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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
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James Michener Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist

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  James Michener

What do you mean by that?


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 Interview Photo

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?

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?


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.


James Michener Interview Photo
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 Interview Photo
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.

As a Quaker, weren't you exempt from military service?


James Michener: I was a Quaker, and I was exempt from military service by Government edict. And I was also 36 years old, so I was beyond the draft, but I fell into the hands of a tough draft board, and particularly, a specific member of it, the chairman, who did not like me very much, nor did I like him, and he hounded me into military service. I could have escaped it very easily. And everybody who heard about it thought it was outrageous. But I didn't. I had taught about Hitler, and I had taught about the Japanese war machine, and I knew that this was a battle to the death, so I enlisted.



Now I don't want that to sound too important. I enlisted because I got a letter from President Roosevelt saying, "Greetings. Get into uniform or we will come get you." And the day before, this draft board was going to send me to Fort Dix. I went down and cut a deal with the Navy. I said, "Look, I've been in the Mediterranean. I know ships; my papers were very sleek. You need me." And they said, "Yes. We do need you." And I was a Naval enlisted man that night and never regretted it. It was a vivid experience, a tremendous one. I think I saw the devastation of war. I saw the loneliness of that terrible Pacific duty. I had two complete tours out there. I saw a lot of the war and a lot of the aftermath of it. And wonder what might have happened had I stayed at home and not gone. I might never have become what I did become.


What did you discover in the South Pacific that turned you to writing.


I was 38 or 39 years old, that's pretty old, and I was surrounded by a lot of very wonderful men. Because the system had, in those days, decided that the fine men in this society would go and conduct this war, so I had men who had positions of great importance in Wanamakers Department Store, Macy's, and a wonderful guy from Tennessee who had been a trouble shooter for The Chattanooga Times, a New York Times subsidiary, and a great oil field geologist. I was small potatoes in my group, but there I was, and I had my own assets. Not as conspicuous as theirs, but still there. And I lived with these men, and I noticed that almost all the ones that I liked decided that they did not want to go back and do what they had done before; they wanted to be something else. Quite a few of them went into religion. They had been deeply moved by this. They had a spiritual awakening. Quite a few of them went into politics. They said, "I'm as bright as that clown." Quite a few of them shifted business. Quite a few of them at that advanced age went back to college on the GI Bill. I was one of that group who said, "Now, wait. If you are ever going to change direction, let's do it now."



I did not change direction consciously. I didn't say, "I'm going to be a writer." All I knew was, that I was able to write better than a lot of the stuff I was reading, and I was going to take a shot at it. That it turned out the way it did was accidental -- purely accidental. Not a matter of design at all. I had a great start. Everything hit me favorably at the beginning. It was five years before I had the courage to become a freelance with all that start because I knew what the facts were. I had been an editor myself, and I knew that people do not make a living writing books. They get enhancement in their other professions by writing books. Not many in my day ever made a living at it. And I never dreamed that I would -- never thought of it. But it worked out. I think that the axial war, and the fact that I reacted the way I did -- I consciously went in, meant that I was sort of a free agent in many aspects -- made it fairly easy to say I want to do something bigger.


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.


There is also the story of a crash landing in New Caledonia.


I was flying into Caledonia one night, that was our headquarters. Admiral Halsey had his fleet headquarters there, and I was working there. And we had to make three passes at the air field. The weather was really quite bad. Now when you came out, you made a big turn to the left to get over the mountain and get out to sea, turn 360 degrees, and come back. It's a very normal procedure, but you sure pour it on the moment you decide you give it everything, and you hope you can make that turn because you need both elevation and speed. When we did that the third time, I said wait a minute. This isn't going to work. This is tough. We may have had it. Wonderful pilot. Did it. Came back. Came into a perfect landing. It was about sunset.



That night, I could not sleep, and I went out on that airstrip on Tontouta. I'll never forget it, about eighteen miles north of where our headquarters was, Noumea. And I walked along the airstrip, and that's when the war hit me, and that's when the phenomenon I spoke of before hit me. I said, "When this is over, I'm not going to be the same guy. I am going to live as if I were a great man." I never said I was going to be a great man because I had no idea what my capacities were. I had no great confidence; nothing in my background gave me a reason to think so. But I was not forestalled from acting as if I were. That is, deal with big subjects.

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Associate with people who are brighter than you are. Grapple with the problems of your time. And it was as clear to me as if a voice were telling me to do this: "This is the choosing up point, kiddo. from here on." I had no idea that life was as short as it is. That concept comes very late in any human life, I think. I thought life was immeasurable, extensive to the horizon and beyond. But I did know that my capacities were not unlimited. I had only so much to spend, and let's do it in a big way. And I think that was all the difference.

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