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Michener's 'Texas': Don't Fence It In

October 17, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Over at Random House, the corporate heads were spinning in a state of collective amazement. In tones worthy of the announcement of some major scientific discovery, they could only profess awe at what, for want of a better term, they are calling the Michener Phenomenon.

Publishing records are sometimes rubbery, but "Texas," James Michener's 32nd book, appeared to be setting some and shattering others as it entered its fifth printing--at 1.1 million copies--before its official publication date of Oct. 28. "Just by comparison," Random House's Anik LaFarge said, "it took 'Iacocca' two months to hit a million copies."

So avid was the demand for the book that LaFarge said Random House began getting calls about "Texas" almost immediately after the publication of "Poland," Michener's last blockbuster novel. For the better part of this year, she said, loyal fans of the 78-year-old author have been calling his publisher, "saying things like 'I have a relative dying of cancer and I'm worried he won't live to read the book. Isn't there any way I can get an advance copy?' "

Texas Ousts Maryland

Meanwhile, down at the Random House warehouse in Westminster, Md., a curious thing had happened. Normally, said Random House vice president Carol Schneider, the flags of the company, the United States and the state of Maryland fly on the trio of flagpoles outside that facility. But "as a measure of respect," the Maryland flag was taken down and replaced with the Lone Star flag.

Over breakfast Tuesday to discuss his latest literary feat, Michener laughed when asked if he had taken to wearing the 10-gallon hat he is pictured in on the back cover of "Texas." In fact, he said, "I want to make it clear that that 10-gallon hat came not from Texas, but years ago from Wyoming." A second huge hat that Michener wore frequently while researching and writing the 1,096-page opus in the environs of Austin dates back to the author's Colorado days.

Texas, Wyoming, Colorado--the truth is, Michener said, "I have been interested in the West for a long time. I went out to Colorado in 1936. It was in a sense the making of me, in that I was an Eastern Seaboard boy. To find that there is life west of the Hudson was very essential to me."

Clad not in denims, but in a New York-proper gray flannel suit, Michener sipped from a glass of fresh orange juice and ignored a heaping plate of croissants. Any trace of his "Texas" tan had vanished, the casualty, no doubt, of the last two years near Sitka, Alaska, where Michener has been researching his next epic.

As for "Texas," a novel that spans 4 1/2 centuries, and is packed with violence, conflict, love, passion, politics and the peculiar wheeling-and-dealing that seems less ruthless when sugarcoated in a Texas accent, Michener said it was an idea he had been ruminating on for nigh onto 40 years. "I think I am like a good many people in that respect," Michener said, "in that it takes time for ideas to germinate."

Still, as Michener readily admitted, "A woman or a man could write a marvelous novel, obviously, about any state of the union, particularly if it were a novel of character. One of the best states would probably be Iowa because it has such a high degree of literacy."

Nonetheless, "if you want to write a book such as I want to write, Texas has some enormous advantages."

'Extremely Dramatic History'

For one thing, "Texas was a free nation for 10 years." Then, "Texas has a frontier with a foreign country that speaks a foreign language and has a different religion, a state religion, that is to say, that is not the state religion of our country." Certainly, "Texas has an extremely dramatic history. It has charismatic participants of extraordinary variety."

Second only to Alaska in size, Texas, Michener said, "has dramatic economic foci"--cattle, oil, aviation, shipping and high finance, to name only a few.

"And it has . . . a pretty good reputation in the English speaking world."

Not, however, that Texas is unique in being what Michener terms "a plus for the storyteller." Among other states, "Virginia and California are two that come to mind" quickly as replete with literary fodder. As for New York, Michener smiled: "If one were going to be a Balzac, certainly." Then he turned serious: "I have often thought of this. If I were a young man, what better than to take New York for maybe 15 or 20 novels? Somebody is going to do this, no question about it."

On the other hand, Michener does like to pride himself on being something of a literary soothsayer. As he points out, past novels on Poland, Israel and South Africa, among other geopolitical hot spots, have portended what grew to be worldwide attention, often by a number of years.

None Too Reticent

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