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The continuing sagas of James A. Michener.

THE CONTINUING SAGAS OF JAMES A. MICHENER

At the age of 83, the prolific author of 40 books still has a permanent reservation at the top of the bestseller lists.

If James A. Michener's biography were written in the manner of his novels, the story would begin with the author's personal geography: his 5'11", 174-pound (not rounded to 175 or fudged at about 170), slightly pear-shaped body. It would sweep his panorama: his sloping shoulders, rugged hands, and spindly legs. Then it would likely focus on his oval face with its gray-blue eyes, pug nose, and thin lips, set under a wrinkled high forehead, topped by a balding pate where white hair recedes like beach grass.

From there, Michener--it would surely take this one-word title--might divulge something of its namesake's importance. The magnitude of Michener's life would make that tough. At 83, Michener has to his credit 40 books; a Pulitzer Prize (for his debut, Tales of the South Pacific); a seemingly permanent reservation at the top of the bestseller lists; a history of impressive global residences; a resume of government service; and two new books out last fall, a journalistic account of his recent visit to Cuba titled Six Days in Havana, and a 672-page novel called Caribbean.

The focus would doubtless then narrow in on his lodgings of the past three years. While researching and writing Caribbean, Michener and his Japanese-American wife of 35 years, Mari, took up residence in the first-floor condo of a two-story house near the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, a stone's skip from Miami, which Michener calls the "capital of the Caribbean." The house is modest. It is pale blue with white trim. Palm trees and shrubs dot the yard. In the driveway is Michener's scratched blue 1983 Oldsmobile station wagon. He doesn't drive it anymore. "This siege of operations leaves one a little unsteady on his feet," Michener says, referring to the coronary bypass operation and the hip replacement he's had in recent years. He walks with the aid of a cane.

Inside the house, Michener would be found sitting on his living room sofa amid dim lamp lighting on a warm August evening. There would be packed-up boxes scattered around, preparation for his return to Austin, Texas, where he spent the early 1980s writing his saga Texas and where he now was going to oversee the opening of the new University of Texas graduate writing school he helped launch with a $1 million endowment. Mari would be away, tending the Michener's permanent residence in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. And James A. Michener would seem--as he, the constant traveler, probably has seemed countless times before--the portrait of transition.

So might begin the book Michener, the saga of a writer whose own work is known for its geographic detail, its factual obsessions, and its unrushed openings. It is a formula that has helped make Michener, in the words of the New York Times, a "phenomenon." Neither a cult figure like Ernest Hemingway nor an artistic stylist like John Updike, Michener is nonetheless one of the most popular writers of the 20th century. He is so popular, in fact, that he has become a cottage industry. Last fall, "Bestsell'r," a board game based on ten of his novels, hit the stores. Also in the works is a cook-book based on foods that have appeared in his books.

Michener the writer, though, is not overly impressed by Michener the phenomenon. "You live for the long-range evaluation," he observes. Which makes the Michener tale that much more challenging, because there is one thing more that has made him so popular: his sweep of history. When writing the Michener story, that sweep would cover nearly as much ground as his novels. And it deposits him at the doorstep of the release of his new book, Caribbean.

"Proximity," Michener says, answering a question about why he chose the Caribbean as the subject of his latest novel.

"It is going to be part of the American problem," he says emphatically. "There's no question. I see that so clearly. We're going to have to assume the role that Britain had for many years, and that Spain had. It's of no relative significance to Castro what his relationships to Spain are today; they're actually rather good. But it's what his role is in relation to the United States [that matters]. It's as simple as that."

Michener was well-acquainted with the region before starting Caribbean. He visited the islands several times in the past three decades. Years ago, he taught at the University of Santo Domingo. "I always go into a project with a high plateau of knowledge," says Michener, who made ten additional research trips to the Caribbean in the past three years. Even with the extensive travel and the hundreds of books he read on the subject, Michener admits to encountering the unexpected. "The ones that really surprise you are the things that you already knew, but didn't believe or hadn't digested," he says. "Alaska, for example, is far more frontier than any of the frontier states have ever been. And in Texas ... people believe that [frontier] nonsense. And in the Caribbean, it came as I was being entertained accidentally--always accidentally--by maybe eight heads of state, all black. We still don't believe that," he says, noting the rise of blacks from slavery in the islands. "These are black republics. Even though I knew it, it is still striking.

"One of the most vital things that happens in the Caribbean is the decision by the United States Congress as to what they're going to do about the sugar quotas," he says. Michener points to sugar prices as an example. "That's more important than anything else. Russia pays [Cuba] three or four cents above the world price. That makes all the difference. But our Western sugar beet states would prohibit that."

Caribbean opens in the year 1310, with the cannibalistic Carib Indians of South America (after whom the island region is named) brutally subduing the indigenous Arawak Indians, a peaceable tribe, on the island that later would be known as Dominica. The region's history becomes yet more blood-soaked as Europe's powers battle for control of the islands. The passage on Christopher Columbus is particularly shocking. After landing on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) in October 1492, the discoverer of the New World proceeds over the next few years to slaughter great numbers of Indians and to execute, often for petty crimes, many of his countrymen. "He has a lot of black marks against him," Michener cracks wryly. "He gave a new meaning to the word `decimate.' And he hung his own people left and right." Still, Michener sees the heroic in Christopher Columbus. "He had a grandeur of imagination," he says, then tells the story of Columbus' overcoming shipwreck on a deserted Jamaica. "And he never lost faith."

Michener is enamored of the pirates, buccaneers, and discoverers of the Caribbean despite their warring ways. "These were tremendous men," he says. "They make a lot of other area histories look rather impoverished."

Yet he recognizes their legacy of crippling factionalism. "The great problem in the Caribbean is to find hegemony," he says. "We've never done that. And it's still up for grabs. Geographically, it ought to be a unit. But everyone has failed to make it so: the Spaniards, the French, the British. The Dutch opted out. The Americans have messed it up horribly. So it is an area without a central core, and that has been very damaging."

Michener sees the Caribbean as a patchwork of postcolonialism. "The differences among the islands derive, in large measure, from the parent company in Europe," he says, paging, as he does often--even while conversing--through an almanac for a salient fact on some historical point. "That's fundamental. Barbados, which was known as Little England, is not in any way like Martinique, which is fiercely French, and neither is anything like Santo Domingo, which is Spanish. There's great diversity here."

Of all the islands, Michener's toughest challenge was Cuba. It took the ardent, lifelong anticommunist two years and a lot of intergovernmental negotiating to get into the country. But when he finally got there, he found the people warm, the roads good, the healthcare system extraordinary, and his movements unrestricted. "From Miami to Havana, it takes 38 minutes," Michener says, shaking his head. "Thirty-eight minutes. We ought to have a shuttle running between the two cities, with every third one going down to Jamaica. And it ought to be under a hundred bucks."

Michener's generally favorable impression of Cuba was tempered by the "heart-breaking" paucity of consumer goods--he tells of the women's clothing store with only one girl's dress in it--and the shabby state of the buildings, which needed painting and, old mansions especially, restoring. His impressions, along with an inside look at his philosophy and method of writing, are chronicled in Six Days in Havana, a beautiful coffee-table book released last fall, for which John Kings took the photographs.

Michener's biggest Cuban disappointment was not getting to talk with President Fidel Castro. "I'd ask him when he was going to reopen negotiations with the United States," Michener says, ticking off a ready set of questions. "What he was going to do when Russia stopped buying his sugar at four cents above world market price. What he thought of the adventure in Angola. Those are all questions that should be asked, and I would ask them."

Michener recalls a conversation with a Cuban official who sounded a note of worry about the island's future. "They went out of their way to let me know that they were worried about relations with the Russians," he says. "I didn't ask about it. But at the end of a meeting, a man high in Cuban affairs said, `You know, Mr. Michener, we are worried sick about perestroika because we don't know what it signifies for us.'"

Michener views the changes in Cuba as emblematic of transition throughout the region. "Across the Caribbean, a vital question is `What are they gonna use for money?'" he asserts. "Because they've lost oil in Trinidad. They've lost sugar everywhere. They've lost bananas to Central America. They've lost tobacco. They've lost almost everything. And they are living on tourism, which I find is one of the best dollars that an island or a nation can get if it has the courage to protect itself." He ponders the future, then adds: "The Caribbean can go in very many directions. And that's why proximity is very important to me. We're tied up with it whether we want to be or not."

In a back bedroom-cum-office in his Florida home, the author leans back in the chair behind his cluttered desk, gazes into the distance, and recalls his childhood. "I grew up in sort of a bizarre home life" is the way he puts it. As an infant, he was adopted by Mabel Michener, a poor, young widow in Doylestown, and raised among the foster children she took in. On occasion, he would stay in the town's poorhouse.

Those are the facts. But the circumstances surrounding them are unclear. In a biography of the author, John Hayes says Michener was Mabel's illegitimate son. Michener, who did not learn until he was 19 that he was adopted, says the truth is unknowable because his birth certificate never has been found. "I have no idea who I am," he has said.

The reasons for his stay in the poor-house are similarly blurred. Unquestionably, Michener was raised amid poverty. But an aunt--one of Mabel's sisters--was married to the superintendent of the poorhouse, and the whole family would sometimes stay with her. This suggests that the image that might be conjured--that of a Dickensian waif going it alone--is probably exaggerated.

Nonetheless, Michener's childhood experiences remain with him as powerful impressions. "Very powerful," he says. "I saw a great many men who wound up in the poorhouse--and I mean this is a poorhouse poorhouse, which we had in those days--absolutely at the end of their lives in their 50s." He says the word with incredulity, marveling at how early an age that is for life to be over. "Quite often, [it was] through no ostensible fault of their own. They made a bad deal or somebody gigged them or they didn't have it to begin with." He pauses. "Awful powerful memories."

Michener's days got better as time went on. "I had a very hard life up until I was 14," he says. "Then everything just fell into place." He played on his high school's championship basketball team, and he excelled enough scholastically to land a scholarship to Swarthmore College. There, he began feeling his oats. "I led the fight to ban fraternities," he remembers. "They were so domineering. And so unfair to young people who wanted to make something of themselves."

After graduating with a triple major (English, history, and philosophy), Michener taught at the Hill School, worked as an editor at Macmillan, earned his master's in history and social studies from the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado), and headed the Colorado chapter of the federal government's Depression-era National Youth Administration. He was on his way to earning his doctorate from Harvard when "the war intervened."

While in the navy, Michener, for the first time in his life, began to write. Becoming a writer had not been a lifelong pursuit. "I didn't know what I wanted to be," he says of his childhood dreams. "Just get a job and survive was my problem." His writing career started while he was stationed on the Pacific island of Espiritu Santo. "I wrote at night in a Quonset hut," he recalls. "It never occurred to me that what did happen would happen."

What happened was the release, when he was 40, of his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, which not only won a Pulitzer but was turned into Rodgers and Hammerstein's smash South Pacific. The book, which never became a bestseller, did little for Michener financially. But the musical afforded him the cushion to write fulltime. In 1959, Michener hit pay dirt with Hawaii, a big book and an even bigger bestseller. Since then, Michener has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to churn out one best-selling epic after another, several of them suited to TV adaptation. Their titles are a roll call of the top hits in writing over the last quarter-century: Space, Centennial, Poland, The Source, Chesapeake, Texas, Alaska.

Asked if he considers himself lucky, Michener laughs warmly. "All the time. To have Rodgers and Hammerstein take your first book and make a great musical out of it, there's got to be an element of luck in there somewhere." His mood turns serious. "But I was good at what I did," he says. "I'm a real pro."

He does not compose, as one might expect, on a computer, but rather on an old Royal manual typewriter set on a stand adjacent to his desk. He pecks out his tomes with his two forefingers, glancing at a daily worksheet on a stand he made of cardboard. The worksheets represent months, even years, of research--travel, reading, conversations--that gets honed from a broad initial outline to detailed self-made maps, character lists, and time lines. Normally he writes from 7:30 in the morning to about noon and edits his work later in the day.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Michener does not employ a vast research staff. (On Texas, he was aided by two University of Texas graduate students, though Michener still did the bulk of the research himself.) His editorial assistant, John Kings, has been with him since 1972. Kings, who often travels with Michener, reads and comments on the manuscripts before publication. In Florida, as in Texas, Michener also employed a secretary to help with the numerous requests for interviews and speaking engagements and to oversee other day-to-day demands. "What I need is very simple," Michener says. "A good library and access to an airport."

Although he centers his writing around places, Michener himself is disconnected. Does Michener miss not having a place to call home? "Very definitely, yes. That's a loss. The loss in continuing relationships is very real," he says. "But we have other assets to compensate for that." Michener feels no particularly deep connection to Doylestown, he says. "I'm pretty much a citizen of everywhere. But I have a very strong affiliation with the United States."

In 1953, Michener tried to adopt two Amerasian children with his second wife. (Mari is his third). But when the marriage ended in divorce a year later, the younger child, whose adoption processing had not been completed, was returned to the orphanage, and Michener's ex-wife was awarded custody of the older child, who was two years old. Michener doesn't like talking about the episode. "I tried to adopt two children and it didn't work out, unfortunately," he says, then immediately shifts the subject to marriage. "But I think anybody who was having a divorce would have a pretty hard time thinking of themselves as having had an unblemished life of continued success. You just know, in that field, you didn't," he says. "It's as simple as that. You can't kid yourself about it." Asked whether he misses having a family, he changes the topic to his work.

It is, after all, his work that has given Michener his identity. Although it's a cliche to suggest that a writer's books are, in some way, his babies, in Michener's case this seems to be true. Like a nurturing parent, he has donated more than $20 million throughout the years to universities and writing programs nationwide. "I've always been around children," he says. "That's why I work in universities." The rewards of his work are tangible: appointments by president to national boards, including the Food for Peace program under John Kennedy, the United States Information Service under Richard Nixon, and five years serving on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration board.

Looking back, Michener expresses no regret. "I have had a rather curious life," he allows, setting the pencil down. "I would be false to the evidence if I suggested otherwise. Picked out of a little high school in Pennsylvania [for a] four-year scholarship. Picked out of one place after another. First book I ever published won the Pulitzer Prize. Had 12, 13 in a row that were great bestsellers. It's incredible. Incredible."

Michener believes that his sprawling multihundred-page sagas may be behind him. "I think I will go to a smaller format," he says, a playful grin tugging at the edges of his mouth. But he has said that before, after Texas and after Alaska. And on his desk is a book about the Pennsylvania Dutch country where he grew up. If it's research for another book, it seems an all-too-appropriate coda, Michener's ultimate journey, not outward--to Poland or Israel or South Africa or somewhere--but very much inward, to home. But the big works are behind him, aren't they? "Well," he says, his eyes fastened familiarly on their distant horizon. "I'm sort of kicking it around."

PHOTO : Michener pecks out his tomes on a weathered Royal typewriter. His latest is the 672-page

PHOTO : Caribbean.

PHOTO : The author relaxes on the island of Nevis.
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Author:Shahin, Jim
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:3222
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