907 – October 16, 1997) was an American author of more than 40 titles, the majority of which were sweeping sagas, covering the lives of many generations in particular geographic locales and incorporating historical facts into the stories. Michener was known for the meticulous research behind his work.

Michener’s major books include Tales of the South Pacific (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948), Hawaii, The Drifters, Centennial, The Source, The Fires of Spring, Chesapeake, Caribbean, Caravans, Alaska, Texas, and Poland. His nonfiction works include the 1968 Iberia about his travels in Spain and Portugal, his 1992 memoir The World Is My Home, and Sports in America. Return to Paradise combines fictional short stories with Michener’s factual descriptions of the Pacific areas where they take place.


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