Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Inspiring, Intimidating James Michener

A few days ago I dropped a line to a musician friend to wish him a happy birthday, sparking an unexpected and pleasing exchange (a little one-sided, I dare say) about favorite books. It turned out that Mike* --- a popular solo performer and parodist here in Boston --- is an avid reader and was starved for some good book conversation.

Thus, I found myself in the familiar and embarrassing position of confessing my troubled relationship with books and, as a result, my relatively (for a novelist) poor familiarity with the universe of quality fiction. Undaunted in the least, Mike proceeded to rattle off some of his more recent favorites. I further confessed that I'd read none of the authors he listed, and that his favorite, James A. Michener, I wasn't even sure if I'd heard of before.

I've always felt an artistic kinship towards musicians --- I suppose I relate to their dual wish to inspire and entertain with their art, and because they're not prose writers (usually) I don't regard them with competitive caution. I know how vital, how nourishing, inspiration is to fellow artists and so I always take special interest in their recommendations. And with Mike, I don't harbor my usual suspicion that some unconscious desire to project sophistication is selecting his favorites for him --- his signature song, after all, is about masturbation; talk about somebody who doesn't take himself too seriously.

I never doubted that Mike had classy tastes, but his passion for Michener intrigued me. When I told him so, he wrote back:

"Michener won a Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific. It's weird. I never read Michener while he was alive because they were always making movies and mini-series of his stuff (it's all historical fiction) and I assumed it was fluff. Man was I wrong. As soon as I read my first Michener (Hawaii) I was blown away.

"I assumed there was no way he could have written anything else as good. Wrong. EVERYTHING is as good. if i had to pick a favorite American author, it'd probably be him. I'm putting him in the company of Twain, Melville and Toni Morrison here. I've read about a dozen so far and I'd be hard pressed to pick a fave. I'd suggest you start with The Source, Chesapeake or Caribbean. One caveat: to Michener anything under a thousand pages is cliff-notes. His general formula is to take a small geographical area and cover it - literally - from the beginning of time to the present. It's not unusual in a Michener book for life not to appear on earth for 150 pages or so. It sounds dull, but it's RIVETING. Something interesting is that he wrote about 80 or so HUGE books, but he didn't write the first one til he was in his 40s."

This pitch compelled me to Google Michener immediately. That I was so unfamiliar with his work up to this point astounds me. Not only did he write 40 lengthy books, but he seemed just as comfortable with fiction as with non-fiction. Not only did he win a Pulitzer, he was immensely popular too, selling 75 million books worldwide. His books are apparently all epic and well-researched. He spent whole mornings writing, and whole afternoons reading, meeting people, and generally immersing himself in the places where his stories unfolded. And as if these accomplishments aren't enough, he was also a naval officer in WWII, and even took a stab at politics.

Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

The real kicker for me is that James A. Michener was also a generous philanthropist (as I fantasize I will be should writing ever make me rich and famous) who gave away 100 million dollars to various charities, universities, etc. It was at this point that I finally realized I had heard of Michener once before, because he founded my dream MFA program in creative writing, The Michener Center For Writers, at the University of Texas in Austin.

Well that does it. James A. Michener is my new mentor-nemesis, at once a benevolent inspiration and a source of fear, envy and hatred. If he is the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi, I am the bitterly passionate and frequently misguided Anakin Skywalker. How can I live up to him? And yet I must. Such is the paradox of model inspiration: He who daunts you, drives you.

It may take a while, but soon enough I will pick up one of his books, even though the odds of me finishing are slim. For me, reading a thousand page book would be an even greater accomplishment than writing one --- hell, I even put down Anna Karenina and David Copperfield halfway through, and I was enjoying both. Whether I finish it, or like it, doesn't really matter though. A new bar has been set, for better or worse.

You may have passed into the afterlife, Master Michener --- your Jedi robe now a puddle at my feet --- but our rivalry has just begun.

Bonus contest - I'll ship a copy of Mike's album, Pissed in Boston, to the first person that can guess who my previous nemesis was. (You cannot participate if I've told you at some point already). Two hints: (1) I've never really read anything by this author, either. (2) Unlike Michener, age was a vital factor in this rivalry. Submit your guess in the "Comments" section of this post.

*Mike Barrett is a solo musician and parodist (sounds like Irish folk meets Tom Waits?) who performs all around greater Boston, and for one month of the year in Ireland. I watched him perform during my first summer in Boston, 2oo1. My friends and I were so thrilled we hired him to perform at a party later that year at Cornell, where he was a smash(ed) hit. We've kept in touch since. You can check out Mike's music and shenanigans at MySpace, Facebook, and buy his album at CD Baby. To add yourself to his contact list and be notified of upcoming shows, drop an e-mail to


J. Rosemary Moss said...

My Mom introduced me to Michener when Jimmy and I were kids...I guess you missed out on the introduction, because you didn't come on vacation with us!

I don't remember where we went, but it involved a long car ride. She read Hawaii out loud to us while our Dad drove.

I reread it, along with some other books of his, when I was older. To this day, I still remember some passages line-for-line!


matt white said...

Holy crap, you still go see / know / are friends with Mike Barrett? My copy of Pissed in Boston is scratched to shit but somehow still plays. Old McDonald's stuttering cow is one of my go-to thoughts when I need to make myself laugh. Good times.

Also, I'll guess Mary Shelley.

jim cooney said...

Incorrect, but a good guess Matt. Mary Shelley was 19, I think, when she wrote Frankenstein? That would definitely put her in contention to be my rival --- I shudder to think how my prose sounded at 19.

ANOTHER HINT: This writer is currently alive and well.

Anonymous said...

jim. Why are you doing this to me? you are forcing me to add authors to my 'list of things to read before i die'. I come to the internet to escape, sheesh.....

(jk. Thanks, jim. I went to the website about the Iowa MFA program, and just added two books to my list, authors who graduated from that program.)


Anonymous said...

chuck palaniuk..... is he your nemesis???


jim cooney said...

I forgot to respond to this until now! Another great guess, but no, Chuck Palahniuk is my hero, not my nemesis. It's a thin line to walk though.

Anonymous said...

Auguesten Burroughs... young, sucessful and lives in MA.

Monica said...

dang. i'm wrong. i've wracked my brain, trying to figure it out... this is a difficult contest, James.

jim cooney said...

Augusten Burroughs is a good guess, but incorrect, and a good thing too, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, since I've no idea who I'd be giving the CD to!

Here are some clues to push this along. My old nemesis is five years younger than Burroughs, published HIS first book at age 30, and has also started his own very successful publishing house.

Anonymous said...

dave eggers?

jim cooney said...


Is that you Monica?

Monica said...

can i pretend taht it's me? i was totally thinking the same thing... dammit.

Monica said...

Here you are, going on about your painfully inadequate reading history. I read today that John Updike has died, and i've read nothing by him. I am more inadequate than you, my friend.

Errol Lincoln Uys said...

I was James Michener's collaborator on his South African novel, The Covenant

I think you'll find a visit to my web archives on Michener well worth the time.

You can access it through the newest post on my blog for my online project A Novel of America:

Or go directly to the archive at my website:

And, as Michener may have said, thereby lies a tale...

BTW I'm a fellow Boston writer ( Dorchester based.) All good luck to you in your writing. It sure ain't easy in our new day, bright and promising as it is!