THIS JANUARY, James Magnuson published his ninth novel, Famous Writers I Have Known, a rollicking narrative about an urban con man who travels south and somehow infiltrates one of the nation’s most prestigious MFA writing programs in hopes of making a score of a lifetime. In Austin, Texas, Magnuson’s protagonist, Frankie Abandonato (under the guise of a reclusive, Salinger-esque character named V.S. Mohle) encounters a formidable bestselling author, Rex Schoeninger (a James Michener–like novelist) and must negotiate a longstanding feud between the two broken men. Taken altogether, the narrative presents a unique hybrid of “campus” novel meets comic caper with a subtle undercurrent of tenderheartedness running underneath the tight, crackling prose.
In addition to eight previous novels, multiple plays, and television writing (Knots Landing), Magnuson has served as the director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas for the past 18 years. The three-year, multidisciplinary MFA program offers up-and-coming writers three years of tuition-free education as well as an annual stipend of $27,500, thanks to the generosity of James Michener.
The following conversation took place in a sunlit office on the first floor of the historic J. Frank Dobie House, home of the Michener Center on the northern edge of the University of Texas’ campus in Austin. Ample evidence of writers — past and present — adorns the modest, welcoming space of white walls accented with burgundy woven rugs, wood furniture, and antique typewriters. In the entranceway, a framed photograph of James Michener — distinguished in a crisp navy blue suit, tie, and pale yellow socks — sits majestically on the front table. Throughout the first floor and along the wall leading up the carpeted stairs are black-and-white images of myriad notable writers who have visited the program over the years: Sherman Alexie, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan, Marie Howe, Lorrie Moore, among others.
S. KIRK WALSH: What inspired you to write Famous Writers I Have Known?
JAMES MAGNUSON: I was here in Texas, around James Michener for the last 10 years of his life at a time when he was in very ill health. He was clearly dying. There were many people circling, aiming at the last $20 million or $30 million of his fortune. I sat in on many lunches and watched how operators operate. It was amazing. We used to say that Michener knew that the conversation would only go on before so long before the hit for money would come. Also, I knew that he had three marriages. He had no children. There had been a child who had been adopted, but that did not work out. He was alone.
I was somehow so affected by this. There was something that felt novelistic or Dickensian about it. I remember his memorial service in New York City at big fancy club, where all of the secretaries from the publishing houses called in order to fill the crowd. There were some jaded journalists, checking their phone messages. And the very important friends who Michener had, none of them could actually attend. They sent in little video clips of themselves. It was so sad. And I thought who grieved for this man? What did he leave behind? And I do think the students who knew Michener — they had a very personal relationship with him. When he was sick, they would want to bring him tea or make him a cake. They took it all quite personally, and they were in a sense as close to children that he would ever have.
The other source of the novel is sheer mischief. The whole idea of a con man passing himself as a real writer. There are connections between con men and writers. Both are liars. Both are capable of making the implausible plausible. When I was in Hollywood, I worked for a producer named John Romano, and we had a character from New Jersey who we all called Benny. We loved to write for him — and he was a total rascal. I only thought about this when it came up recently: Frankie Abandonato is the bastard child of Benny from Knots Landing in 1991. It was New Jersey. It was this hapless figure with some native wit. I’m the kind of person who always loved the fool in the Shakespeare comedies. Also, there’s another reality: A lot of the writers who we bring in here are true rascals themselves.
SKW: It’s interesting that a writer who won the Pulitzer Prize can still feel like a fraud.
JM: Absolutely. When Michener won the Pulitzer, a writer named John Horne Burns wrote and published an acclaimed novel titled The Gallery, set in World War II. Everyone thought that Burns would win it. Instead, Michener won it, and it created a feud between the two writers. This man later died early in life [at age 36], and Michener was haunted by it all along. I don’t think Michener was kidding when he said that he thought he was lucky when he had gotten a break when he won Pulitzer because it changed everything. There was some sense that he had gotten away with something.
SKW: Why do you think feuds are such an integral part of the literary landscape?
JM: A part of it is that the rewards are so few. Right now in America there are so many good writers — and so little attention to be shared. I think that’s a real problem. You spend 10 years on something, and so often you come up with nothing. How can you not be bitter? I’ve done it. My friends have done it. Lawyers are famously competitive, but they often earn the same salary. One guy earns $230,000 and another guy earns $250,000. You don’t hate the other guy for it. It’s different because everyone is living well. That’s not true for writers. I know that’s just an economic way of looking at it. It goes deeper than that. We all have a little fiercest in us no matter how shy, self-depreciating, whatever we may be on the surface.
SKW: Did you feel like that fiercest helped you get this book done?
JM: Yes. This manuscript was turned down 25 times all over New York. I had to go, in a sense, around the barn, and send it to a friend who sent the manuscript to this wonderful editor, Star Lawrence at Norton. He didn’t take it, but wrote me a wonderful letter, saying that he would be willing to entertain a rewrite. I did nine months of work on it and sent it in. He said that he and his colleagues tried to get it through, but people were having some problems. I was ready to give up, but then I sent Star one more email, listing the four ways that I could fix the manuscript if he would be willing to look at it again. He said yes. I worked nine more months on revisions.
It’s one of the great moments of my life was when Star Lawrence called and said that they decided to take the book — and now things are going really well. People like the book. It feels slightly miraculous.
SKW: Did you know Star Lawrence before all of this happened?
JM: I did not. I had always heard of him and always respected him. I know that he did all of the Patrick O’Brien books. He works with Michael Lewis. Some of the Sebastian Junger. I certainly knew him as a really respected guy. I also knew him as a writer and as a novelist. He’s a stylist. But I hadn’t met him. And his notes on my novel were so gracious and thoughtful. He didn’t push too hard. He put a lot of time in on this before he bought the book. He read the thing three times before he bought it.
SKW: What happened after Star called you?
JM: I was so excited and I couldn’t figure out where my wife Hester was. All I remembered was that she was going to some lecture. I had to go find her. It was a really boring lecture by some tony person. So, I came in late and sat down next to her. We’re listening to this awful stuff. I elbowed her and whispered, “He’s taken it. He’s taken it.” She was so excited, but we had to keep quiet through the rest of this lecture. And then we went out. It was late, and we’re not the youngest couple in the world. We went to El Chile at 9 o’clock at night, and there is no one else there except for us, having margaritas. It was a great moment. It felt like such vindication.
SKW: One of the striking aspects of your novel is the tone, the balance of satire and subtle kindness. Was it difficult to find this tone at the start of the writing process?
JM: It was tricky. The biggest obstacle in the beginning was because Frankie’s voice was good when I was letting him be Frankie. The problem was when I put him in a classroom setting that I know so much about, talking about literature, I would inevitably start relying on my opinions. And everyone would say, “That just sounds a little bit like you, Jim, and not like him.” I had to have Frankie know less about literature. I had to make him meaner, because it’s funnier when he’s meaner. And if he’s going to be redeemed, don’t redeem him too quickly. Other thing was the diction. I cut every word over three syllables. It didn’t matter. I only have five lyric moments in the novel, because I had to cut them all because he wouldn’t have said them. It was terrible.
SKW: Were you thinking of the tradition of “campus” novels when you were writing this?
JM: I always liked the David Lodge novels — Small World, Changing Places. Richard Russo is great. There is one reviewer who compared it to Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. I was delighted by that. A part of it was that it was more of a fusion of Elmore Leonard and David Lodge. There was that strange yoking by violence that gives it its special quality.
SKW: How do you think fame and success changes an author?
JM: This is a factitious answer: I’m so glad that I haven’t had to deal with the issue personally. But I was around Michener, and I saw the way that he was treated, the kind of deference — not necessarily by literary people, but by walking down the street. That was fascinating. I’m very aware when we bring in a writer that these kids love. The aura. So much of happens isn’t what they say, but they are in the room with — Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje. Everything gets really charged by who is there. That’s fascinating. The person, in the end, is just an ordinary person who wants to go down and buy CDs at an old record store on Brazos or something. It’s nothing. Yet it goes around with them forever.
When you love someone’s book, you think you know the author. And I think that’s in the book, too. There’s the V.S. Mohle character who has written Eat Your Wheaties. It’s a book that people love and have taken to their heart in such a way, how are you not going to have all of these feelings for the people who did it whether they really warrant it or not. That’s mysterious to me.
SKW: Also, how it impacts the author’s writing life.
JM: There’s the V.S. Mohle, who in his Salinger-esque way disappears to Maine and is treated like God. Rex Schoeninger, the Michener figure, he has also made money, but his life is complicated by being both rich and famous. One is given so much authority. Have you asked for it exactly? Who knows?
SKW: Is there any particular encounter with a famous writer that has stood out from your own life?
JM: I remember once seeing Saul Bellow at an event at the University of Wisconsin. I was so in awe. I studied him with such intensity. He had a porkpie hat and he was a little bit of a wise guy and smart, and he had such an aura. And when I was a poor writer in New York in my 20s, I remember seeing Amiri Baraka on the street, just talking to people. And then, once Robert Lowell. And you want to speak to them, and all you want to say is “I really like your work,” but then you just want to fly out of there.
I remember when J.M. Coetzee was here early on. He had a wonderful, thoughtful, quiet way. He wouldn’t render positive or negative. He was deeply into things. I’m so impressed.
SKW: You must meet a lot of well known writers in your role as director of the Michener Center.
JM: I have been exposed to minds that are so original. It’s just eye-opening to me. Jim Crace, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Naomi Shihab Nye.
I’ll say this: writers are the most interesting people to hang out with. Absolutely. Some of the greatest nights of my life have been with these writers. They’re terrific people. Whether it’s Tony Giardina or Denis Johnson or Cristina Garcia. I’m so energized by it, so I feel like I’m in a very lucky position. My life is so enriched by that because there is a fresh charge of energy and imagination. I’m not saying that’s fraud. I’m saying in reality that is true.
SKW: Did you go to Princeton on the Hodder Fellowship right after college?
JM: No, I graduated college in 1963. Then, I went to New York and worked in the Welfare Department. Then, I got a little play done in the street theaters in Harlem in 1964. It was around that time that I received a Hodder Fellowship for promising, yet unknown writers and scholars. I certainly was unknown. So, I went down there and I wrote eight plays and put them on with students in the basement of some dining hall. Really it’s what I do now — trying to create a community.
My idea for the Michener fellowship was to give these kids enough to live on. To do for these kids as the Hodder Fellowship did for me.
SKW: How did you get to Austin, Texas?
JM: My wife, Hester, and I, we had two kids in New York City. I had just been supporting us by writing books if you can imagine such a thing. I was such a fool. Then, we went to Mississippi because we had no money and lived on the farm where Hester grew up. There was a job teaching creative writing in the English Department here, so I came in 1985. And Michener came a couple of years after that. Then, I went away to Hollywood for a few years and came back.
I met Michener in 1987. There was talk of him giving some money. He eventually gave $1 million in 1988, and then he gave $18 million. I was apart of these meetings about how it was going to be set up or one thing or another. I didn’t want to be a director of a writing program. I thought it would intervene with my new Hollywood career. Well, it’s pretty hard to have a Hollywood career from Austin, no matter what they tell you about the Third Coast. Then, they convinced me to be the director of the Michener Center and I took that job in 1994, and it has worked out well. I can basically write all morning, which saves my life.
SKW: How did you balance your own experience with rejection and mentoring the students?
JM: One thing is whether you hide from them your own terrible humiliation. You have to act like it doesn’t bother you when, in fact, you are just as infantile as they are. But in a way, they inoculate you from all of that in doing the work. It’s still good to have one part of yourself raw and hungry and be wounded. You don’t want to get avuncular too fast in this life.
SKW: How has the Michener Center changed over the years?
JM: The addition of Dean Young and Elizabeth McCracken and Steven Dietz has been significant — and has transformed the program. In the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing. We made all sorts of mistakes. We have it down now. We operate in conjunction with the other programs at the University of Texas, but yet try to maintain our own independence. That’s always an ongoing struggle.
This year has been an incredible year for Michener students and graduates. There have been 17 books that have come out in the past 12 months, including The Son by Philipp Meyer, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, With or Without You by Domenica Ruta, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp. Now, The Last Days of California by Mary Miller and What I Had Before You by Sarah Cornwell. That’s been amazing to see. It feels like things have come to fruition during the past year.
At the same time, because the students have gotten so successful, the new ones come in and look back and they think it should happen for them. That can create some anxiety. Whereas before it was just brand new. Who knew? The expectations are different. Also, it has gotten so competitive. In the beginning, we had a hundred applicants. Now, we have a thousand for 10 spots.
SKW: When people are accepted into the Michener Center, do you still call them?
JM: I love to call them. It’s like getting to play Santa Claus. A matter of fact, we always vie for who is going to call them. Everyone wants to be the first one to actually hear their voice when they find out that they’re in. They apologize madly for not having the right response, which is just the right response. Or if they’ve been accepted into another program, they get a little cagey with you. And then we get our feelings hurt, and we’re like, “Come on.”
SKW: You’ve observed the evolution of the MFA culture as director of the Michener Center.
JM: There is a new generation of writers who have grown up in it. It’s an unusual thing to cast an eye at. How did this thing happen? There are a lot of great teachers out there — and gosh, there are a lot of programs. I worry about kids walking away with giant amounts of debt. I have a mixture of admiration and skepticism.
What is this MFA? I’m teaching creative writing. Well, I guess, I have to. It’s a bit like being forced into this arranged marriage because of economic straits. And then 20 years later, it’s like, “Wait a minute, this is the meaning of my life, this marriage.” So, my life has been really rich because of the Michener Center. Being director was something that I didn’t know that I wanted. It’s like having children. Do I want to have children? And then, your children become this great love of your life, drawing you into the world.
SKW: Also, you’ve witnessed the world of publishing change.
JM: Joyce Johnson was my editor, and she was a great editor. She was old school back when old school was old school. I feel like she almost taught me to write in a way. Even when I was publishing with other editors, I had a sense that I felt safe. That I could publish a book every couple of years. I was young. My books weren’t making money, particularly, but they weren’t doing badly. And I thought, “This is the way life is going to be.” Then, came the ’80s and the dissemination of publishing. I had one book that had five editors. Everyone kept getting fired. I thought, “This is madness.” And then, it got hard. But then, there were all of these moments of disillusion. When I was out in Hollywood, I had the big TV job, the book was just out, I had a movie contract. I thought, “Man, I’m riding high.” Oh, the next 10 years were just so hard.
SKW: What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your new novel?
JM: I hope it somehow reflects what we have all gone through. It’s this shared comedy of this profession. Underneath it all there is a sadness about how all of this striving and literary ambition and what do you end up after all is said and done?
This novel is also an attempt to believe in the power in books. This book can, in a way, bring Michener back to life in people’s imaginations for a bit. So much of writing is done for that — to memorialize people, however briefly.
SKW: What’s your favorite Michener novel?
JM: Tales of the South Pacific.