But I met Haley before his name was widely famous
By Jeff Salter
Having been in the library profession for some 30 years, I’ve had occasion to see, hear, or meet quite a few authors. I’ve written about several of them previously.
Walker Percy, who lived in my hometown of Covington LA, certainly qualifies as a substantially famous author — both in terms of popular and critical acclaim. Here’s what I had to say about Percy:
But today, I’ve decided to focus on an author who, at the time I met him (in the spring of 1969), had achieved modest acclaim mostly for his magazine interviews of important people and for his work as the actual writer of the Malcolm X “autobiography”. His mega-hit, Roots, would not see the public until it was serialized in Readers Digest in 1974 and later published in book form in 1976.
Haley as he looked during the general time period I met him:
At that point (1969) Haley had already done most of his research and travel for the saga that would later become Roots, but if he had a title for it then, he never mentioned it to us. He did, however, tell our small Mercer University [Macon GA] audience a lot about growing up with “grandma’s noises” [bits of her African dialect], killing time between magazine assignments at the National Archives, and some of his research (and travel) to try to trace his ancestry back to its origins.
Haley also described how he’d begun his writing career, while still in the Coast Guard, by composing love letters which his shipmates would purchase and re-copy to send to their sweethearts. But the parts of Haley’s speech which truly inspired me were his discussions of the travels and research for his ancestry story. When he climaxed that part of his presentation by telling us he’d actually visited the village of his ancestors and met tribe members who (likely) were distant relatives, I was truly inspired.
After Haley’s talk had ended, I rushed down to the front to say hello. Since he wasn’t yet “famous,” there were not many others from that small audience hovering around. I would’ve had enough time to tell him how inspired I was by his presentation, but suddenly words failed me. All I could do was to grab his hand and say, “Mr. Haley, I just want to shake your hand.” I meant so much more than that, but the moment was gone.
It was some seven years later that the book Roots hit all the bestseller lists and began its way toward the TV screens as a miniseries (1977). When Alex Haley “suddenly” became a household name, I told a few people, “I met that guy when he was just a magazine writer. He also wrote the Autobiography of Malcolm X.” When I’d say that, several people basically called me a liar, insisting that an autobiography was always written by the person the book was about. “True,” I’d reply, “but Malcolm X was not a writer, so Haley interviewed him and wrote the book from Malcolm’s point of view.” I might as well have been talking about green cheese on the moon.
Well, anyway, I met the late Alex Haley. And, at least at that point, he seemed like a down-to-earth guy. He’d overcome lots of obstacles and demonstrated a considerable amount of faith along with his decades of hard work. He was truly an inspiration.
Haley died on 2-10-1992 — may he rest in peace.
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I also wrote about Walker Percy in one of the three sections of this post:
There are several famous authors included in this list of famous individuals whom I’ve met or seen:
Have YOU ever encountered a famous author? Were you awe-struck… or able to sit down and chat?
[JLS # 287]