But even as a writer of fiction, you have obligations, responsibilities.
James Michener: Oh, yes. I decided early on, very early on, that pornography was not for me. That I was able to write books, I hoped, that would be read by enormous numbers of people, without my having to engage in sadism, kinky sex, ultra-violent crime. Anything like that. And I’ve adhered to that, and I succeeded in that ball game. Now wait a minute. I have to apologize here. What crime is more violent than King David’s? Sending his chief general out to be assassinated. Well, I think that some of the things my characters have done have in their own way been comparable to that. But I don’t belabor it. I don’t seek it out, and I have never cheapened myself in that respect. Would refuse to do so.
Your novels, your big novels, go back pretty far to understand history and to understand people’s lives. How far back do you have to go to understand James Michener?
James Michener: That’s a very complex question because I don’t know who my parents were. I know nothing about my inheritance. I could be Jewish; I could be part Negro; I could be Irish; I could be Russian. I am spiritually a mix anyway, but I did have a solid childhood fortunately, because of some wonderful women who brought me up. I never had a father or a man in the house, and that was a loss, but you live with that loss. So you don’t have to go back very far. You can pick me up around 1912, when I was five years old.
Your early life reads like a novel. Tell us about your childhood.
James Michener: I lived in extreme poverty. We moved often in the dead of night, and on a few minutes notice. Some people recently have told me something I never realized or didn’t deduce. My mother, who took in stray children and had eight or nine of them around sometimes, was employed by a real estate man who would move her into a house to sort of clean it up and renovate it and make it salable. Then we would move on. That might be true because that’s the way it worked. I grew up in a small town. I think we lived in nine different houses all over the town. But I remember each one most vividly, and I rather liked each one of them, except the one we moved into that was infested with a terrible attack of bedbugs and other vermin. We stayed there only one night.
How do you think you were affected by your childhood?
James Michener: I was affected specifically by deciding very early on that I was never going to allow money to be a very big thing in my life. How did that come about? I think through Christmas. At Christmas, we rarely had anything. As a boy, I never had a pair of skates, never had a bicycle, never had a little wagon, never had a baseball glove, never had a pair of sneakers. I didn’t have anything. And do you know, at about seven or eight, I just decided, “Well, that’s the way it is. And I’m not going to beat my brains out about it.” I never had an automobile until I was 45 because they didn’t exist. I just said that’s not part of my life. I’m not going to worry about it. And I never have.
So the first influence was an entirely different view toward economics. Economics for me was a way of survival. I never saved much money. I think when I married I had maybe sixty dollars in the bank. When I left for the Navy, I didn’t have anything in the bank. When I got out of the Navy, I had a little pay in the last pay envelope. That was it. So for me later to have stumbled upon a profession which in my case paid very well, was a radical shift. I was governed by the principles I had picked up as a kid. Money is not that important to me.
What were you like in school?
James Michener: I was a difficult child. I had my own agenda, and it was different from the other kids. That I was aware of it was different. I didn’t have these things. I didn’t ever go away on vacation. I never went away to boy scout camp, or anything like that, so I was different to begin with, and that made me very tough. I was suspended from every school I was ever in, and twice from college. I wasn’t easily disciplined. If you look at my nose carefully, it goes around a corner. I didn’t discipline myself, but older fellows and tougher fellows did. That’s one of the great things about growing up as a boy, there is always somebody who is tougher than you are. So I was a difficult child, but I was also by our standards of how they were measured, I was really quite bright. I always had straight A’s and did extremely well in tests, or any examinations. I think it was in the accumulation, an amassing, an organizing of data, rather than using it creatively. I was a Germanic type of mind. I had a bear trap. Education was very easy for me.
What did you do in your spare time?
James Michener: I’ve always been a nut about the outdoors. I love wildlife, birds, flowers, trees, shrubs, water, like I’m living on right now. But I was also, by the grace of God, very good at athletics. And so, starting about age fourteen, my life became rather easy. The hard years were from zero to fourteen. The easy ones came thereafter. Now they were only relatively easy. I still had no money, and I still had no car, no great prospects, but I did get scholarships, and I was one of the leaders of the team, and I was good in everything I did in athletics as well as scholarships. And so, starting at that age fourteen, and continuing unbroken to today, I had a clear field. I never in my life applied for a job or asked for a raise or asked for a promotion or sought any kind of reward whatever. I just have never done it. I don’t discuss royalties with my publisher. I don’t argue five minutes with my agent about what to do. That’s a world over there that I’ve never been a part of.
Clearly, your life could have taken a different turn.
James Michener: Oh, yes. I think the bottom line, sir, is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it’s not at all bad. Obviously, you come out a pretty tough turkey, and you have had all the inoculations you need to keep you on a level keel for the rest of your life. The sad part is, most of us don’t come out. And most of the boys and girls like me that I knew, never had a life like mine. They had tough life all the way down.
What got you through it? What made it different for you?
James Michener: My mother read to me when I was a boy. I had all the Dickens and Thackeray and Charles Reade and Sienkiewicz and the rest before I was the age of seven or eight. And so I knew about books. And there was a good library in our town, and I read almost everything in there. But primarily, I had very good teachers — teachers who wanted to make kids learn. Wanted to help them learn. I think in my graduating class of about one hundred in high school, only three or four of us went on to college. So they certainly weren’t teaching us for college; they were teaching us for something more solid. Had I never gone to college, I think I would still have had a very strong start. And might have been able to do something quite substantial because a lot of my classmates did, and they didn’t go to college. They’ve had very good lives. My advanced education was quite exceptional and quite remarkable.
Before we get to that, I’ve read that when you were 14, you took off, and you hitchhiked all over America.
James Michener: When I was fourteen, I had already hitchhiked with no money whatsoever from Central Pennsylvania down to Florida. I didn’t get into Florida; the police stopped me. And from there up to Canada.
Why did the police stop you?
James Michener: In Georgia, they turned us back. They said you shouldn’t be on the road. They were very good. I am very grateful to those police in Georgia. They took me in; I slept in their jail; they fed me; they gave me fifty cents, I think, and sent me back home.
They just thought you were too young.
James Michener: They thought I was too young. Which I was. But thereafter, I traveled. I hitchhiked out to Detroit, I remember, to visit an aunt. From there I went out to Iowa, and then I fanned out.
Again and again, when I was 14 and 15, I would leave home with 25 or 35 — 35 cents sticks in my mind. I think I had a quarter and a dime on two of my trips. Never phased me a bit. Go right straight across the continent. In those days, it was easy to do. Everybody had a new car, and they wanted to show it off. If they liked you, they would pick you up and often times feed you and take you to their home. And there were no weirdoes on the road then. There were, but we never saw them. I had a vivid experience in those years. I went everywhere, and I did it on nothing.
Why do you suppose you did that?
James Michener: The home town was not too inviting at that time. It wasn’t repugnant at all, I have great love for Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It gave me my education and my start, but there really wasn’t a lot to hold me there. And I also knew there was a bigger world elsewhere. One look at New York when I was fourteen or fifteen satisfied me that that’s where I ought to be one of these days. I didn’t make it for twenty years, but when I did, I came in with a splash.
What do you think you learned from that experience?
James Michener: Resolution. Courage. Not to be worried about minor things. It gave me great strength of character, and it gave me a love of travel and seeing strange things — even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I did not appreciate the great variety. That first time into Iowa, it looked just like Pennsylvania to me. I didn’t know it was so different. I didn’t know it had a whole different system of education, a whole new system of values. When I got out into the dry lands, it never occurred to me that they were entirely different. They might have looked like home, but they certainly were not home. No, I must say I was not exceptionally bright on that. I didn’t realize Canada was really a different country, or that the French were different from the people I had met.
Georgia did have a powerful influence on me. It was different. There they had the cotton shacks and the blacks, and the police were always tough in Georgia. Still are. I realized that was not rural Bucks County. That’s about the only thing I did learn.
You talk about books. What books have been special for you in your growth?
James Michener: Well, I think the reading of Dickens in our family — which happened in many families around the world because Dickens was a phenomenon — was very important. Later, one of my aunts was conned by a traveling salesman into buying the complete works of Honore de Balzac in English. He told her it would make her an educated lady, and she would ultimately become principal of a high school. Well, maybe he was right! Because she did become educated, and she did become principal of the high school. At any rate, she passed the books on to me. All fifty-one of them, or something. A fantastic gift! And I read most of them. And that of course made a major, major difference. Now that was at age 14 or 15. Read them all, these great books, by the time I was pretty young.
Certainly, that must not have been what most of your peers were doing.
James Michener: No, I think not. I do believe that everyone growing up faces differential opportunities. With me, it was books and travel and some good teachers. With somebody else, it may be a boy scout master. With somebody else, it will be a clergyman. Somebody else, an uncle who was wiser than the father. I think young people ought to seek that differential experience that is going to knock them off dead center. I was a typical American school boy. I happened to get straight A’s and be pretty good in sports. But I had no great vision of what I could be. And I never had any yearning.
My job was to live through Friday afternoon, get through the week, and eat something. And then along came these differential experiences that you don’t look for, that you don’t plan for, but, boy, you better not miss them. The things that make you bigger than you are. The things that give you a vision. The things that give you a challenge.
I was the child solely of an English type education, in the narrow eastern seaboard of the United States, and I was pretty old, but that’s all I had. Never had any American History or Canadian or anything like that. It was always English. That’s what counted in those days. And I went out to Colorado, and I suddenly saw there was an Hispanic component, a French component in the old days. And above all, a liberal free-swinging component.
Colorado was amazing in that its three top jobs, Governor and the two senators, were never always of the same party. In Pennsylvania, if you were not a Republican, I’m not sure if it was safe to go out during hunting season. But in Colorado, you could be anything that you wanted to be. One senator would be a red-hot Democrat, the other a very conservative Republican. And the Governor might be a maverick completely — neither one! That was a revelation to me. And a very useful one. Well, that’s the kind of differential experience we really need. And a young person, a young woman or a young boy, is very lucky if he has them and if he is able to absorb them when they do come along.
You learned something of diversity.
James Michener: Oh, yes. I was perfectly satisfied to be something of a hotshot in British history, British ways of life, British literature, British values. And then, suddenly, to find that there were some thirty-six states west of where I was with their own qualities and their own values was a revelation. And it came not one minute too soon. If I had stayed four more years in my eastern environment, I would have been doomed.
What do you mean by that?
James Michener: I would have been doomed to those values and would have never worked out of them. I remember when I was a professor at Harvard in charge of a degree, and we had lined up a wonderful teaching job out in Wyoming at the University of Wyoming, a good salary, a position which would lead to tenure, life tenure, if you were good. And I called this young man in, our brightest student. And I said, “Paul, this is a chance comes once in a lifetime.” He said, “Where is it?” I said, “Wyoming.” He wasn’t sure where Wyoming was. And he, honest to goodness as I sit in this chair, he said, “Oh, I would never want to go west of the Hudson.” I pointed out to him that the last eight assignments of full professorships at Harvard had not come from anybody who had gone to Harvard. They didn’t want that nepotism stain. There was one from Oregon. A great professor, Schlesinger, I think was from Indiana. The great professor whom I worked with was from Georgia. The other one was from California. I said, “You know, if you really want to do what you want to do, go out to Wyoming and grab this opportunity. Then maybe someday, Harvard will want to bring you back. They ain’t going to take you if you sit here in this chair.” He sat there. That’s the last we ever heard of him.
What was it like, for a kid of your circumstances, to find yourself at a place like Swarthmore?
James Michener: Well, I went in at the high end of the totem pole because I had this full scholarship to Swarthmore. In those days, that was a lot of money. I had been chosen because I was straight A student at a fine school, and that I participated in everything, and was sort of a typical big man on the campus in high school. So I started out very favorably. But it took me about three or four weeks to figure out that this was a tough ball game. And that I had an agenda that was different from the other guys. I dropped out of the fraternity; I didn’t go out for organized sports; I roomed off campus; I got a job as a night watchman in a hotel. All the years that I was making straight A’s plus building really an enviable record, I was working nights in a hotel. How I got my sleep, I’m still a little perplexed. But I did all that work. But, Swarthmore was a revelation to me.
My last two years, the faculty took me aside and said, “It’s quite obvious you are going to graduate. Nothing could stop you. The question is, how well?” And the last two years, I never had a class which had more than five students in it. And most of them had four. The classes lasted for 2 and a half hours with a very bright teacher, and you knew you were going to be called on. And that’s quite a different educational experience. That’s really socking it to you. And when it was over, you were not tested by your professors, who knew you and liked you and knew you were bright. You were tested by four guys named Elmer, whom they brought in from Harvard and Yale and Oxford and the Sorbonne and the University of Indiana and maybe the University of Denver. And they looked you over, and they said, “Okay, kid, how bright are you? What do you really know?” And we had exams morning and afternoon for a week, set by men and women who had never seen us. And you can’t fake it out on that.
And then, at the end, you had an oral exam with them sitting there and pointing out that you were completely screwed up on this. Was that by accident, or do you really think that nonsense? And then you try to explain your position, and maybe you could say, “Well, I misunderstood that completely.” But that’s the kind of education I’ve always had. The affiliation with very bright people. And bright equals. Bright peers. The students I’ve worked with have been just as bright as I’ve been, and were harsher maybe on one than one’s professors were.
Who, along the way, influenced you? Motivated you?
James Michener: You know, in all the years of my education, I went to a great high school; I went to a great college; I went to seven other universities, some of the best in the world. Nobody ever sat down with me and talked with me about what I should do. Nobody. Ever. To this day. I was really left alone. We didn’t have guidance counselors then. So for that reason, I was allowed to go through high school without either French or German, when it must have been perfectly obvious that I was going to be a reasonably intelligent guy, and might one day want an advanced degree. I left totally unprepared. It’s been a terrible deficiency in my life that I don’t have those two wonderful languages. Well, I got Spanish because they had to put somebody in the class. I had a wonderful teacher there, and I have written about Spain and things Spanish all my life. So maybe it wasn’t too bad a deal. But in those days students were allowed to slip through without ever facing what they really wanted to do.
You’ve been quoted as saying that “in college I learned how to learn.” What do you mean by that?
James Michener: I think that’s a fair summary of my education. The first two years, I took the normal required curriculum, and I must say that no one course touched me very deeply. It gave me nothing I didn’t already have in essence. It intensified some of it, and if I had gone on that way, I might have been a very drab, ordinary person. But in the last two years, when I had that special education, I learned to write term papers. I learned to do research. I learned to use a library. I learned to do comparative studies. I learned to read more advanced books than I had ever read before, and read them in a different way. And I learned a lot about the language, per se, through the heavy writing that I had to do.
To this day, I find it difficult to believe that a young woman or man can get an education in the arts, unless he or she writes term papers. And I suppose that’s equally true in the sciences; although, the term paper there takes a different form. But the thing of going through a university education with those true/false tests is to me just repugnant. And it would have destroyed me. I was a wizard at true/false tests. I could figure them out in the first three minutes, as to how to avoid the middle statement and all that. But boy, when it came to original thought, I was heavily pushed because there were all these young men and women in my class who were better at original thought than I was. When the idea was established, then I could tear them apart with data and for-instances, and so on. But in original thought, I was a very ordinary person. I might have stayed that way had I not had some very heavy training.
Is that when you learned how to write?
James Michener: I would suppose I learned how to write when I was very young indeed. When I read a child’s book about the Trojan War and decided that the Greeks were really a bunch of frauds with their tricky horses and the terrible things they did, stealing one another’s wives, and so on, so at that very early age, I re-wrote the ending of the Iliad so that the Trojans won. And boy, Achilles and Ajax got what they wanted, believe me. And thereafter, at frequent intervals, I would write something. It was really quite extraordinary. Never of very high merit, but the daringness of it was.
Then I worked on the school paper, and I wrote a lot in college. When I was in advanced education, I wrote very advanced term papers, and many of them were published, and I was in the PMLA, the Publication of Modern Language Association, when I was twenty. I was learning what the language was, let us say, so that by the time I did start to write, I had done my basic homework. Never with the idea that I would one day be a writer. That came very late in my life.
Before there was James Michener the novelist, there was James Michener the teacher. Is that what you set out to do? Is that what you wanted to be in life?
James Michener: We are getting the phrase “set out” or “wanted to be”. Either one of them just doesn’t apply to me at all. I lucked into everything I did. My senior year in college, when I didn’t have a clue in the world as to what I would do the next year, a very wonderful private school in Pennsylvania teaching children of very wealthy parents came to me and said, “How would you like to work for us?” “I would like it very much, sir.” And I became a teacher by almost accident. I loved it. I was a good teacher, and had students whom I still correspond with, and for whom I still have great affection because as you say, they taught me more than I taught them.
I don’t want to suggest that you couldn’t hold a job, but you had a lot of different jobs in your life before World War II. Can you tell me about some of the jobs you held before you went into the war?
James Michener: In those days, the dreadful disease had not hit the chestnut trees, and all throughout our part of Pennsylvania there were these wonderful chestnut trees that grew very high. And on their lower branches they produced chestnuts. They have very heavy burrs, you know, and inside the most delicious meat there ever was. And we kids could go out with clubs and knock down those chestnuts after the first frost. We could sell them anywhere, and I think that I peddled chestnuts in my hometown at the age of ten. Everybody wanted them. As many as I had, that many I could sell. I became a sort of a middle man for that.
At the age of 12 or 13, I worked for the Burpee Seed Company, ten hours a day in the summer, for seventy-five cents a day, $4.50 per week. All the money going back to my mother. And I did that for several years. Next, I was a private detective in an amusement park. I did that for three or four years. After that I was night watchman in a hotel, and so on.
I have worked all my life. Never very seriously, and never with any long-term purpose. Even when I was a teacher in the schools, I never wanted to be headmaster or head of the English Department. I was just a pretty good teacher. And I think that all the administrations recognized that —that I was not going to be one of their fair-haired boys. And it was the same in the Navy.
There is a story about a crash landing. Tell me about that.
James Michener: I was in Naval Aviation. I was a paper pusher, not a pilot. But in the course of my work, I flew in almost everything that has wings, and have continued to do so through my life. I love aviation. And I walked away from three complete crashes. One of them, not too long ago — that is when I was a much older man — was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
When you go down in a DC-3, which is a small airplane, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and have no idea what is going to happen, it focuses your mind, believe me. You get scared. The plane crash landed. It was a furious landing – ripped out the bottom of the plane. It sank within three minutes. Three minutes is an eternity. There are several of us in this room [during this interview, right now]. In three minutes, if we were well organized, and nobody panicked, we could get all this furniture out of this room in three minutes. Well, we got everything out of that airplane. We got a raft; we got the life belts; we got the important papers; we got ourselves. No luggage, no gear, but we did get the life raft inflated. And we climbed in. And when you are in one of those rubber boats, I want to warn you, you get three motions: up and down, this way and this way, and this way and this way. Within ten minutes, of the thirteen men of us in the boat, I think ten of us were violently sea sick. And stayed that way. But we did get off a great signal. A radio signal which they were able to triangulate. This station in that line; this station in that line. You know what triangulation is? And all the lines meet here. There’s our boy, right down there. They put the planes over us, and I think two different planes found us.
They dropped us some supplies, and we were set for a long haul. But there was a Japanese fishing boat in the area, and they vectored it in. Didn’t wait for the rescue operation. And a brave young Japanese sailor dove in and brought us a tow rope. When they told him later that he had dived into a sea of sharks, and how was he so brave, he says, “Brave? If I’d known that, I’d have let them float.” It was one of those adventures that you have. And I must say, I think all of us on that airplane decided we would behave well. We were not going to screw up; we were not going to panic; we were going to listen to what the enlisted Chief Petty Officer said because he was in charge back there. I went forward and helped get the pilot out of the fore because he had taken a heavy blow, and I think I was the last man out of the plane because I was the oldest. And then total ignominy, I couldn’t get into the life raft. I was rather big in the hips in those days, and I could not get over that hump. They kept yelling at me. Finally, the CPO dived in and got behind and gave me a heck of a shove, and I went in, somersaulted in, and was immediately sea sick. But we were survivors, and we were going to give ourselves every chance. We did and we came through it.
And at some point, you had to decide that you were going to do it as a writer.
James Michener: Now, wait. I told you it was five years before I was brave enough to do that. I didn’t want to the way I did in the beginning.
But you started writing these stories…
James Michener: Yes, I did. I said, Let’s give it a shot.” And there, I think, is a second point worth making in this. I don’t know about the other professions, but I do know about the arts. I know about all of them, pretty well. I’ve worked with artists in all fields, and I have collaborated with them, and I’ve handled their work. My wife and I have made two big collections of art, so at least I know what it is. And I think that any young girl, or any young boy, who wants a life in the arts is entitled to believe that she or he is good enough to do it. This is not arrogance; it’s not boasting; it’s not crazy star-gazing. But if you are 18 years old, and you are Meryl Streep, now she is not the most beautiful girl in the world, and she’s not this and she’s not that. But she has a right to say, “I am as good as they come along, and I can do this thing. I can make people listen. I can touch their emotions. I can make myself look like the character.” And the kid down the street, who is maybe prettier and brighter and everything else, can’t do it. Meryl Streep is an actress. The other girl can never be. She can be something else, but she cannot be the actress. And that’s true of the poet or the sculptor or the movie director or the writer or the essayist or the person who is going to write an opera.
I know an infinite amount about music, but I cannot write an opera. And there is some clown out there without half my talent, who has a curious vision, and can put it all together. He can write the opera. Well, he is entitled to think that he is the person around here who can do it. And I believe that self-confidence is merited on the part of the young person who wants to have a life in the arts because I also believe that without it, you won’t succeed. I knew when I started that I could write, at least as well as people who were making a living at it – and a reputation. And, I never wavered on that.
I am right now in the middle of a difficult writing project. And it’s just as difficult now as when I started. But when I get up in the morning I am really qualified to say, “Well, Jim, it isn’t going too well, but there is nobody on the block who is better able to wrestle with it than you are, so lets get on with it.” I do say that.
You have to encourage and believe in yourself.
James Michener: I don’t want to say, “I can write better than him.” I don’t mean that. I think that’s self-defeating. And you make an ass of yourself if you do it. But like Montgomery Clift in his great movie about Nuremberg. He could stand before that camera, that poor tortured, twisted guy, with that marvelous talent, and he could make you believe that he was that little Jewish boy who had been castrated. I couldn’t do it. Nobody else I know could do it, but he could do it. And he was entitled, therefore, to believe that he could do it because he demonstrated that he could do it.
It seems to me that you have demonstrated the need for preparation in your field. The need for research. The need to work hard.
James Michener: Yes. I think if you look at that line of books and the magnitude of some of them and the complexity of some of them, you have to say that they did not happen by accident. So let’s start with that. Then let me say that the best books, by and large, are written by people who don’t do a great deal of research, who don’t follow my pattern. Who just sit down in a little room like this with a typewriter and maybe a word processor, some maps, and write a great book out of your own experience. That’s what Jane Austen did; that’s what the Bronte Sisters did; that’s what Emily Dickinson did. That’s what Eugene O’Neill did. I doubt that Eugene O’Neill ever opened a research book in his life. That’s what Tennessee Williams did. That’s what Truman Capote did. But then there are the writers like Gore Vidal and Herman Wouk and me, and the great classics who are greater than any of us. Balzac and Tolstoy and writers like that, who did need data. Did need research, and who did it.
If you look at the best books of the research writers, they are as good as anything anybody else did. But the bulk of the best books, I think, come from people who just sit at a desk and write. And if I were starting over again, knowing that I had the ability that I did have, I might well go that route. Just sit and write about the people I had seen and the experiences that they had.
What are you trying to do? What are you trying to achieve?
James Michener: The organization of experience, which I’ve had in very broad scatter. The organization of knowledge, and the sharing of this with other people, in the hopes that they will get out of it what I got out of it. I am not didactic. I don’t preach. I don’t give sermons. But I sure want to lay it out, so that if they see it the way I do, they will reach some of the conclusions I reached.
How do you account for that? Being ahead of your time.
James Michener: I think when you are knocked around as a young person, you look at what are the permanent values. You are trying to figure out: “I’m never going to be the banker, and it doesn’t look as if I’m ever going to be the judge, and I’m not going to be the clergyman. What is there for me?” And then you realize that there is a great deal for you, if your head is screwed on right, and your heart has the capacity to receive the signals that are being sent. I think it’s an awakening. I think it’s like being driven into a corner, and saying, “How do I get out here, Bub?” And you do what you have to do. But with it also does come awakening.
How far back do you have to go to understand history? In Centennial, you went back to the beginnings of time.
James Michener: I would hate for any young person to think that she or he was the center of the universe. I lived in a little town, in a medium-sized state, and in a medium-sized country. I mean, Canada and Brazil and China and Russia are all much bigger than we are. And I live on a medium-sized planet. Jupiter and Saturn are much bigger than we are. And our galaxy, our star, you know, is one of the smallest stars and doomed after four and one-half billion years. And our galaxy is not the big one in the sky. And it’s only one of about a billion or more. So I cannot believe that I am the hottest thing in the universe. And I think that sobers you up.
I particularly feel that because a Pennsylvanian living in Texas, as I have been doing, is at a tremendous disadvantage because who gives a hang about Pennsylvania, and everybody loves Texas. I think maybe some Texans ought to have some of the experiences I’ve had living in bigger areas.
I think one ought to see oneself in perspective, and part of that perspective with me is that we are on this planet for a very short time, and that we had better understand that the life system that produced us goes on, and did go on long before we got here. And that the animals and the birds have their place, and the dogs and the cats and the lions and tigers. And that man is the apex of that pyramid, but he ain’t the whole pyramid. No way. He is the apex, but not the whole pyramid itself. And I think that those things make someone like me have a rather stable point of view. About books and about art and about politics and about what the good life is.
You worked on Hawaii for seven years. What keeps you going after one single project for so long?
James Michener: A fundamental difference between other people and me is that when I start a project, I know it’s going to take at least three years. So two things ensue. One, it has to be a pretty good idea to keep me excited for three years. And two, I have to have a pretty good head of steam just to keep going physically and mentally for three years. I work every day of the week. I get up early and go right to the typewriter. And I have to take time out for research or a trip here or there or for my professional obligations. But I work every day. And if any one of us listening to this program were to work ten hours a day, seven days a week, for three years, I would expect something to come out of it. Especially, if you had a pretty good education to begin with, and you had some help from your friends, and review point of view from your editors and colleagues, and the company you are working for, so I don’t think that what I do is at all remarkable. It’s the result of three, four, five years of intelligent application. And fortunately, I’ve been able to do that and recommend it to everybody else.
What’s the price you pay in terms of the rest of your life?
James Michener: The costs of my childhood, I think I’ve mentioned. I have maybe a more powerful drive than I ought to have. I have radically different views about money than maybe I ought to have. I have had a very limited view of ambition. I’ve paid a heavy penalty. Now the way I work and the way I’ve dedicated my adult life has two very heavy penalties. One, you cannot retain all the friendships you make. I would say that I get letters from all over the world, many of them from old friends whom I ought still to be in touch with. But I wrote about them and their problems 25 years ago. I don’t even remember them.
The other thing that hits me everyday these days when I get up: either the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post. Look at all the stories. There is a story on almost every page that I ought to stop and read. What’s happening in Israel? What’s happening in Japan? What’s happening in the art world? What’s happening on Broadway? What’s happening to American publishing? What’s happening in Poland where I have so many friends? Gosh, I ought to spend the whole day doing nothing but keeping up. Now if you this afternoon were to ask me for three fine books on Hawaii, gosh, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. And when I finished that book, I could have been a university professor, post graduate level, in Hawaiian history. But the days pass, the years pass, we erase. I would go insane if I tried to keep it all up here. You clean the decks; you blow out the smog, and go on to the next job.
I am right at this instant tremendously interested in the system in the city of Minneapolis where they have these horrible winters, and where some bright men got together and said, “Okay, we are going to move the city up to the second floor.” And they have these wonderful bridges from one building to the other, so that you live in minus eighteen degrees Fahrenheit, in a perfectly comfortable ambiance on the second floor. You don’t even wear a top coat. You go to eighteen different restaurants within walking distance of where you work without a coat. I am interested in that because I like to see what people of intelligence can do to solve their problems. Now right now, if you want a good fifty minutes on the skyway system of Minneapolis, I’m your boy. I really know the figures. Five years from now, I’ll say, “Where? Where’s Minneapolis?” That’s the penalty you pay.
What penalty do you pay in terms of family?
James Michener: Again, you cannot retain all the friendships that you ought to have. I have been divorced, and I don’t think any man who has gone through a divorce can ever kid himself into believing that he is success, or the hotshot on the block because he knows he isn’t. I’ve had no children, not by design, but because that’s the way it worked out. But I have had a very lively life with friends. I’m not a recluse at all. I meet everybody. I have people stopping by constantly. My wife and I send other people’s children to college and are glad when they achieve and gain good lives. And I have always tried to be around young people, so that I could participate in the ball game. And that’s why I’m here in Florida, the particular place I am, because it’s an adjunct to a college where there are some very bright people and fine young professors and a good library and so on.
No, the penalties you pay are inescapable. Just numerically, they engulf you. I would say I get a flood of mail that not too many people get. From all over the world. And invitations to plead for good causes, do this or do that. And I can’t do it. You pick and choose. It looks, at the end of the year, as if I had done a great deal, but what I know is what I didn’t do. And that is also a great deal.
How do you account for the popularity of your books?
James Michener: This is not an idle question. Very few people, maybe none, have had the series unbroken: book club selections, great best sellers, wide acceptance in all languages. Let me say what I cannot do. I am not extremely good in plotting. I really don’t care how the story works out. Let it find its own way. I am not good in psychology, and I don’t deal with characters who are driven by forces which I myself don’t understand. My understanding is rather simplistic.
I am not especially good at humor; I wish I were. And, I am certainly not a stylist in English language, using arcane words and very fanciful construction and so on. There is a great deal I can’t do but… Boy, I can tell a story. I can get a person, with moderate interest in what I am writing about, and if she or he will stay with me for the first one hundred pages, which are very difficult, and I make them difficult, he will be hooked. He will want to know what’s happening on the next story and the next story and the next. That I have. And that’s a wonderful gift. That’s storytelling. And I prize it. I try to keep it cleaned up. I try to keep it on focus. I am wretched when I fail and feel and sense of terrible defeat.
I believe throughout history, through all of history, way back to the most early days of the human race, when people gathered around the fireplace at night, they wanted to remember what had happened and reflect upon the big events of that day and reassess values and maybe get new dedication to the next day. Well, I’m one of the guys who sat around the fireplace and did the talking.
The third thing, I think is, I’m not sure you are ever a good storyteller unless you are a good listener. And I really have traveled the world and listened and loved what I heard and tried to be faithful in reporting what they told me. Just for the fun of it, if I’m on a cruise ship, I want to talk with everybody, to find out what business they are in, how they got there and how they are paying for it, and what their daughter is doing, and what is going to happen in Quebec if the French up there go ape or in western Canada, if the English out there screw things up. I just love that.
I think there is another factor, and this is tough to talk about. I think that some of us have a deep-seated sensitive antennae about what is going to happen. And somebody the other day, a fine professor, made an introduction of me, which I had not thought about, but which I had thought about a great deal since. At that time, in the world, there were about a half dozen trouble spots: the Near East, the Jewish-Arab relationships, South Africa, revolution in Poland, the emergence of Japan, the absorption in the United States of two outlying territories like Hawaii and Alaska and four or five other things. And he pointed out that I had written full-length books about all these areas before they came into prominence. And I did! There they are. Look at the dates. Now this cannot be because I was exceptionally brilliant. I am not brilliant. I’m something else. I don’t know what the word would be, but it isn’t brilliant. And I’m not all-wise. I’m a pragmatist. I learn as I go along. But I did have a feeling through my study of geography and history and people, that these places had to come into prominence. And that when they did come into prominence, people would want to read about them. And they would take my counsel in the years when they were not prominent, and say, “Well, maybe he knows something. Maybe he knows what he’s talking about.” And if they read the book when it was written, well, then they had a good understanding of what things happened when they happened. And that is maybe the mystery of the whole thing.
It is not the powers of a seer or a prophet or anything like that. It is something else. It is the operation of a real good geographer. And a real good traveler. And a real good thinker about things. Arcane knowledge I don’t have, but I sure have ordinary knowledge.
For all of your traveling and all of your research and all of your writing, what feeling has all this given you for America?
James Michener: I have lived abroad a good deal of my life, and I have been invited to live abroad. But I never would do that because I have consciously wanted to live within the United States under the protection of the United States flag, pay my taxes here and participate fully in the American experience.
Now it would have been immensely profitable for me in the old days to live abroad because if you did you were exempt from income taxes, as you probably know. That’s no longer the case, but it was for a long time. Almost every young man, I don’t know too many young women in this, but almost every young man who took that option, did so at great peril to himself. He somehow or other dropped out of the major race. He got a few fast bucks, but he didn’t get the good jobs. If he was an actor, and he went to Europe, they wouldn’t call him back for the big show that Marlon Brando was going to do. They’d say, “Look, Paul is over here. We can get him for peanuts because he has got to work.” And so Paul takes this half-baked job, and the first thing you know, Paul has suffered, suffered, suffered.
It’s true with writers; it’s true with dancers. Now, the person it isn’t true of, and it’s very fascinating, is the opera singer because we don’t have a lot of opera companies in this country. And if you are a real good tenor or a real good contralto, you can go to Europe, and you can work in those opera companies and do thirty a year! Learn five new roles, and everything good. If I were a tenor, I would be over there right now.
There are some people who, in analyzing your works, try to pull out major or favorite themes. They cite the meaning of being an American as one of those themes, and respect for this country as another.
James Michener: Well, I have three or four times given evidence that I really mean what I say. I’m not quite sure why I behaved as I did. I don’t think of myself as patriot. Certainly not a super patriot. But I have served this nation in a great many capacities, often at my expense. So at least I have done it. I would think it goes way back to the very earliest cave days, and I think about that a great deal: that you were a part of the particular body of land on which you were born and to which you were hooked and to which you responded and which defended you and gave you sustenance. So let’s go way back there. It wasn’t our cave against their cave. I have no feeling of that at all. Now when I was a boy, I lived on the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and everything in Pennsylvania was good, and everything in New Jersey was bad. Later I found I liked New Jersey better than I did Pennsylvania! I was in a heck of a stew. I do have a primordial feeling about my land and the mountains that I grew up with and the waterways that I have lived with.
One of the most memorable experiences of my life is talking with a great geographer who had a map of Australia and a map of the United States, here and here. And he said, “Jim, remember always that these two are exactly the same size — bar that little bite down there which gives us a few more miles. Distances from here to here are the same; from north to south are the same. What is the difference? I thought, “Well, we are good people and they are not, or we are educated and they are not, or we had the early pilgrims and they didn’t.” “No,” he said, “it’s the Mississippi River.” If you rip out of the United States the Mississippi River and all its tributaries, you have Australia. Beautiful coast, some rivers here, beautiful coast over here, and not a thing in the middle. And the reason it makes the difference is this: that when you have that river system — now we are talking about the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Missouri, the Nebraska, fifty rivers — when you pull that out, you have left a desert. And you don’t have enough people to support the industries on the two coasts. You can’t grow; you can’t have a great airline; you can’t have this; you can’t have that. And the difference is in the land. And I believe that without any question. I think that the difference between the United States and Australia is we have that fantastic river system, and they don’t. And if they had it, they would be better than we are maybe because they are a tough bunch of cookies down there. I think the land is a fundamental with me.
You’ve taken time out from writing these big novels to be a reporter. You’ve written about Kent State in 1971. You’ve written about civil rights. You’ve written about athletics and values in the U.S. What concerns you about this country?
James Michener: I think that any person who has lived 84 years in a given society is really stupid if, as it draws to a close, he doesn’t reflect upon what he did right and what he did wrong and how he messed up and how if he’d only been a little brighter. All that is inevitable. That’s a part of the human experience. Well, when you live not only in your own skin, but in your society and in your nation, you also cast up. When I was young and went out on the streets, and I was on the streets more than almost anybody you know, counting country roads, I had hardly a negative experience. Nobody wanted to give me drugs. Nobody wanted to con me. Nobody assaulted me sexually. Nobody wanted me to become an alcoholic. Nobody wanted me to be a gambler. I was supported by my entire society. Not well. I never had any money, but I had moral support, and I knew it, and I felt it. But the young person today doesn’t have that. There are a lot of pitfalls out there today for the young kid that I never faced. So I am not going to moralize and say, “Why don’t you behave like I did.” Because he has no option of doing that. The schools aren’t as good for one thing. And maybe the colleges aren’t teaching as rigorously as mine were.
But I do think one thinks back. And the great problems that I see are the fact that we are becoming a consumer nation rather than a producing nation. That we think we can run this great country on hot dog stands and electronics from Japan and shoes from Italy. And what are we making ourselves? What are we producing within our own society that keeps us strong? The second thing is the weakness in education. That terrifies me because my life was saved by education, and I want that same thing to be available for the kid that comes along. And I think that it is in greater peril than it was in my day. The third is that we haven’t solved our racial problems too well yet. The reports of the last few days are heartbreaking; that black youths die earlier, often at their own hands. That they don’t have the sense of self-respect that whites are allowed to have. That their family pattern is under terrible stress, when we know that they are just as able as we are, and they are just as wonderful.
The great black athletes that I have known are some of the best men that I have known in this country. Now if they can handle themselves as well as Wilt Chamberlain has — relatively — and especially Bill Russell and Magic and Jordan, then they are doing better in their fields than I am doing in mine. Should I construct a view and values that say that I’m superior to Jordan or Magic, when they are such magical people? I am good at what I do, but I’m not that good. And that worries me a great deal; it really does. I’ve lived in areas where this fight is underway right now, in Texas and Arizona, and Miami. And we ought to knock it off.
The other is that I do think we have paid less attention to the values of our society than we should have. Through the church, through great education, through our newspapers, through the agencies that we have. I think that a nation that loses touch with its essential values, the values which characterize it and determine it, is really playing a very dangerous game because the time comes when you forget them. And when you forget them, you lose them. And when you lose them, you may lose your forward impetus. Let me be very frank about that. From what I know, and the wonderful fact that we are a continental country, from ocean to ocean, we are all that that implies. All the great resources. I am quite confident that we are good until about the year 2050. I think we can absorb errors, and we can absorb civil disturbance, and we can absorb defeats as we did with Vietnam. We can absorb a lot of knocks. I think we are safe, but I’m not so sure after that. If there were to be a continuing provision of generations that did not know what America is all about or did not have tough rigorous inner discipline, or did not produce goods that will keep the country rich and prosperous — we might be in very serious trouble.
That looms very large in my life right now. That anticipation, that expectation, that supposition. I could visualize a period one hundred years from now — fifty years from now — in which Japan was still a well-codified, well-organized state with a central drive and a central intelligence, and Germany could be the same. And when the United States, because of our peculiar structure, might be fragmented. It might be a Northeast; might be a West Coast; might be a Southern Tier. Might be a Mississippi Valley. That’s a possibility — if we make a lot of hideous mistakes. And so I am very strongly imbued towards a sense of a central tendency. I love that in human life. I love that in family life. I love it in a community, and I love it in a nation.
What do you say then, to a young man or a young woman who might come to you for advice about how to do something with their lives?
James Michener: In my fields — and I am consulted about a lot of young people in my fields only — the answer is very clear. The problem at 16 is to get a good education, so that you know something. And get basics. Then to get as good an education as you can and dedicate yourself to the field you want to do. And then pray to God that your family and your rich uncle and the girl you marry and so on, will be able to keep you on track from 24 to 44. Those 20 critical years. Because if you do it when you are 44, then everybody realizes you are a winner. That kid has it. Her head is tacked on right. And then you become invaluable to society. How you survive from 24 to 44 is a tough question, because everything sort of tears you down. You get obligations. You lose your forward impetus. You lose your courage. Your marriage has turned sour. It isn’t the wonderful thing you thought. You went into the wrong occupation. And from 44 on, if that’s the case, that is hell. So that ball game is to make yourself eligible, and then somehow or another, earn enough to live on for the twenty critical years. Then trust you are on the right track, and there’s no stopping you.
What person has most inspired you in your early life?
James Michener: Balzac. That son-of-a-gun could write. And he kept writing. He wrote, there were 30 or 40 great books. And he did it his way. He didn’t try to be Flaubert; he didn’t try to be Dostoyevsky, or anybody else. I take great solace from that. It’s curious. I’m educated in the British tradition, but the French have had a very powerful impact on me.
What have your disappointments or frustrations been?
James Michener: Some years ago I saw a poster of 64 figures in the Watergate scandal in Washington. Of those 64, only one had ever run for public office. All the rest had been appointed. Bright young guys who were going to change the world. They thought they were smarter than anybody else, doing it their own way, because Congress is a bunch of dopes. I think one of the best things I ever did was run for Congress. One of the very best things because it taught you how limited you were. And it also taught you that out there were a group of people who had their own agendas, their own desires, their own concerns, and that you were just a public servant, trying to keep them in balance.
I remember the Sunday before election day. I was running against a powerful guy who had never lost an election in his life. And he certainly didn’t intend to lose this one to me. We were campaigning in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and we were campaigning in the ethnic clubs, the Scandinavians and the Italians and the Irish and the Slavs and this and that. The Poles and the Slovaks. They had these clubs, so they could have free beer on Sundays. But we campaigned there. The Sunday before the final election, when he and I had really fought. We had campaigned and read everybody, everywhere. And when we went through that club, the bulk of the people didn’t even know there was an election on Tuesday. And those who did had never heard of their congressman. He had been their congressman for 12 years! And they certainly had never heard of me.
That was a very sobering experience. Well, the people who had heard of us voted, and they elected him to Congress, and he served there very well. I went on to do other things. Did I ever sour grape it and say it’s just as good I lost? Don’t you believe it. I was very angry about it. It still burns in me. I should have won that election. I would hope I would have been a good congressman. I didn’t make it.
Later, as a result of the hard campaign I ran, I was appointed to numerous government offices: State Department and Voice of America, and the Postal Department. And I served in Washington a long time and very diligently. It was one of the best parts of my life. I love politics. I often say, “I wasn’t a politician because I was a good writer; I was a good writer because I was a politician.” I love the hurly burly and the shenanigans.
I have helped other people. And when the State of Pennsylvania decided to rewrite its constitution, something no major state has succeeded in doing, or hasn’t yet, other than Pennsylvania, I went out as one of the leaders of one of the parties, and we battled that for the better part of a year. The convention itself was about two months long. It did a wonderful job of bringing Pennsylvania into the twenty-first century. And I lost everything I wanted on it. I wanted taxation of church property that wasn’t used for the church. I wanted taxation of American Legion property that wasn’t used for the American Legion. I wanted the merits election of judges instead of election — a silly system. I wanted to cut back the justices of the peace who got their salaries in proportion to the number of people they found guilty. And so on. I lost every one. I especially wanted to cut the size of the legislature. We have the largest legislature in America in Pennsylvania. I lost every one. And sometimes under rather fiery contention.
When it was over, both parties got together and agreed that I would be appointed the chairman of the commission to put the whole thing into effect. I hadn’t prevailed on the things I wanted, but I had prevailed in giving an exhibition of a guy who would fight for what he wanted and would try to do the right thing and would be fair about it.
As a writer, do you have to be ready to take that unpopular position?
James Michener: Yes, there is no question about it. I have had four or five of my books banned in the country about which they were written. Heavily banned. Sometimes scornfully. And I have never fought back because I felt if I spent seven hundred pages saying what I thought, they had a right to take two newspaper columns and say what they thought. And I have lived to see all of them reversed as the years passed. People saw that maybe they didn’t like what I had written. Maybe it wasn’t what they would have written. Maybe even in some cases it could not have been fair. But they did see that I was an honest guy trying to state what the facts were. And that in the years that passed, an enormous number of people who came to visit those countries came with my book in their baggage. I think that is the kind of acceptance that one fights for. The temporary one. At the beginning; gosh, you know, that only lasts a few weeks. The other one is the long haul. And you hope that you will be judged in the long haul that: I may not have liked the book, but I can’t scorn it because of what it really did.
How do you handle criticism? You must have been subjected to a lot of it.
James Michener: I have been, constantly. You see, not too many people work in a job where, waiting out there are three or four hundred people who are paid to tear apart what you’ve done. And often they are brighter than you are, or they know more about the subject than you do, or they wish they had written a book themselves, or done a lot better. Or they just don’t like it! And you have to live with it. I have been very well treated by the critics in the long haul. And I have never fought back. I have taken the attitude I did toward being banned.
I did write to Time magazine once. They gave me a very bad review, and I said, “Now, I realize this, but you’ve always done that, and I want to be sure that when this book is on the top of the best seller list for the next year, you spell my name right.” They printed the damn letter, and I think they misspelled my name! But that was all in fun, and I look at it that way.
Is there anything you wish you had done, or wish you had achieved?
James Michener: If Hobart Lewis were here today, the former editor/publisher of Reader’s Digest, he could verify the fact that about 20 years ago, I wanted to stop everything I was doing and write a great book about the Muslim world because I was probably the only American who had ever lived in all of the Muslim countries in the world, except Arabia. I had lived in Indonesia. I lived in Pakistan. I lived in Malaysia, lived in Spain, and I understood the Muslim world at that time as well as an outsider could. I had great affinity for it. And Hobart was going to set up an arrangement whereby I could do that.
Somehow or other, I was diverted to other things. But it was one of the great mistakes of my life. Because had I written that book, I would this very day, when things are in turmoil in that part of the world, been an invaluable citizen. And that again, I think, is what a young person has a right to think about. That right now, if somebody in our great universities would say, “You know, South America is going to be down there always. All those people, Hispanic speaking, Portuguese speaking, all with their own problems, and if I took time out to learn Portuguese and Spanish, and really worked down there for those twenty tough years, I could do everything that Jim Michener has done about Asia. Maybe easier because it is needed so much.” That is open to everybody.
Thank you so much for speaking with us.