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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

Related Links:
Michener Museum
MIchener Library
Michener Center

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James Michener
James Michener
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James Michener Interview (page: 3 / 5)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist

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  James Michener

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.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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 Interview Photo
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.

James Michener Interview Photo
Let's go back to the Tales of the South Pacific, which deals with the theme of Americans in some far off exotic place, dealing with trans-cultural situations and experiences. What was it about the Tales of the South Pacific, and the movie, and the musical South Pacific, that reached people?

James Michener: It came along when it was needed. People were thinking about these things. It was very daring for its day. We were advised to drop all the racial comments. That they would never be acceptable on Broadway, and it would destroy the play. But it also dealt with some very lovely human beings: this older man in love with a young nurse, the nurse trying to broaden her horizons. To be able to include Polynesian children. And the musical had some great tunes.

It's not often in a musical, though, do you hear words like "You've got to be taught to hate and fear." Was that something you were trying to say?

James Michener: I really believe in all of my books. I've testified to the fact that people of different climates and nationalities and religions and skin color can be delightful people -- just like your next door neighbors. And I have never deviated from that. I believe it thoroughly. I think that is a particularly American problem. I was not smart enough to perceive that it was an American problem until much later, when race problems became dominant in this country. But I had certainly staked out my position on it when I was a very young man. And I have never wavered from that.

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.

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.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

What's the price you pay in terms of the rest of your life, your personal life?

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 twenty-five 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 Interview Photo
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.

Let me ask you something about the obligations of a writer. You deal with history and fiction. In this age of the television docu-drama, isn't there this danger of distorted history? How do you deal with fact and fiction?

James Michener: I pioneered this form in certain respects, and I have had three or four guidelines. One, I would do my research to find out what's actually happening. When I went to Poland, one of the first things I did was to commission, at my expense, some twenty Polish intellectuals to tell me what the hot ideas were in Poland at that time, and what to avoid, and especially what old ideas are now outmoded. And I have done that always.

I have sought out bright people and said, "Where are the pitfalls?" A point I want to make very strongly is that I don't want the old books on the interpretation of Poland. I want the five best books of the last ten years. I want to know where we have more or less expanded our knowledge. The second thing is, as a result of that research, I really do pledge myself not to fake anything. Not to give spurious quotes on important subjects. Not to portray a person wildly contrary to what the facts are, regardless of where the facts lead. The third is that I have tried to, in this wonderfully exciting form, always to pin the story on fictional characters or fictional boats or fictional regiments or fictional companies. In history, I would never write about the Mayflower because everybody has done that. And everybody knows too much about that. I would write about the third ship that came in. Nobody knows what it was. I'm going to say it's the Thetis. And, boy, are there going to be some interesting people on the Thetis. And they are going to get to the Plimouth colony. They are going to tear that place apart because nobody knows really who they were. That's a device I use, and the adjunct to that is, basing my story upon those imaginary characters, I then am not adverse to bringing in historic characters to give it authenticity and color, but only insofar as the historic character might really have impinged on these lives.

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