Perhaps best known, by many lovers of American history and Route 66, for his vigorously well-researched, carefully crafted books that dive deeply into the examination of historical figures and not-too-distant time periods along the Mother Road, Michael Wallis is best known for his hearty voice and his natural ability to turn the most mundane into an appealing, fascinating story. Wallis is also regarded by many as the godfather of Route 66, due to his authority on the route and the enormous success of his bestselling 1990 book Route 66: The Mother Road.
Beginning his distinguished career in journalism in 1957, Wallis has gone on to be published in Time, Life, People, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times to name a few. In addition to being the author of nineteen well received books, he is a renowned speaker, and the voice actor of Sheriff in the Disney-Pixar movie Cars. Yet, with all of the success and accolades awarded to Wallis, he continues to be humble and down-to-earth, passionate about his family and friends and committed to the promotion and preservation of the Mother Road.
You’ve had a long and distinguished career as a writer and public speaker. But where did it all begin?
I think I was really conscious of the art of writing and the prospects of becoming a writer quite early on as a boy. It was really a sport in many ways. When I was just an adolescent, in sixth grade, I chose to enter an essay writing contest and won, and not only did I receive a modest honorarium, and had my picture appear in my hometown paper, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, but the big treat was having the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals send a limo to our home to take my dad and I down to a ballgame to see our beloved Cardinals play the Chicago Cubs at Sportsman’s Park.
But it caused me to think, you know, this writing is not a bad thing. It’s pretty interesting what this can lead to. Some years later, I won another big national contest, sponsored by Wesleyan University and Scholastic Magazine, to write about the biggest events in 1959, things such as the Cuban revolution, the new states being admitted to the union, the last states, all kinds of events. Again, that was another sort of, ‘atta boy’.
Oddly enough, I didn’t take an orthodox route. I never worked on the school paper, or did that sort of thing. It was a combination of standard education, but also life experience. I saw that as very important. I was greatly influenced, like a lot of male American authors my age, I was born in 1945 at the end of World War II, by [the work of] Ernest Hemingway. And besides liking his writing style, I tried to emulate his life, until I came of age and really formed a life of my own.
I thought it was important to do as much as you can to see the world and to do everything. So, when I got out of prep school, I went to a military academy and loved it, and had a very well rounded education, athlete and scholar, and again, greatly impacted by many of those wonderful teachers I had there, including my senior English teacher who was really a mentor of mine. Then I decided to take a pass on an honor military school nomination to West Point, and instead, went to college for a year and played football and baseball, but still had a wild hair, so put in a hitch in the Marines, again trying to do it all. When I got out, I went back to school and finished up studying English and history. But then did all kinds of things: tended bar, worked on a ranch, I was a social worker, I was a printer, I wrote poetry and prose, started a literary magazine, paying my dues, and really developing into a writer.
This is in the late ’60s and that’s the track I took, going from that to daily journalism to writing books, and now I’m poised to write my twentieth book.
That is quite a journey. What spurred you to focus your time and talent toward writing Route 66: The Mother Road?
Route 66 was always part of my life, part of my consciousness.
I was born in St. Louis, a good Route 66 town, and grew up in West St. Louis County. My family home was, as I like to say, just about as far as one of my idols, Stan Musial, the great Cardinals slugger, could hit a hard ball off an abridged alignment of Route 66, today called Manchester Road. So, the road was always there for me. It was just part of our life. Route 66, we called it, like many people back then, Highway 66, but we didn’t think it was necessarily anything special. We just knew it as the highway. The highway [that our] family would take to drive across the Mississippi and into Illinois to visit relatives in Chicago, up on Lake Michigan.
It was the road we took west for me to discover the West, to see my first oil pump jack, and cowboys and Indians, eat my rst enchilada, you know, all the way to the Pacific shore, all the great natural sites along the way, all the man- made sites along the way.
It was the road I learned how to drive on. I was a kid, I bought my first car on Route 66, in Pacific, Missouri, in 1955, a Plymouth Savoy, a great little car. I bought it from the proverbial old lady who had very few miles on it. I hitchhiked home on Route 66 when I was in the Marines in California. I have great memories and interesting stories about those treks. [Laughs] And then as a reporter, I covered a lot of the good, the bad, and the ugly on Route 66, because I’d lived in seven of the eight states. The only one I haven’t really lived in is Kansas, where there’s less than fourteen miles, albeit a very important short passage of the highway, and one of my favorite stretches of the road.
So, it was because of that experience and my knowledge and my personal connection to the road ... then in the ‘80s, after the last towns were bypassed after the decertification of the highway by the Federal government was complete, with these five interstates that parallel it between Chicago and Santa Monica, I immediately began growing very weary when people started talking about the road in the past tense, because I knew that although the shields were down, and that a lot of towns along the way did not get off-ramps, did not get an exit, did not get access from that Super-Slab, I knew that the people were still there, dispensing hospitality, growing winter wheat, ranching, leading their lives, making a living on Route 66. I knew that as today, more than eighty- five percent of that road could still be traveled, and that’s what ultimately led me to write what I unabashedly call ‘a love letter to the highway’, and more importantly, to the people of the highway. And the book Route 66: The Mother Road was published in 1990 and immediately took hold and quickly sparked a revival of interest in the road that continues to this very day.
The book was published by St. Martin’s Press. Did you shop it around to many publishers at that time? Were there many rejections for the book or did St. Martin’s say yes straight away?
It was St. Martin’s book from the get-go! I had a very aware and savvy editor there, who remains my editor to this very day, Robert Weil. He was an editor at St. Martin’s Press and he, although he was born and raised in the eastern United States, he was a total and still is, dyed in the wool New Yorker ... he has an appreciation not only for the American West, but specifically for a lot of the subjects that I’m interested in, and that includes Route 66. And he, on his own, had traveled Route 66, or parts of it, long before we ever met. But once I met Bob it became clear that I had an advocate and hence the book was published.
It was my second published book. I had done a book that came out in 1988 called Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and The Birth of Phillips Petroleum, which also, of course because of that company, ties into Route 66, and that was published by Doubleday. But that really helped set the stage then to write the book for St Martin’s and it was a pleasure to write. I already had a reservoir of information and research, but nonetheless, my wife and partner Suzanne, and I went out and made more excursions up and down the Mother Road to fine-tune that research and produce that book. The book remains very much in print and has sold over a million copies and earned me the first of three Pulitzer Prize nominations, but again, more importantly, it’s had a great impact on thousands and thousands of lives, of people along the road and of legions of travelers who have come back to the road and continue to take that well-worn journey.
Of all of the Route 66 related literature that’s out there, what’s your favorite? Who do you enjoy reading?
There’s no question at all! A definitive voice for writing about Route 66 is someone from the past, and that would be, of course, John Steinbeck. There’s no more important novel in the twentieth century than The Grapes of Wrath, which came out in 1939 and was followed by that exquisite John Ford film interpretation, The Grapes of Wrath. It’s an important book because it’s the book of that particular incarnation of Route 66, and even beyond it, speaks to the resiliency of people, people of the road, people traveling the road. It pulls no punches because the Mother Road, and that’s where the term came about, coined by John Steinbeck, the Mother Road, that is what made that book so successful ... his no-holds- barred interpretation of that travel.
I appreciate it to this day because it certainly did not over-romanticize the road trip. There was nothing romantic about being a Dust Bowl pilgrim, about being a tenant farmer from the midlands, from the Oklahoma panhandle, from the Texas panhandle, from eastern Oklahoma, where the fictional Joad started, where the tenant farm system collapsed along with the prices of cotton and this vast migration of people fled on to the Mother Road, and followed the scent of oranges and lemons, looking for a new life in the so-called promise land of California, and the fruit groves in the growing fields of the San Joaquin Valley, in the airplane plants, in industries in Fresno, Los Angeles. And many of them didn’t make it and stopped along the way. Many of them did make it, only to find that the promise of jobs, of picking vegetables and [working] in the agricultural business were exaggerated, that there were too many people and not enough jobs, but they survived. And there’s no more noble character in American literature than Ma Joad, the rock that held the family together.
Other than that, I would not even dare to name another without naming them all, because the subsequent books about Route 66 have all been about different aspects of the road. As you know, there have been guides, there have been specific books about everything from the bridges of Route 66 to crime along Route 66. It’s just great, and I’ve always encouraged writers to write their own Route 66 book. It’s the combination of all those books, not just mine, that have added fuel to this fire, from which has emerged this great phoenix of resurrection of the highway.
Do you have any favorite place or places along 66 that truly stand out to you?
People are constantly asking us ‘what’s your favorite eating place on Route 66?’ ‘What’s your favorite mom and pop motel?’ ‘What’s your favorite natural attraction?’ ‘What’s your favorite place?’ And, you know, that’s kind of like asking us who’s your favorite child. And it’s a very dangerous question to answer, even if we might have specific favorites. So what I usually do is cop out, and depending if I’m being interviewed in New Mexico or Illinois, I’ll usually pick something or someone from that state.
However, with that said, if you put a loaded revolver to my temple and said, just take a chance and name one place you like along Route 66, I will usually say this: it’s a stretch of original Route 66, well west of Albuquerque, that leads off of Interstate 40, and parallels it, snaking through the country that becomes Laguna Pueblo lands, and in fact, goes right by old Laguna Pueblo, and you keep following that stretch. It’s a wonderful stretch of highway. I like it so much because parts of that road, which literally winds like a desert snake around mesas and great stones and high desert ... you can see or catch glimpses of the super-slab plowing through the land. Because of the technology of that time, the builders couldn’t break through all that land, so it actually, in a way, honors the land, by slipping around so much of it, that old two lane. In particular, there’s one stretch of that specific length of road that brings you past a large stone right by the road, a stone so big that it’s earned its own name, because of its shape. It’s Owl Rock. In fact, it looks like a great gorgeous owl. And then you see the cliffs in the distance, the Rocky cliffs, where swallows have built their mud nests, sort of the original adobes, and you see them flying through the air, hunting, eating. It’s just a glorious stretch of road.
Are there any skills or talents that you would perceive that you don’t have, that you would love to possess?
I don’t know about love to have, but there are so many skills that I don’t have. I am hopeless with anything mechanical. You know, I don’t know a spark plug from a ham sandwich. In the world of technology, which I think is incredible ... not the internet, but the machines we use ... I’ve written all my books, nineteen books, on a computer of one sort or another. That always improves periodically from the most rudimentary computer many years ago to today’s state of the art. Of course, I have an iPhone. I have an iPad. I’m active in social media and so forth. But I don’t understand anything technically.
I know how to research and write the hell out of that computer. And I can do all of that, but beyond that, no. So I don’t, that’s just not the way my brain operates, so no technical skills at all. [Otherwise], nothing really comes to mind.
I’m pretty satisfied with the way it’s gone thus far.
To enjoy the full interview with Michael Wallis, grab a copy of ROUTE Magazine from your nearest Barnes and Noble store.