Book Article

Michener The Mighty

James Michener: The Mighty -- The author talks about his simple life, his work, and how his latest book settles some old scores

To get to James Michener's Austin home, you drive past a Burger King, a 7-Eleven, and a family dental clinic, up over a highway and past a school, and turn onto a street that looks like dozens of others in this amiable Texas city. Michener's place, which he shares with his wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, is a one-story, brick-and-wood ranch job surrounded by brownish lawn and a couple of trees. It looks just right for the nurse, retiree, florist, and investment banker who occupy the nearby homes, but you might expect the man who may be America's most popular writer to live somewhere a bit more swank — someplace with, say, a pool to relax in after a day of carving out the newest thousand-page blockbuster. Michener, whose latest work, The Novel, is now on the best-seller list, functions by simpler standards. To unwind, he does not take to a pool, a sauna, or even a hot tub. He walks.

''I'm thinking about things, looking at nature, getting the next day's work lined up,'' he says. ''A mile a day for 40 years. That is a hell of a lot of miles.''

James Michener, who was reared in a Quaker household in Pennsylvania, is an 84-year-old celebrity who shows neither his mileage nor his success. His house looks half-decorated. The study is illuminated by a bare light bulb and doubles as a wardrobe: His pressed shirts peek out of the closet. The only high-tech note anywhere is an expensive stereo-CD system, which enables him to play music appropriate to the writing at hand: sailors' chanteys while working on 1988's Alaska, calypso for 1989's Caribbean, the Beatles for his 1971 hippie novel, The Drifters. Copies of his books Space (1982) and Texas (1985) support one of the stereo speakers. ''Damned good use for them,'' he says. ''That way they can't fall on your foot and hurt you.''

People have been making jokes about the poundage of Michener's books almost as long as he's been writing them. The Novel, now at No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list, is an exception: Told by various people involved in writing, publishing, and reading one book, it is shorter at 464 pages than most of his well-known works. Hawaii, which appeared in 1959, weighed in at 937 pages and could barely be carried in one hand. Since then the hefty volumes — all the above plus 1968's Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections, 1965's The Source, 1983's Poland, and 1974's Centennial — have been arriving at the rate of one every two years, a speed that would seem daunting for a relay team of writers. But Michener says he does it all alone, spurning even a word processor for the first three drafts. He pecks away on a Royal 440, using both index fingers, plus his right thumb for the space bar. ''If you type adeptly with 10 fingers, you're typing faster than your mind is working,'' he maintains. ''Even this way, I type just a little too fast. Editing consists of knocking out the last six words.''

Plenty remain. Michener has cranked out as many as seven pages a day for 40 years. ''I do work hard,'' he says blandly, ''as you probably can guess.''

Oh, yes: His old-time belief in the virtue of hard work is one of the most famous things about him. It's matched by his equally old-fashioned notions about the publishing business — something that got him into a rare public fracas with his own publisher, Random House, last year. Michener was angry that Random House seemed to have lost faith in its highbrow but low-profit Pantheon division when it fired Pantheon's longtime editor, André Schiffrin, and he made his feelings well known.

Michener's concern for the fate of relatively obscure, intellectual writers is especially generous given the patronizing treatment he has received over the years from academic critics. But clearly their snubs have stung and he has used his new book to even the score. One section of The Novel is devoted to a fictional critic, Karl Streibert, who denounces such once-popular writers as Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck, and John Steinbeck as ''facile, meretricious and deceptive,'' among other things. ''Quite a few young professors of English would say that of me,'' Michener says without rancor, and then he adds: ''I think Streibert is off his rocker. He overlooks the books that will provide enormous satisfaction to the reader and also help keep the publisher in business.''

That's Michener's vision of his work, too. He is immensely conscious both of his books' profitability and of the responsibility to use his leverage creatively. He doesn't care about the money itself — he and his wife have simply given much of it away. Among their disbursements are two major art collections — one of 20th-century American paintings, donated to the University of Texas, and another of 5,400 Japanese prints, to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Not even his accountant knows how much money he has given outright to educational institutions and individuals, but the best guess seems to be anywhere from $10 million to $20 million by now. Recipients have included the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Swarthmore College (his alma mater), a graduate writing program at the University of Texas, and a scholarship fund for the dependents of NASA employees. For Michener, money is just a useful measure of his influence and, probably, of how far he has come.

An orphan who didn't learn he was adopted until he was at Swarthmore, Michener was taken in shortly after birth by widow Mabel Michener. His adoptive mother wasn't far above the poverty level and Michener as a child had to spend time in the poorhouse run by his uncle so he could get regular meals. He escaped that world and became rich and famous by dint of hard work, and he finds ways to draw attention to his diligence.

''I'm an old pro,'' Michener says with satisfaction, tapping his foot against his desk. ''I sit at this desk 365 days a year. It isn't mysterious at all. I had a hell of a good education in the great schools of this world, and I have a very vivid imagination.'' He pauses. ''If I were a young man today, I might be lured into the moviemaking industry. You can really make a statement there.''

Of course, Michener has been involved in the film world himself through numerous adaptations of his books. Recently there were two miniseries: ''I thought they were like my novels — big and ponderous and weighty, sometimes with dead spots. But I'm very proud of the Centennial miniseries. It'll be around a long time in schools as a faithful picture of what happened out West. Space was a dramatic affair, although they felt they had to sex it up more than I would.'' Faithful, big, sometimes ponderous, and shy of sex — that's the recipe Michener has perfected.

Originally posted May 31, 1991 Published in issue #68 May 31, 1991 Order article reprints
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