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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: 5 / 5)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist

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  James Michener

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?

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?


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.


James Michener Interview Photo

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 twelve 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.

James Michener Interview Photo
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 Interview Photo
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.

Could you share some memories of your book Tales of the South Pacific and its adaptation into the musical South Pacific?


I think the most moving moment in South Pacific, is when Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese indentured servant, has brought her daughter to the attention of Lieutenant Cable, and she thinks it's all going in one way. They fall in love. They are two wonderful young people. They are handsome and beautiful and desirable. And as she comes down, following them, when he is going to the boat leaving the island for a time, when he would go to his death. She tells the natives around, "Look at that wonderful guy. He going to be my son-in-law." You know he's not going to be. And you know that it might work out better if he were. And that is what drama can do. Because then, when the planter, Pinza, and Mary Martin do get together, you feel it is really the right thing. And it's a kind of fulfillment of the one that went wrong. Things are going to go wrong, and I think we are false to life if we don't portray it. But there is also the hope that some lucky clown is going to come along and stumble into the gold mine. And I think you are also entitled to hold out that hope.


Is there anything you wish you had done, or wish you had achieved?


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.

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This page last revised on Feb 16, 2011 18:18 EDT
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