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South Pacific

These words by James Bryant Conant have special meaning for writer James Michener. In 1944, when Michener was nearly 40, he was serving in the U.S. Navy on a remote island in the South Pacific. To kill time, he decided to write a book. He knew that the chances of anyone’s publishing it were practically nil. But he decided to stick his neck out and give it a try. Michener had decided that the book would be a collection of short stories. A friend told him that nobody publishes short stories anymore. Even so, he stuck his neck out and went ahead. The book was published and it got few reviews, but Orville Prescott, the book reviewer for The New York Times, reported that he liked the stories. Others decided they liked the book too, and it wound up winning a Pulitzer prize. Kenneth McKenna, whose job it was to evaluate books for a Hollywood film company, tried to persuade his company to make a movie out of it, but the company decided the book “had no dramatic possibilities.” So McKenna stuck his neck out and brought the book to the attention of composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When Broadway cynics heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein were planning a musical called South Pacific, they guffawed and said, “Have you heard about this screwy idea? The romantic lead is gonna be a guy past 50. An opera singer named Ezio Pinza!” Everyone knows what happened after that. “You can understand,” said Michener, “why I like people who stick their necks out.”

Bits & Pieces, August 20, 1992, pp. 11-13

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