LOS ANGELES -- James Clavell, his imagination awash with plans for the modern-day Asian chronicle that was to be his third novel, picked up one of his 9-year-old daughter's school books one afternoon in London, and came upon an intriguing bit of history. "It said, 'In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a Samurai,'" Clavell said. "I knew nothing about Japanese history. And I thought, well, what I'll do is I'll start reading."
He read. "I found out it was Will Adams, so then I went to the library and looked up Will Adams. I found five letters he wrote back to his wife, that were never delivered, to anybody's knowledge... then also there was a book published, one of his logs, from one of the trips from Japan to Siam... then it turned out he was called Anjin-San, and there was a street named after this fellow... then I got interested in Jesuits and I read a book on Jesuits... then I read a book on the Franciscans and found out the Jesuits were gunrunning in those days... then I found out that you have a man called Hidiyoshi, who was the Taiko who was a peasant, who had all the girls in the realm, and then suddenly in his dotage he met this fantastically beautiful girl and he had a son by her, who died...."
Clavell smiles."So I thought, 'Christ, that's not bad to start with.'"
Indeed. The modern-day novel vanished for a while. James Clavell -- born in Australia, raised on the coast of England and transplanted to a screenwriter-turned-novelist life in Los Angeles and London -- had embarked on a three-year obsession that produced "Shogun."
It was a forbidding-looking hunk of fiction, too. Twelve hundred pages about medieval Japan, for heaven's sake; who could wade through that? And the answer, with paperback sales alone now about 2.5 million, seems to be: just about everybody who picks it up.
"Shogun" is the third novel of this disarmingly pleasant man who seems to write nothing but best sellers, whose interest in Asia was sparked, at least in part, by four years in a World War II Japanese prison camp and who has explored over and over in his novels the enormous gulf betweeen Asian and Occidental views of the world. With "Shogun," he has parlayed this exploration into one of those books that blots up vacations and imperils marriages, because it simply will not let the reader go.
One carries it around the house, memerized by a deliciously gory Japanese power struggle and an impossible, illicit East-West love affair. Even snobs whose noses lift at the label "blockbuster," smelling good story but had writing, apparently love this book; somehow the slow Japanization of a dashing English sea captain is so tantalizing an idea, and so intricately explored, that "Shogun" has amassed considerably more literary respect than most of the big storytellers' works that shared its top billing on the best-seller lists.
"I didn't even know who was on the throne of England in those days, and then -- oh Jesus, Elizabeth. Fantastic," he says. "Then you remember Drake and the stuff from your childhood, and they you learn about Trinity House, and navigators... Magellan, what happened to Magellan... and all of a sudden, if you're fortunate enough to have an inquiring mind, you think, 'Good God! Now I'm in this milieu, and I don't like Catholics, and suddenly this bloody priest comes up to me and he calls me an English bastard.' And suddenly your Japanese is there. And that's how it begins. It's really very simple."
He is a broad shouldered, sandy-haired, soft-eyed man of 54, dressed just now in a navy blue blazer and dark slacks. He sits with his back to a shoji screen in the offices of Shogun Productions, a small corner of the Paramount studios where Clavell's huge best-seller is being turned into a 12-hour television special to be filmed on location in Japan this summer. (His novel "Tai-Pan" is also being made into a movie, with filming planned for the end of the year.) The room is a study in quiet colors, strawtone beige for the rug, wheat for the sofa -- not terribly Japanese, Clavell says, but nicely serene. He likes it.
And even after all his literary admonitions about English understatement (in his novel "King Rat," the English prisoner of war infuriates the American by eyeing the American's fried egg, the finest frying job anybody has ever seen, and "giving it the greatest compliment in the English world -- 'Not bad,' he said flatly."), Clavell's voice is so gentle and his manner so deferential that it is hard not to squint for some trace of the power-hungry adventurers who leap out of his typewriter. This is the man who gave us Dirk Struan, the lusty green-eyed "Tai-Pan" merchant trader with one knife in his pants and another in his boots and a penchant for crying things like "If your're na prepared to risk high, you dinna belong in a the game!" And John Blackthorne, the Anjan-san of "Shogun," the passionate English barbarian who storms and studies and bluffs his way to the rank of Samurai. And Aristotle Quance, the ugly little painter pursued all over Hong Kong by his enormous wife. Mariko, the fierce multi-lingual Catholic Samurai beauty. Norstedt Stride Orlov, the hundchback ship captain. Kiku the exquisite courtesan, with her wonderful songs and her mysterious sexual aids. Wu Fang Choi, the sadisticpirate king.
"I'm and old fashioned storyteller I suppose," says Clavell. "Part of it is my screenwriting training. It somehow comes out that you're forced to turn the page... I'm just a little ahead of you, but it's on the other page. I can't explain how it comes out that way."
"The art of writing a book, I suppose, is to infect people like yourself, and take possession of your brain," he says. "The major number of complaints I have, if you can call it a complaint" -- referring to "Shogun" -- "is that it's too short."
Clavell came to America 25 years ago, a young English army veteran with a passion for motion pictures. He wanted to direct. He went from studio to studio wanting to direct, and when he found out that nobody was going to hire him he wrote some film scripts under an assumed name and began telling people he had discovered this astonishing new talent.
"Eventually somebody gave me a job as a screenwriter," he says. "I told everybody I was a brilliant writer. They'd say, 'What have you done?' and I'd rumble things that seemed reasonable. And they're so polite over here that they don't cross question you, whereas in England, they say, 'OK, write them down,' and they would call up and find out it was true. They liked my accent, I suppose."
The screenplay was "The Fly," a creepy picture about a scientist whose experiments go awry and produce an awful half-man, half-fly mutant. Clavell got more work after that. He wrote the script for "Watusi," he produced and directed "Five Gates to Hell," and "Walk Like a Dragon." And then in 1960, 18 years after it had happened, Clavell suddenly began talking about his four-year internment innthe Japanese prison camp called Changi.
"It was bottled, you know," he sayd. "I never told my wife or my family anything... I don't know quite what started it off, but I started talking about it at a party." Bit by bit, the story -- about the struggle for power and survival in the most brutalizing of surroundings -- was forcing its way out of him, and when the screenwriters went on strike that year, Clavell finally sat down to let it completely out.
"My wife said, 'What the hell are you doing around the house?'" he says ruefully. "I said, 'I'm going to sit in the sun.' She said, 'No way. Go into the room and write the book, and don't come out until you've done five pages.'" So he did, and in one cathartic 12-week rush Clavell wrote the first draft of "King Rat." It was 800 pages long. An editor at Little-Brown sent the manuscript back with so many deletions that on the first page everything except the opening line was crossed out. Pare it down, the editor kept saying.
"For instance, there is this sequence in 'King Rat' where the fellow is lying in bed, and all he's got is his boots left," says Clavell. "When I wrote it originally, I remember there was a sequence where somebody came in and took the boots away... and he looked out and saw the sunset, and then on and on and on. And the way it came out was, 'And then he died.' It taught me that the art of writing is, one, to be very simple and, two, that you don't need all this."
"King Rat" was an enormous success, both critically and financially -- the book became a best seller and Clavell sold the screen rights for a contract that paid him $25,000 a year for the next five years.He wrote a few more movies, including the script for "The Great Escape," then, prompted by "rude buggers who came up and said, 'It's very easy for you to write one book, but the second one separates the men from the men,'" Clavell decided to see whether he could do it again.
"Michener had taken over Honolulu," says Clavell (James Michener's novel "Hawaii" was on the best seller list just then), "so I had to stake a claim somewhere." Asia still fascinated him, and his father had told him wonderful Navy stories, most of them elaborate fiction, about steaming up and down the Yangtze River and rescuing beautiful maidens. So James Clavell, beinning the research that would produce his novel "Tai-Pan" staked out Hong Kong.
He haundted the law court libraries, reading old newspapers. He interviewed elderly Eurasians, figuring that a clear-headed 80-year-old would remeber the stories his father had told him -- and that took you back to 1841, which was where he wanted his novel to begin. He had in mind a great multi-generational saga, like "Hawaii." "So I got up to page 500 and I called up my agent and said, 'Look, I've got a problem. I've covered four days and I've got 128 years to go."
Most people think "Tai-Pan" was not as good a novel as "Shogun" (although it, too, was a best seller, and has sold more than 2 million copies since its release in 1966), but its grand themes are the same -- power, pride, honor, the gradual flowering of mutual respect and romantic love between Asians and Occidentals. Comments? Clavell looks amused. "It's up to you," he says. "After 'King Rat' came out I was told by an interviewer, very abstractly, that I was an existentialist. I didn't know what he meant, let alone how to spell it. I still don't really know about it. The people I seem to write about are mostly doers. They're not people who sit on their tails in New York, who are concerned about their place in life or should they get a divorce."
And "Tai-Pan" did in limited fashion what "Shogun" made hypontic -- both novels gazed at those hulking, smelly, bearded western barbarians through mystified Asian eyes. Clavell has been asked over and over how a former Changi prisoner of war could shift perspective so completely. "The answer is I don't know," he says. "Obviously ['King Rat'] was a catharsis, because obviously after that I could write a passionately pro-Japanese thing and understand and be gentle with a great deal of understanding about the Japanese. I can't explain it myself either. I usually say, 'Well, I was Japanese in a previous life. Or Chinese in a previous life.'"
Clavell takes a storyteller's liberties, weighing general historical accurary against readability and he is straightforward about that. "I know that the Japanese didn't say 'honto ,' which means 'truth,' in the 17th century," he says. "It's sort of a modernish word." But "honto " is what they say in "Shogun." Does he know the correct 17th-century word?
"Yeah," Clavell holds his hands two feet apart. "It was about this much... and it depends who you're talking to. If Toranaga talks to Yabu, he uses a down expresion. If Yabu talks to Toranaga before he became Shogun, he would use equality. If he wished to insult him, he would use a down expression; and if he wanted to be polite and not lose his head, he would use an up expression."
Another case in point. What is the Japanese word, Clavell is asked, for "power?"
"I can find out," he says. He picks up the telephone and calls his bilingual Japanese secretary in the next office.
"What is Japanese for 'power?'" Clavell asks. "Chikara ? What sort of power is chikara ? Does a Shogun have chikara ?" Pause. "No, it's kenryoku , right?" Pause. "Okay. Does he have kenryoku? His wife? It might be physical or mental. shilariryoku ? Um, in this office, right, what do I have? What's the word for my power?"
"Kenryoku ? What sort of power does your mama have over you? Don't tell me none. What's that word? That's kengan . And what power does your mother have over your father?"
"That's a very difficult idea? Okay. The power your father has over your mother is shihairyoku , but your mother doesn't have shihairyoku over him...."
Cavell thanks his secretary and hangs up. "That gives you an idea," he says, "of how difficult it is to be specific in Japanese."
He is not bilingual, although during the writing of "Shogun" he spoke Japanese more fluently than he does now, and the translations in the book were. written with the help of language experts -- many of whom disagreed with used. "It's the simplest language in the world to speak, and the most complicated," says Clavell. "And like a lot of things Japanese, you look at it the first time, and it seems so simple, and so clean. And then you look at it again, and you think, 'how in the name of God did they make it so clean and simple?" Becaues of course simplicity is very hard."
Clavell, who wrote, produced an directed "To Sir With Love" in between "Tai-Pan" and "Shogun," is work now on the novel that was sidetracked by "Shogun," "Nobel House," a modern-day novel of Asia. He writes in his home in Los Angeles, typing out the pages on an old manual portable and once a week he comes down to his Paramount office to oversee the production of "Shogun." The company will be filming in Kyoto, using Japanese-made Samurai costumes and a largely Japanese technical staff; the great Japanese actor Toshiru Mifune has already been cast as Toranaga, the Shogun. (Miriko and Blackthorne are still undecided; Sean Connery was offered the Blackthorne part but apparently will not take it.) The producion will be directed by Marvin Chomsky who directed the television special "Holocaust," and Clavell's only complaint about the project is that he can't really become involved until his current novel is finished and out of the way.
"Part of it," he says, meaning the writing of a novel, "is pertinacity, you know, grim determination. And a marvelous selfishness to finish, to exclude everything. I begrudge the time spent away from my novel. I've been doing it since a year last April. Forotunately, I've got this need to finish, to find the last page...."
He wrote "Shogun" in a London mews house, a closed and quiet place with a minuscule garden and no view of the sky. "My horizon stopped about 10 feet away... and "Shogun" in a way, is very introverted. But then the Japanese are introverted." He wrote "Tai-Pan" in British Columbia, in a beach house on a splendid coast: "You could see for 30 miles and the islands in the sound were like Bali Hai, and the moutains were virgin, and the clouds would come down and cover the whole sea and everything. And that's a very wide and handsome story."
And as he writes this new novel. Clavell sits in his study atop a southern California mountain, with the world spread out below him. "We've got 280 degrees of view," he says, smiling. "And I don't know how it's going to come out."