The challenge of writing is more than putting pen to paper or typing from a keyboard: "Most good writers that I know try to do everything in their power to keep from writing....I know because I'm one of those." In an era of mass distraction, temptation comes in many forms. Michael acknowledges the pull and tug. He says, "I am easily seduced." The jezebel, "Autonomy," preys at our weaknesses. "Finally, ultimately," Wallis says, "there comes the point where you have to walk into this room, close the door, put you derrière on this seat, and open the vein." He credits the notion of "opening a vein,"the struggle of writingto Red Barber. The job of writing is not a matter of just placing characters on a page. The art of the job is opening yourself up and making your mind and words fluid until they flow from you in unison making a story come to life on the page.
But Wallis doesn't bleed himself dry, he holds back just enough creativity for the morrow. He says:
The next day, I start in by going over what I wrote the day before....I read it out loud. I read it for the tempo and the beat and the measure and to hear it as the spoken word. I might do some adjustment or rewriting and get up to the point where I stopped and then move forward....I more or less rewrite constantly as I write. Hence, I don't really have to make that many drafts.
The venerable author has learned what works (and what doesn't) since his book debut in 1988, Oil Man. "I've developed and refined [my craft] over the years," he says. Some of his books are "huge tomes" and others are more manageable to read expeditiously, but nonetheless, he laments, "They're all tough to write."
Each Wallis chronicle has a signature poeticism that is more often found in fiction. He says, "I'm glad people hear that.... [T]hat's something I purposely strive to do....I want the reader to know this person[,]...all aspects...[, w]hether it's an oil baron, or an Indian chief, or an outlaw." He defends his lyricism as all truth: "There's not an ounce of fiction in it."
Sitting with a character in a Michael Wallis saga is like sitting next to our grandfather as he imparts sage wisdom upon us while he whittles an elm or maple branch to a fine point. Michael's leads sink their hooks into the reader and leave a pleasant scar. In Crockett, Michael's knowledge of rotting animal flesh and trudging through never-touched forests comes from archived research on the man. He says, "I knew that [David Crockett] was on an old growth forest and was walking by trees that had never felt an axe blade. But to use that phrase just gives you a mental picture of a tree that had never been cut. Never felt a blade. Things like that." With Oil Man, Michael relentlessly researched Frank Philips until he had a real, tangible description of the entrepreneur sitting on his front porch:
I can't tell you how long I had to work on that....I found the baby [who Frank Phillips holds], who's an adult, and talked to her very, very old father....I had Frank Phillips' diaries....I knew on any given day what the weather was like, who he saw, sometimes what he wore, what he ate. I mean, that kind of minutiathat kind of detailsometimes comes in very handy. I could actually recreate that day. And, in a way, you get the whole sweep in that prologue of the man.
He continues, "But I'm used to writing about dead people and talking to them. They really become alive for me when I'm doing it."
When Michael Wallis interviews subjects that are still living, he does his best to make them comfortable, regardless of their societal stature. He says, "You have to be able to be comfortable with any kind of peoplea redneck or a blueblood. You've got to be able to stand your own with princes and presidents and CEOs and everything that falls in between." He debunks the "Live at Five" hardscrabble stereotype of journalism as a qualified means to get information: "Take measure of the person...and find their comfort level....There's a certain sensitivity that you need to use, and these things are all learned. It all boils down to common sense."