Q & A: JAMES MICHENER

A miner in the bedrock of history

December 15 1980
Q & A: JAMES MICHENER

A miner in the bedrock of history

December 15 1980

A miner in the bedrock of history

Q & A: JAMES MICHENER

At 73, James Michener has added yet another blockbuster historical novel to his string of approximately a dozen bestselling tomes (Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Source, Iberia, Centennial, Chesapeake,). As is usual with the works of this phenomenon of American letters, The Covenant, an 896-page saga about South Africa, is a runaway popular and financial success (all 450,000 copies were presold in North America and the Literary Guild reportedly paid him $1.75 million). But, also as usual with Michener, the novel is a critical fizzle. “The Cecil B. De Mille of the literary world, ” as one critic called him, spoke last month with Toronto writer Terry Boulton.

Maclean’s: How do you feel about the critics, who have so often dismissed you? Michener: Some critics have felt that because I was a writer with a great popular appeal, I must somehow not be first-rate. Any writer who is very widely received is suspect because he might be making his material too easy, or avoiding big issues, or treating them cavalierly. I think it’s quite proper for critics to say what they think. And if I depended upon kinky sex or sensationalism, I think I’d be a little ashamed. But to have written the kinds of books I have, with so little obvious catering to the public taste, and to have them so well received, is really remarkable. Maclean’s: But at least one critic has accused you of false plot-manoeuvring. Michener: An historical novelist is not an historian and should not be held to the same standards. I think the statement is worthy of attention, but it would apply to a great many more people than just me. Besides, I get at least 1,000 letters a year from people who say they wish history was taught the way I write. I think that kind of criticism will probably be voiced about The Covenant, but about 10 years from now it will have established an important pattern of thought about the area.

Maclean’s: Why did you choose South Africa as the subject of this book? Michener: South Africa is going to be topic No. 3 or 4 for the rest of this century—maybe even No. 1—and somebody like me knows that. If you travel there, you get that insight, you see that it’s a long-range thing, with great values involved. That makes for wonderful subject matter.

Maclean’s: Did you have any trouble there because of your opposition to racism?

‘Any writer who is very widely received is suspect because he might be making his material too easy. [But] I get at least 1,000 letters a year from people who say they wish history was taught the way I write. ’ Michener: The relationship was an arm’s length one but I had no complaints at all. I don’t think the government was happy to have had a writer there, but I think if they had to have someone they were content for it to be me because I don’t do axe jobs and I’m not a scandalmonger.

Maclean’s: What’s your assessment of the situation in South Africa?

Michener: When I was first there in 1971, I said I thought the Afrikaners would have a free run until the year 2000. Now, mainly because of the remarkable things that are happening in the surrounding countries, I would shorten that to about 1990. An increasing number of people there are beginning to think the whites will eventually

surrender Pretoria, Johannesburg and Kimberley and retreat to an enclave around Cape Town, somewhat like Hong Kong. It’s quite extraordinary, you know. Armed revolution is freely discussed everywhere you go there. Writing about it is frowned upon as being inflammatory, but they sure as heck discuss it.

Maclean’s: Do you feel your earlier novel, Caravans, has any special relevance today?

Michener: I think its relevance is amazing. I was in Afghanistan about 30 years ago but I foresaw the Russian and American confrontation. I foresaw the attitude of the mullahs there just as they’ve been evidenced in Iran. I’ve received a lot of criticism in my day—people forget that sometimes—and people really abused me for the scene in Caravans where a woman is stoned to death. Yet that’s.happening all over Iran now. Maclean’s: With your knowledge of the mullahs, what do you think the U.S. should he doing about the Iranian situation?

Michener: They should have assembled a high-level study group of people who’ve lived in these countries and can reasonably predict what might happen. It’s the same now as it was in the Second World War. When we entered our war with Japan, we knew practically nothing about the country. It took us a dreadful time to catch up and cost us dearly. But I think our main failure in Iran was not to move it onto the very highest level of moral imperative from the start. I think it might be best now to hang fire until Mr. Reagan takes office so he can make a fresh start.

Maclean’s: Have you decided on the subject of your next book?

Michener: I have three or four in mind. Possibly a Caribbean story, or something based on my extensive interest in outer space. Or possibly an Alaskan novel with a strong Canadian component.

Maclean’s: Won't your readers find Canada somewhat less exotic than your other subjects?

Michener: You’re wrong there. When I wrote Centennial, I didn’t pick the gold fields or the wildly exciting areas; I took the flatlands, which are bleak and forbidding. I would have no hesitance in starting tomorrow on a book about Canada and be assured that people would be as interested in it as ever they were in The Source or Iberia.

Maclean’s: What have your books

accomplished?

Michener: I think that what anybody can accomplish with an art is minimal, socially. Right now, they’re advertising my book as “the long-awaited novel of . . . .” That’s rubbish. The world is not panting for a new novel by anybody. Maclean’s: But surely there are legions of Michener fans out there.

Michener: Look, I have these millions of books in print, read everywhere, in all languages. The best I can say is that my testimony has been positive rather than negative. But whether any of it is taken or not, I have a very cautious judgment. There’s an anecdote that just about illustrates the level of what I’ve accomplished. Years ago, Gregory Peck was finishing a movie called Gentleman's Agreement, about anti-Semitism. On the last day, two grips came up to him and said they’d been very moved and had learned a lot. Peck asked them what they’d learned and they said, “You better be nice to Jews because they might turn out to be gentiles.” Cf