An excerpt from the upcoming book by Armando Nieto, Mary Conrad, and Matt Pallamary: The Santa Barbara Writers Conference Scrapbook — Words of Wisdom from Thirty Years of Literary Excellence 1973 – 2003
Arguably the highlight of the conference for most attendees was Alex Haley’s return to speak on closing night. As aspiring writers, the SBWC students learned that Roots was now published in 40 languages, most recently Russian in 1984.
Mr. Haley started his talk, paying homage in his soft Memphis accent, to Niels Mortensen and Barnaby Conrad with whom he’d struck up a friendship in Barnaby’s El Matador Bar in San Francisco, despite Haley’s aversion to alcohol. He confessed that although Barnaby was probably unaware of the fact, Haley had once touched Barnaby’s coat as he walked by, just to make physical contact with a real life published writer, then one day Alex came into the bar with the idea for Roots and asked Barnaby and Niels how to get an agent.
“Well, Barnaby’s got one of the best,” said Niels. “Louis Blau.”
“I can give him a call if you’d like,” Barnaby said.
Some time later Barnaby told Alex he had set up a ten-minute interview with Louis Blau.
“I can give you ten minutes,” the attorney told a nervous Alex Haley. Two hours later Mr. Blau rose and shook Haley’s hand, saying, “If you can write that story as well as you tell it you are going to have a very successful book.”
Haley told the audience that there must be some unspoken way the world knows when something momentous has happened in your life.
“Two weeks after Roots was published my agent’s office called to ask how I was,” said Haley. “And I asked them what they meant and they said, ‘well we're just calling to see how you’re feeling.’ And no one ever cared about how I felt before Roots.”
“And I know there’s no memo that goes out to airline flight attendants, but they start asking if they can get you anything. They let you through lines quicker.”
With the burgeoning success of Roots, a lot was to change for Mr. Haley. Fresh from a visit to China, he kept the SBWC audience rapt with a rambling recitation of his life since Roots. He was in China as a guest of the government which was interested in doing a similar film production on Chinese history, for which Haley had enlisted the help of Norman Lear, but when asked what the biggest event in his career of writing was, Alex answered without hesitation. “People ask if it was winning a National Book Award, or the Pulitzer Prize, but it was something else.
“It was one of those early rejection slips,” he said. “The kind that all of you are familiar with. Everyone thinks you’re crazy, writing for years on the same idea. At that time, in the fourth year of working on Roots, I’d had at least 50-70 rejection slips.
“I went out to the post office to get the mail and I anticipated, and I was right, because when I got to the post office there was a manila envelope that I had addressed to myself. It had one of those pre-printed rejection slips, but on this rejection slip, someone had written a note in long hand with pencil that said ‘nice try,’ and, something exploded in my head, because someone had taken the time to read however many pages I had sent, and then had taken the time to write that note.”
“To this day I remember that as the biggest thrill in my writing career,” Alex said.
Everyone in the room knew exactly what he was talking about.