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Swallowing up Texas culture; Michener in Lone Star State

Clean blue crescents of lake water slice the rolling hills of central Texas just outside Austin. It's the only color in an otherwise sage-green expanse, suspended in geographic compromise between the desert to the west and the lush coastal plains to the east. The sight makes James Michener smile as he surveys the horizon from the air-conditioned comfort of a car.

''I think I could live here,'' the novelist/historian tells a visitor, with a sigh that suggests a rare bit of emotion.

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His visitor also smiles, wondering how many times he must have said that while criss-crossing the globe. In his yellow polyester slacks, white athletic socks and sandals, and in his quiet manner and simple life style, he looks more like a Sunbelt retiree than the man who has swallowed whole cultures, living up to three years at a time on the scene of books like ''Hawaii,'' ''The Source,'' ''Iberia,'' ''Centennial,'' ''Chesapeake,'' and now ''Poland,'' to be published later this month.

Yet even as the current book goes to press, Michener is deep into the next one. He's been here a year, writing a novel about Texas - and, in typical Michener fashion, he's developed more of a tie to the land and culture than many natives ever will.

That ability to plug in to the sprawling geography and history of a nation or region is the key to Michener's art. To glimpse his working style is to understand why the novelist who first won acclaim with ''Tales of the South Pacific'' (1947) has been able to win the attention of millions of readers ever since, leading them wherever his interests wander - even when it is away from epic histories of places and peoples to subjects like sports (''Sports in America,'' 1976) and the space program (''Space,'' 1982).

''Writing'' is a term which doesn't do Michener's work justice. He does spend a solitary five hours a day at his typewriter, churning out double-spaced pages of manuscript, brittle with the cutting and pasting of mended thought. (''I don't outline, that's for sure,'' he says.) The other facet of his craft is a process of absorption. And this demands attention to subtleties and disciplined curiosity that can't be confined to any predetermined outline.

He recalls, for example, that when he was in Israel for two years, ''I went to synagogue every Friday night. I felt it as a compulsion, as if I were an older Orthodox Jew. This is part of an instinct toward understanding.

''I have a powerful sense of place, a tactile sense,'' he adds, describing how he attempts to anchor his fiction in a thoroughly documented realism that spans centuries.

Those who know him say this instinct leads Michener to immerse himself totally in his environment, doing very little beyond gathering material for his stories. ''His hobby is his work; he doesn't play golf, garden, or collect butterflies,'' says his biographer, John Kings, who first worked with Michener on ''Centennial'' and is working again as an editor on the Texas project. In conversation, Kings refers frequently to Michener's ''singleminded devotion'' - which sounds, in turns, both awe-inspiring and unreasonably demanding for those who work with him.

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Few people do work with him. He has employed researchers only on ''Centennial'' (1972). Here in Texas he has a staff of three, provided by the University of Texas. This project, which may turn out to be his largest book to date, has generated so much statewide interest that Michener needed help in sifting through the piles of information available. ''Everyone is sending their great-grandmother's diary'' as the definitive comment on Texas history, says Kings.

Others with whom Michener works include professionals who check portions of his work for accuracy - in Texas, oil men, ranchers, farmers, businessmen, and geologists.

Michener, it seems, wouldn't write the kind of book that is his trademark if he couldn't put his hands in the soil, explore the local landscape, chew the fat with a ranch hand, and ask a respected geologist to examine his hand-drawn maps of an imaginary oil field for accuracy of scale and detail.

Nor does Michener consider his research complete until he has traveled thousands of miles (10,000 so far in Texas) and read several hundred books on his topic (300 this year).

He'll write the equivalent of two drafts of the new book (including ''as if'' versions of chapters, prior to completing his research on them and revising for accuracy of detail) before sending the book to his publisher. The final version will be pared by one-third, says Kings. Caricaturing Michener in a two-fingered, Martianlike, ''antennae out'' gesture surveying his environment, Kings explains, ''Jim never sets a scene in a book that's not based on something he's seen with his own eyes.''

The magnitude of the work involved is illustrated by the fact that most of Michener's books weigh in at about 1,000 pages, with countless different scenes. ''He's writing fiction, yes,'' adds Kings, ''but he's writing from real things.'' Kings recalls that the author searched persistently until he found just the right setting for his vision of a cattle drive coming counterclockwise around a hillside. ''He'll look at flora and fauna; he digs up the ground and feels it; he looks up trees. Nothing is left to chance,'' Kings acknowledges.

He knows because he does the driving for the field trips. He has seen Michener return again and again to a single place and prowl around local hangouts, making use of his gift for edging into any conversation.

Indeed, on the return trip from the Austin lakes, he instructed his visitor to make a U-turn so he could stop at a local grill that had caught his eye. He sat with his back to a corner, taking mental notes of his surroundings.

Michener's success, he admits, is as much a product of the period in which he lives as of his instinct toward understanding. ''If I had come along 50 years earlier, I'd have been small potaoes indeed. Americans were not interested in the world; they hadn't traveled. I'd have been a pure exotic,'' he says.

But Michener caught the fancy of American readers (though not the critics) after World War II with ''Tales of the South Pacific,'' just as the their horizons broadened. A survey of his work shows him usually to have been several steps ahead of newspaper headlines, completing books on Vietnam, the Middle East , Afghanistan, South Africa, and now Poland, before or as they became flashpoints in world events.

''Very little of my artistic life has been accidental,'' he says. ''I have known what I was doing. South Africa, the Near East, the economic talent of Japan, Afghanistan . . . - I'd written complete books on them years before they were trouble spots. You can see these things, not because you're super bright, but because you can just feel it. . . . It's more visceral than intellectual.''

Michener adds that when he was asked several years ago to choose a topic for a television documentary, the producer ''nearly fell off his chair'' when he said Poland. Solidarity hadn't yet surfaced, and the producer had no interest in the country; today the reaction would be different.

Of course, the burning question now is: What instinct or insight has brought Michener to Texas?

Michener responds that ''with only so many more books'' to write, he wouldn't be interested in Texas unless he considered it pivotal in the nation's future. The single most important news event here this year, he says, was an incident in McAllen, where a truckload of illegal aliens died in the desert after their smuggler abandoned them. ''This happens all the time, but this time they were Salvadorean,'' says Michener. ''That's very premonitorial. . . . They're leapfrogging five countries to get here.''

Michener notes that he believes the influx of Latin culture into the Southwest could create a separate border state that might eventually feed a separatist movement similar to, but stronger than, that in Canada.

As for the future, Michener says a good writer always has eight or ten solid ideas on tap. But, for now, he only wants to talk about the immediate future - Texas.

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