Meeting Alex Haley

It was an evening in late February, 1981, and I was driving over the top of “The Hill” in Palos Verdes. I’d received an envelope that afternoon from John McRainey of Production Engineering, notifying me that my piece, “The Code of Abibarshim,” had been accepted for publication. Check enclosed. This was my very first sale.

I was in a good mood, as you can imagine, and I was on my way to Bernadette Shih’s home in Palos Verdes for a meeting of Southwest Manuscripters. The speaker that evening was Alex Haley, the writer responsible for Roots and other famous works.

As I drove, I wondered why Haley would take the time to come talk to us, a bunch of unknown writers. I decided the answer must be that Haley had struggled, working for years at the craft before his “overnight” success. He was a guy who had “paid his dues,” and would now honor us as fellow strugglers, with his presence and his words.

I arrived a few minutes early. Haley was surrounded by a gaggle of writers in full frenzy. I gave up the idea of meeting him face to face and just grabbed a few hors d’ouevres and chatted with other members of Manuscripters. I met Paul Thompson in the hallway and showed him my letter of acceptance.

Paul said: “I thought they didn’t buy fiction.”

“I guess they have now,” I said, for Abibarshim is definitely fiction.

I ran low on hors d’ouevres and returned to the main room, the letter still in my hand. I promptly ran into Alex Haley, who had slipped the clutches of the throng. I showed him the letter, saying, “I just made my first sale, today.”

He read the letter, then looked at me. “Sure feels good, doesn’t it?” he said, smiling widely.

“Yeah, it sure does. Would you autograph the letter for me?”

And he did. I thanked him and bounced along the ceiling for a minute, then refilled my plate. When I turned around, the room was empty except for Alex, me, Bernadette, and one or two others. People had already filtered upstairs.

I hurried up after them. The layout was very nice. In one corner was a huge overstuffed chair, obviously reserved for the guest speaker. Couches lined the rest of the room, with folding chairs in every other available space. All chock full, now, I was disappointed to discover. I found some room to sit on the floor near the head of the stairs. If I leaned to my left and peered between two people, I could see the back of someone who could see the big chair in the far corner. Well, I can still hear Haley, I thought.

Haley himself now had reached the landing. He paused for a second and then said, “I think I’ll just sit right here.” I swivelled around and found him plunked down in a rocking chair right in front of me. 

He spoke for about an hour, telling of his early days. Among many other things, he told about getting a rejection letter that said, “This doesn’t quite gel for us.” He told us of later showing up for his first book signing after Roots had taken off, seeing a line around the block, and thinking, “I guess something has finally gelled.”

Haley was a wonderful speaker. He looked around the room as he spoke, but about a fourth of the time, he was looking down at me and someone squeezed next to me. The evening was marvellous, exciting, and inspirational. And the hors d’ouevres were not bad, either. A day to remember for a long, long time. Thank you, Alex Haley, for your thoughtfulness and generosity.


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2 Responses to Meeting Alex Haley

  1. This is fantastic, Jeff! If ever there were an author who understood “paying one’s dues”, it was Alex Haley. I’ve read that he was close to suicide at one point, ready to throw himself off a ship after years of rejection letters, when the idea of Roots came to him. Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience…and what a multiply blessed First Sale Letter.

  2. jguenther5 says:

    I hadn’t heard that, Elaine. I know he liked to write aboard cargo ships to avoid distractions, even after Roots. He’ll inspire me for a long time to come.

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