(Alex Haley granted the following interview to Professor Jeffrey M. Elliot that was published within the August 1980 issue of Writer’s Digest.)
The Roots of Alex Haley’s Writing CareerThe Roots of Alex Haley’s Writing Career
Not long ago, Dr. Jeffrey Elliot was granted an exclusive interview with Alex Haley. “Corralling Haley for a sustained period of time is next to impossible,” says Elliot. “The interview took place over a three day period, comprising approximately ten hours of conversation, part of it spent in transit to and from the television studio where he works, and part at the author’s home in West Los Angeles—a modest, two-story dwelling that bears little evidence of his affluence or status.
His home is warn, inviting, lived in—a reflection of the author and his delight in simple virtues and every day pleasures.”
When Elliot asked why Haley chooses to live so modestly. Haley said, “From where you sit, Jeff, you can see, just to your right, two cans of sardines and eighteen cents, ornately framed on the wall. It’s next to the Pulitzer Prize citation and the Spingarn Medal. Let me tell you why that ‘picture’ is there. In 1960, I was living in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. I was literally hanging on by my fingernails, trying to make it as a magazine writer. I was selling just enough to keep going from week to week, sometimes from day to day. In my little cupboard, I had them two cans of sardines which were all I had to eat in the world. And I had eighteen cents in my pocket. That’s not the same eighteen cents on the wall, by the way. I spent the original eighteen cents on a cabbage for dinner that night. I remember thinking at the time, there’s nowhere to go but up. And I put the two cans of sardines in a sack and put it away. Whenever I would move because I didn’t have the rent money, I would always take that sack with me. Six or seven years later I sold my first motion picture rights. That’s when I had those two cans of sardines and that eighteen cents ornately framed as you see them there today.”
The Roots of Alex Haley’s Writing Career
“My old cousin Georgia told me something,” says Alex Haley, “that has galvanized me—and sustained me ever since: ‘Boy, yo’ sweet grandma and all of ’em—dey up dere watchin’. So you go and do what you got to do.’ ” Georgia was urging her young cousin to continue research into the family’s history, which he had just started, and Haley took her words to heart. The result was the best selling Roots, which may well be the most import ant work of its kind. Not only has it captured the attention of millions of Americans, but it also has given rise to a groundswell of interest in black history and family history.
It is difficult to describe the, impact of Roots on the American psyche. The book’s publisher, Doubleday, scheduled a record 200,000-copy first printing, the largest print ever run for a hardcover book. That initial printing sold out in a matter of weeks, and the book has since gone on to sell well over five million copies in hardcover. The paperback edition set a record of its own. Moreover, the book has been translated into 26 languages, and was a bestseller in many countries throughout the world. In recognition for his outstanding contribution to American social and political history, Haley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Roots.
In addition to the millions of Americans who have read Roots, either in book or magazine form, approximately 130 million viewers saw at least some part of the television version of the book. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences responded by nominating Roots for 37 Emmy awards, an all-time record.
Alex Haley taught himself to write during a 20-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard. After retiring in 1959, he became a professional writer and journalist. His first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, won him national recognition as one of America’s leading writers. In addition, Haley has long been known as one of the best interviewers in the business. Indeed, his question-and-answer session with Miles Davis was published as the first “Playboy Interview.” He went on to do numerous other interviews for Playboy, including feature pieces on George Lincoln Rockwell, Johnny Carson and Martin Luther King.
Not long ago, Dr. Jeffrey Elliot was granted an exclusive interview with Alex Haley. “Corralling Haley for a sustained period of time is next to impossible,” says Elliot. “The interview took place over a three day period, comprising approximately ten hours of conversation, part of it spent in transit to and from the television studio where he works, and part at the author’s home in West Los Angeles—a modest, two-story dwelling that bears little evidence of his affluence or status. His home is warn, inviting, lived in—a reflection of the author and his delight in simple virtues and every day pleasures.” When Elliot asked why Haley chooses to live so modestly. Haley said, “From where you sit, Jeff, you can see two cans of sardines and 18¢, ornately framed on the wall. It’s next to the Pulitzer Prize citation and the Spingarn Medal. Let me tell you why that ‘picture’ is there. In 1960, I was living in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. I was literally hanging on by my fingernails, trying to make it as a magazine writer. I was selling just enough to keep going from week to week, sometimes from day to day. In my little cupboard, I had them two cans of sardines which were all I had to eat in the world. And I had 18¢ in my pocket. That’s not the same 18¢ by the way. I spent the original 18¢ on a cabbage for dinner that night. I remember thinking at the time, there’s nowhere to go but up. And I put the two cans of sardines in a sack and put it away. Whenever I would move because I didn’t have the rent money, I would always take that sack with me. Six or seven years later I sold my first motion picture rights. That’s when I had those two cans of sardines and that 18¢ framed as you see it there today. No matter where I go, it will always be displayed as a reminder of the most significant lesson in the world—that when you’re pursuing a creative goal, you must hang in there. You must have faith. You must believe. That ‘picture’ is a constant reminder of my ‘roots’—as it pertains to my sojourn as a writer. And that’s why I probably live as I do. I’m never very far from that little room I mentioned earlier.”
Alex Haley Interviewed By Writer’s Digest
WD: How did you start as a writer?
Haley: I had no training in the formal sense. I went to a small black high school and then to a local black college for two years, where no one ever thought of writing as a profession. The nearest thing we had to writing was English composition. I remember that I received better grades in that subject than in others and it was simply because I always enjoyed writing. My decision to be a writer was largely shaped by my family upbringing. I grew up in a family that had a distinct sense of history. It permeated our entire family structure. Moreover, my parents were teachers, and they went out of their way to see to it that I had books. We grew up in a home that was full of books. And so I learned to read. I love to read. I read voraciously, from the time I was age five. Now that I am actively engaged in television, I am acutely aware of the impact of that medium on the reading habits of young people. In the shows that Norman Lear and I are producing together, we are making a concerted effort to show young people reading, both for school and for enjoyment. My interest in reading led to an accidental interest in writing. I began in the Coast Guard by writing love letters for my fellow sailors which, I might add, mushroomed into a fulltime undertaking. The letters proved so successful that I was freed from having to work as a cook. That put me in a position of doing nothing but writing, which led to my trying to write for various newspapers and magazines. Later, when I began to sell, I remember very distinctly I wrote some part of every day, usually at night, for approximately eight years before I sold the first article. During that period, I plastered my room with rejection slips. Finally, I sold an article. And then I would sell one out of six, then one out of four, and so forth. Eventually, I retired from the service, at age 37, and decided to pursue writing on a fulltime basis. I wrote for Reader’s Digest and Playboy magazine, then I wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and finally Roots.
WD: What was your first professional sale?
Haley: It was a short piece about the Coast Guard, “They Drive You Crazy,” which was the title they put on it. I sold it to the old Sunday supplement, called This Week. I received $100 for the article, and was dumfounded. I had become so used to getting rejection slips that it just astounded me that finally I had received an acceptance. At first I didn’t believe it. I remember feeling almost frightened that I had sold something. I later learned, though, that they had not really bought it for my writing skills, but rather for the material that was contained therein. When it came out, it had been almost totally rewritten by someone, but it did contain my byline—my first byline. The sale that I remember much more vividly came several years later when I was still in the service, and was not selling much of anything. I suppose I was selling one out of every 12 submissions. And these were usually very short pieces. I was still quite used to getting rejection slips. One day I met. a writer named Glenn Kittler. He wrote for numerous publications. He came to the Coast Guard to get some information to write a piece about the Guard. I tried to give him all the help I could. I was in public relations at the time. And, in the course of lunch, I was telling him about my dreams to write one day. At the time, I felt like touching his coat, thinking that he’d bought that coat with money he’d made writing. It just seemed awesome. He was very nice, extremely affable. I told him a number of vignettes I’d heard in the Coast Guard, and he said to me: “You know, Bernie Glaser, the editor at Coronet, is buying one-pagers of material like that—short historical vignettes like the ones you’ve told me. They run about 600 words apiece. And they pay $100 each. Why don’t you try writing some of them?” Come Christmas, I spent the entire period writing these vignettes for Glaser—not one, but four—and bundled them off to him, with a letter saying that I had met Glenn Kittler who had suggested Coronet might be interested in these vignettes. About three weeks later, the phone rang. It was Bernie Glaser. He asked, “Is this Alex Haley?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, this is Bernie Glaser of Coronet,” he said. I remember I was standing up at the telephone. And when it hit me who he was, I just froze. And then I sat down, plop. I will never forget it. He said: “Where have you been? We have areal need for this kind of stuff. We’re going to buy three of your vignettes. The fourth one is lousy.” That was the beginning of my first real relationship with an editor, where I got to know him as a person. Not too long thereafter, Bernie invited me up to his office. I went, full of nervousness and anticipation. There was Bernie in the flesh, a real-life editor, who sat down and talked to me about writing. Over the period of the next three years, I wrote 30 or so of those one-pagers for Coronet. They were published mostly under other names. Coronet would pay you $100 if they were published under your name, and $125 if you’d consent to let them be published under the names of famous people, like Kate Smith, Robert Q. Lewis, and Dave Garroway.
WD: What impact did all of those early rejection slips have on your psyche and your desire to write professionally?
Haley: They didn’t really affect me in any profound way. I just assumed that such rejections came with being a writer. For example, I had read in countless issues of Writer’s Digest about rejection slips. I knew that they were an integral part of the learning process, something that was expected. The exception would be the sale. It’s like being hooked on something. You keep doing it, and you keep getting the slips, so that it becomes almost commonplace. Still, I remember one of my early concerns was, am I writing this sufficiently well? That concern lasted for years. I questioned myself every time I was rejected. Now, it’s different. I turn down offers because I don’t have the time, offers that earlier would have made me euphoric. I’m often asked what my biggest thrill was as a writer, and people expect me to say, of course, the success of Roots. It wasn’t. By the time Roots came along, I had sold lots of things, though certainly nothing as substantial as Roots. The biggest single thrill I had came much before. At the time, I had been getting rejection slips routinely for about four years. By then, I suppose, I had collected at least 100. They usually came in the form of printed cards, which typically said, “Thank you for thinking of us, but. … ” One day, though, the routine was broken. During the fifth year or so, I received my self-addressed, stamped envelope, except this time when I opened the envelope, on that card, someone had written in pencil, “Nice try.” That was all it said. But it thrilled me more than anything else I can remember, because it said to me that there was really somebody out there, not an abstract computer who sent you those rejections, but someone who had actually looked at my submission and took the time to write back that little note. It was a tremendous thrill. I will never forget it. I wish I had had the good sense to save that particular card and have it laminated and framed, alongside my Pulitzer Prize and the Spingarn Medal.
WD: How did you resist the temptation of giving up?
Haley: I suspect it’s that indefinable, indescribable thing that tends to be present in some people, and not in others, for no reason that any of us can put our finger on. I have a favorite made-up statistic that of every thousand people who set out to write, only one will become a professional writer. The others will fall out along the way in the face of constant rejection, constant rebuff, the psychic put-down that the rejection slip consistently represents or as it is interpreted. To make it as a writer, you have to have the same kind of quality that lets water roll off a duck’s back. You really can’t take it personally. It isn’t personal. I have since come to know some of the other side of it. Now, I go into the publishing houses, meet regularly with editors, and discuss various aspects of the business. These people tell me constantly, and I believe them, that they are desperately looking for good new writers. That’s the very definition of their work. The irony is that there are more people, perhaps more talented than I am, who didn’t keep going, who quit in the face of rejection. They quit—who’s to say why? If you quit, you may as well have never begun.
WD: Which prominent writers, if any, influenced your style?
Haley: Other than Hemingway, who influenced me at first, I was really my own role model, which is the way it should be. There is only one Hemingway. What I’ve finally come to feel about technique, method, is this: it’s you. It’s the way you express things. As long as you’re trying to be like someone else, you’re not being yourself and, hence, whatever your style is, it’s not natural. Your style is that which is natural to you. It’s the way your gut instincts tell you to express things.
I was, however, greatly encouraged by two writers—Glenn Kittler and James Baldwin, the great novelist. Let me tell you a story about Baldwin. Just after I got out of the service, and was scared to death to make the leap into fulltime writing, I started flirting with the idea of quitting, of taking a job in civil service. I had written to several writers asking if I could simply talk to them. Jimmy Baldwin was the only writer from whom I received a response. If he had sent me a message saying, “I will receive you at 3 p.m. next Thursday,” I would have been there at 2:30 waiting. But Jimmy, bless him, being Jimmy Baldwin, apparently felt, perceived, that I was really crying for a shoulder to lean on, somebody to buoy me a little. He walked from his home in Greenwich Village to my home, also in the Village, where I had a basement room. Jimmy just walked in, as if we were old buddies and writing peers, and sat down, cross-legged on the little hassock I had, and talked to me for an hour or so. He just talked, about nothing in particular, and not that much about writing. But he said to me, in his actions, that he regarded me as a peer. And that did more for me than he could ever know. We have since become dear friends, and visit each other wherever one or the other happens to be living or staying at the time.
WD: Do you find it difficult to psych yourself up to write?
Haley: I can write at a drop of a hat. I have to. I can’t afford to wait until the mood strikes. I’ve heard about the writer for whom the muse must come first. I operate on a different basis—let me go write, and if the muse comes along, great; if not, I operate with whatever I can summon up.
WD: How do you write? Where does the process begin?
Haley: The process starts with a lot of mulling. Then one fine night, I sit down with a stack of blank paper. I usually wait too long to start, even though I know the project’s going to take longer than I’ve allowed. Then I’ll sit down and go crash on the typewriter, writing as much of the story as I possibly can. This will generally be one of those nights when I’ll work for six or seven hours, nonstop, just to get it down on paper. I know it’s lousy. I certainly wouldn’t show it to any living soul. But it’s the getting it down on paper that’s important. Then I’ll read it through. And then having read it, and having a better sense of what I want to do, I will retype it at a less rapid pace. It will now be in somewhat better form. I may make a few notes in pen on the manuscript. Then I’ll type the third draft. By this time, it’s usually in fairly good shape, so that I can take a pen to it, and make final changes before sending it to the publisher.
WD: What kind of environment do you find most conducive to writing?
Haley: When I got into television, I realized that I had to be at the studio most of the day. So, now I write at night—the best time is around 2:30 a.m.—in a secret place away · from home. The reason is largely psychological. I’ve never been able to write particularly well at home. There are just too many distractions. If I’m home, I’m looking at the broken window, the crooked picture, or the screen that needs fixing. But when I get to my little room, I simply walk across the threshold, and I’m eager to get to the typewriter. And I sit there and work, hour after hour. The room itself is barren. I have my main typewriter, a backup typewriter (that’s one of my little idiosyncrasies), some pens, pencils and paper. After working for a while, something will happen, usually in the wee hours of the morning. I’ll find myself writing like a dream. It’s almost as if my hand is moving independently, mechanically without thinking. And it will last for a time, and then go away. It’s then that skill becomes important. Such a thing happened when I was writingRoots. There’s a short chapter where Chicken George has returned from Europe. I had originally planned, because I was under a lot of pressure to finish, to have him come back to the Lea Plantation where he had been his master’s son and slave, learn there that his family had been sold, and keep going straight on to his family. I’d been writing for several weeks—solid writing—and at that point, it just sort of hit me:· no, I wanted to see—it wasn’t for the reader, it was just for me—what would happen if, when he went back to the plantation, he met his ex-master. And in one night, from dusk to dawn, I wrote from scratch, without ever having thought about it before, that chapter that is now in Roots.
WD: Do you ever feel driven to top Roots?
Haley: That would be foolish. How are you going to top Roots? You could do half of Roots and have a hell of a success. No, I’m not trying to best Roots. It would be asinine to go around trying to do that, or to be self-threatened. I think a book that sells a quarter million copies, hardcover, is a big success. Well, Roots has sold five million hardcover. I hope to God I never have anything like the success of Roots happen to me again, at least not in the same way. I wouldn’t let it happen, to tell you the truth. I wouldn’t do the same things. I wouldn’t repeat what I did, particularly the first year following the publication of Roots, the wild, on-the-road life. I would refuse to do it, just from the sheer physical and psychic drain a repeat performance would represent. My life is completely woven around writing and things that have to do with writing. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t have any avocations. All my life centers around my work. The success of Roots pretty much made me realize how much a writer, professionally speaking, I am—that is, the degree to which I live, eat and breathe writing. I’ve had an uncommon kind of success, the biggest in US publishing history, whatever that means. The resulting demands drew me into an extensive amount of travel, which proved to be quite insidious. I didn’t realize how debilitating such travel could be. It got to the point where, for about two years, I wasn’t able to write anything. I couldn’t. I spent more time hither and yon than at home. I would travel to Iran one week, England the next, Israel the next, and so on. I was haggard. And I felt rotten. There came a point when it became evident that either I was going to be a writer or I was going to be a gadabout. And so, with much anguish on my part and more anguish on the part of some places where I’d been scheduled to appear, I had to start canceling those engagements. I had to spend that time writing.
WD: Do you enjoy research?
Haley: I love to research. It’s learning. It’s building up a store of working materials, which is delightful. It’s making yourself more equipped to do what you’re going out to do. It’s like the artist who makes innumerable sketches, doing it a thousand times, so that it becomes natural to him. In the case of writing, it’s feeling more confident that you’re doing the honest, sincere, hard work that should undergird an effort. If I go out to speak and sound sure, or confident, it’s based upon the fact that, man, I have worked. I’m not out there trying to hype somebody. I’m not out there trying to put something out that’s a quickie effort. I’m not a scam artist. I really work at what I’m doing. And that gives me satisfaction. When I go out, I know that what is underneath, whatever I say represents a real effort, and is documented and believable.
WD: If you could arrange your life in any way, what would the ideal plan include?
Haley: I have a dream. And if I had my dream druthers right now, it would be this: I learned to write at sea, as a sailor. I love the sea. If I could do it now, I would organize my life so that I would spend one month at sea. as a passenger on a freighter, going anywhere, I don’t care where. And the next month, ashore doing the things I need to do ashore. The subsequent month would be spent back at sea again. And I’d do that all year. I’d spend six months at sea and six months ashore. And I’d be as happy as six clams. Out there, at sea, I could just get in my little stateroom, with my typewriter and paper and, man, I could write with utter bliss.
WD: For the past year, you were actively engaged in producing a new television miniseries—Palmerstown, U.S.A. Can you say something about the genesis of the project?
Haley: About a year ago, at a party at the home of singer Helen Reddy, I met television producer Norman Lear, who, during the course of our conversation, indicated that it would be fun to work together on a project for television. The thought of working with Lear, who is, in my opinion, one of the great creative geniuses of television, was tremendously exciting. Out of that initial conversation; and several follow-up discussions, came the idea for the series. The series consisted of seven episodes, airing once a week for seven weeks. It is our hope that the series will be picked up by CBS and run as a continuing weekly series.
As for my role, I served, along with Norman, as a co-executive producer. Essentially, I wrote the initial outline for the miniseries, with input from many other people, and have worked closely with producer-writer Ron Rubin in shaping the various episodes. The series itself is based on my childhood memories, growing up in the old segregated South, in my hometown of Henning, Tennessee.
The series is set in the rural South, around 1936. It is the story of two boys, one black and one white, their families, and their loyal friendship as they are tested by the strains of inbred racial conflict.
WD: Has your television work allowed you to continue work on Search, about the writing of Roots?
Haley: I’ve been working on the book like crazy. In fact, I went to bed this morning at five o’clock, after having worked on the book most of the night. The book itself is about the drama that surrounded the researching and writing of Roots. I’ve been working on the book, off and on, over the last three years. However, since the publication of Roots, I haven’t been able to work on it on a sustained, regular basis. As a result, I have to do most of my writing late at night after working most of the day on Palmerstown, U.S.A. This doesn’t leave me much time to work on the book. Search should be out sometime in 1981, and will be published by Doubleday. The television series, combined with work on Search, takes up most of my time. However, I do intend to write additional books, as well as do more in the way of television, although I haven’t yet formulated any specific plans beyond those I ‘ve already mentioned.
WD: How do you perceive your role as a writer—as observer, reformer or entertainer?
Haley: My work, particularly nowadays, falls into the area of entertainment, since I’m writing for television. I certainly don’t view myself as a reformer. I would never undertake a project with that idea in mind. Tractarianism has never appealed to me. I don’t feel I have anything in this area to offer the reader. It’s something I try to avoid. I write about those things that interest me, that excite me, that entertain me. I don’t take assignments any more. I assign myself projects. And I hope those things will likewise interest my readers. Writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X taught me that I could write about an unpopular subject and have it received empathically and sympathetically. I did not editorialize, but simply started with the subject as a child—as a fetus, actually—and related, in a very low-key way, successively, what happened to him, from childhood to adulthood. And I used that same technique with Kunta Kinte. It taught me to let the readers write their own editorial; I don’t do it for them.
WD: Are you the same person all the way through writing a book?
Haley: I change, particularly when I’m writing well. There were times, when I was Kunta Kinte, when I was Chicken George. I identify more, obviously, with male characters, because I’m a man. Yes, I was them, particularly Kunta Kinte. I had to feel what he felt in order to portray him convincingly. It was an involuntary process, though. I didn’t tell myself to identify. I simply identified on the basis of what I was writing. I can recall being out among people and some body would say something to me, and I would just sort of say, “Yeah, right, what was that?”, because I was really deep into what Kunta was thinking. I remember a couple of times consciously thinking, “I’ve got to be careful not to walk out of here and into a car or something,” because I was so deeply involved in what I was writing at the time.
WD: Do you enjoy the actual process of writing?
Haley: Hell, I never said it wasn’t pleasure. I love it. Let me tell you, if I could choose, if the good Lord would say to me, “You tell me anything on earth you’d like to be, and I will wave my wand and it will be thus,” I would rather be a writer than anything else. I think it’s a privileged profession, like the ministry or medicine. This room is covered with awards, plaques, testimonials, and citations from around the world. All because I, out of little Henning, Tennessee, was, by some miracle, able to sit down with blank sheets of paper and put some words on them, and reach about the world. I don’t know anything on earth that can transcend that sense of humble satisfaction. And I don’t say that loosely. You’re a fool if you don’t feel humble. I could go to Timbuktu and be welcomed as the author of Roots. The biggest mob scenes I’ve ever been involved in were in Denmark and Japan. But it’s world-wide. You cannot transcend the blessing, the privilege, the honor that it is to be a writer who has had the good fortune to do something that has that kind of scope.
WD: Are you a harsh critic of your own work?
Haley: I always feel I can do better, but at the same time, you can overdo something. You can write to a certain point, thinking you can improve it, but if you keep changing it, you can do it real harm. I wouldn’t send it out if I didn’t like it.
WD: Do you find it difficult to read something critical about your writing? Is it ever a valuable learning tool?
Haley: I really couldn’t care less what a critic may say about what I write. Most of them are people who are much like other people. They have never impressed me as being gods. I really think I know more about what I’m doing than they do about what I’m doing. There are critics for whom I have the highest respect; they know what they’re writing about, including what I’m writing about. That was true for critics of Roots. Fortunately, Roots was praised far more than it was criticized. Maybe I even got spoiled by the inundation of praise that it received.
One critic wrote that I had used barbed wire fencing 40 years before barbed wire was used. That was sharp. I really should have caught that. Maybe I would have if I’d reread the manuscript for things like that. But after you’ve worked 12 years on a book, and after you’ve spent three years in actually writing, the last month is just a wild push, working just as long as you can stay awake. I really didn’t feel like I was going to take a suicide pill because of that barbed wire. But I respect this particular critic and told him so.
Still, I like to think that given the choice to be the creator or the critic, I would always choose to be the creator. I have a high professional regard for the great bulk of critics. But. … I remember talking to an interviewer once about oral history, and I was saying something like, “Well, oral history, as was true of Roots, was the genesis of Homer’s Odyssey. It was the genesis, really, of the Old Testament of the Bible.” And I was trying to explain about oral history, as he very well knew. But the guy wrote a thing that came out titled, “Alex Haley Compares Roots with Bible and Homer’s Odyssey.” He made me appear vain to the point of insufferability. He totally twisted my thought. I would never say that. I would never think it. These are the kinds of things that can happen. Fortunately, most interviewers are not so inclined. Once in a while, you get one like that. I can oft.en pick them out just by listening to the tone of their questions, and then I go on the defensive and start giving plastic responses.
WD: You conducted the first Playboy interview. How did that come about?
Haley: The editors initiated the interview concept; I was simply assigned the first one [Miles Davis], as well as numerous others over the years. I did, however, introduce the basic form of the interview—namely, a lengthy introduction [focusing on the subject and his world], followed by a series of in-depth questions and answers. The first interview was well received, and so the editors decided to stick with the format I proposed.
WD: What was it about the interview process that attracted you? Did you find it difficult to write negative things about people you interviewed, particularly those you may have liked?
Haley: The challenge of the interview is trying to get a sense that I had really tapped into that person. And that the person was sincerely trying to share his experiences with me, which I was going to share with the readers. There are some interviewers who turn you off quickly, for a variety of reasons. I like to study the person, study what they’ve done, be low-key in my approach with them, take time to do the interview, project by my manner and my sincerity, which really has to be sincere, that I was genuinely interested in what they did and how they did it. Sometimes a question is asked that causes the person who is asked the question to stop and think, yeah, that’s something interesting to think about by himself, which he rarely thought about. If you can do that, if you can get that kind of psychic interaction going between you and the subject, you will generally get a good interview. I have had the good luck that of the people I’ve interviewed; most have remained good friends over long periods of time. Some of them have become very close friends.
George Lincoln Rockwell was probably the single most exhilarating interview I ever did. We didn’t agree on a syllable, but I found the man a fascinating study. He had an opinion of black people as a whole, that we are sort of advanced simians. It astonished me that he found it astonishing, in turn, that I could type; and it tickled me privately to get on his electric typewriter and just go. … I never type like that normally. I did it just to show off, because it astonished him: Well, hell yes, I can type fast, but in writing you don’t need to type fast. If I can average eight words a minute, I am doing great. But people typically think of typing in terms of speed, not as a function to express ideas on paper.
My job as an interviewer was to interpret, to become a conduit between that subject and the reader, whether the subject was Phyllis Diller or Rockwell. In a way, it was quite poignant to interview Rockwell, because he was very concerned with death; he felt he was going to be killed before long. There were three people I interviewed for Playboy who were later assassinated—him, Malcolm X and Dr. King—all three of whom saw the imminence of death. But I just felt, and feel, if you’re interviewing someone, if you’re going to do an honest job, then you’re not there to knock what they say, even though you may very much disagree with it. You’re there to communicate their ideas. Later, you may write a piece at odds with what they say.
WD: A few years ago you were involved in a much-publicized plagiarism suit, which charged that you lifted large portions of Roots from a previously published work. Would you consider the Courtlander case also “part of the territory?”
Haley: As far as the Courtlander case is concerned, I learned several interesting things. There were numerous lawsuits regarding Roots. Now, I knew it was inevitable that Roots would bring lawsuits, just because of its enormous success. The only case anyone knows anything about, was the one I settled, with enormous publicity. Nobody knows anything about the cases brought against me that I won with classic legal decisions in my favor. You know why? Because they got no space in the newspapers. They weren’t news. They weren’t exciting. They weren’t titillating. I have since learned, and I will talk very little about it, never to get deep into a fray with anybody who has nothing to lose, because you have something to lose. You’re the main guy. The only reason that case ever got to court was because I had the name. If we had been two people of his stature, it would never have been reported in the first place. Because you’re the big guy, you’re the defendant, and you’re in the position of always saying, “I didn’t do all the terrible things ‘they’ keep saying I did.” And the press keeps feeding “them.”
You’re a target. You represent potential money that someone else might get by claiming that you took something from them. One of the sad results is that now, if I could help some people, I don’t, I dare not try. I suppose 50 manuscripts a month come to my office—from people who know I’m a writer, who know I’ve had a certain success, who hope I will read their stuff, maybe give them a suggestion or two, perhaps recommend an agent or a publisher, or in some way help them. At one time, I would try to faithfully read those manuscripts, at least to some extent. I’ve had the pleasure, the joy, of helping to get a few manuscripts published, because I knew where I could send them, who would like them and publish them. But now what happens? As a result of these court cases, I don’t read anything that comes into the office. Mail is opened by my secretaries. Once they see a manuscript, they will not open it. There’s one letter that goes back with it unopened, explaining why we sent it back. And if we couldn’t tell from the package that it was a manuscript, there’s a letter that goes back with that, explaining it was opened by mistake, but that I cannot afford now to read such things.
WD: Did you fear in the Courtlander case that people would interpret an out-of-court settlement as an admission of guilt?
Haley: That had to be taken into consideration. The public is much too quick to accept any potential negative. That’s a fact of life. When I made my choice to settle, that was part of the choice I made. Regrettably, many people did interpret it that way. So be it. The greater reason why I settled is private, but involves the fact that I did not want the blight of trial going on before the miniseries Roots II was about to come out. So by settling, the whole affair was over by the time the film came out. Otherwise, it would have been a different scene. That was my main consideration. Many people had done so much to make that series, I didn’t want· anything hovering over it. Looking back, I’m glad I took the action I did. I only wish I’d done it earlier.
WD: Are you concerned about how you’re viewed by the public?
Haley: Prior to Roots, I didn’t have any image to be conscious about. Who cared? Who knew me? Right after Roots, I became more conscious because people were always talking about my “image.” And sometimes I’ll do something because my agent says my image requires it. I’d say in the past year, though, I’ve tried, fairly conscientiously, to work at simply being me. I do a lot of things that people are always telling me I shouldn’t do because of who I am and what I represent. For example, I shouldn’t walk around in the street or in such and such a place. I shouldn’t go in a dumpy restaurant and eat. But I do those things because I enjoy them.
One night, while writing at 2 or 3 in the morning, I ran out of creamer while drinking coffee, and decided to go out and get some more. I knew there were 7-Eleven grocery stores all over town. So I went out, with my head into what I was writing, got in the car, and began to drive, just covering ground, thinking about what I was writing. I drove for maybe half an hour, not knowing where I was going. Then I saw a 7-Eleven. I pulled up into the lot, got out and locked the door and started walking toward the store. I guess I’d taken six, seven, eight steps, when I became aware of about six guys walking. toward me, spread out, fanned. Young black guys, between 18 and 20 years old. Tough. All of a sudden it hit me, “Jesus, what the hell have I done?” I didn’t know exactly where I was, except that I was in an area I had no business in at 3 a.m. The guy who was obviously the leader had a big afro, over which was a knit blue cap. They were coming at me in a classic way, walking, narrowing as they approached. And I thought, “What have I gotten into here? I could be in real trouble. And it was my fault.” As they walked on, all of a sudden, the leader suddenly stopped, looked at me and said, “Alex?” And· I felt this great rush of relief. Then he pulled off his knit cap and rather awkwardly said, “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Haley, I shouldn’t speak to you like that,” meaning he should not have called me by my first name. Then he said, “Could I shake your hand?” There they were, six of them around me. And I felt a release of humble gratitude, a realization that whatever was in Roots somehow or other had gotten through all those layers of the things that made up the life those young people knew. These were tough youngsters who had grown up in the ghettos. They wouldn’t have pulled their caps off for the Pope. But something made them show me that deference—not to me the person, but me the symbol. It took me a couple of minutes to get myself physically together. I stood there with them, and we drifted back to where the car was. They leaned against the car, and I did too, and I began to talk to them about their families. I found that a very awkward subject; they particularly didn’t want to talk about their parents. I realized, as I was talking to them, that they had come from broken families. So I talked about their grandparents, and it eased up a bit. They knew something about their grandparents. I remember one moving part, where one of the boys, who had said nothing up to that point, blurted out, “I’m a bastard.” And I said to him very calmly, glad I could say it, “Young brother, please for me, for you, never say or think that about yourself, because every human being has a father and a mother.” And he thought about that. We had a lovely discussion for about a half hour. Then I went in and got my creamer and got in my car, and they all waved.
WD: What about the other trappings, besides criticism and image, that being in the public eye brings, such as power and money?
Haley: I just never got very interested in those things. I’m not putting down all the trappings. I’m just much more interested in doing something that appeals to me—meaning my work and being with other people. I love to talk with the guys who work in the garage. They’re interesting; they’ve got fun things to talk about. I like the extreme contrasts. When I find myself in some setting that is very elegant, very posh, almost instinctively within the next few hours I will go to a place that is quite the opposite. If I go into one of the major hotels or dining lounges and eat, before 24 hours pass, I’ll be in some place you wouldn’t want to go into, just because I enjoy going in there. I like going into small ethnic restaurants. I love to do things for people who feel they couldn’t get me to do it, and who had every reason to think that. I like to speak at a little church or school where there is no way they could afford my speaking fee. I’m paid between $5,000 and $7,000 to speak for an hour. Last year, there were 580 requests for me to speak, at upwards of $5,000 per speech. I think I may have accepted 20 of the invitations. I just didn’t want to do the others. I can’t. It’s either be a writer or be a speaker. Well, I’m a writer. That’s where it is. But I’ve spoken 50 times at places where they couldn’t afford to pay me $50. I enjoy going where people are glad to have me come, just because they know I really wanted to.
If I have a decision about things, I find myself asking my grandma in my mind, what she would do. She raised me. She is my barometer. And if grandma says, “Now, boy, you ought to do that,” then that’s what I’m going to do. I’m always nine or ten years old to grandma. That’s why you find me at so many churches and schools. Grandma said, “Now, boy, you go talk to them children over there.” And that’s where I’ll go; I’ll do it for grandma.
(The above interview of Alex Haley by Jeffrey Elliot is presented under the Creative Commons License. It originally appeared within the August 1980 issue of Writer’s Digest. © 1980 Jeffrey M. Elliot. © 2011 Wildside Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.)