Saturday, November 27, 2010

Author Bumping - James A. Michener

Everybody is somebody’s “Cookie”

I continue my strange tales of bumping into well known authors. As you might recall...I've bounced off Robert B. Parker's belly and spent time with Stephen King. I seem to find myself in the right place at the right time.

It was 1992 and I was involved in bringing an innovative program to a college in southwest Florida. The Academy of Senior Professionals offered an opportunity for retired folks to come together with outstanding senior citizens, and to interact in a learning environment with other retirees and also college students.  One of our early resident scholars was James A. Michener. His reputation as a writer was legend, but at the time I knew little about him personally.

Michener was a novelist, who perhaps more than any other single author, made foreign environments accessible to Americans through his fiction. He wrote sweeping sagas, covering the lives of many generations in particular geographic locales and blending historical facts into the stories. He was known for the meticulous research behind his work. As a child, whenever I heard his name spoken, I thought of the lyrics from that old song… “Far away places with strange sounding names.”

His major books include Tales of the South Pacific (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948), Hawaii, The Drifters, Centennial, Chesapeake, Caribbean, Caravans, Alaska, Texas, and Poland. Michener's  first book, Tales of the South Pacific was published when he was forty. The story was taken from his notes and impressions during World War II, when, as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned to the South Pacific Ocean as a naval historian. The book became the basis for the Broadway and film musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

His novels sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. Hawaii (published in 1959) was based on his extensive research. Nearly all of his subsequent novels were based on detailed historical, cultural, and even geological research. Centennial, was made into a popular twelve-part television miniseries of the same name and aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979. The story documented several generations of families in the West.

One of the college project directors approached me. “I know you’re working on a novel about Florida. James Michener’s holding a small workshop for a select group. I can get you in… if you’d like,” she said. When I caught my breath, I thanked her and offered to do her laundry for the next five years.

Michener and I soon became friends. My epic Florida based novel had a long way to go, but he liked the premise. The one big piece of advice I took away from his classes was “never stop the story to do research.” Get the story told, then go back and do your homework. Story is all important. If you let yourself get off track chasing down facts, you may not return to the point of your tale.

I soon discovered we shared a common love for Poland. Michener was once hired by a television company to travel to a foreign country to shoot a documentary. He was offered to go anywhere in the world and decided to make his first trip to Poland. He made several trips back to Poland and conducted an extensive study of that country’s history and culture. He began writing the book, Poland in 1979 and it was published in 1983. He had a genuine love for the country. Poland received very favorable reviews and was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The book, written in an episodic format, tells the story of three families and the many generations of each family throughout the history of the country. The three families (Buk, Bukowski, and Lubonski) are fictional as are the other characters in the book. The plot, however, takes place throughout the history of Poland and contains many historic people. The events are largely real events in which the fictional characters interact. The saga spans over seven hundred years. The scope of the story boggles the mind.

The year before we met, I had backpacked through Poland looking for my roots. My grandparents came from Poland. I chose to travel alone staying at monasteries and sleeping in the back of churches. Michener was intrigued, as my experiences were out a bit out of the ordinary and didn’t parallel his.

This great and gentle man was pleased to be able to share his feelings about the country and people. We discussed Solidarity and the folks I met as I journeyed alone through the land of my ancestors.  Michener eagerly picked my memories, comparing his experiences with mine.  There is a wonderful line he wrote for one of his characters in Poland: “A Pole is a man born with a sword in his right hand, a brick in his left. When the battle is over, he starts to rebuild.” I found that to be so true of the people I encountered, from the elderly monks who were once soldiers fighting Nazis to the college professors who were quietly re-establishing their country as the communist regime crumbled around them.

Like Michener's other works, he included an acknowledgments section at the beginning of the book; however due to the political turmoil in Poland at the time, he decided not to include the names of the people he traveled with for fear of persecutions against them. He wrote: "Normally, as I have done in my other novels, I would list their names, their impressive occupations, their achievements in research and scholarship, but I cannot ascertain whether in the present climate this would hurt or help them."  He was a kind and considerate man.

One day he invited me to his condominium for tea. He asked if I would bring my pictures from my backpacking adventure. As we sat in his study with maps of Poland spread over his cluttered desk, he gently lifted each of my photos and studied the faces in the snapshots.

His wife slipped quietly into the room. She was a lovely Japanese-American lady by the name of Mari Yoriko Sabusawa. Michener’s novel Sayonara is quasi-autobiographical. Sayonara was made into a film of the same name in 1957 starring Marlon Brando. Set during the early 1950s, Sayonara tells the story of a soldier stationed in Japan, who falls in love with a Japanese woman. The novel follows their cross-cultural romance and illuminates the racism of the post-WWII time period. I admit to being a bit star-struck at that point… I was in the presence of the “lovers” from Sayonara.

Mrs. James Michener bent down and kissed the top of his head. “Do you need anything, Cookie?” she asked him.

It was a surreal moment. This was James Michener, Pulitzer Prize winner… and he was “Cookie.” 
I came to realize - Everybody is somebody’s “Cookie.”


  1. Wow. That's an amazing story. It tells me that these great writers are people too.

    Now why would you sleep in monasteries and churches backpacking through Poland?

    You are by far the most interesting person I've ever had the opportunity to 'meet' (even if online). You've done SO many things. Amazing!!!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Markee, Thanks.
    Sleeping at monasteries and churches seemed the best way to really see the country. I was traveling alone and felt safer being in religious settings. It's that Catholic school upbringing. The monasteries were so beautiful. Most were built at least 600 years ago. The monks were always thrilled to see an American... especially a woman. I got to see a lot of things most tourists would never experience. A lot of the monks had survived WWII and come home to find their families gone. They went into the religious order to step back from the world. There was such peace there. I could sit in monastery gardens and still see the mortar and gun fire damage done to the ancient walls of the churches. It was a very special adventure. :)

  3. Barbara, this was a fascinating post. What a wonderful opportunity you had to get to know one of the great American writers.

  4. Great post, Barbara. Oddly enough, just yesterday evening I suddenly got the idea that I would love to travel to Poland. Then I found your post this morning. It's as if I tuned in. You've had so many fantastic adventures and gone on so many of the trips I would like to have taken. It's wonderful to read about your travels. 600-year-old monasteries? Awesome sleeping quarters.

    James A. Michener was such a fabulous author and you are so fortunate to have met him. I remember reading Hawaii and Tales of the South Pacific and how much I liked them.

  5. I love these stories - great pay-off to this one, too.

  6. Great, great story. I like the part where he says to stay with the story, catch up with the research later. Good point.

    You'd do the woman's laundry for 5 years? You always have a way of cracking me up. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Haylee, I just finished her last batch of linens yesterday...

  8. Helen, Thank you. It is sweet to see the human side of our icons.

  9. Linda, Poland makes for a wonderful adventure. I remember my first night in an ancient monastery. I was walking the halls in my pajamas and robe admiring the murals. It was as if I had blinked myself into a world that stood still for centuries. In one monastery, the abbot moved a hidden wall and showed me a tapestry from Copernicus. They had built the wall to hide the lovely artifact from the nazis. It gives me goosebumps to think about it. If you get the opportunity to visit Poland, do go. It's very special.

  10. Karen, Thank you. It was a special time. Both the solitary visit to Poland and sharing the adventure with James Michener.

  11. That was really a wonderful story, Barbara! Thank you for sharing it. (And I love that movie, Sayonara, by the way.) :-)

  12. Thank you Karen. It was a lovely movie. They don't make 'em like they used to.

  13. You have the most amazing adventures, Barbara. I stand in awe of all you have done.

  14. Kristie...thank you. My next author bumping will have you chuckling. :)