In Alex Haley’s stately Tennessee mansion hangs a glass frame containing two old sardine cans and 18 cents—a reminder of the time when that was all he had in the world. In another room sits an elegant walnut pool table, Haley’s idea of what a man should have when he has made it. Together these things sum up the remarkable turn the 67-year-old writer’s life has taken since the publication of Roots in 1976. “Do you know what it’s like to go from the YMCA to the Waldorf?” he asks. “If I’d known I’d be this successful, I would have typed faster.”
Roots, Haley’s account of his family history, took 12 years to write and made him rich. Reprinted in 37 languages and transformed into two spectacularly successful miniseries, the book has generated a steady stream of royalties and made Haley a fixture for more than a decade on the international lecture circuit, where he earned more than $250,000 a year.
But a celebrity author, he found, has no time to write. For 12 years Haley couldn’t manage to complete a second book. Fans would ask sweetly, “Are you still writing?” and Haley admits he was stung by the question. When a New York publisher asked him to complete a short book for its Christmas list, he quickly made arrangements to return to where he wrote first and still writes best—on a boat. “I was intrigued by the idea of writing a book in two months,” he says, “and I was already planning to go to sea again to write.” A Different Kind of Christmas—the tale of a slave’s escape on the Underground Railroad—was written last summer on a freighter trip from Long Beach, Calif., to Australia and reached bookstores last month. Haley has also collaborated on a two-hour television special, Roots: The Gift, which airs on ABC Dec. 11, and he has three other books in the works.
To attain this level of productivity, however, Haley had to remove himself from the celebrity whirl. In 1987 he left California and moved back to Tennessee, where he lives the life of a country squire. His principal residence is a Tudor mansion in Knoxville’s best neighborhood. He also owns a 120-acre retreat in nearby Norris, whose renovated 1830 farmhouse he calls “Granny’s house with a microwave.”
“Having a lot of houses is kind of foolish in itself, but if you were here any weekend when we are having a gathering, it would explain itself,” he says. “I really don’t have the faintest interest in a Rolls-Royce or limousines, but I love to have these places to share with friends.” For Haley, one of life’s great pleasures is to let city visitors savor the moment when “they wake up, and the mist is over the farm, ducks are swimming around, the creek is running, and the fish are jumping.”
Born in Ithaca, N.Y., Haley was raised from infancy in the West Tennessee town of Henning by his maternal grandmother. (His father was studying in the North, and his mother died young.) “I find that Southern-born people, white or black, tend to be better raised than people from other sections [of the country],” he says. “Grandma taught me like that. I don’t do everything she’d want me to do, but I don’t get too far a field of her. It’s just instinctive.” Grandma would not have approved of four-letter words or explicit sex scenes, for example, so Roots didn’t have any. Says Haley: “That’s Grandma on my shoulder.”
Haley still spends only about half his time in Tennessee. A typical week finds him in Los Angeles meeting with TV producers, then flying to Paris to talk with his French publishers. But that’s nothing compared with the schedule he kept on the lecture circuit. “When Roots came out, I was suddenly in hot demand,” he says. “One calendar year, I spent 226 nights in motels.” His third marriage disintegrated, and he rarely saw his daughter, Cindy, now 24 and an aspiring writer, who was being raised by his second wife in Augusta, Ga. “I’m just not a stationary husband,” he says, “but you have to deal with the fact that your life is your life.”
Last year Haley ended up in the hospital suffering from exhaustion and a bone inflammation. “I called the lecture bureau and told them I simply had to quit,” he says. “You make a lot of money, but it doesn’t mean anything when you’re never still long enough to enjoy it or to work creatively.”
Ever since his 20-year stint in the Coast Guard, when he would write letters home for his shipmates, Haley has had his most creative moments at sea. So every few months he packs up his computer and tape recorders and boards a new ship. “At sea, I will work from 10 at night until daybreak,” he says. “Then comes that magic moment when you start to dream about what you are writing, and you know that you are really into it.”
Next on Haley’s agenda is Henning, a book based on his hometown. Like Roots, it’s about “the little people who did whatever they did and died and would never be thought about again if I didn’t write about them,” says Haley. Such people are his inspiration and, he insists, the source of his success. “Whenever you see a turtle up on a fence post,” he tells the audiences who come to see Alex Haley, famous writer, “you know he had some help.”
—Patricia Freeman, and Jane Sanderson in Knoxville