Path Home Shows 2010 Show Archive December 2010 Show 1051 Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 3

Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 3

We conclude our visit with one of the organizers of the Literary Landmark Program, author Michael Wallis.
Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 3

Michael Wallis

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Michael Wallis

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Show 1051: Interview with Michael Wallis - Part 3

Air date: December 19, 2010



Rob:  Now, you were awarded the prestigious John Steinbeck Award, an author that wrote of the Oklahoma dustbowl and the consequences from the Oklahoma dustbowl.  Do you believe that Mr Steinbeck, while he did cast a very needed light on the plight of Oklahomans, do you believe that he probably hurt the state more than he helped it?

Wallis:  No.  I don’t.  I believe that any damage the people mistakenly think he caused is totally misconstrued.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  What John Steinbeck did with that brilliant novel, possibly one of the best five novels written in the last century, is bring to life composite characters that speak to the whole resiliency of Oklahoma people.  There is no more admirable character in literature than Ma Joad; she is this rock.  And if you read John Steinbeck, if you read THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and like so many other things, critics usually, the critics who are afraid or paranoid about THE GRAPES OF WRATH usually have not read it.  But if you read it, it should inspire you as an Oklahoman.  It should make you feel proud.  It should make you feel proud to wear the badge of Okie.  There are those passages toward the end of the book when Tom Joad is about to leave the camp out in California, and he talks to his mother and she says, but Tommy I’ll not see you again, where will I see you?  And he responds, you’ll see me everywhere; you’ll see me in the eyes of a kid who is hungry and has no food; you’ll see me in the face of a man getting beat up by a cop for no reason at all; I’ll be everywhere.  I mean, the book is terrific.

And it was banned in Oklahoma.  Lyle Boren, the father of David Boren down at OU, was a congressman and he railed against the book on the floor of Congress and called it the product of a demented mind.  That’s a whole other story, because what they did after that, they meaning the state leaders, the so called wisdom keepers, is to take the onus of the dustbowl off of Oklahoma.  They decided to put all of their eggs in the basket, and that’s when they really pushed football.  Football, this will take the place of it.  I mean, it’s a very interesting story.  But I think it’s an important book, and I think it’s one that every Oklahoman should read, especially every Oklahoma school kid should read; and thankfully, thankfully that’s turning around.  And, you know, if I had my way I would make John Steinbeck an honorary literary landmark in Oklahoma.

Rob:  Now, you have multiple Pulitzer Prize Nominations.  Is the key to being a good writer, being a good listener?

Wallis:  It’s very important.  Part of my training, if you will, as a writer, books came from many years as a working daily journalist, an ink stained wretch.  And I go back to the old school days of reporting and you know, typewriters, and a newsroom filled with smoke, and an editor screaming at the copy boy, and there was always some older reporter very mysterious in a trench coat with an uncompleted novel in one drawer and a quart of rye in the other, and everybody was on deadline and it was a lot of fun.  But it was a lot of work, and it was a good discipline.  And the principles of that daily journalism of grinding it out and deadlines, which I still abhor.  All of that came from that journalistic training.

Rob:  Do you have a favorite author?

Wallis:  Hmm.  I have a few favorite authors.  One is Steinbeck, one is Steinbeck.  I grew up like most, male, American, white boys who, now over the age of 60, who aspired to write, I grew up with Hemingway very much on my mind.  And in fact, as a young man, emulated Hemingway, a lot of us did, not so much his writing style, although, I was very drawn to his writing style and the brevity of it and making adjectives and adverbs your enemy.  But I was drawn to his biography.  So, we all went through that period, or a lot of us did, where you had to out drink, out fight, out womanize everybody else.  But you learned, really, the art of writing out on the street, out on the road.

Rob:  Would you be kind enough to give us a taste of your writing?

Wallis:  Sure!  I will.  I just so happen to have tucked down here an original edition of a book of essays of mine called, WAY DOWN YONDER IN THE INDIAN NATION, which contains an opening essay called, SEARCHING FOR HIDDEN RHYTHMS IN TWILIGHT LAND.  And I’ll just read a couple of the opening paragraphs for you, because I think this sort of is a capsule of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma is tall grass prairie and everlasting mountains.  It is secret patches of ancient earth trumped smooth and hard by generations of dancing feet.  It is a cycle of song in heroic deed.  It is calloused hands.  It is the aroma of rich crude oil fused with a scent of sweat and sacred smoke.  It is the progeny of an oilfield whore wed to a deacon, the sire of a cowpony bred with a race horse.  It is a stampede, pie supper, a revival.

It is a wildcat gusher coming in.  It is a million-dollar deal cemented with a handshake.  Oklahoma is dark rivers snaking through red furrowed soil, lakes rimmed with stone bluffs.  It is a ghost of proud Native Americans, crusading socialists, ambitious cattle kings, extravagant oil tycoons, wily bandits.  It is impetuous, and it is wise, a land of opportunists, resilient pioneers and vanquished souls.  The state is a crazy quilt of contradictions and controversies, travails and triumphs.  It has been exploited and abused, cherished and fought over.  It is a puzzling place.  Forever, Oklahoma is American through and through.