James Clavell Biography

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A successful producer, director, screenwriter, and novelist, James du Maresq Clavell was also a war hero, carpenter, and political conservative who conversed with Roger Moore and corresponded with William F. Buckley. Clavell also contributed to arts and letters a bridge of understanding between the West and the East. Novels like Shogun enabled the West to gain an understanding and respect for Japan at a time when Japan was emerging as an economic world power.

Clavell, born on August 10, 1924, in Sidney, Australia, was the son of British colonists Richard Charles and Eileen (Collis) Clavel!. Clavell grew up hearing sea stories from his father and grandfather, both careerists in the Royal British Navy. They instilled in him a sense of pride and obligation for being British. Consequently, Clavell described himself as a "half-Irish Englishman with Scots overtones," not an Australian. The family moved to different Navy stations, such as Hong Kong, where Clavell spent much of his boyhood.

Clavell attended high school in England. After graduation, he enlisted in the British Royal Artillery the year World War II broke out. Like Peter Marlowe, in Clavell's 1962 King Rat, Clavell was wounded in Malaysia. He was captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He spent three and a half years in the notorious death camp Changi. where one in fifteen men survived. Clavell told an interviewer from the Guardian that in surviving he was conscious of living on "forty borrowed lifetimes."

The experience of Changi informs all of Clavell's Fictions, At Changi, Clavell found he could no longer believe in the idealist code of his father. It was replaced by an Objectivist code: the individual is paramount, loyalty is given to a small interdependent group, capitalism and free enteiprise guarantee freedom. The lessons he learned at Changi about human nature and the importance of bridging cultural gaps lay at the heart of his novels.

In 1946, back in Britain, a motorcycle accident ended his military career. With a disability discharge, he entered the University of Birmingham. April Stride, a friend of Clavell's sister, married Clavell on
February 20, 1951. They had two daughters, Michaela and Holly. Through Stride, Clavell discovered film. Soon, the family immigrated to the United States where he had his first film success, The Fly, in 1958. He won a Screen Writers Award for his 1960 film The Great Escape. He achieved cinematic fame by writing and directing To Sir with Love in 1969. Clavell became a naturalized citizen in 1963.

A screenwriters strike in I960 gave Clavell lime to follow his wife's suggestion and write a novel about Changi. Writing proved difficult but Clavell received help from Herman Gollub, editor for Little, Brown and Company, and his blue pen. The result was King Rat, and a discovery that Clavell could write about the East in a way that made it accessible to Western readers.

Clavell wrote several novels after King Rat, including Shogun in 1975. and worked on a few more film projects. He died from a combination of cancer and stroke at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1994.