Michener's `Texas' may stampede Lone Star staters to bookstores

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Texan's love of legend, attention, and scrutiny is about to receive a major boost: James Michener's historical novel, ``Texas,'' is set to hit the bookstores next week. The best-selling author, himself now a Texan, says the book was written primarily ``not for the resident of Texas, but for those in Vermont and New York and England who want to know what Texas really is, and how it got there.'' Chances are good, nevertheless, that copies will sell fastest right here where the story is known best.

Already the book -- whose 750,000-copy first printing is the largest in the history of Random House publishing -- has garnered growing attention as Texans ponder what someone like James Michener will tell the world about them.

``It's phenomenal, the level of interest this book is creating,'' says David Dean, a Dallas lawyer who first came up with the idea of having Mr. Michener write a ``monumental epic'' to commemorate the Texas sesquicentennial in 1986.

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The story behind the birth of the novel ``Texas'' is itself worthy of legendary status, and says more about Texas pride than any book could.

Mr. Dean was general counsel to former Texas Gov. Bill Clements in 1981 when he read Michener's ``Centennial'' -- a one-time bestseller about Colorado -- and decided a similar novel telling the Texas story would be a fitting tribute to the 150th anniversary of Texas's independence from Mexico.

Mr. Clements was ``immediately excited'' about the idea, according to Dean, and quickly contacted Michener by telephone to suggest the book. A long weekend visit by the Micheners to Clements' country estate soon followed. The trip included a stop in Austin, the Texas capital, where state officials and representatives of the University of Texas gathered to receive the world-renowned author and give him a taste of Texas hospitality. Michener was told that office space at the university, access to its libr aries, and a research staff would be made available to him.

Then in September, adds Dean, Governor Clements received from Mr. Michener ``a letter I'll never forget. `To my dear Governor Bill,' it started, `the answer is yes.' ''

Michener says Texas was on a list of five or six book topics he was considering when he was contacted by Clements. Recently reached by telephone in Alaska, where he is researching his next book, the author of such works as ``Hawaii,'' ``Space,'' and ``Poland'' said his four years' work in Texas taught him not only how open Texans are about themselves and their home, but also how curious they are about how others see them.

``Texas is a very proud state, and it knows that a lot of legends [about it] are kicking around. The Texas story -- the Indians, the Alamo, the oil -- does have a special charisma, and I think Texas is well justified in capitalizing upon it.''

He noted, for example, that at the height of the Texas cattle drive, more than four-fifths of the nation's beef was produced east of the Mississippi. ``Yet we don't hear romantic songs about cattle in Indiana,'' he said. ``Texas just has a special attraction.''

That attraction, along with the Michener name, no doubt played a role in ABC's purchase of ``Texas'' for television before a word of the book was written.

No doubt the book will give Texans a good dosage of what they love to hear. Excerpts from the novel that ran for a week in Dallas and Austin newspapers began with a 19th-century Scottish man who dreams of Texas, a place where people go to get rich. ``You plant cotton, it explodes in your face. You plant corn, you get two crops a year. Cows have twins in Texas, it's the law,'' he says.

Several excerpts later, a Michigan transplant to Houston is making millions in the real estate market because of her faith in her new home -- and despite its post-oil-boom troubles.

Michener says a strong resilience among Texans is what most impressed him about the state he now calls home. (He and his wife live in Austin, where he maintains his relationship with the university.) ``It took a lot of hard knocks'' in the past few years, he says, referring to the energy bust, devaluation of the Mexican peso, and the economic troubles they entailed. ``Such calamities might have put an ordinary state under, but Texas had the determination to move ahead.''

Michener says he hopes his book won't just feed the Texan's hunger for lore and legend but will also incite serious contemplation of contributions the state might make, not just from its past, but into the 21st century.

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