4 5 6
December 2, 1979, Michener and I lunched at Longfellows on the waterfront
at St. Michaels, three weeks before our work together ended. On our
daily walks I often spoke of ideas for novels: Brazil (As a first step,
Jim urged me to read Gilberto Freyre's Masters and Slaves,
which I did long before sitting down with Professor Freyre in Recife:)
How Peace Came to Europe (the displaced and the dispossessed after World
War II;) and a book about the blacks of South Africa from 1600 to the
present, a counterpart to the story of the Afrikaner Van Doorns.
lunch, our table talk turned to those ideas. - Interrupted by "Jim the
food critic," rating the local crab cakes, a task he took very seriously,
his highest rank a "9-plus" going to a couple met during his Chesapeake
days; when we dined with the them I saw Jim's written accolade
in a silver frame on their sideboard! - I later summed up what Jim said
excerpt, every page you have written for my book these past weeks
shows that you are a writer with a superb use of the English language,
a remarkable vocabulary and a very special turn of phrase. You are
as ready to write your book on the black people of South Africa
as you will ever be. If you waited five, eight, ten years you'd
be no better. Get started tomorrow.
never normally go this far, but I would say that you are virtually
guaranteed acceptance. Work up the synopsis and write two chapters
- they have to be damn good mind you - and you'll definitely get
an advance on them. I will give you any help you need in getting
it placed with a publisher. I believe this book - and others you've
mentioned like How Peace Came - will be a great success.
months later, I wrote to Jim telling him that I was leaving Reader's
Digest to write Brazil,
and recalled our exchange at Longfellows. Jim responded with these encouraging
note that you wrote to me on the same day that you wrote Thompson,(Ed
Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Digest ) so I judge that between
the two letters I have a full picture of your thinking. It's quite
gallant, and the most important thing for me to say is that I stand
by all I said in your reconstructed note of our December 2 luncheon
at Longfellows. I think this is important because you will need
constant assurance in the months ahead.
unquestionably have the talent to write almost anything you direct
your attention to. You are a great researcher, as your copious notes
prior to our work sessions together indicated. And you know how
to put words together most skillfully as your work on the manuscript
proved. With such talents you stand a remarkably good chance in
whatever you try. You have also, from what I gleaned in our conversations
on the long walks, an acute sense of timeliness in subject matter.
That's a rare combination, the most promising I've met with in years
of talking with would-be writers.
appreciated this acknowledgement of my work on The Covenant,
for as we tackled the last chapters in late November 1979, we clashed
over my role in the novel, one of the most difficult moments in our
long and intimate working relationship.
In his notes on The Covenant, Michener says: "I wrote a most
graceful and accurate dedication, but for reasons I won't go into, it
was rejected. So we decided on no dedication. Instead we used a fine,
accurate statement about the contribution of Errol Uys and a note in
the acknowledgement about Bateman."
reasons we fought concerned a proposed dedication to "Philip Bateman
and Errol Uys...two loyal sons of South Africa without whose assistance
it (this book) could not have been written." Bateman had indeed assisted
us greatly, a superb guide for Jim's on-site five-week research journey
and subsequently as local liaison and researcher. He was paid handsomely
in fees and expenses, but as I told Jim at the time there was no doubt
in my mind - every scrap of paper in that room bore me out - for every
hour Bateman put in on the project, I put in ten.
The question of Bateman's role in the book was only one of several issues
in that stormy session on December 2. Afterwards I sat down and wrote
a letter to my wife, Janette, describing what happened:
James A. Michener
last letter, written in the fire of anger, aptly caught the
way I felt that night. I got to bed at one and stayed awake
in smoke-filled contemplation till four-thirty, even later.
Two hours' sleep, a shake-awake shower and I marshaled those
battalions of tormented musings. To quote them:
eighteen months of work on Michener's manuscript, I am told
that "in some special cases, if a book is successful, I tell
my researcher to go down to the travel agency and pick up a
ticket to Europe. In one very special case, I gave a wife a
ticket as well." This was offered after I raised questions about
a dedication note. It also came at 11 p.m. after a fifteen hour
workday, and I reacted with a fumbling, "yes?" Perhaps also
a "really?" It was also noted that I should consider asking
the Digest for "overtime" compensation.'
dear departed friend, Aunt Kathy (Note: Katharine Drake, a veteran
Digest writer who took me under her wing) once told
me that to be a good wunderkind you sometimes have to compromise,
you have to keep the voice low, mind in neutral, heart in reserve,
and swallow deeply. Advice, Aunt Kathy, which stood me in good
stead on many an occasion particularly in the 'gathering-clout'
days. But, there also comes a time when Churchillian-like (sounds
like some kind of reptile!) you say: No further! That day had
walked slowly to the house, quietly, calmly, more calmly than
ever I'd been in such a situation. I had decided that I wasn't
writing another word, suggesting another change, exchanging
another view, until I'd made the rage within absolutely, unmistakably
clear. So: 'Before we go any further, Jim, there are a number
of things I'd like to say.'
still remember every word. It was very important to me because
that morning I finally staked my claim to being accepted as
a writer, as an intelligent, independent 'being', as Errol L.
Uys. 'Liberation' from a lot of inhibiting things still trying
to dog my progress. I won. In my own estimation of 'me', and
in Jim Michener's eyes. I recommend the experience to anyone
who wants to stand on his/her own feet, and is really sincere
about making something out of this life, in the biblical 'talents'
sense or otherwise.
began with my saying that I had great respect for him as a person,
as a writer and, I believed, a friend and mentor. I was very
conscious of the odd relationship I enjoyed apropos my position
as a Digest employee and that this might preclude -- or suggest
'cooling' of -- the sort of decision I'd come to. However, there's,
a time when, dammit, you have to dig your heels in and say,
This is where it stops! This is where my quiet, accepting manner
goes on the shelf.
I had to say was in no way to be seen as an 'appeal' for a bonus,
for money etc. He had probably assessed my financial 'bones-of-ass'
situation, but that was of little consequence for I had a lot
more going for me as I have no doubt, none whatsoever, that
my working with him was not the luck of the draw, but part of
a 'greater plan' and just as he'd stopped 'wasting time' in
his latter 30's so had I ...
wanted to make it clear that while Bateman, whom he appeared
to think had done a major portion of the work, certainly did
assist greatly; Philip had a) been paid a handsome reward in
fees and expenses by any standards and that b) there was no
doubt in my mind -- every scrap of paper in that room bore me
out -- that for every hour Bateman put in on the project, I
put in 10.
was not overestimating my talents in relation to those of JAM,
I said, but neither was I prepared to underestimate them. Since
I had started working on this project, especially the final
editing stage, I had repeatedly heard the remark that 'Well,
yes, but that's only for a South African audience.' Frankly,
I said, if that's how he felt, and I did not believe it was
true, then I was deeply disappointed for I had taken The
Source , Hawaii , Centennial etc. as
'accurate' and I had believed, as his readers did, that he went
to painstaking lengths to ensure that accuracy.
I did not accept that at any stage James A. Michener had intended
a 'yarn' or 'pot-boiler' on SA but a truly great novel. I wasn't
even going to attempt an elaboration of the many areas, chapter
by chapter, line by line, that required changes, not merely
'Southafricanizing' but critical in error/misconception etc.
("Struth, it came out like this, word by word. Sounds strong
recounting it, but I was damned if I was going to keep quiet.
I've put too much into this.)
a shift to the 'free trip': Jim, I said, I was Editor-in-Chief
of SARD. (South African Reader's Digest ). Through
that, and through my own initiative I've been round the world,
traipsed through Europe, South America with my family
etc. I was not soundin' off like an ungrateful slob,
but equally I did not expect to be treated like an undergraduate
student "assisting the author with his research..."
That was exactly how his "offer" had come across to
me. I just wasn't impressed with his a) walking down the road
with me the previous p.m. saying this book is going to be read
by 20 million people and, b) now saying that 'perhaps', 'if,'
'maybe' it sells, I 'might' 'maybe' 'perhaps' be offered this
Europe bonanza. Sorry, Jim, I know what I am worth in this project
and that, the way I see it, was not worthy of you nor respectful
of the relationship we enjoy.
said that he should be aware that no editor asked his employer
for 'overtime'. I was sure Albert Erskine at Random House didn't
do it, and I had no intention of doing, it either. The effort
I have put in, the enthusiasm I have for turning out at 8 a.m.
each morning and working till 11 p.m. is not because of RD but
because of the way I am. If I do a job, I do my best. I work
damn hard, and if it's acknowledged, that's great. If it's not,
that's not so great but I give myself a pat on the back and
say, 'One step nearer, Uys.'
wound up by saying how much I truly valued working with him,
how much to heart I took his words that I should make the most
out of that linkage. I would. He could bet on it.
short, I had finally told myself that I was a fabulous writer.
Sure, there are rough edges to iron out, a world of knowledge
(not on writing) still to be acquired but I'm a writer ....
Henceforth, love of mine, nobody tramps on my pathway in that
direction! Not even, dear Jim.
listened very quietly to all this, and his response was quiet.
He didn't disagree with anything I said. He valued my work more
than anyone who'd ever assisted him. I was, unqualifiedly, the
best. He appreciated. the difficulty I faced in bargaining power
as a Digest employee. Admitted that he was wrong in the
'Southafricanizing' aspect. Nothing I had said was lost on him,
that he appreciated my coming out with it. That he believed
a person was entitled to a fair share. That was it. In sum,
for he had a lot more to say.
am satisfied. He knows exactly how I feel about this project
and my contribution toward it. Since then, our relationship
has warmed considerably. No longer does he look at me as a Digest
employee, but as Errol L. Uys and that makes a helluva
difference. (Mari, knowing nothing of this -- so far
as I can determine -- raised her glass to me the other night
and says that never has anyone from the Digest been
as hardworking, diligent etc. as me. She is, by the way, feeding
me as if the great famine was around the corner.)
upshot of my showdown came with Jim asking the Digest to pay me a $5,000
bonus. He scrapped the dedication and added an author's note to the
December 21, 1979, I wrapped up my work on The Covenant and
bade Jim farewell heading home for Christmas. A parting with a wry Dickensian
twist, for Jim presented me with a wild goose from Mari's larder, for
my family's festive table. The bird turned out to be inedible, riddled
from stem to stern with lead shot.
was back at my desk at the Reader's Digest in February 1980,
when out of the blue I got a broadside in the shape of what I've come
to call "the Avenick letter." Jim had previously told me that Joseph
Avenick, who assisted him with Sports in America, was going
round saying that he'd ghost-written the book. Michener had sought to
dismiss Avenick by suggesting he was lost in a miasma of letter writing
to the President, the Pope, Ted Kennedy et al. In his missive to me,
Michener threatened me with the same woeful fate should I claim to have
done more than vet his manuscript.
Joyous omen for Errol Uys! The man who did the vetting of
Chesapeake, and who has written that splendid manuscript
on the slave-philosopher Frederick Douglass without any chance
of getting it published, learned last week that three major
houses wanted to take it, and the choice will be between two
of our most prestigious, Yale and Johns Hopkins. I think I'm
happier than he is.
Ominous omen for Errol Uys! The disorganized young man who
did the vetting of the sports book, and who has told several
newspapers that he ghostwrote my novels, has fallen into even
worse miasmas, as the attached letter shows. As I told you
when we discussed the problem, whenever a writer sends carbons
to the President, the Pope, Senator Kennedy and me there's
serious lack of focus, but such letters come trailing in month
So which precedent applies in the Uys case I can't decipher,
but they are certainly running loose and I'll invite you to
choose the one which attracts you most.
Albert and I start our work on February 15 but he startled
me the other day by advising me , 'throughout the manuscript
you misspell Karroo. It has two r's.' And all the maps
he had showed it with two, except that all the maps I had
showed it with one! We'll probably use two.*
from Khoikhoi karo, karro hard, dry, both spellings
are correct, though Karoo is in common usage.)
I chose to do, of course, was leave the Digest at the end
of 1980 and devote myself to my writing. My historical novel, Brazil,
was five years in the making, with Simon & Schuster giving me a
$45,000 advance, my only income over this period. On occasion, I asked
Jim for financial help, which he never refused; for his support in seeing
Brazil to completion, I remain grateful.
to publication in November-December 1980, The Covenant was
banned in South Africa. This judgment was largely based not on the novel
itself, but two condensations published in Reader's Digest
focusing on contemporary apartheid issues. A slew of Afrikaner
critics weighed in against the novel, W. A. De Klerk calling it "pretentious
literary trash," not worth a banning.
Jim and I could take heart though
from another reader who saw the book in a different light: "White South
Africa is a society corrupted by racism," said Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country . "Michener sometimes exaggerates
and over dramatizes, but he is exaggerating the truth...I cannot call
this anything but an extraordinary book."
was a special bond between Michener and I that went beyond the words
we wrote. Neither of us knew our birth parents and had grown up in genteel
poverty. At nine, Jim was scouring the Doylestown woods for chestnuts
to sell to neighbors; my first enterprise was selling peaches in the
street outside our house. From the age of eleven until he was a young
man Jim worked at many jobs from paper carrier to ticket taker at Willow
Grove amusement park outside Philadelphia.
I was eleven when I started
my mini-career as salesman in a Johannesburg toy store and pitchman
at the Rand Show. As teenagers, Jim and I both hit the road and stuck
out our thumbs, hitchhiking thousands of miles and beginning the life
journeys that would see us walking together on a road in Maryland. Neither
of us would publish our first books before we were forty.
collaboration on The Covenant was unique, different from any
other assistance Jim had in producing his works of fiction. I remember
my excitement in coming to work with America's best-loved writer, sharing
my passion for storytelling and my hunger to let the world know the
story of South Africa. I see us wrestling with all those grand ideas
on our mighty journey through history, Michener and the boy who wrote
hear laughter as we swap ideas for the red-haired terror Rooi Valck
and Mal Adriaan, Crazy Adriaan, who found the lake called Freedom. I
feel again the sorrow we knew at the death of Old Bloke dying like a
dog in the road when a WHITES-ONLY ambulance won't pick him up. I see
Van Doorns, Saltwoods, and Nxumalos, moving forward with The Covenant
, character-by-character, scene-by-scene, until the day when their
story was told. I see it all as clearly as if we were back in the cottage
beside Broad Creek on Chesapeake Bay.
A Writer's Journey (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005,)
Stephen J. May's riveting book is the first full-length biography
of Michener, especially noteworthy in casting its spotlight
on the very private world of Jim Michener, a warm human
portrait of America's storyteller,as he was known to millions.
May devotes a chapter to The Covenant, with a probing look at the making of the novel, and concludes:"Michener committed a scarlet literary crime and used his celebrated influence in publishing to get away with it."
Helly's 400-page thesis on The Covenant
(Universite Rennes II - Haute Bretagne, UFR d'Anglais, September
2001) analyzes the content and authorship of The Covenant
or L'Alliance, the novel's French title.
Unravelling the threads behind the religious and nationalist
themes of the novel, Professor Helly examines Michener's
political and philosophical ideas and shows what it took
to bring the project to a successful end.
Errol Lincoln Uys All materials are from my personal
archives, unless indicated otherwise. No items may be reproduced without
permission. Web site illustrations added to material.