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What It Takes: James Michener

James Michener
James Michener
What It Takes: James Michener
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:27 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:52 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. For this week’s episode, I’ve dug into the Academy’s vault and pulled out a 1991 interview with author James Michener. Michener wrote over 50 books of fiction and nonfiction, including historical epics like Hawaii, The Source, and Texas, along with Tales of the South Pacific, which won a Pulitzer. I loved listening to this conversation with Michener. He was 85 at the time. The story of his childhood could have come straight out of Dickens, and the story of his success is full of surprising twists. But listen first to this frank assessment he gave of his own talents as a writer.

00:01:44 JAMES MICHENER: Let me say what I cannot do. I am not extremely good in plotting. I really don't care how the story works out. Let it find its own way. I am not good in psychology, and I don't deal with characters who are driven by forces which I, myself, don't understand, and my understandings are rather simplistic. I am not especially good at humor.

00:02:10 I wish I were. And I am certainly not a stylist in the English language using arcane words and very fanciful constructions and so on. There's a great deal I can't do, but boy, I can tell a story. I can get a person with moderate interest in what I'm writing about, and if she or he will stay with me for the first hundred pages, which are very difficult — and I make them difficult — he'll be hooked. He'll want to know what's happening in the next story and the next story and the next story.

00:02:49 And that I have. I prize it, and I'm wretched when I fail, and I feel a sense of terrible defeat. But I believe throughout history, way back to the most early days of the human race, when people gathered around the fireplace at night, they wanted to remember what had happened and reflect upon the big events of that day. Well, I'm one of the guys who sat around the fireplace and did the talking.

00:03:24 ALICE WINKLER: Michener was one of the all-time great storytellers. It’s why his books were so popular, why they were published in nearly every country and every language in the world, and why they sold so well, something like 75 million copies. A lot of Michener's novels go way back in history, and they tell expansive stories about particular places, like Texas, or the Chesapeake Bay, or Israel.

00:03:51 Journalist Irv Drasnin, who interviewed Michener for the Academy of Achievement, started their conversation by asking, “How far back do you have to go to understand James Michener?”

00:04:03 JAMES MICHENER: Well, that's a very complex question because I don't know who my parents were. I know nothing about my inheritance. I could be Jewish. I could be part Irish. I could be Russian. I am a — spiritually a mix, anyway, but I did have a solid childhood, fortunately, because of some wonderful women who brought me up.

00:04:34 Never had a father or a man in the house. That was a loss, but you live with that loss, and so you don't have to go back very far. You pick me up around 1912 when I was five years old.

00:04:53 IRV DRASNIN: I mean, your early life reads like a novel.

00:04:56 JAMES MICHENER: I lived in extreme poverty. My mother, who took in stray children — and had eight or nine of them around sometimes — we moved often, in the dead of night and on a few minutes' notice, so I grew up in a small town. I think we lived in nine different houses, and I remember each one most vividly.

00:05:23 So I was different to begin with, and that made me very tough. Now if you look at my nose carefully, it goes around a corner. I didn't discipline myself, but older fellows and tougher fellows did. That's one of the great things about growing up as a boy. There's always somebody who's tougher than you are. And I was suspended from every school I was ever in. I was a difficult child, but I was also — by our standards of how they were measured, I was really quite bright.

00:05:59 I always had straight A's and did extremely well in tests, but I think it was in the accumulation and amassing and organizing of data, rather than using it creatively. I was a Germanic type of mind. I had a bear trap, and education was very easy for me.

00:06:22 ALICE WINKLER: Michener’s bear trap of a mind will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever read one of his books. They are filled with extraordinary detail based on years of meticulous research, but Michener’s path in life and his success, he says, was more the result of a decision he made very early on as a child not to let money be an important factor in his life.

00:06:47 JAMES MICHENER: Now how did that come about? I think through Christmas. At Christmas, we rarely had anything. I never had a pair of skates. Never had a bicycle. Never had a little wagon. Never had a baseball glove. Never had a pair of sneakers. I didn't have anything, and you know, at about seven or eight — I really think, seven or eight — I just decided, well, that's the way it is.

00:07:20 That's not part of my life. I'm not going to worry about it, and I never have. So the first influence was an entirely different view toward economics. Economics, for me, was a way of survival. I never saved much money. I think when I married, I had maybe 60 bucks in the bank. When I left for the Navy, I didn’t have anything in the bank.

00:07:52 When I got out of the Navy, I had a little pay in the last pay envelope, as they had. That was it. So, for me later to have stumbled upon a profession, which, in my case, paid very well, was a radical shift.

00:08:10 ALICE WINKLER: A shift that happened pretty quickly once Michener’s first book was published, but that didn’t happen until he was 40. What a debut, though. The book was Tales of the South Pacific, based on his time in the Navy. It won him a Pulitzer Prize and is still considered one of the greatest novels of World War II. Here’s the opening passage, read by actor Andy Ferlo.

00:08:35 ANDY FERLO: “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific, the way it actually was. The endless ocean, the infinite specks of coral we called islands, coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean, reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting, the waiting, the timeless, repetitive waiting.”

00:09:12 ALICE WINKLER: If you’ve never read Tales of the South Pacific, you’ve probably seen the stage adaptation by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Josh Logan. They shortened the title to just South Pacific, one of the biggest Broadway musicals of all time. Or maybe you’ve watched the movie version on Netflix or Hulu or whatever. And even if you’ve never seen that, then then you definitely still know some of the music. If you don’t, I give up.


00:09:40 When the sky is a bright canary yellow

I forget every cloud I've ever seen

So they called me a cockeyed optimist

Immature and incurably green


00:10:00 Some enchanted evening

You may see a stranger


00:10:09 Younger than springtime are you

Softer than starlight are you

Warmer than winds of June

Are the gentle lips you gave me


00:10:26 I went and washed that man right outta my hair

I went and washed that man right outta my hair

I went and washed that man right outta my hair

And sent him on his way

She went and washed that man right outta her hair

She went and washed that man right outta her hair

00:10:47 ALICE WINKLER: Michener’s overnight success with Tales of the South Pacific really was just that. He hadn’t been intending to be a novelist, hadn’t been rejected from a hundred publishers before one finally accepted him. And although he laid out just a moment ago how dirt poor he was as a child, he describes the rest of his life as a cockeyed optimist might.

00:11:10 JAMES MICHENER: Starting about age fourteen, my life became rather easy. The hard years were from zero to fourteen. The easy ones came thereafter. Now, they were only relatively easy. They were — I still had no money, and I still had no car, and I had no great prospects, but I did get scholarships. I was one of the leaders of the team, and I was good in everything I did in athletics as well as scholarships.

00:11:45 And so, starting about age fourteen, and continuing unbroken until today, I had a clear field. I never in my life applied for a job, or asked for a raise, or asked for a promotion, or sought any kind of reward whatsoever. I just have never done it. I don’t discuss with my publisher about royalties.

00:12:14 I don't argue five minutes with my agent about what to do. That's a world over there that I've never been a part of.

00:12:22 IRV DRASNIN: Your life could have taken a different turn than the one it took.

00:12:27 JAMES MICHENER: Oh, yes. I think the bottom line, sir, is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it's not at all bad. Obvious, you come out a pretty tough turkey, and you have had all the inoculations you need to keep you on a level keel for the rest of your life. The sad part is most of us don't come out, and most of the boys and girls like me that I knew never had a life like mine. They had tough life all the way down.

00:13:05 IRV DRASNIN: What got you through it? What made it different for you?

00:13:10 JAMES MICHENER: Well, I — my mother read to me when I was a boy. I had all the Dickens and Thackeray and Charles Reade and Sienkiewicz before I was the age of seven or eight, so that I knew about books, and there was a good library in our town, and I read almost everything in there.

00:13:32 ALICE WINKLER: He read about the bigger world in books, and then he went out to see it.

00:13:38 JAMES MICHENER: When I was fourteen, I had already hitchhiked, with no money whatsoever, from Central Pennsylvania down to Florida. Didn’t get into Florida — the police stopped me — and from there up to Canada. Hitchhiked down to Detroit, I remember, to visit an aunt, and from there I went out to Iowa, and then I fanned out, again and again, when I was fourteen and fifteen.

00:14:08 I would leave home with 25 or 35 — 35 sticks in my mind. I think I had a quarter and a dime on two of my trips. Never fazed me a bit. Go straight across the continent. In those days, it was easy to do. Everybody had a new car. They wanted to show it off. They liked you. They would pick you up, oftentimes feed you; oftentimes take you to their home.

00:14:36 I had a vivid experience in those years. I went everywhere, and I did it on nothing.

00:14:45 ALICE WINKLER: He was part of that generation, the one that would volunteer for World War II. They defined the word “grit.” It was a different time, with a different ethos, but Michener says the lessons in his story are universal.

00:15:00 JAMES MICHENER: I do believe that everyone growing up faces differential opportunities. With me, it was books and travel and some good teachers. With somebody else, it may be a Boy Scout master; somebody else, it could be a clergyman; somebody else, an uncle who was wiser than the father. But I think young people ought to seek that differential experience that is going to knock them off dead center.

00:15:37 I was a typical American schoolboy. I happened to get straight A's and be pretty good in sports, but I had no great vision of what I could be, and I never had any yearning. My job was to live through Friday afternoon, get over the — get through the week and eat something. And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them — the things that make you bigger than you are, the things that give you a vision.

00:16:24 ALICE WINKLER: Michener’s vision was more about how he would live his life than about his career. His vision, for instance, did not involve becoming a writer, even though he loved storytelling and started writing when he was quite young. In fact, he remembers reading a children’s book about the Trojan War and deciding the Greeks were a bunch of frauds with their tricky horses and their wife-stealing.

00:16:48 JAMES MICHENER: So at that very early age, I rewrote the ending of The Iliad so that the Trojans won, and boy, Achilles and Ajax got what they wanted, believe me.

00:17:00 ALICE WINKLER: Michener says he wrote a good many bold stories when he was young, even if they weren’t very good, and he wrote for his school paper. Then, of course, he wrote lots of academic work during college and grad school, but as he told journalist Irv Drasnin in this interview, it still didn’t occur to him to be professional writer.

00:17:19 JAMES MICHENER: Again, the phrase “set out” or “wanted to be,” either one them, just doesn’t apply to me at all. I lucked into everything I did. My senior year in college, when I did not have a clue in the world as to what I would do the next year, a very wonderful, private school in Pennsylvania came to me and said, "How would you like to work for us?"

00:17:44 "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.

00:18:02 IRV DRASNIN: I mean, I don’t want to suggest that you couldn't hold a job, but you had a lot of different kinds of jobs in your life before World War II. Can you tell me about some of the jobs you had before you went into the Navy?

00:18:16 JAMES MICHENER: In those days, the dreadful disease had not hit the chestnut trees, and all through our part of Pennsylvania there were these wonderful chestnut trees that grew very high, and on their lower branches they produced chestnuts, 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, and we could sell them anywhere.

00:18:50 And I think that I peddled chestnuts in my hometown at the age of ten, and everybody wanted them. I — as many as I had, that many I could sell. At the age of twelve or thirteen, I worked for the Burpee Seed Company ten hours a day in summer, 75 cents a day, $4-and-a-half a week, all the money going back to my mother.

00:19:17 Then next, I was a private detective in an amusement park. After that, I was a 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.

00:19:45 I was just a pretty good teacher, and it was the same in the Navy.

00:19:45 ALICE WINKLER: Michener didn’t join the Navy until he was 36 years old. It was another one of those differential experiences he talked about earlier. He was a Quaker and was exempt. He was also beyond the age of the draft, so he could have escaped service.

00:20:06 JAMES MICHENER: 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. It was a vivid experience. 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 home and not gone. I might never have become what I did become.

00:20:47 ALICE WINKLER: So what about Michener’s service in the South Pacific did lead him toward a writing career? He said it had a lot to do with the men he was surrounded by.

00:20:58 JAMES MICHENER: The system had, in those days, decided that the fine men in the society would go and conduct this war. So I had men who had had positions of great importance in Wanamaker's department store and Macy’s, and a wonderful guy in Tennessee who had been troubleshooter for the Chattanooga Times, a New York Times subsidiary.

00:21:24 I had a great oil field geologist. I was small potatoes in my group, and I lived with these men, and I noticed that almost all the ones that I liked had decided 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.

00:21:51 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 at that advanced age went back to college on the GI bill, and I was one of that group, who said, "Now, wait, if you're ever going to change direction, let's do it now."

00:22:16 ALICE WINKLER: That was one of Michener’s wartime revelations, but another came on a single night, after landing by plane on a mountainous island 900 miles east of Australia. The approach was a treacherous one.

00:22:32 JAMES MICHENER: We had to make three passes at the airfield. The weather was really quite bad. 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. That night, I could not sleep, and I went out on that airstrip at Tontouta — I'll never forget it — and I walked along the airstrip.

00:23:08 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.

00:23:37 Nothing in my background gave me a reason to think so, but I was not forestalled from acting as if I were. “Let us deal with big subjects, 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, that “this is the choosing-up point, kiddo."

00:24:13 From here on — I had no idea then that life was as short as it is. That concept comes very late in any human life, I think. I thought life was immeasurable and 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.

00:24:41 ALICE WINKLER: Which brings us back again to Tales of the South Pacific, the first book of fiction James Michener wrote. It was based on his observations and his research when he was a lieutenant commander in what’s now called Vanuatu. The war and the tropical paradise are backdrops, but the fictional stories he weaves deal with people of different cultures crossing and often colliding. A young Marine falls for a Tonkinese girl and gets her pregnant. A Navy nurse tries to broaden her horizons and accept the illegitimate Polynesian children of the wealthy Frenchman she’s in love with. It was potent stuff in the late 1940s.

00:25:26 NELLIE: Joe, you're trying to get over to Bali Hai. That little girl you told me about?

00:25:32 JOSEPH: Liat? You know, the way you look at me now is just the way my mother would look. Damn it to hell, why? What difference does it make if her hair is blonde and curly or black and straight? If I want her to be my wife, why can't I have her?

00:25:47 NELLIE: Well, you can! It's just... people! I mean, they say it never works, don't they?

00:26:00 JOSEPH: They do. And then everybody does their damnedest to prove it. A hell of a chance Liat and I would have in one of those little gray stone and timber houses on the main line. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cable, entertained by Susie with a housewarming!

00:26:13 NELLIE: Stop it, please. Joe!

00:26:15 JOSEPH: Nobody came!

00:26:15 NELLIE: Stop it!

00:26:18 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. 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.

00:26:58 But I had certainly staked out my position on it when I was a very young man, and I've never wavered from that.

00:27:07 ALICE WINKLER: Michener would explore the people of different climates and religions, skin colors, and cultures again and again in his novels. To write them with authenticity, he would not only conduct exhaustive research, he’d often move to whatever location he’d chosen as the setting for his next book. Michener loved travel and said he had some kind of a geographer's divining rod, pointing him toward places that would soon become center stage.

00:27:35 JAMES MICHENER: If Hobart Lewis were here, the former editor and publisher of Readers 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.

00:28:04 I'd lived in Indonesia. I'd lived in Pakistan. I'd lived in Malaysia. People don't think of that much — lived all across North Africa, lived in Spain, and I understood the Muslim world at that time as well as an outsider could. I had a great affinity for it, and Hobart was going to set up an arrangement whereby I could do that. And somehow or other, it — I was diverted to other things.

00:28:31 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, have been an invaluable citizen.

00:28:45 ALICE WINKLER: Michener was a world traveler, at home on virtually every continent, and he would not begin to write until he had absorbed every nuance of the culture, the history, the geography, and the people of the country he’d chosen for his next work. But when he got down to writing, how did he walk that precarious line between fact and fiction while blending them together?

00:29:09 Other writers, and filmmakers too, have been taken to task when attempting such feats. Oliver Stone comes to mind. So how did James Michener make it work so artfully?

00:29:21 JAMES MICHENER: I pioneered this form, in certain respects. I have tried to — in this wonderfully exciting form, always to pin the story upon fictional characters or fictional boats or fictional regiments. I would never write about the Mayflower because everybody's done that, and everybody knows too much about that. I'll write about the third ship that came in. Nobody knows what it was. I'm going to say it's the Thetus.

00:29:58 And boy, are there going to be some interesting people on the Thetus, and they're going to get to a Plymouth colony. They're going to tear that damn 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 averse 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.

00:30:33 And I think the best example of that is in my novel The Source, in which I'm dealing with the digging of this well in a place like — it's over in Northern Israel. And anybody who was doing that would ultimately come into contact with King David, and so my boy comes into contact with King David, and I try to show David as a troubled king, a king who sent his prime general into the front lines so that the general would be killed so that David could inherit the general's widow.

00:31:18 That's my David, and I'm entitled to do that because I know David. I know everything about him that a man like me could know, and so I will use David to elucidate this whole period, but I will not fake him. I will not give him resounding statements of what we're going to do about the people living out in the desert when there's no evidence he ever even bothered with that.

00:31:47 ALICE WINKLER: When James Michener sat in his home for this interview with the Academy of Achievement, The Source was among the dozens of his novels that sat nearby on a shelf, books with fat, fat spines and bold one-word titles, like Alaska, Centennial, Chesapeake, many of them New York Times bestsellers, many of them adapted as films or TV mini-series, all of them based on his meticulous brand of research.

00:32:15 JAMES MICHENER: 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 and some maps, and write a great book out of your own experience. That's what Jane Austin did. That's what the Brontë Sisters did. That's what Emily Dickinson did. That's what Tennessee Williams did.

00:32:45 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, the son of a gun could write; Tolstoy — writers like that who did need data, did need research.

00:33:13 Now if you look at the best books of the research writers, they're 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.

00:33:42 ALICE WINKLER: But then we’d have some James Michener from a parallel universe, not the James Michener who spent three, four, five, even seven years becoming an expert in a new topic for each book he wrote; not the James Michener who made his indelible literary mark with deep dives into the past. In Centennial, his novel about a town on the plains of Northeast Colorado, Michener’s story includes events that happened three-and-a-half billion years ago, with the formation of the earth’s crust. Why did he often think it necessary to take the long view to such extremes?

00:34:20 JAMES MICHENER: 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 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, and our galaxy, our stars — you know, one of the smallest stars, and doomed after four-and-a-half billion years — and our galaxy's not the big one in the sky.

00:35:06 And it's only one in 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.

00:35:19 ALICE WINKLER: James Michener seemed to revel in the things that sobered him and kept him humble. Maybe it was his way of reconciling the wealthy, celebrity, bestselling author he became with the scrappy, impoverished foster kid he had inside him. James Michener died in 1997 at the age of 90. During his lifetime, he published over 50 books of both fiction and nonfiction. He spent many happy years working in government.

00:35:49 He gave away over a hundred million dollars to museums, libraries, and universities, and he won the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award. Thanks for gathering around the fire to listen to him. I'm Alice Winkler.

00:36:09 And a special shout-out, as always, to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for its generous funding of What It Takes.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.