A million years ago or perhaps it was back in 1992; I took part in a small writers’ workshop conducted by James Michener on the campus of a private college in St. Petersburg, Florida. At the time Michener was an eighty-five-year-old American icon.
In the past I had attended writers’ workshops with PD James, Stephen King, and Robert B. Parker among others; but this was THE James Michener, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Tales of the South Pacific. His novel Hawaii had been praised as an epic narrative of such scope and detail that had never before been seen. The hefty volume of the history of Hawaii begins when volcanic eruptions create the rocky base for the islands, and continues as birds dropped seeds that would bear the fruit of lush greenery, creating an island paradise.
The novel follows Polynesian seafarers who make the treacherous journey across the Pacific to discover the verdant lands that would become their home. The sweeping narrative goes on to encompass the arrival of American missionaries and the struggle the natives endured in trying to keep their traditions. How did Michener manage to capture so much information in one book and still keep the reader hooked on the individual fictitious characters?
At the time Michener began his little workshop I had been plotting my first book. It was to be a saga like Hawaii, a project that was much too lengthy to ever see the light of day. Inspired by my dear friend Kevin Hussey, who owned a title insurance company and knew gobs about the history of St. Petersburg, I had begun to craft my tale of the southwest coast of Florida, going back in time to the first Native Americans to occupy the peninsula 14,000 years before. Groan… It was an ambitious—scratch that—an insane undertaking; the timeline when unfolded ran like a jumbo roll of a paper towels.
Kevin had discovered that a number of houses along the waterfront and canals of St. Petersburg had once been owned in the name of Al Capone’s mother! A goldmine of subplots revealed themselves to me, with the infamous gangster using his mother’s identity to bring liquor to Florida from Cuba.
I was becoming frazzled trying to keep the first 10,000 plus years under some semblance of control and yet let my Native American characters breathe, while allowing for the Henry Flagler type pioneers to share the stage, and then get on to Al Capone and his gang.
My guardian angel must have seen my quandary and answered my prayers when I was invited to join Michener’s workshop. My hands shook with excitement as I carefully placed my roll of paper towels aka my time line in my tote bag and dashed off for my first class.
I did not get a chance to whip out my time line that first day, but I did get to chat with Michener. We discovered we shared a mutual love of the country of Poland.
The previous year I had backpacked through Poland doing what I called my Roots thing, attempting to link up with my heritage. In 1983 Michener had written a lengthy book on Poland, following the tribulations of three imaginary Polish families across eight centuries, ending in present day. I mentioned my adventure traveling through Poland alone, using my childhood knowledge of Polish, staying at monasteries and sleeping in the back of churches in order to see first hand what I had only heard about from the nuns in my Polish Catholic grade school in New Jersey.
“I love Poland!” Michener said, truly excited. “Do you have any photographs from your journey?”
I did. He promptly invited me to bring my pictures and any other information I might have to tea at his condominium. I could not believe my good fortune. It pays to be Polish I thought, grinning broadly.
The following day I brought all my pictures, my copy of his novel, Poland for his signature, and my rolled up timeline tucked in my tote.
His enthusiasm revived my energy about the adventure. He pulled out his maps and compared them with the areas I had trekked. I recounted many of my sentimental experiences as we shared our memories of a beautiful country.
“I was so inspired by their fierce tradition in warding off brutal invaders over the centuries. You come from strong stock,” he said, awarding me a sincere smile.
It was now or never. Was I tough enough to expose my overblown timeline on St. Petersburg to the man who had written Hawaii, Alaska, Chesapeake, Texas, Caribbean, and Poland? I reached in my bag and pulled out my roll of time.
He literally leapt into action, gently undoing my timeline, replete with scribbled comments and penciled arrows shooting off in all directions. James Michener was reviewing my plot! Years later I would find that withered outline and wonder how he could have been so kind and encouraging. It was one of the most elaborate timelines ever constructed and in truth would have made a great comedy if I could have mashed it into a more palatable form.
Somewhere in the middle of dissecting my would-be opus a very pretty Asian lady popped into the room. She addressed her question directly to James Michener. “Would you like your tea now, Cookie?”
I did a double take. Cookie? THE James Michener was “Cookie?”
His lovely wife Mari called him “Cookie.” Tears came to my eyes. These octogenarians had been married forever and he was still her Cookie. Oh to have love like that, that stays sweet and tender for decades. Over the years I would come to learn that if you are very, very fortunate, you too might be somebody’s Cookie.
Michener’s wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa was an American, she and her Japanese parents were held in camps the U.S. Government set up during the years of World War II to hold ethnic Japanese from the West Coast of the United States.
James Michener’s novel Sayonara (1954) is quasi-autobiographical. Set in the early 1950s, it tells the story of a United States Air Force ace jet pilot stationed in Japan, who falls in love with a Japanese woman. The novel follows their romance and illuminates the racism of post World War II. It was adapted into a highly successful 1957 movie of the same name, starring Marlon Brando.
Do peek at the gallery section of the Academy of Achievement website for some lovely photos from Michener’s life.
Here’s the link. http://www.achievement.org/achiever/james-a-michener/
With love & laughter!
Please keep your eyes open for the first book in my new series:
The Giggling Corpse – Book 1