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James Clavell: A Versatile Elizabethan Turns Out Shogun, His Third Oriental Blockbuster

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“My friend,” muses the Japanese warlord Toranaga as he considers the “barbarian” English sailor John Blackthorne at the conclusion of James Clavell’s new novel Shogun, “it is your karma [fate] never to leave this land.”

Like Blackthorne, who is washed onto Japanese shores by a storm in 1600 and eventually embraces oriental customs, women and intrigue, 51-year-old James Clavell is a self-described spiritual Elizabethan who survived a stormy introduction to Asia ultimately to adopt and capitalize upon its traditions. Shogun, which made the best-seller lists barely a month after publication, is Clavell’s third novel with an oriental setting. The first, King Rat (1962), was based on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Japan’s infamous Changi camp in Singapore from 1943 to 1945. The second, Tai-Pan (1966), was a vast dynastic tale set in Hong Kong in 1841.

Besides writing fiction, Clavell is a film producer-director-screenwriter. His most notable three-way effort was To Sir, With Love, a 1967 hit starring Sidney Poitier which cost $652,000 to make, returned $24 million to Columbia Pictures, and earned an unspecified bundle for Clavell because he had been paid off with “a substantial piece of the action” in lieu of salary.

Very much the English gentleman (though he became a naturalized American in 1963), Clavell acknowledges that many of his interests and much of his philosophy are a result of his contact with the East. He is acquainted with the Cantonese, Malay and Japanese languages, cooks Malay dishes and arranges flowers like a Zen monk. Moreover he has developed what he considers the Japanese “ability to compartmentalize—one of the basic rules of survival.”

“James is the original strong, silent type with mental karate built in,” says actor Michael Caine, who starred in Clavell’s The Last Valley (1971). “He never gets excited, loses his temper or raises his voice—it would be like losing face”—which perfectly describes Shogun’s victorious warlord Toranaga.

A descendant of Walterus de Clavile, an armor-bearer to William the Conqueror, Clavell was prepared for a military career, like his father, after his liberation from Changi. But a motorcycle mishap in 1946 left him with a permanent limp, and he drifted into London’s entertainment scene. “I realized the only way to become a director was to become a producer, because nobody in his right mind would let me direct,” he says. “But having neither money nor a property, necessity dictated that I become a writer.”

For 10 years he lived precariously, aided by such odd jobs as carpentry and film-peddling and the earnings of his wife April, an actress-dancer-model whom he married in 1949 (they have two daughters, Michaela, 20, and Holly, 16). He hit Hollywood pay dirt with screenplays for The Fly and Watusi. The movies gave Clavell freedom to write his novels. “A book, as opposed to a film, gives you a glow,” he says. “I’m a storyteller, and I like the byline.”

Book critics dispute neither Clavell’s narrative gifts nor his encyclopedic grasp of history and tradition. But in an age in which attention span is measured by the length of a TV commercial, some critics, while saluting Shogun‘s storytelling power, have groaned about its length—803 pages. “It’s the biggest short book ever written,” counters Clavell, who worked on it for four years. “It’s fast moving and terribly lean.” He does admit, though, that at times he lost track of the thread. “You become so fascinated that you can get over-researched.”

Clavell, even when rolling, produced a modest 5,000 words a week. He touch-typed them on a battered portable at his three geographically scattered homes—in Hollywood Hills, Vancouver and London’s fashionable Belgravia section. He and April, both licensed pilots, like the freedom to lift off from London for France, Spain, Austria or Morocco in their blue-and-white Skymaster T337. And, if he sells the film rights to Shogun, Clavell will add a chopper to the family fleet.

Despite his nostalgic view of other ages and places, James Clavell’s karma has been rich in every way—financially, creatively, spiritually. “Maybe I came along a few centuries too late,” he philosophizes. “But I get by, living in my own imagination—high, wide and handsome. Like the American dream, I have a nice life in the pursuit of happiness.”