Norman Mailer once told Lawrence Grobel that writers may be an endangered species. And Saul Bellow told him, “The country has changed so, that what I do no longer signifies anything, as it did when I was young.”
But to judge from this collection, writers and writing aren’t done for quite yet. Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes caustic, always passionate, the twelve writers in Endangered Species (Mailer, Bellow, Ray Bradbury, J.P. Donleavy, James Ellroy, Allen Ginsberg, Andrew Greeley, Alex Haley, Joseph Heller, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, and Neil Simon) memorably state their case for what they do and how they do it.
And they even offer an opinion or two about other writers and about the entire publishing food chain: from agents to publishers to booksellers to critics to readers. Not surprisingly, it makes for some great reading.
Lawrence Grobel has been a freelance writer for more than thirty years, He has written for numerous national magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Newsday, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Reader’s Digest and many other periodicals.
Playboy called him “the interviewer’s interviewer” after his historic conversation with Marlon Brando for their 25th anniversary issue. Grobel has written several books, including Conversations with Capote, Talking with Michener, and The Hustons. Joyce Carol Oates has called him “The Mozart of Interviewers” and J.P. Donleavy has called him “The Most Intelligent Interviewer in the United States.”
Introduction To His Alex Haley Interview By Lawrence Grobel
Brothers in the Same Ultimate Boat
Of the multitude of writers who can start a sentence this way—”After some 20 years of having crossed my fingers every time I mailed to editors something I had written”—only one could finish it like this: “now Roots, which represented 12 of those years of work, had already sold close to 1,000,000 hardcover copies, and the television miniseries had collectively attracted the largest audience in the history of the medium.”
After Alex Haley’s death at seventy in 1992, Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, said of Roots, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and was reprinted in thirty-seven languages, “It was the story of our people. It was the story of how we came from Africa.” An editorial in the Los Angeles Times concluded: “Roots permanently revised the collective myth of a nation’s origins. Few writers have ever attempted, much less accomplished, so much.”
After its enormous success, Haley would write articles for Reader’s Digest and Playboy about what Roots meant to him and whether or not it was personally worth it. Considering that he subsequently never wrote anything of such consequence, the author of Roots and of The Autobiography of Malcolm X may have felt the burden of best-sellerdom. Yet those two books alone made Alex Haley a world-renowned writer, the subject of hundreds of articles, the object of lawsuits, the recipient of thirty-seven honorary degrees.
He was born in Ithaca, New York, and grew up in the small town of Henning, Tennessee. His parents were well educated, but he got his gift for storytelling from his grandmother and aunts, who would sit on the front porch of their home talking about “the African,” Kunta Kinte, who was brought to America in chains from Gambia, and whose children and grandchildren had names like Chicken George, Miss Kizzy, and, eventually, Alex Haley—but he never knew this was the story he was born to tell. After disappointing his father with poor grades, he decided to leave college early and join the Coast Guard, where he spent the next twenty years roaming the seas, honing his writing skills by penning love letters for fellow sailors. When he left the Coast Guard at thirty-seven, he used his skills to freelance for magazines. In 1962, his conversation with Miles Davis became the first Playboy Interview. He followed that with interviews with Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Melvin Belli, George Lincoln Rockwell, Sammy Davis Jr., and Johnny Carson.
The magazine work subsided, however, as his idea to trace the history of his family up from slavery to modern times grew to an obsession. The payoff was enormous, but so were the legal battles, the accusations of plagiarism, and his own frustrations about not having the luxury of time to develop other stories. There was one more book, A Different Kind of Christmas, published in 1988, and a posthumous work, Queen, which was finished by another writer.
I admired Haley for his Playboy interviews, all of which I had studied before I began writing for that magazine. So when we finally met in 1985 we had that in common. I had also spent three years in the Peace Corps in Ghana, West Africa, and had visited the dungeons in Elmina and Cape Coast where captured Africans were kept before sailing into slavery. Haley was a soft-spoken, gentle man who was proud of what he had accomplished and willing to share his rags-to-riches story. As Murray Fisher, his Playboy and Roots editor, said of him, “I consider him the finest and most decent man I’ve ever known.” Many people who knew Alex Haley echoed that sentiment.
Alex Haley Interviewed By Lawrence Grobel
Grobel: Your interview with Miles Davis was the first Playboy Interview, a feature that has become almost as much of an institution as the centerfold. How did that come about?
Haley: I had written mostly for Reader’s Digest at the time and wasn’t very well known. Playboy wanted to do a piece on Miles Davis. I was excited at the opportunity because Playboy was the most exciting magazine in the world of periodical writers. It was adventuresome; it was reaching for new directions. I didn’t know at the time that Miles and I were very, very different. I was as square as a block. I came out of Tennessee, was twenty years in the service, what did I know about jazz and his world? I tried every way I knew to get to Miles but I just couldn’t. He would not talk to me. His lawyer told me that not only was I nor going to get to talk with Miles, he didn’t like the press. I was so desperate to get this story that when he told me where Miles trained as an amateur boxer when he was in New York, I bought some gym gear and went to Wiley’s Uptown Gym on 135th Street in Harlem and enrolled for six months. Sure enough, when Miles was in town he’d turn up, and I was there. Miles was beautiful to watch in the gym. He had this compact body with rippling muscles. He put on this powder-blue sweatsuit and be almost like a dancer doing his exercises and training. He knew I was there and one day he came up to me with his hands on his hips and jerked his head toward the ring. The invitation was clear: get in the ring with him or forget any hope of an interview. So I got in the ring and it didn’t last all that long. He didn’t really hurt me—I taught him a whole lot about clinching [laughs]. Afterwards we went to the showers. There’s something about two guys under adjacent showerheads that’s not terribly formal and he began to talk. He asked me about my “gig.” He was curious about me as a writer. It just happened that when we went downstairs there was a newsstand and I had a piece in True magazine about a ship revolt, and another piece in Reader’s Digest. I bought both copies and showed them to him. Then we got into his Lamborghini and drove to his home on West 77th Street. He introduced me to his wife, Frances, and then he began to take me around to his night activities. Wherever he appeared, the people at the door just evaporated. He was the king of jazz. He was called the Prince of Darkness. He’d walk into a club and these musical living legends would embrace him. I met and observed the world around him, especially the women. I was always taking notes because Playboy had given me six weeks to write a 6,000-word article. After five weeks I realized I had fascinating things about his night life, but I didn’t have enough quotes from Miles. So I took a gamble: I wrote 3,000 words about the nightlife of the king of jazz, and then for the other 3,000 words I went through every quote I could find, made up questions to fit, and that was how the Playboy Interview took form.
Grobel: Your next interview for Playboy, with Malcolm X, became the basis for your first book. Was he as difficult to figure out as Miles was?
Haley: Malcolm X had a fearsome image, tough guy, articulate but hard. For the first several sessions he just would not talk about himself. This was after the Playboy, interview, when we were working on his book. I was uptight because I hadn’t been able to get through to him. I was ready to go to the publisher and suggest they try another writer. Malcolm kept going on about the Nation of Islam and his leader, Mr. Elijah Muhammed, and I just asked him to tell me something about his mother. At the time he was up walking—almost stalking, the way he would walk—and he stopped as if someone had jerked a string to him. He looked at me and I knew that I had touched some button within him. He began to talk again, but more slowly. And when he spoke his voice was up a notch. “It’s funny you’d ask me that,” he said. “I can remember the kind of dresses she used to wear. They were always faded and gray.” He walked a little more. “And I remember she was always bent over the stove, trying to stretch what little we had.” It was 11:30 at night and that man walked that floor until daybreak and spilling out of him came the first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was the memory of a little seven-year-old boy of his mother beginning to have great strain trying to hold together her brood of seven children whose father, her husband, had recently been murdered. He’d been thrown under a moving streetcar. And after that night Malcolm was never, ever reluctant to talk.
Grobel: Malcolm X felt the white man didn’t want to lose somebody to be supreme over. Do you feel that’s still true?
Haley: It has a good element of truth in a subliminal way. We’re talking about white and black, but if you look at the women’s movement, you see the same white male’s resistance and phrases applied to women as to blacks. “It’s okay if they stay in their place; they can work and receive less money for the same job.”
Grobel: Malcolm X believed the black man survived by fooling the white man. Is this still the way it is?
Haley: It’s a tactic, but so do white people survive by fooling the boss. Practically everybody does it to some degree. It’s not just a black-white thing, it’s a human nature thing.
Grobel: How did you feel personally when Malcolm X would say to you that “Thoughtful white people know they are inferior to black people”?
Haley: That’s what he said, and what he thought. My job was to quote him. My own personal reaction to that is I am not big on saying anybody is better than somebody else. White, brown, yellow, polka dot: we are brothers in the same ultimate boat.
Grobel: Do you feel, as Marion Brando does, that Malcolm X was a great man?
Haley: Sure. The fact that you and virtually every interviewer I meet ask about him says that better than I ever could, He affected the thinking of a society. What is obscured is that he really was saying what had been taught to him by Mr. Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims locally. It’s one of those vicissitudes of history that Malcolm is the one talked about, and not his teacher.
Grobel: That has something to do with you as well, don’t you think?
Haley: Yeah, it does.
Grobel: You followed Malcolm with one of his disciples, the boxer then known as Cassius Clay.
Haley: Who had a tremendous amount of mother wit. He had a capacity for putting you on, but underneath he was very cunning. He would do things to put you off as an interviewer. I’d ask him a question and he’d appear to be asleep. This was very disconcerting. Then he would open his eyes and answer. So you didn’t know when he was listening or not listening to you. He told me how, when he was in Kentucky, he missed the school bus and he knew if he went home his mother was going to whup up. Because he was afraid of his mother he ran after the bus and he saw how the kids on the bus were watching and enjoying him running. Up to that time he was just another kid in the playground, nobody paid him any particular attention. But after that day he began to be pointed out as the kid who ran behind the bus and that taught him something: always perform—do whatever you do to make people watch you. And that is what he used in and out of the ring.
Grobel: You interviewed another great black athlete, Jim Brown, who once harbored fantasies of going in the ring against Muhammad Ali, didn’t he?
Haley: There was talk about a mythical fight between these two and it was not without interest to Jim Brown. He took me to a restaurant on Crenshaw Avenue and Ali was there. They met each other and then they stepped outside and took off their coats and began to shadow box. Not a finger was laid on either of them but it was a blur of movements. Afterwards Jim Brown and I were at the Continental Hotel on Sunset and he verbally played the fight out, saying, “I’d win, because what Ali doesn’t know is how fast I am.” I laughed, because earlier when I was interviewing Ali and had asked him about fighting Jim Brown, Ali had said, “I would have to win because Jim Brown thinks I don’t know how fast he is.”
Grobel: Ali is often ranked as the greatest fighter of all time, but do you think he could have beaten Joe Louis in his prime?
Haley: I don’t know. But one of my most moving experiences was meeting Joe Louis. After Roots had come out, I was speaking to a communications group in Las Vegas and David Wolper, the executive producer of the Roots miniseries, said he had a request for me. Joe Louis wanted to know if I would take the time to see him. Well, I felt like dropping to my knees because when I was a boy Joe Louis was the biggest thing in our world. When he would fight the black community in Henning would gather together to listen on the radio. We little kids would grab each other and say, “I’m Joe Louis.” It was said that Joe Louis was the only black man in America who could legally knock a white man down and get away with it. When his fight would be over and Joe Louis had knocked out his opponent the place would go into pandemonium. Joe Louis was our god. Now here was this god asking me to come and see him. I went to his home and he had a copy of Roots and asked if I would sign it. My eyes were just grinning with tears. I never will forget what a thrill that was.
Grobel: Was it also a thrill to interview Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Haley: He was a very pivotal figure, an artist who comes along only once every so often. But I never felt that I knew Dr. King.
Grobel: How different and how similar were King and Malcolm X?
Haley: They were very, very different. They had the same objectives but their approach was very different. I’ve often played in my head how easily either of them might have been the other, given the other’s background. If a Malcolm X had been sent to the best high school in Atlanta for blacks, if his father overlooked shepherding his son as Daddy King had, and if Malcolm X could have gone to Morehouse College in Atlanta and then to Boston College School of Theology as did Dr. King, think what a minister Malcolm would have made. Conversely, take a young Martin Luther King and put him in the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts, selling marijuana, shining shoes, and making the rags pop so people would give him a little more money, and then to go get his graduate degree in the streets of Harlem, what a hustler he would have become!
Grobel: Did each of them influence the other?
Haley: I don’t think a whole lot. Both of them were very self-sufficient forces in their own way. When I was writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Playboy asked me to interview Dr. King. So periodically I would go down to see him in Atlanta. Dr. King knew I was writing a book about Malcolm and he was cool about it. He would answer a half dozen questions, then he would say, “By the way, what’s Brother Malcolm saying about me these days?” Then I’d get back to New York and Malcolm was much more impatient. His number one thing: “What did he say?” So though these two men were presented as adversaries, they were very much aware of each other and had a great admiration for each other under the surface.
Grobel: How did King and Malcolm X affect your own life and thinking?
Haley: Not a whole lot. I say that not meaning any disrespect or lack of reverence for either of them, but by the time I met them I had already been twenty years in the U.S. Coast Guard and been to a fair number of places and had formed my own philosophy and way of life, Also, coming from a little town called Henning in Tennessee and growing up with small-town values, you will be a pretty solid person if you retain that. I was lucky I had educated parents. My father was a college professor, my mother taught school, and they made me aware of blackness early on. My fourth birthday present was a thick slice of a tree. My grandfather owned a lumber company. Through his connections he had gotten a slice of a redwood, eighteen inches thick. On my birthday they swung open the garage door and there was this slice of tree leaning against the wall with little white markers in different places. My father took a pointer and explained to me what those markers were, how every year there was a new growth ring. He said these markers are where this tree was in size when some particular thing happened. That was the first time I ever heard the words Emancipation proclamation. The other things were like the birth of Chicken George and the founding of the college where my parents had met, and so forth. It was my first acquaintance with black history. In later years, when I was grown, my father explained to me that they had spent lots of hours trying to think how they could introduce me to blackness without making it black versus white, And I have in my mind gone back to that tree slice, because that early influence had something great to do with my deep interest in history and obvious interest in things black. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots are among the most important books having to do with black things in this country. So I had my own distinct sense of blackness before I met these people. I had not had the kind of hustling in the street experience that Malcolm X had, but I don’t know that I had been any less black. I was just somewhere else black.
Grobel: Of the seven in-depth interviews you did for Playboy, which are you most proud of?
Haley: In a clinical sense I would say the one with the Nazi leader, George Lincoln Rockwell. Because I learned most about how an interviewer needs to be detached from the subject and even be hospitable to what the subject may say and feel, because your job is to communicate to the reader what that person feels. The magazine was looking for controversial and exciting people to interview. They told me they would like to interview the head of the Ku Klux Klan and the head of the American Nazi Party. I selected the Nazi Party leader because he had more education. It wasn’t that the other man didn’t have any, but he didn’t have anything like the background of Rockwell, who was a graduate of Brown University. He had become a lieutenant commander in the navy. He’d been a jet pilot and commanding officer of a pursuit squad. No matter what you thought, you couldn’t be stupid if you’d done those things. I was living in upstate New York at the time and he was in Alexandria, Virginia. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do this interview but felt he could use the exposure. He called to ask me a personal question: “Are you a Jew?” I quickly said, “No, sir.” Well, when I turned up there was a very shocked set of Nazi people! [laughs] It just never occurred to them that I was black. They were so upset. There were six gentlemen standing on the porch with swastikas, belts, and side arms. He was not there. They put me in a station wagon, two in the front, two behind me, I was in the middle seat, and drove me down the highway into the woods. There was a clearing with a white farmhouse and a big pole with swastikas flying. They frisked me before I entered the house. As I went up the steps I felt very, very uncertain about the whole thing. He came to the door—a darkly handsome, angry man. Very angry. Had on a white shirt with dark trousers. He flung his fingers right in my face, almost on my nose, his face mottled with anger. “I’m going to tell you right now,” he said, “we call your kind niggers and we think you should all be shipped to Africa.” Somehow a calm descended on me, right at that moment, and I said to him. “I’ve been called nigger before and this time I’m being paid very well for it, so now you go ahead and tell me whatever you’ve got against us.” And that was how the interview began.
Grobel: How long did you talk to him?
Haley: It took about a week. He had become a prisoner of his own philosophy. He was a quite intelligent man, but he had become a salesman of hate. After he got to feel less apprehensive about me he would show me selective letters that came daily, things like: “Dear Commander Rockwell, We are on social security, we do not have much, but here’s our two dollars to please keep America pure,” or “keep America white,” or “Christian.” He was a man who felt himself trapped. He was one of three whom I interviewed for Playboy who predicted he would die violently, and every one of them was right. In his case he said, “It isn’t that I feel some of the enemy will kill me, it will he some of my own people.” And it was one of his lieutenants who shot him to death one morning in a laundromat. Why I say this was a special interview was that, though I hardly agreed with a syllable the man uttered, I learned that an interviewer must be like a surgeon with a patient on the table. You may disagree violently with what that patient believes philosophically, but your job at that moment is to perform surgery the best you can.
Grobel: What is it that you have basically learned from interviewing others?
Haley: That most people would like to be better understood.
Grobel: And that is why they would open up to you?
Haley: Yes, because we all feel that we are not understood.
Grobel: It’s really more than that though, Alex. Wouldn’t you say that to be a good interviewer you must exhibit a chameleonlike personality, be fully prepared, and have self-confidence?
Haley: I think so. Those three things would be the things you really do have to be.
Grobel: What else have you learned?
Haley: Not to look for any particular answer or quote, because you’ll never find it. It will be something that you will happen upon. I often remember not the specific questions but the area of questioning which tended to open up different people. I have had psychiatrists tell me that they had studied The Autobiography of Malcolm X during their training focusing on certain questions I had asked that opened him up. I understand what they’re talking about, because you learn while interviewing people that it generally is a question you may ask without awareness that will open up a person.
Grobel: For instance?
Haley: I interviewed Johnny Carson—a very collected, cool person, difficult to reach. We were at the Bel Air Hotel and he was giving his conventional responses, but then we got to talking about his having left Nebraska and that got him to open up. He was in school there and was peripherally running a little radio station—he was everything from general manager to janitor. He told me how he used to spin records and how he would think about wanting to do television shows. He said one day he was writing out a sketch for a show he thought might work on TV and a great revelation came to him—that what he wanted to do was not in Nebraska. Once he realized that, within two weeks he left Nebraska and starred to California with his wife and children. As he was telling me this he became nostalgic. He began dragging his words, remembering. Then Johnny Carson stood up and walked to the window and looked out on Sunset Boulevard as if he was almost seeing a mirage and said, “We drove right down there on Sunset.” He was playing it back to that time. And then he told me about his big break, where he landed a job as an assistant to Red Skelton who, during a rehearsal for his TV show, went through a breakaway door that didn’t break. Skelton was knocked out and Carson had to go on in his place and that was the beginning of the big road in front of him.
Grobel: Who was the most disappointing person you’ve ever interviewed?
Haley: The late Bishop Pike. To say he was articulate is to understate the man could talk like a faucet turned on. And he kept you engrossed with what he was saying. But when the stuff was transcribed I realized that he never answered a single question. He had just talked in circles. So they never ran the interview. I actually enjoyed him, he was a very warm fellow.
Grobel: Who would you especially not like to interview?
Haley: Henry Kissinger. He’s a very impressive personality and I’ve had occasion to meet with him. He and I belong to the Moroccan Royal Academy and I meet him in Morocco once a year. His knowledge is overwhelming. He’s a genuine world figure and an important man, but I would hate to interview him because of the way he speaks in oblique ways. He won’t come right out and answer something, because of the innate political strategist that he is.
Grobel: Were Playboy’s writers privy to Hefner’s celebrated parties when he was still in Chicago?
Haley: In 1969, Hugh Hefner bought this hotel back of the Playboy building in Chicago. He gave a party inviting everybody who had helped his dream become a reality, about 160 people. There were eighty-four of the best writers in the country, and not one of us among those who wasn’t proud to be there. Journalists and academic people came distributing questionnaires and asking questions to find out what made all these writers tick. The two things I have always remembered about their findings were that of these eighty-four top periodical writers, only four had finished college. And the other thing was that more than half of us were from the South. What we southern writers came up with is that we, more than the others, had grown up in a culture, in a region of the country where families gathered together after the evening meal and the elders would tell stories and the children would listen. It was really oral history which influenced us toward becoming professional storytellers.
Grobel: Okay, truthfully—you’re at a Playboy party during its swinging heyday: Are writers really talking to other writers?
Haley: I know people may not believe it. but at that party, and at the Playboy mansion in the early hours of the morning when the girls they called bunnies would come in from work, after the clubs had closed, these unbelievable-looking women with their hair done up, in their robes, the place exploding with activity—the photographers were gathered together talking about F-stops, and the interviewers were asking each other about the perfect question.
Grobel: And did you come up with one?
Haley: The one question I got out of that was if you were talking to a married couple, ask each of them if they remember the first time they ever set eyes on the other. It always evokes a response. Seventy-five percent of the husbands remember, wives almost instantly remember. That would make a lovely book: the fascinating stories of how people met who later became married.
Grobel: What about the moment when a couple knew the marriage was over? You’ve had two ex-wives . . . do you remember that time?
Haley: I remember when my first marriage ended with Nan, who was a sweet lady from Beaufort, North Carolina. She and I had married just before I went overseas in the Coast Guard. We had two children and she was with me when I got this writing mania. By the time I came back from overseas, I was hooked as a writer. When you really desperately want to write it’s like a habit. I was stationed in New York’s Third Coast Guard district headquarters. When I’d get off at five o’clock, instead of going home, I’d stay at the office an extra three hours trying to write for magazines, because you cannot write with two children around. I’d get home at eight, and then I’d stretch it and write until ten-thirty, then midnight. This went on for about two years and she was getting angrier and angrier. Then one Sunday afternoon we were in the kitchen and she just banged her pretty little fist on the table and said, “Look, it’s either me or that typewriter.” I never will forget it. The flash went through my head. I didn’t say it, but I thought, “Honey, I wish you hadn’t played it just like that.” There was no explosion, we remained good friends. She told me later that she knew when she said it what was going to happen, but she couldn’t help saying it. And I understood that.
Grobel: You were in the Coast Guard for twenty years. Do you look upon that time as your apprenticeship as a writer?
Haley: Most of the truly important things in my life have occurred as a seeming accident. I was seventeen when I went into the Coast Guard—I went in because I had flunked French during my sophomore year in college and Dad thought that was too much for the family to bear. That was the summer he took me aside and talked to me about how much he had enjoyed the army in World War I. He felt what I needed to do was tour, then come back and finish school, get my doctorate, become a professor, and be as decent as he was. He was not prepared for me to fall in love with the sea. But becoming a sailor was like a red carpet to me. Adventure, marvelous people, friends, shipmates I never knew the likes of. I was so excited that I would write letters to everybody I knew describing my adventures. Because I got so many letters in response, I quickly became the most prolific letter writer on the ship. Then we went to sea in the southwest Pacific—Australia, New Zealand. And in the world of sailors, the topmost priority is girls. When we’d go ashore, guys would meet girls, and when we’d ship out, all the talk was about those girls. Somehow a few sailors would ask me if I would help them write a letter to a girl they had met. I was a cook at this time, and I’d cook all day and set up shop in the evening at a mess table with a stack of’ three-by-five index cards. My clients would line up and I’d interview them about the girl. Then I’d take these profile cards and write a letter which the sailor would copy in his own handwriting. I’d come up with things like, “Your hair is like the moonlight reflected on the rippling waves.” And every night there’d be a bunch of guys carefully copying all this stuff. Other ships would come by, pick up the mail and take it ashore. And I will never forget one night in Brisbane, Australia, after we had been at sea for seven weeks, during which time three batches of mail had been taken off our ship. By midnight, all those who had liberty to go ashore came wobbling back to the ship except my clients. They came back later, smiling a full thirty-two teeth, and one after another they’d testify before astonished, awed sailors how those letters I had written for them had met fantastic results. In the world of sailors that made me heroic. And that was how it began. They began to pay me a dollar a letter and within a few weeks I was making more money writing letters than I was being a cook. And that was how I got the first idea of trying to write for magazines. I got hundreds of rejection slips, but by the time I got out of the service I was selling about as much as I was earning as a sailor.
Grobel: Your phenomenal success as a magazine writer led to your moving on to spend a dozen years researching and writing Roots. But it wasn’t an easy path for you, was it? Did you actually contemplate suicide before finishing the book that would make you famous throughout the world?
Haley: Oh yeah. That was the toughest time. I had finished the nine years of research, still writing some magazine articles to get enough money to make the next trip. I had gathered an unprecedented compendium of information about the institution of slavery but I wasn’t sure how to tell that story effectively. Had I been more scholarly oriented I could easily have written a six-volume set of the Afro-American experience from 1750 on. But the most effective book that came out of the whole Third Reich was The Diary of Anne Frank, so I thought, how can I tell about what happened to millions of Africans? Let me strip it down to one, Kunta Kinte, this little boy that my grandmother had told me about. Let me let him be born on page one, so the reader can watch him come into the world, and then deal with him day after day after day. So I wrote the first third of Roots—from the birth of Kunta to his capture—on a Norwegian freighter called the Villanger. It went from Long Beach, California, around South America and back. Kunta became like my little brother—I could sit in my room on the ship and talk to him. That’s what I love about going to sea, you’re isolated, you can talk to people by yourself. But then I was faced with this nice young fellow who had to be dropped in the hole of this stinking slave ship. I tried writing this section from an apartment in San Francisco but it was atrocious. I kept throwing the pages our. I felt I had to do something physically to help me better understand what he was going through. So I went to Africa and found a ship called The African Star, sailing from Monrovia, Liberia, to Jacksonville, Florida. I got on chat ship as a passenger and found that they had cargo with one hatch that wasn’t sealed off. It was only half filled with bales of raw rubber, and after dinner I would slip down in that hatch undetected. It was dark, eerie, dank, and I took off my clothing to my underwear and just laid down on my back on these big planks, trying to imagine that I was Kunta on the slave ship. I did this for two nights and caught a good, rousing cold. On the third night I couldn’t make myself go down into that hole. Instead, I walked like a zombie to the stern of the ship and stood there. I had my foot up on the bottom rail, hands on the top rail. It was dark, but you could see the iridescence that happens behind a ship. And all my troubles came in on me standing there by myself. All my debts. It seemed I owed everybody I could think of. And I knew that almost everybody I knew was beginning to laugh at me about the book, that I’d never finish it. The publisher wasn’t happy. I wasn’t. It was just such a low point in my life. Then a simple thought came to me: all I had to do was step through that rail and drop in the sea and it would be over. I wasn’t alarmed, it came almost as a sense of relief. Then I had an experience that I’ve never had since: I heard people talking who I knew were behind me somewhere, and they were saying things like, “No, don’t do that, you must go on and finish.” And I knew exactly who they were: my grandmother, Chicken George, my great-grandfather, Miss Kizzy, her father—the African. They were all the people that I had been writing about. And I had a wrenching sense I had to get away from the stern of that ship. I turned myself around and went scuttling over the hatch like a crab because I didn’t want to go near the rail on either side. I got back to my little room and pitched down headfirst on my narrow hunk and I cried. I don’t think I cried like that since I was a baby. It was a purging. Then I got up, about midnight, and went down the hole and laid back down again in my underwear and began to feel, for the first time, not guilty. I made notes like crazy and wrote out what I had scribbled the next morning. And that’s how I wrote the section of Roots where Kunta is in the slave ship.
Grobel: With all your research, what disturbed you the most about slavery?
Haley: Mankind’s capacity for cruelty to his fellow man. Slavery was terrible, but so was ten other forms of oppression. All of us clearly share the same destiny, and yet we persist in the idiocy of spending every kind of energy trying to amplify how “different” we are from one another, as opposed to how together we are in our common peril.
Grobel: Was Roots always called Roots?
Haley: Oh no, no. For a long time I was calling it Before This Anger. It was conceived in the 1960s when there were lots of civil rights struggles, and I thought of my book as one that would give readers some perception of what had preceded this anger. Many, many white people were saying, “I don’t understand why they’re unhappy.” A lot of whites were bewildered, so I thought I’d give a historical perspective to this. To know about anger you had to know about slavery and about Reconstruction.
Grobel: How do you assess the impact of Roots?
Haley: It caused people to have a better perception of the black experience historically. Until Roots, the biggest single image maker, worldwide, of the history and culture of Africa had been Tarzan. Also, it gave a better perception of what the world slavery had meant. Prior to Roots, and some other books which didn’t have the fortune to become as widespread as Roots, slaves had been portrayed as anonymous, faceless masses in the cotton fields in the South. The first black ever recognized as an individual on a mass basis was Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now Roots came along with other people: Chicken George, who was my great-great-grandfather; the Fiddler; Miss Kizzy; Kunta Kinte—and they gave a sense of characterization to people who were slaves. Then it had a genealogical effect. Genealogy was, for a long time, a snob appeal thing, linked with people who could trace themselves back to royalty. When Roots came along, black people, who had been characterized as being at the bottom of the pecking order, began thinking about their roots. Now there’s a virtual wave of interest in family searching among people who previously never thought about it.
Grobel: And yet, your mother was embarrassed when your grandmother spoke of the African, Kunta Kinte, wasn’t she?
Haley: Yes. My mother was the first generation in the family to be college educated. My grandmother had sixth grade. My mother felt she was much too sophisticated to be talking about slaves. The only time I remember them having a falling out was when my mother would say, “Ma, I’m sick of hearing you talk about all that old slavery stuff.” Then my grandmother would get very indignant and say, “You don’t care where you come from. I do.” I was very close to my grandmother who told me these stories; if I ever had to hear them from my mother, I would never have heard them. In this way my mother and grandmother were like millions of families who came on immigrant ships from Europe. When they got here, the older members fought to clutch on the security of the old culture; the younger ones couldn’t wait to become “Americans” and they rejected everything they could of the old ways. There’s a saying in Africa that every time a very old person dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground.
Grobel: At the time of its publication Roots was hailed as one of the most important books of the century, as well as the most important civil rights event since the 1965 march on Selma. Do you hold it in such esteem?
Haley: I never would have said that in the first place. I have a much more basic view of myself. I feel myself as a conduit. Roots got born on the front porch of a pretty big house in Henning, Tennessee, where I came from. It was my grandmother’s porch. After my grandfather died, my grandma invited her sisters to spend the next summer with her. I was six that summer, and after supper we would gather on the front porch, thick with honeysuckle vines, and the women would all start rocking in their rocking chairs. Then they’d run their hands down into the pocket of their aprons and come up with a can of sweet carrot snuff. They’d load their lower lips and just start talking about their family. They’d talk about their parents, about their daddy’s daddy, this harum-scarum individual always fighting chickens, people called him Chicken George. Then they would talk about his mother, Miss Kizzy. All of this went on night after night, and that’s where I first began to hear the story and why I think of myself as a conduit.
Grobel: Some have called Roots a novel, but you prefer another word, don’t you?
Haley: Faction. I saw that word in a book in London. It means a mixture of fact and fiction. Most books are. Nobody can say with absolute accuracy what happened 150 years ago. Get six books about the battle of Gettysburg and you’d think it was six different battles. The best any of us can do is do the best research we can and then try to create around that. With Roots, I worked my head off to research everything and still a lot of the book is fiction. How do I know what Chicken George said over a hundred years ago? I made it up.
Grobel: Along with its phenomenal success came the inevitable lawsuits, including a few which claimed you plagiarized their work. Did you?
Haley: The best way I can respond to that is to say that it’s almost impossible for anyone to write a book like Roots where people don’t bring a suit. I was at a function where twenty-four authors sat at two long tables, and every one of us had great big books. We were asked to raise our hands if we’ve never been involved in a lawsuit. One hand went up. Twenty-three of us were involved in lawsuits. That’s why I think the greatest thing written in our time was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. For the metaphor. This old man spent all his life learning the fish the best he knew how. One day he put his hood down and felt the bite—he knew it was a big fish and he waited until the time was right. Finally he began to fight the fish, and when it surfaced he saw it was bigger than any fish he’d ever dreamed. Then it went back down and it fought the old man. Finally, the frail old man beat the fish, and in time he was able to lash it alongside his little skip. He put up his homemade sail and started home with his prize. Then came the sharks, one after another, taking chunks of the fish until what remained was the skeleton. The metaphor that relates to being sued is that if you do a book that has the fortune to get like Roots, if you catch that big fish, you can rest assured that on your way home the sharks will come. And in the literary world, they take the form of people who bring lawsuits.
Grobel: Did you make a financial settlement with Harold Courlander, the author of The African, which preceded Roots?
Haley: Yes, and the reason I did was simply the timing. We were getting ready to film Roots 2, which is my own life story, and I had the option, after all those weeks in court, to spend at least another six weeks at yet another trial or to say, “Let’s settle and let me go back and be where my life is being filmed.” That was the option I took. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.
Grobel: What was the problem, exactly? Were certain sections accidentally lifted? Did some of your researchers include material from that book which you mistook for original research?
Haley: It was said that several paragraphs in Roots came from The African. That’s not true. There were two lines, as I recall, and the only thing I could come up with is that I employed sixteen different people who helped me, and I would use material they sent me relative to slavery. In the course of dealing with these bushels of material, you do not remember the source of every piece.
Grobel: A London reporter went to Gambia and wrote that the people there had put you on—the griot oral storyteller told you what you wanted to know. That report shook you, didn’t it?
Haley: Of course. It was the first thing that challenged the authenticity of Roots. This reporter never talked to me at all. He had been on some press junket in Gambia and he went to the village I wrote about and somebody there said to him that the people had put me on. So he told this story. Because Roots was so famous the story flashed into this country, but it was nothing but his allegation that they had put me on. I don’t know if they did. If they did, they did a very good job of it.
Grobel: Was the enormous success of Roots harmful to you as a writer?
Haley: Boy, you sure go to the heart of it. Yeah, it was. I’ve talked to three other writers who’ve had big successful books and we’ve all said that we fear we would never again write as well. It goes back to that bugaboo, Mr. Time. It used to not matter if I took eight weeks to do an article. Who cared? Now, if I go to do a new book, it’s a formal setting where publisher and agent come together, we have a big dinner in a fancy restaurant, the shrimp look like lobsters, and what is about to happen is a seven-figure contract is going to be drawn up, and I haven’t even written a word of the book yet. There will be clauses saying that the book is to be finished by X time, and if it’s not, some portion of the money is going to be extracted. So you become almost mechanized. I find myself writing with more sense of urgency than of simply love of the craft, I don’t write with the same romantic idealism I used to.
Grobel: After the success of Roots you went from asking the questions to being the subject of interviews. Which side do you prefer?
Haley: Lots of times I wish it was possible to buy some of the way it used to be. After an experience such as Roots, it really does change your life beyond your own control. I wish I had the kind of time I used to have, clear, free. But time becomes an entirely different factor. The fact that you are sought out for interviews, that people pay you to do things, is all very flattering, but only then do you really begin to realize that after life and health, the most valuable thing in the world is your time and what you do with it. So when you ask which side I would rather be on, it’s a mixed blessing. Of course I love the way it is now for lots of reasons, including that there are ways I can be helpful to people in different situations. I’ve had experiences where, with a phone call, I can help get somebody into college. That’s very touching to me. Or I bought a farm in Tennessee where I can wake up to the sounds of birds, walk out and there are squirrels scampering up trees. I had a pond built and it’s been stocked and every day between six and six-thirty the fish arc fed. Those things I find arc much more enriching than anything I could do in Beverly Hills.
Grobel: We’ve talked about the book, but what did you think of the miniseries made from Roots?
Haley: I thought it was fabulous. Television is the most exciting medium among us. I would love to see it be more socially positive. To me, the most powerful scene in the miniseries was when Lou Gossett as the old slave Fiddler burst into tears after Kunta Kinte was beaten and forced to say his name was Toby. There were no tears written in the script, but when Kunta was cut down and slumped into the Fiddler’s lap, Gossett said, “What difference it make what they call you? You knows who you is. You is Kunta.” Then there was a beat and this veteran actor clutched Kunta and burst into tears and said, “There’s gone be a better day.” It moves me very much to think that on both the slave ships and the immigrant ships that came to this country, what was uppermost in the hearts and minds of the people on either ship was that phrase, “There’s gone be a better day.” Not for them, their die was cast and they knew it, but they had to hope it for their children and their children’s children. We are the better day. Every one of us manifest the dream of our ancestors who came on either the immigrant or slave ship.
Grobel: Did your better day start after the eighth and last episode of Roots was aired?
Haley: I didn’t know how to react after that. I was almost numb. I saw the last episode in a New York hotel with Warren Beatty. He had a big suite and I had gotten to know Warren through my manager, who is a good friend of his. At the end of the last episode I came on the screen and talked about the book. I forgot how many millions of people were watching, but it set the record that still stands for a miniseries. The next morning I got out of the taxi at Kennedy airport and this black skycap did a double take and shouted my name. And man, I was just mobbed for the first time in my life. I felt a hand go down the back of my collar and felt the button go, and somebody grabbed my coat. An American Airlines guy appeared and said, “Stay very close to me.” He maneuvered his way through this mob to a private room, and he said to me, “You’re going to have to be preboarded. Your life probably won’t be the same from now on.” That was my first exposure to how the public reacts towards somebody who has, like, been popped out of a bottle.
Grobel: Americans don’t label our artists National Treasures, as they do in Japan, but you’ve come pretty close with having your birthplace turned into a historical landmark. How has that affected you?
Haley: I don’t know exactly how you get to be what is called a “world-class writer,” but I’m glad I am. The governor of Tennessee was talking about this honor of making my home a state landmark and I said that I’d be happy to sell the home to the state for one dollar. They agreed and it became the property of the Tennessee Historical Commission, to be maintained by the state. I feel blessed to see, in my lifetime, the home where I was raised put into that context. I travel a lot and if I find myself near the home of some famous writer, I never lose the opportunity to go visit. It’s like visiting a shrine. I went to Mark Twain’s home in Elmira and stood in a little gazebo where he wrote Tom Sawyer and I felt as if I was on holy ground. I went to Oxford, Mississippi, and poured a little bourbon on William Faulkner’s grave. I went to the home of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the great black poet, in Ohio. So I guess if I could have a dream, it would be that one day people might go to Henning after I’m gone and feel something of what I felt going to the homes of these other writers.
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 2001 Lawrence Grobel. All Rights Reserved.)