Tales of Michener's life are told in a manner that's as straightforward as he is

January 01, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

New York -- 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" (Random House, $25) is an admission to weaknesses for grand opera and peach ice cream.

Right in the first sentence of Chapter 1, Mr. 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 520-page book only "because I have been asked to do this again and again." And yes, he says, as if the question were so obvious 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, Mr. Michener's literary agent for 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Laster, something Mr. Michener has chosen not to dwell upon in his life story.

Mr. 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 Mr. Michener's perch in a stiff-back chair in a Manhattan hotel room. He is sitting straight, eyes direct.

He 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, Mr. Michener deflects the question in the direction of his wife.

"Look at my wife. Her life is exactly parallel to mine," Mr. Michener says, flaring for just the briefest of moments. Mari Michener, a Japanese-American and Mr. 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,' " Mr. Michener says.

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.)

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 Mr. 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, Mr. Michener is not without ego. He started slowly as a writer, "very belatedly, very tentatively," he says. But once he began, he "never stopped, hardly for a week."

Even his longtime publisher has a hard time tallying Mr. Michener's titles. Do the collaborations count? What about the photographic books? Mr. Michener says recently, at Random House, he saw a tableful of his own book jackets. "It was pretty awesome."

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