James Magnuson Leaves the Michener Center

The retiring director of the UT graduate writing program reflects on his 23 years as head


James Magnuson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

James Michener wanted the best graduate writing program in the country. And he was willing to give the University of Texas $20 million to get it. That was the situation in 1994 when this king of the postwar bestseller lists – what self-respecting suburban home in the Sixties and Seventies didn't have a doorstop copy of Hawaii or Centennial or Texas on its shelves? – had made Austin his home in what were to be the final years of his life. He was contemplating his legacy, and a place where journeyman authors could master their craft and start their professional careers – not as teachers of writing, dammit, but as working writers – would be the keystone to it. He trusted UT to create one that might surpass even the mighty Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the university, never one to say no to a multimillion-dollar donation, gave it a shot.

James Magnuson, meanwhile, had just returned to Austin from the Left Coast and was recovering from a few years of writing for television while figuring out what was next in his career. Since by that point he had penned short stories, plays, novels, and screenplays, he might wind up writing anything. "I had no plan," Magnuson admits today. "I was still in touch with Hollywood; went back a summer or two, wrote some scripts. And there were a couple of brushes with the movies. A book that didn't sell and another one that did." But as all that was happening, he was also getting pulled into this newborn writing program and asked to direct it. He said okay, thinking it would be "something to bide the time until I ascended to stardom" on some literary rocket he'd turned out.

What is it that makes the Michener Center for Writers so special? “I keep saying, it’s familial,” Magnuson says. “It’s that little house. Twelve people a year. Small.”

Now, 23 years later, Magnuson is finally extricating himself from the Michener Center for Writers. What may have started out as a placeholder post until his next novel/play/movie script sold had long ago become a central part of his life, and he in turn had become central to the development and increasing success of the center, to the point that he was as closely identified with the program as its home, the Dobie House, where storied Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie hisself once lived and wrote. But in the past year, Magnuson looked at the clock and realized that, at 75, if he was going to get some of the stories that were still in his head out of it and onto the page, he'd need fewer hours running the program and more hours at the writing desk. "Time for somebody else to deal with all the stuff," he says, a wry smile peeking out from the Papa Hemingway white beard. "Dealing with people and dealing with three departments in three colleges" (English, Theatre & Dance, Radio-Television-Film). Anyone who's observed the byzantine processes and procedures of academia will grasp how much time the navigation of those territories requires, and logged over more than two decades ...? So in February, Magnuson announced that he was stepping down as Michener Center director. In the months since, his praises have been sung (at a pair of UT events in early spring), his exit interviews published (Texas Monthly, Austin Monthly, Alcalde), and all that's left is to clean out his desk in the Dobie House, which he'll do in the next week, and find a place for all the books accumulated there ("probably a storage unit," he says, and it doesn't sound like he's kidding). Oh, and to answer a few questions from one more nosy reporter.

For instance: Michener had wanted the program to be built around four types of writing – fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting – and for all the fellows in the program to have to try their hands at all of them. Was Magnuson's own history of writing in those various forms the reason that interdisciplinary approach was important to him?

"Here's what's really weird," he replies. "I was against it initially. Because I thought, 'It's so hard to be really good at one thing; how are we going to train them to do two? What, in three years, we're gonna teach them how to write a decent play and finish a novel? But I was proved wrong, because some of the students themselves, by crossing over into some other genre, made huge successes." He reels off the names of past Michener fellows: Joseph Skibell, a screenwriter whose time at the center allowed him to finish a novel, the award-winning A Blessing on the Moon; Kevin Powers, author of the powerful Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds, who started at the center as a poet; Kieran Fitzgerald, screenwriter of Snowden and The Homesman, who came to the Michener writing fiction, as did Alex Smith of the films Walking Out and Winter in the Blood. "We're ... what's the word? ... polymorphous," says Magnuson, laughing.

So what changed his mind about the program's try-'em-all approach?

"After we did it a couple of years, I went, 'No, we're getting some interesting stuff.'" And he allows that the first-year course in which fellows have to experiment with writing different types of work is a favorite. "The students love that class. And they're not competitive. They're just so interested in each other."

So is there something in the program – a tone that he sets as director, perhaps? – that encourages that supportive atmosphere?

"I keep saying, it's familial," Magnuson says. "It's that little house. Twelve people a year. Small." The setup itself encourages an intimacy among the writers, though he adds, "I hope we set a tone of kindness and generosity with one another. We are a community. Writers can turn vicious sometimes. But what does that do? What good does that do? And it so distracts you. That's why I keep saying [to the fellows], 'Keep your head down. This is gonna get you nowhere.'"

And that message isn't communicated solely by Magnuson. While the program itself is small, there's an extended family to the Michener that's quite large, one that includes the many writers who teach the students during the three years they're at the center – some of whom are Michener alumni with distinguished careers now – and the many visiting writers. Magnuson is quick to recognize their value to the Michener's success: the brilliance of teachers such as poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Carrie Fountain, and Dean Young; playwrights Sherry Kramer, Paula Vogel, and Steven Dietz; novelists Elizabeth McCracken, Stephen Harrigan, Geoff Dyer, Anthony Giardina, and Ben Fountain. They not only are "energized by how good these kids are," says Magnuson, "they've been so helpful in promoting the work of these students. Colm Toíbín has been key in terms of the careers of a half-dozen of these kids. And they continue to have an interest, you know?"

He has this extended family and their contributions in mind when asked what advice he might pass along to his successor: "Just remember to be generous. You have a lot of things at your disposal, and a lot of people are making this work. In all those departments, there are a lot of great people, so be generous with them. And with the students. It's fun! That's the hell of it. It really is fun. At least a couple nights a week." He recalls readings by visiting writers over the years: Denis Johnson reading his short story "Emergency," Marie Howe reading her poetry, and Adrienne Rich, whose reading inspired all the young women in the program then to follow her back to the Dobie House and sit around her cross-legged on the floor. This last "felt like such a peak experience, really revelatory."

So what does James Magnuson bring to the table in honing the skills of these developing writers?

"What I tend to do – I don't know whether it's laziness or genius – but I tend to want to give one big note rather than many small notes, something that, if you bear it in mind, will take you through the whole thing in a brand-new way," he says. "Some things are obvious, the things the kids are too in love with: writing in the second person – oh, please don't do that – or sometimes people will write in the first person, and it often gets to be overdone, and it gets this pretentious tone. But keep a light rein at first, until they get up a certain pace, you know?"

Now, as his time at the center has been winding down, Magnuson is back at that other job of his, that first one, the one in which he has much to do: He's whipping out pages for a novel that he expects to be finished by September 1. And after that, there's a play to write, one set in the lobby of a certain cultural repository on campus, where the shade of a well-known writer appears hunting for his manuscripts. The notion of the retired Magnuson producing so much copy so quickly may sound a tad optimistic, unless you know that he's maintained a writing discipline through all his years as Michener Center director: devoting hours every morning to writing. It's served as a good example for the fellows to see him at work every day, and it's allowed him to complete the novels The Hounds of Winter and Famous Writers I Have Known – the latter set at a graduate writing program at a university in Austin, Texas, endowed by a very rich and very complicated writer of popular books – while still running the center.

For Magnuson, writing is serious stuff. And if you require further evidence, consider this: He writes everything in longhand about eight times before committing it to manuscript. "I don't trust myself," he explains. "I wrote all my TV scripts on computer, but when I came back to writing fiction, it felt a little too fast to me. I wanted to slow down. It's like, if you're going to perform a song, you might want to sing it a few times before you go up there. So to simply copy over a scene to get the sound right, it's good. Tiny things come up that will really help it."

In conversational nuggets like that, in his enthusiasm for his colleagues, in those great bear hugs with which he greets friends, Magnuson invariably comes across as a real down-to-earth guy, the kind who's more concerned with the here and now and what's coming than what's in the rearview. Which means that he doesn't devote a lot of time to keeping a running tally of the Michener's accomplishments, of all those fellows who have gone on to careers as working writers, dammit, and along the way picking up major national attention; critical acclaim; prestigious fellowships; and prizes from PEN America, Yale Drama, and American Poetry Review, to name just a few. But when people came to pay Magnuson tribute at the University's behest – and they came from everywhere, former students, old friends, writers who have taught at the center – he sat back and drank it all in. And it made him think, "'We really did create something remarkable.' It became really clear to me."

Does he think the center's namesake would be pleased with what the program has become?

"I've thought about that," Magnuson says, a little dreamily. "I think he would be pleased. He used to say, 'Jim, I always wanted to find a talented writer. And I never could find one.' Well, not a problem now. No doubt about it."

The question about Michener clearly sparks something in Magnuson's mind, something that he continues to turn over in his head even after the tape recorder has been turned off and we've headed to our separate cars. Before I can open my car door, he calls to me across the parking lot, with an amazement in his voice as if he's only just fully grasped what's taken place at the Michener Center over the past 23 years.

"I think we built something," says Magnuson. "We built something big."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, James Michener, Joseph Skibell, Kevin Powers, Kieran Fitzgerald, Alex Smith, Famous Writers I Have Known

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