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If you like James Michener's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Carlos Fuentes,
Khaled Hosseini,
John Irving,
Norman Mailer,
Frank McCourt,
David McCullough,
Gore Vidal
and Tom Wolfe

James Michener's recommended reading: Lost Illusions

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James Michener
 
James Michener
Profile of James Michener Biography of James Michener Interview with James Michener James Michener Photo Gallery

James Michener Interview

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist

January 10, 1991
St. Petersburg, Florida

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  James Michener

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 me about your childhood.


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?


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 Interview Photo
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?


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 fourteen 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.

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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 Interview Photo
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?


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 fourteen or fifteen. 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.

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James Michener Interview Photo
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.

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