Michener's 'Texas': Don't Fence It In

Times Staff Writer

Over at Random House, the corporate heads were spinning in a state of collective amazement. In tones worthy of the announcement of some major scientific discovery, they could only profess awe at what, for want of a better term, they are calling the Michener Phenomenon.

Publishing records are sometimes rubbery, but "Texas," James Michener's 32nd book, appeared to be setting some and shattering others as it entered its fifth printing--at 1.1 million copies--before its official publication date of Oct. 28. "Just by comparison," Random House's Anik LaFarge said, "it took 'Iacocca' two months to hit a million copies."

So avid was the demand for the book that LaFarge said Random House began getting calls about "Texas" almost immediately after the publication of "Poland," Michener's last blockbuster novel. For the better part of this year, she said, loyal fans of the 78-year-old author have been calling his publisher, "saying things like 'I have a relative dying of cancer and I'm worried he won't live to read the book. Isn't there any way I can get an advance copy?' "

Texas Ousts Maryland

Meanwhile, down at the Random House warehouse in Westminster, Md., a curious thing had happened. Normally, said Random House vice president Carol Schneider, the flags of the company, the United States and the state of Maryland fly on the trio of flagpoles outside that facility. But "as a measure of respect," the Maryland flag was taken down and replaced with the Lone Star flag.

Over breakfast Tuesday to discuss his latest literary feat, Michener laughed when asked if he had taken to wearing the 10-gallon hat he is pictured in on the back cover of "Texas." In fact, he said, "I want to make it clear that that 10-gallon hat came not from Texas, but years ago from Wyoming." A second huge hat that Michener wore frequently while researching and writing the 1,096-page opus in the environs of Austin dates back to the author's Colorado days.

Texas, Wyoming, Colorado--the truth is, Michener said, "I have been interested in the West for a long time. I went out to Colorado in 1936. It was in a sense the making of me, in that I was an Eastern Seaboard boy. To find that there is life west of the Hudson was very essential to me."

Clad not in denims, but in a New York-proper gray flannel suit, Michener sipped from a glass of fresh orange juice and ignored a heaping plate of croissants. Any trace of his "Texas" tan had vanished, the casualty, no doubt, of the last two years near Sitka, Alaska, where Michener has been researching his next epic.

As for "Texas," a novel that spans 4 1/2 centuries, and is packed with violence, conflict, love, passion, politics and the peculiar wheeling-and-dealing that seems less ruthless when sugarcoated in a Texas accent, Michener said it was an idea he had been ruminating on for nigh onto 40 years. "I think I am like a good many people in that respect," Michener said, "in that it takes time for ideas to germinate."

Still, as Michener readily admitted, "A woman or a man could write a marvelous novel, obviously, about any state of the union, particularly if it were a novel of character. One of the best states would probably be Iowa because it has such a high degree of literacy."

Nonetheless, "if you want to write a book such as I want to write, Texas has some enormous advantages."

'Extremely Dramatic History'

For one thing, "Texas was a free nation for 10 years." Then, "Texas has a frontier with a foreign country that speaks a foreign language and has a different religion, a state religion, that is to say, that is not the state religion of our country." Certainly, "Texas has an extremely dramatic history. It has charismatic participants of extraordinary variety."

Second only to Alaska in size, Texas, Michener said, "has dramatic economic foci"--cattle, oil, aviation, shipping and high finance, to name only a few.

"And it has . . . a pretty good reputation in the English speaking world."

Not, however, that Texas is unique in being what Michener terms "a plus for the storyteller." Among other states, "Virginia and California are two that come to mind" quickly as replete with literary fodder. As for New York, Michener smiled: "If one were going to be a Balzac, certainly." Then he turned serious: "I have often thought of this. If I were a young man, what better than to take New York for maybe 15 or 20 novels? Somebody is going to do this, no question about it."

On the other hand, Michener does like to pride himself on being something of a literary soothsayer. As he points out, past novels on Poland, Israel and South Africa, among other geopolitical hot spots, have portended what grew to be worldwide attention, often by a number of years.

None Too Reticent

In much the same fashion, Michener was none too reticent about directing attention to "two passages in the book that are pretty perceptive about what role Texas is going to play in the future." Michener thumbed through his book, whipping through pages as if he had memorized the contents of each of them. One passage, he said, "deals with Nobel Prizes--and here I find this morning that Texas just knocked off two Nobel Prizes." The author offered a broad, proprietary smile. "I can honestly say that I foresaw this."

Even on the eve of its publication, Michener said he was fretting over the graphics and presentation of his latest mammoth work. He wanted the inside maps and diagrams in a particular fashion, he insisted, and he had a special image in mind for the flag on the cover. He won those points, but as for the famous 10-gallon-hat back-cover picture, Michener lost. "It wasn't the one I wanted," he said. "There was a better one."

Yet for all the final-hour nitpicking, Michener said firmly that "Texas" has taken a literary back seat to Alaska, the state to which he said he simply gravitated.

"I think I would be there if Alaska belonged to some other nation," Michener said, "partly because I ought to, to round out my work."

With its ethnic diversity, its vastness, its key location and a history that gives new meaning to the term "colorful," Alaska was as alluring to him as Bali Hai was to the young hero of "Tales of the South Pacific," Michener's maiden literary effort.

"Obviously, for somebody like me," he said, "somebody who is interested in geopolitics, races, history--well, Alaska was just waiting for somebody like me."

100 Letters a Week

And besides, "I can say that over the last 40 years I have probably received 100 letters a week asking me when I was going to write about Alaska."

Michener gave the project some thought over the years: "Twenty years ago, I thought I was too old to undergo the rigors of an Alaskan winter." But "two years ago"--at the age of 76--"I thought what the heck."

So, like nomadic characters from one of his own novels, Michener and his wife Mari packed up and headed north. Last winter, he said, "I went up to spend one winter north of the Arctic Circle." At 55 degrees below zero, he reported, "you have to take notice, you really do. It is awesome."

Engaged now in the actual writing of the book, Michener said it was hard for him to comment on its progress. "There is a wonderful Spanish adjective," he said. " 'Regular.' " Michener motioned with his hand as if to gesture, so-so, or as the French say, comme ci, comme ca. "What it means is," Michener said, "the book isn't totally screwed up yet.

"I have been working on it for two years, and I have it on course. Within two years from now I think that I would have a book--Random House will be happy to hear this--that will be noticeably shorter than 'Texas.'

"I must say that at this stage of the game," he said, "a short nonfiction book (following the Alaska project) looks very inviting."

Confidence and Expertise

Playfully, Michener picked up a copy of "Texas." "I think the Surgeon General is going to have to have a special label for the next one: 'This book is dangerous if dropped on toe.' "

Talking about his life's work, about the time and money he has spent--and earned, Michener fairly exudes confidence and expertise. The words seem to flow effortlessly, even though, Michener cautions, "I take it very seriously. I work all the time."

But it is difficult to imagine him practicing the two-finger biblical (for "seek and ye shall find") method of typing, which he does, and it is harder still to envision him jettisoning an incomplete project. The reality is, Michener said, "A lot of years of my life have been spent with these great projects, and you get scared. In the middle of a task as big as 'Texas,' you wonder if you can hack it.

"You know," he said, "I have started three that I haven't finished."

One, he said, is "a very powerful novel on the siege of Leningrad." Another was "on Mexico, which I got about 85% done." The third he barely considered worthy of conversation. That one, he said, "was one lesser magnitude."

On other occasions, "I have backed away from several projects because I couldn't see myself wasting my time on a project I really wasn't interested in."

Michener is fierce in defending the enormity of his research. He spends years, hires staffs, commits a hefty budget. As an example of the kind of money he spends, "Just let me tell you today that in Alaska a milkshake is $4.85, and a beat-up enchilada with some questionable sauce is $18."

Incontrovertible Skill

The money is from his own pocketbook, Michener said. "I usually haven't taken advances from Random. They usually have owed me money because my books are lucky.

"I do it on my own, and you are really talking six figures per book."

But even for all the time, the money and--critics notwithstanding--the incontrovertible skill, Michener pays heed to another important element. "To bring these great ships safely into port requires a lot of luck."

Indeed, he said, "I've had about nine, 10, 11 books that have been at the head of the best-seller list. I don't think you do that by talent alone. I don't believe it.

"I'm not going to denigrate my own talent, but I think you also need that little extra push. Just remember that the first book I wrote won the Pulitzer Prize, and it became this marvelous play and musical, and it is off of that that I have lived ever since."

So maybe there is some magical charm at work in Michener's literary universe?

"Oh," he said, "I think so. Yes, I think so.

"You make yourself eligible," Michener said. "I don't think it happens if you don't know what a paragraph is."

But it also takes goals, and determination. As a college student, Michener said, "I went through school as an English major, and after about eight years I realized that it was too confining for my interests. So I started all over again in history, and a year later I was visiting professor of history at Harvard.

"And I realized that my interest was bifurcated between English and history."

Marries Both Interests

So with the success of a first book that has continued to support him, Michener has continued on a path that marries both interests. Usually this union is a happy one, even an ideal one, although, Michener confessed, "Whenever I am writing fiction I wish I were writing nonfiction, and whenever I am writing nonfiction, I very ardently wish that I were writing fiction, so I could wing it."

One way Michener retains and fuels his literary momentum is by constantly thinking about the next project, even before the current one is completed. "I usually have about seven or eight ideas in the pipeline," Michener said. If that figure sounds impressive, "I think Dickens could probably have dreamed up a novel every month, Balzac every time he went walking."

As Michener laments, "sadly," one of the casualties of his prodigiously prolific literary life has been personal reading. Working at his door-top desk, armed with the cutting board, ruler and paste pot that he sees as essential tools of his trade, there is just so little time, he said, for anything that is not related to Michener's project of the hour.

"I do take note of books which critics commend highly," he said. "And when I get a fallow spell I will stop at the book stand at the airport to see if two or three are available in paperback.

"I keep au courant with what I ought to have read, and I read about a third of that."

Some years ago, for instance, "I read a spate of women's books to see what those rascals were up to."

And, Michener said, "I really read voraciously, obviously. I get maybe 20 books brought into my office every week. You get awfully good at reading indexes."

One thing that comes as no surprise at all is to hear James Michener declare his passion for books, and for the process of reading itself. He spends so much time agonizing over every detail of his efforts, he said, because "I love books, I really do, and I want the reader to find the book inviting and readable." What he wants, in short, is "a book book."

Remains a Serious Book Junkie

Having traveled to obscure pockets of the planet, dabbled in "Space," baked in "Hawaii," tackled the topic of "Sports in America" and taken on the dubious task of explaining "Kent State: What Happened and Why," Michener remains a serious book junkie. It is as simple as an addiction, his life blood.

"I can't imagine a profession for a young person with any kind of talent at all than to be involved with books," Michener said."

And then, suddenly whimsical, he offered the great criterion for becoming a writer.

"I would say," James Michener said, "that you have to wear glasses by the age of 22."

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