Path Home Shows 2010 Show Archive December 2010 Show 1051 Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 1

Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 1

We visit with one of the organizers of the Literary Landmark Program, author Michael Wallis.
Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 1

Rob McClendon and Michael Wallis

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Michael Wallis

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Show 1051: Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 1

Air date: December 19, 2010



I recently sat down with the author here in our studio.

Rob:  Your work centers around our heritage.  As a popular historian, has the truth ever gotten in the way of a good story?

Michael Wallis:  Well, now that’s a very interesting question, because probably on the proverbial tombstone, it shouldn’t probably just say author, or voice talent, or actor, or whatever; it should probably just say storyteller, because that’s basically what I am.  So when I’m telling stories, I know how to tell a good story.  Now when I’m writing, when I’m under contract writing a biography of a oil baron, or an outlaw, or a Indian Chief, or an old highway, I’m bound to tell a good story, but stick totally to the truth; and that kind of flies in the face of a good storyteller, because a story gets better with age.  But I only, I just leave that to my verbal articulation; you know, not to my written articulation, I always stick to the truth.  But I want that non-fiction to read like fiction.  And that’s what a lot of critics have said, and I take that as a compliment.

Rob:  The majority of your stories revolve around the heartland.  Why write about here?

Wallis:  I’m a son of the heartland.  I’m a son of Route 66.  I was born right off of Route 66 in Missouri, about as far as Stan Musial could swat a hard ball, at the end of the war, just at the beginning of the great heyday period of the highway.   So, and I lived in the course of my life, many, many places, but included in that is seven of the eight Route 66 states.    The only one I haven’t lived in is Kansas, where there’s less than 14 miles across down the corner of Kansas.  So, the heartland, if you will, is very important to me, and a good part of that is Oklahoma.  Now I don’t write exclusively about Oklahoma, but Oklahoma comes up in a lot of my books, and I’ve been able to mine and plumb the depths of this Oklahoma history that has been generally overlooked, the most interesting parts of it.

Rob:  When you wrote of the Mother Road, what type of reception did it get?

Wallis:  It was a tremendous reception.  That book came out in 1990, ROUTE 66 THE MOTHER ROAD, and during the course of the first national tour, we went back, we had to go back to press twice while I was out on the road.   And at first, I thought, well I knew there were other like-minded people like me, who knew that 85 percent of the road was still there between Chicago and Santa Monica, but then it really got to the point where very soon I was surprised by the reception.  It was tremendous, and it’s never stopped.  You know, here we are a million copies later with that book, and it’s spawned all sorts of interest.  It really, and the thing I’m more proud of than anything else, all the awards it’s one, the Pulitzer Nomination, the fact that it helped create the CARS movie, all of that; the thing that really delights me the most is the resurrection of so many towns as a result of that book, what that sparked, these little towns, these little farm and ranch towns especially through all eight states, how, so many of them have come back to life.

Rob:  Now you mention the CARS movie, and a whole new generation knows you, not just as an author, but as the voice.  I want to take a look at this.

Boy, you’re in a heap of trouble.

Rob:  Now, you are the voice of the sheriff in the Pixar movie CARS.

Wallis:  I am indeed.  I’m the high sheriff of radiator springs.

Rob:  How did that all come about?

Wallis:  It came about many years ago, before CARS was even named.  I was at my hideout out in Santa Fe, and John Lassiter the creative head of Pixar, now the creative head of Pixar and Disney, tracked me down, and my wife, Suzanne, called me and she said, John Lassiter really wants to talk to you.  So I called him at the studio in Emeryville, California, in the Bay area, and he said, you’re the go-to guy.  He said, I really want to do a movie about a race car and the venue, the highway, has to be the Mother Road.  Let me bring you out here and pitch this idea to you.  So, I came out, I went out to California, and we immediately had great chemistry.  I became their consultant, and we worked on that movie for about five years.  And what I did is took the whole creative team out on the road, and gave them my road, and they gobbled it up in big bites and devoured it, and digested it well, and as a result, this wonderful movie came out and they totally got it.

The fact that there was another way to travel, and there still is, it’s okay to be a race car, but sometimes it’s great to slow down, you know?  And all of those car characters, every one of them, comes from life, comes from real life, if you will.  You know, Mater is five different people, a couple of old rednecks back east of the tracks, and several of the more zany Route 66 characters.  Every one of those characters, every one of the sets, everything you see in that film comes from reality, the life and art imitating each other.  And I couldn’t be prouder of the final product; I just think it’s terrific.  And it’s worked so well.  It works if you’re five years old, or you’re 85 years old.  Of course adults like it because there’s adult stories.  There’s the whole love story angle; there’s a lot of innuendo that kids don’t even pick up on.  But the kids love it, and of course, that’s turned on as you say a new generation of road warrior.  Kids, you know, say, let’s get off the interstate; this is where Sally lives, Stroud, Oklahoma.  Or they recognize the shield and so forth.  And of course that goes in, folds in with the whole evolution now of Route 66 and the future as it becomes more and more mainstream again, part of school curriculum and everything else.

Rob:  Most of your writings have travel as almost a central theme.  Why is that?

Wallis:  Well, we, the editorial we, being Americans, and me being a Missourian, I always look down, you know, the gateway to the West, I look down the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express Trail; we’re a wondering people.  We’re gypsy footed.  We do like to travel, and it’s such a big land, especially in the part of the land that I particularly like, and that’s all the real estate west of the Mississippi.  I like a lot of it east, but I prefer, I am always looking west.  And travel is inherent.  If you’re a blue blood or a redneck, you’re going to travel.  Route 66, everybody at one time or another, everybody traveled Route 66.  I’ve talked to oldtimers who are still pumping gas out there, who pumped gas for Bob Hope and Byng Crosby and Mickey Mantle and they also pumped gas for Pretty Boy Floyd and for poets and priests; and you know, it’s the whole shooting match right there on the road.  And what you do when you travel a road, truly travel a road, especially an old road, a crooked road, a road of genius, like Route 66, you have a mirror there held up to you that reflects the nation, good, bad and ugly.  I never romanticize a road trip.  Road trips should be non-predictable; there’s nothing predictable about a good road trip; there shouldn’t be.  But when you’re on the super slab, when you’re on that turnpike, and even Michael Wallis has a pikepass, that’s the reality; you might as well be on an airport runway, because it’s a slab of monotony.  You know you’re going to eat your lunch out of a styrofoam box; but you’ve got to get off.  Life begins at the off ramp, and when you get off, and when you go into a little town, whether it’s on Route 66, or the Santa Fe Trail, or the Tamiami Trail, or the Lincoln Highway, or a little country road right around Stillwater, Oklahoma, if you go into a café that you’ve not been into before, it’s adventure.  You could get ptomaine poisoning, but you might find the meat loaf platter that you’d kill your mother for.

Rob:  When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Mr Wallis about some of his latest work.