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 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.
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.”