From High School Dropout to Brand-name Novelist: Leon Uris

Leon Uris in 1969. Public domain.

October, 2014

I must admit I came loaded for bear when I went to interview bestselling American author Leon Uris. Earlier, I had written a negative review of Trinity, his 751-page novel dealing with Northern Ireland’s politics of violence. After spending the first 23 years of my life in Dublin, I figured I knew a thing or two about Irish history. I said in my review, and repeated it when I met Uris, that the book offered a simplistic and distorted view of history because it castigated the British as oppressors and portrayed the forerunners of the Irish Republican Army as valiant freedom fighters.

“I think you’re mistaken and you’re trying to bait me,” responded Uris. “Every responsible scholar I know has said that this book follows very accurate historical lines.”

When I offered him the name of one scholar, Wayne Hall, who begged to differ, Uris dismissed the criticism on grounds that Hall “must be an Englishman.” (Hall was actually American, then teaching Irish literature at the University of Cincinnati.) Baltimore-born Uris had a thing about the English, it transpired. They hadn’t liked his blood-and-thunder novel Exodus, about the birth of Israel, because he described Great Britain as a “tired colonial power sitting between two warring communities.” And when he went to England to promote Trinity, the British press gave him a hard time again. “I went over there and got lynched by those people,” he said. “I didn’t have a damn chance.”

Though eager to defend himself against anyone who claimed he was wrong about little things like facts, Uris had no reply for those who drew attention to his crude writing style, with its wooden dialogue, malapropisms, anachronisms and clumsy structures. In fact, he thrived on describing himself as a “nine-time Pulitzer Prize loser” who flunked English three times before dropping out of high school. “Thank God writing and English have nothing to do with one another,” he said.

Novelist Pete Hamill, writing in The New York Times, agreed that literary grace had nothing to do with Uris’s success as an author. He was a storyteller, said Hamill, “in a direct line from those men who sat around fires in the days before history and made the tribe more human. The subject is man, not words; story is all, the form it takes is secondary.” Uris’s writing flaws were irrelevant, said Hamill, because the reader was swept along in the narrative. “Uris is certainly not as good a writer as Pynchon or Barthelme or Nabokov; but he is a better storyteller.”

Though he lacked the formal training, Uris never wanted to do anything else but be a writer. He told me he quit high school halfway through his senior year, joined the Marine Corps and served in the Second World War campaigns on Guadalcanal and Tarawa. “That laid the foundation for manhood because it gave me something to write about.” Eight years and several rejection slips later, “I stood on the threshold of becoming an overnight success.” His war novel Battle Cry was published in 1953 and subsequently made into a movie. At that point Uris was able to quit his job managing home delivery service for a San Francisco newspaper, and devote himself full-time to his writing.

When I talked to him in 1980, Uris was one of about two dozen writers in the United States who made a good living from books alone. He was 55 years old and had published seven novels, mostly about people of indomitable spirit winning against great odds. Four had been made into movies, prompting some critics to say Uris’s books were little more than templates for future screenplays. Uris bristled when I brought this up. “I don’t see how a serious novelist can write with an eye to a movie sale,” he said. “It just can’t be done. Trinity is a perfect example. I’ve been trying to get that thing made into a movie since 1975. Topaz was turned down by every studio in town until Hitchcock – may his soul rest in peace – picked it up. I guess there are some fellows who can write with one eye on film, but it’s not that easy. Your statement is just a lot of nonsense.”

Uris told me that for his next novel he wanted to get away from the panoramic blockbusters that had made him one of the world’s bestselling authors, and write something more personal. “Something missing from the earlier works was the exploration of the human mind, which I think a novelist should really develop. But now I think my characters are getting richer.” He said he was also trying to curb his “terrible compulsion” to write down everything he learned during the course of researching his historical novels. “To trim this and control it has been part of a growing process,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to dilute the value of my work or its saleability.”

Uris never succeeded in having Trinity made into a movie, perhaps because he knew it was unbalanced and potentially offensive to some viewers, especially in Britain. But the book topped the American bestseller lists for months, and continued to sell for decades afterwards. It earned Uris a special following among Irish-American readers that endured for generations. The New York Times reported that Trinity was still selling briskly in New York bookshops during the late 1990s and early 2000s, some 25 years after its publication.

Uris remained a popular and successful author for the rest of his life, continuing to turn out what reviewers liked to call “non-fiction novels” and “propaganda novels.” At the time of his death, from renal failure in 2003 at age 78, he had just finished a 394-page novel about the history of the Marines, O’Hara’s Choice, which was published posthumously and reached #27 on The New York Times bestseller list. “I am not a member of the critically favoured establishment,” he told The Times when Trinity was riding high on the newspaper’s bestseller list in 1977. “I’ve yet to get a kind word from Time (magazine). I’ve never received much recognition from The Times, which is big on obscure women poets who’ve killed themselves. I’m a writer. This is the way I make my living. You can put (that) in the epitaph.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014


Facts and Opinions is a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  We appreciate your interest and support by purchasing a day pass for $1; subscriptions start at $2.95 per month A subscription is required for most of our original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in the form on the right (we won’t share your address). Follow us on Facebook or Twitter.