How Can James Michener, Who Brought Us Stories Like ‘Hawaii’ and ‘South Pacific,’ Be So Dispassionate in Talking About His Own Life? : Close to the Vest
You expect a certain image from one of America’s favorite storytellers; expect that a man whose books have sold so many millions of copies would march in and act like a star. You imagine that the author of “Tales of the South Pacific,” “Hawaii,” “Alaska,” and “Texas” would overwhelm with a carefully constructed personality.
But James Michener is all business. There is a sense about this quiet, bespectacled man that life is to be experienced with efficiency, that emotions are seldom to be seen or heard.
Even in his memoirs.
In an era when sordid confessions pour out of well-known figures like Cheerios from the box, the author of some three dozen books has at last chosen to turn his pen on himself. But the one real concession to passion in “The World Is My Home” is an admission to weaknesses for grand opera and peach ice cream.
Right in the first sentence of Chapter 1, Michener warns, “This will be a strange kind of autobiography"--and he eschews the traditional chronological structure. Rather, this examination of the people, places and events that have shaped his life is organized by subject with chapters titled “Travel,” “People,” “Politics,” “Ideas,” and, more playfully, “Intellectual Equipment.”
At 84, he wrote the book only “because I have been asked to do this again and again.” And yes, says Michener, as if the question were so obvious that it barely requires a response, “the fact that I delayed it so long would indicate that I was uncomfortable about writing it.”
Says Owen Laster, Michener’s literary agent for the 24 years, “I think there is a consistency in the memoir (and) the man in that he is a fairly private person in terms of his personal life.” Readers seeking to learn more about Michener might better turn to “The Fires of Spring,” his agent suggests. That coming-of-age novel spotlights “a young man who has had a hard time,” says Laster, something Michener has chosen not to dwell upon in his life story.
Michener began his life as a foundling and was raised by a woman who took in laundry to survive. Childhood, he says, was “difficult.” Not Dickensian, as some have said, not “evilly difficult.” Let’s just call it “severely disadvantaged.”
A brief first marriage “vanished, no recriminations.” End of subject. A second failed marriage merits not so much as one sentence of discussion in an interview.
His work--writing and laborious research--is his lifeblood. He has little time or inclination for anything else.
Crisp and concise, these observations are made from Michener’s perch in a stiff-back chair in a Manhattan hotel room. He is sitting straight, eyes direct.
Michener walks with a metal cane and worries about Alzheimer’s disease. He keeps his body lean, not one pound heavier than when he played high school basketball in Doylestown, Pa. But when he thinks no one is looking, he sneaks a chewy chocolate mint from a bowl on the coffee table and stuffs it in his pocket. He will save it for later, a private extravagance.
If there are other, more complex or intriguing secrets to James Michener’s life, they will remain so.
When pressed about how it feels to have grown up without so much as a birth certificate, Michener deflects the question in the direction of his wife.
“Look at my wife. Her life is exactly parallel to mine,” Michener says, flaring for just the briefest of moments. Mari Michener, a Japanese-American and Michener’s wife of the last 30-plus years, “went through the hell” of being interned in a detainment camp during World War II, her husband says. “It hasn’t touched her. It’s the most amazing thing.
“She just said, ‘It happened. It was stupid. It never should have happened, and I don’t give a damn,’ ” Michener says.
And so it is with his own early years in Doylestown. Michener was raised in “a nest of foster children” by a poor Quaker widow named Mabel Michener. He knows nothing about his parents. When Michener needed a birth certificate to enlist in the Army in World War II, a Doylestown lawyer summarily invented one.
Others might have taken this rather non-traditional start in life as an occasion for rage or for hand-wringing. Michener merely shrugs. Long ago, he decided: “I’m not going to let it get me down.”
He calls that resolution “a decision of character, not a moral force.” Anger or defensiveness, he “figured out quite early,” would be “a waste of time.”
His first book, “Tales of the South Pacific,” sold modestly when it came out in 1947. At the time, his “accumulated assets” totaled $800. (Before the war, he had graduated from Swarthmore College, earned a master’s at Harvard and studied at half a dozen other colleges and universities--wherever the Depression-era student could pick a scholarship. He also taught school and worked briefly as an editor.)
But when “South Pacific” won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for the stage by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the author was vaulted into an elite pantheon of hugely successful writers. And Michener soon decided he wanted no part of the literary hoopla. “Having seen a great deal of the nonsense of publishing, I found it distasteful.” Public posturing violated his sense of privacy.
Of course, Michener is not without ego. He started slowly as a writer, “very belatedly, very tentatively,” he says. But once he began, “because of my superb education and the experiences I had had, and the character I had built, I did have a full head of steam. I was ready then,” Michener says. Once he began writing, he “never stopped, hardly for a week.”
Even his longtime publisher has a hard time tallying up Michener’s titles. Do the collaborations count? What about the photographic books? Michener says that recently, at Random House, he saw a table full of his own book jackets. “It was pretty awesome.”
With all his regionally inspired writing--stories set in Afghanistan or Korea, Canada, Alaska, Japan or so many other locations around the globe--he says that professional geographers, for example, have thanked him for helping people to understand their profession and for lending it credibility.
He struggles for accuracy in part by living for two to three years in each place he has written about. He insists he does all his own research and denies reports that he employs legions of assistants.
“I like to listen to the weather reports,” he says. “I like to know who they’re rooting for in soccer or football. You can only do that by being on the scene, and in it. That’s why I could never write about California, although people have begged me to do it, because I don’t know California that way.”
Mari and Jim Michener move about habitually. Even now, when Michener is not--for the first time in recent memory--conducting any on-site research, they divide their year into residential thirds. For a few months they live in Maine, then Texas, then on the west coast of Florida, where they have bought into a kind of genius-level retirement compound.
They call each other “Cookie” and still joke that if ever they should fall upon hard times, they could buy a truck and hire themselves out as domestic workers.
“I would be the butler, and my wife would be the maid,” Michener says.
It’s unlikely. Michener never discusses how much he has made from his books, but over the years he has given away about $20 million, mostly to colleges and universities. The success of “Tales of the South Pacific” alone enabled him never to take an advance for a book. Instead, he receives high royalties and other benefits.
But 45 years of commercial success does not mean that James Michener does not still clutch occasionally when he sits down at his creaky old manual typewriter. Sometimes he writes chapters out of sequence, skipping ahead to “the easy part.” Often he finds that as a result, he must throw out huge chunks of what he has written.
For all his apparent confidence, he still succumbs to uncertainty. “In the middle of every book, I get panic-stricken,” Michener says. “I think, ‘Who’s going to read this?’ Then I think, ‘Well, there’s nobody on this block who could tell this story any better than I could.’ ”