John F. Baker PW Interviews: Alex Haley

(John F. Baker PW Interviews: Alex Haley was originally published within Publishers Weekly on September 6, 1976.)

John F. Baker has been with Publishers Weekly for thirty-one years, serving as editorial director and former editor-in-chief, until he retired in 2004. In 1989, Baker became a vice-president of its parent company, Cahners Magazines. He has been involved in the launch of two other book-related magazines during this period, both times as editor: Bookviews in 1977 and Small Press in 1984. Baker was born in Lincoln, England, and is a graduate of Oxford University. He came to the U.S. in 1958 and worked here and in London for Reuters news agency, for Venture, a lavish travel magazine, and for Reader’s Digest Books, before coming to PW as managing editor in 1973. He wrote frequently on book issues, has interviewed more than one hundred notable writers, and often addresses publishing, writers’, and journalists’ groups on publishing questions. He has taught publishing courses at the New School for Social Research and New York University.

In Publishers Weekly, John F. Baker called the 1940s and 1950s “the golden age of publishing,” when the industry was a “comparatively small business producing a comparatively limited number of books for a dozily elite readership whose access to bookstores was limited by geography.” However, as the U.S. population grew and became more educated, book publishing boomed. This rapid growth culminated in what Baker described as “the decade of the Great Communications Conglomerate Takeover” in the 1960s. Publishing houses either acquired one another or joined forces with communications conglomerates that held interests in newspapers, magazines, television, and motion pictures. By the early 1970s, the industry was dominated by about 15 giant companies. The consolidation of power continued in the early 1990s, when about seven publishers controlled the industry.

John F. Baker PW Interviews: Alex Haley

In his dedication of Roots Alex Haley writes: “It wasn’t planned that Roots research and writing would finally take 12 years”; and there were obviously times when both he and Doubleday despaired of his ever finishing. Now that he has, however, neither the slight, scholarly author nor his publisher is likely to regret the time spent; for Roots bids fair to be one of the year’s biggest books, and even before its publication October 1 has earned Haley a million dollars, with a hefty assist from a $6-million, 10-installment TV version that will begin showing shortly after the book reaches the stores.

“I had always wondered what a million-dollar author was like,” the soft-spoken Haley mused over lunch recently. “Now I’ve met two of them, Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins, and it seems I’ll be one myself. I shan’t exactly make whoopee with the money,” he adds, rather unnecessarily. “It just means I’ll have the funds to finance the travel and research for the writing I want to do. And in future I’d like not to have to have advances any more. If they’re small, they’re not enough, and then if you get a track record, they’re too big, and that pressures you. The main thing is to be free, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be. If you’re working for someone, that someone is determining what you’re worth—and no matter what they decide you’ve worth, it has to be that someone is making money off you.”

The status of a millionaire must have seemed impossibly remote to Haley when he left the U.S. Coast Guard in 1959 after a 20-year career there in which he had created for himself the rank of Chief Journalist. Beginning by writing letters for his fellow ratings, he painstakingly taught himself the rudiments of journalism and finally began placing articles about naval life in magazines. On his release from the service, “I went straight to Greenwich Village, rented myself a basement room and prepared to starve.” He came close enough. “One day I was down to 18 cents and a couple of cans of sardines, and that was it.” A friend bought him a meal, the next day a small check came, and he struggled on. “In my new home in California I’ve framed that 18 cents and those sardines, as the emblems of my determination to be independent.”

He resolutely refused to take a job, but it was a bad time for him. “One time I felt so low I wrote to six other black writers living in Greenwich Village, just for some companionship. None of them ever replied, but Jimmy Baldwin, who didn’t know me from Adam, came right over, and spent hours talking to me, cheering me up. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Eventually Haley began to work for Playboy, doing some of their first Playboy Interviews, and it was one he did with Malcolm X that began to change his fortunes. The interview led to a commission to do the Autobiography of Malcolm X and when Malcolm was assassinated shortly after the book was completed, it was sold to the movies and Haley began to see his first real money.

Roots had its genesis in a lunch Haley had with his agent Paul Reynolds and Doubleday’s Kenneth McCormick and Lisa Drew in 1966 “in this very restaurant, as a matter of fact, which is one reason I wanted to meet you here today,” he told PW. At that time he had only what he calls “a rather nebulous idea” of trying to trace his family back, through tales of his grandmother he heard as a child growing up in Tennessee, and the legends of a man the family called “the African,” who had been seized by slavers in the dim past as he chopped wood to make a drum. Haley just thought there might be a book in the search for his past, but at that time he hadn’t been to Africa, and “wasn’t all that fired up about it.” If he couldn’t trace any African angle, he was prepared just to make the book a black American family saga. Doubleday gave him an advance of $5000, enabling him to go to Africa to see if he could pursue the trail of his past into the remote rural villages of Gambia—and it would be easy to say that the rest is history, except that it involved years of agonizingly hard work, financial problems and bitter feelings for Haley.

He tells the story of his search in the closing chapters of Roots—how with a bare handful of clues he pinpointed the African language of his forebear Kunta Kinte, eventually even found the Gambian village where his ancestor had been seized by slavers, then ransacked British and American naval records for the very ship on which Kinte was brought to colonial American in 1767. What he doesn’t indicate there is the despair he sometimes experienced that he would ever finish. He piled up material obsessively, spending long months talking to the old griots—verbal historians of the African villages, poring over missionary records, naval records, the history of the slave trade. He even crossed the Atlantic on a freighter, deliberately incarcerating himself in a dark hold day after day, so as to experience as nearly as possible what the crossing felt like to a slave. “That was the hardest part, writing about the slave ship. There were times on that boat I felt like jumping off. I was deep in debt by then, felt I’d never finish the damn book. One time I must have been almost mad with despair, because I went into a sort of dream, and I really thought I heard the dead voices of my family talking to me, encouraging me. That was what kept me going in the end. After that I felt I really had to do it, for them.”

Haley seems always able to see the humorous side of even his own more dramatic pronouncements. “Yeah, you could say this book was a long time aborning,” he grins suddenly. “I’d keep telling Doubleday I’d finish any day now, but I never did. I worked on it solidly for the last two and a half years in Jamaica, then in February they sent me my last draft for what was meant to be a final read-through. It was supposed to take me no more than a couple of days, but I knew when I saw it I’d have to do more work on it. I hid out in the Hotel Commodore so that Doubleday wouldn’t know where I was, and I did a whole new chapter and a lot of rewriting. It took me two weeks, and for last 48 hours I worked around the clock. Then I sent it off by messenger, and got on a plane for Indiana, where I was supposed to give a lecture, and the next thing I remember is when I woke up there, knowing it was all over.”

Long before it was all over, however, word of Roots had spread, partly by way of Haley’s indefatigable lecturing—”I figure I must have talked to over a million people about the book in the last six years, and if they all buy a copy we’re in”—and partly by way of the Hollywood grapevine, which he describes as “even yakkier than the publishing one.” Even before he had finished, last fall, representatives of David Merrick and David Wolper were bidding for the movie rights. Wolper won, with an ABC-TV special serialization in mind (hot on the heels of the enormous success of the Irwin Shaw Rich Man, Poor Man series) and the company went right into production. “They were actually writing their scripts direct from my ms. I was scared at one time they’d catch up with me from behind, and want a script for a section I hadn’t written yet.”

ABC spent $6-million on the filming, a record for a TV production, and in recent weeks Haley has been on hand in Georgia and Hollywood to observe the shooting. “They reconstructed the African village in Georgia, and it looked so incredibly authentic to me that I actually bought the house where they had Kinte being born.” He found, too, that the black actors identified so strongly with their roles that during the filming of a slave ship sequence one “slave” got so carried away that he hurled the white actor playing the shipmaster overboard.

In a book that reads so much like an exciting novel—until the closing chapters in which Haley describes his detective work—how much is verifiable fact and how much is made up? “I call it ‘faction,’ ” Haley says. “All the major incidents are true, the details are as accurate as very heavy research can make them, the names and dates are real, but obviously when it comes to dialogue, and people’s emotions and thoughts, I had to make things up. It’s heightened history, or fiction based on real people’s lives.”

His next project is already nearing completion. It is a strictly nonfiction account of the details of his long odyssey, a huge expansion of the material only sketched in the closing pages of Roots. “It’s called ‘My Search for ‘Roots,’ and it’s supposed to be ready in October,” Haley says. “Of course, I can’t promise, what with the tour for Roots and all. Then after that there’ll be a detailed study of Henning, Tennessee, where I was born and grew up. I’ve done all the research for that, and it’ll be a pleasure to be able to complete a book in under 12 years.”

Haley is a dedicated writer—”There’s nothing I’d rather do, except perhaps be a surgeon. In many ways it’s similar delicate, careful work, and I act like a surgeon. When I’m writing I take six showers a day, and wash my hands maybe 20 times. And it’s a physical thing with me. When it’s going well, I find myself tapping my foot in rhythm with the keys, as if there’s a cadence going. I like to do first drafts at night, when I’m tired, and then do the surgical work in the morning when I’m sharp—and I love writing on a ship at sea. In fact, if I had my druthers, I’d spend half the year at sea.”

He paused, with the slow grin that has been winning his lecture audiences for years. “You’ve got me talking about writing. Most people want me to talk about being black, and that’s OK too, but I do love to talk about writing!”

(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It appeared within Publishers Weekly on September 6, 1976 by John F. Baker. © 1976 Publishers Weekly. © 1978 Xerox Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

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