WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO SUCCEED: a very experienced writer or a writer with varied experience? In the case of Jim Magnuson, the question is moot. Magnuson is an acclaimed novelist and a professor of writing at the University of Texas at Austin who started out as a playwright and even detoured briefly through Hollywood. Among Texas writers, his qualifications are singular. He moves comfortably among the various worlds of writerdom, at once literary and entertaining, a fan of the English language and a slave to the muse. Fellow writers not only praise him but like him. And, best of all—for readers—he tells a compelling tale.
His new novel, Windfall (Villard Books, $22.95), is a crisply executed thriller whose careful construction and philosophical interludes are apt to go unnoticed, given the breakneck pace. Ben Lindberg, a middle-aged English professor struggling to support his family, discovers—and steals—eight hidden ice chests packed with cash. After that, it’s just one uh-oh after another. His publisher was so pleased with the novel, Magnuson’s seventh, that it arranged for a first printing of 75,000 copies and a ten-city tour, and took the unusual step of marketing the book with a money-back guarantee. Windfall may well secure two things for Magnuson: a national audience and a financial windfall of his own.
Magnuson’s day job is serving as director of UT’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW), a graduate-level professional-writing program funded by a hefty $19 million from the late novelist James Michener. Magnuson’s approach to writing—as both art and craft—made him “the natural choice,” says UT vice president William Livingston. Michener himself liked Magnuson. Says Stephen Harrigan, an Austin writer, Texas Monthly contributing editor, and adjunct professor at MCW: “Michener once told me, ‘Jim Magnuson is as plain and honest as a glass of buttermilk.’”
Born on August 24, 1941, in the heart of dairyland—Madison, Wisconsin—to Swedish-American parents, Magnuson grew up in a series of small towns in the region and returned to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin. He decided to become a writer at the age of eighteen, when, he recalls, “a teacher I liked—maybe because she was a young beatnik—praised my paper as a good example of student writing. Being singled out that way was a tremendous boost. By then I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill my lifelong dream of playing major league baseball, so becoming a writer was my substitute fantasy.”
After completing a master’s degree, Magnuson, eager to compensate for his rural background, headed to New York. By day he walked the city’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods as a social worker with the welfare department (“I was making $4,900 a year. At the time, I thought it was a shocking amount of money”). His assignment was locating relatives of abandoned children. During his two-year stint he witnessed grim, even gruesome events: One involved a four-year-old who saw his mother die from lye burns sustained in an assault. But inevitably the trauma fed his fiction. In Windfall, for example, a homeless center has an “underfunded smell,” and his descriptions of society’s dregs are uncomfortably realistic.
At night, though, Magnuson ensconced himself in a carrel at the Columbia University library and began scrawling scripts in longhand. In 1964, during the early days of the civil rights movement, he got his first break. A small local theater group won funding from a federal anti-poverty program designed to promote the arts within inner-city neighborhoods, and it chose to stage Magnuson’s first completed play, a one-act called No Snakes in This Grass; true to the rising consciousness of the era, it was an updated take on the creation story, featuring a white Adam and black Eve. Critics liked it, and it was widely produced by urban theater groups and black churches and colleges. (Magnuson still gets an occasional royalty check for $6, the amateur rights fee.) Another play was an African American retelling of Medea (“I was the last white black playwright in Harlem,” he says). Throughout his career Magnuson has continued to recycle classic themes from literature, history, and folklore; Sling Song, for instance, related David and Goliath’s clash from the giant’s point of view. Audiences responded, and by 1965 a growing reputation allowed the 23-year-old Magnuson to leave full-time social work behind. A succession of odd jobs and the occasional small grant allowed him to write during the day as well and freed up his summers for directing street theater.
One day in 1969 Magnuson hitched a ride with a friend of a friend who turned out to be a professor at Princeton. He later nominated Magnuson for that university’s Hodder Fellowship, a writing plum. To Magnuson’s surprise, he won it. He remained Princeton’s playwright-in-residence from 1970 through 1974. To date he has penned twelve plays, including a drama in which Squanto, the Pilgrim-friendly Native American, meets William Shakespeare in London and a comedy titled The Seeing Eye Dog With an Eye for Women.
Magnuson might have remained a playwright had it not been for some unexpected personal drama. His first marriage had broken up in 1968, and he dealt with much of the pain by tackling his first novel, a genre more suited to emotional exorcism. The result was Without Barbarians (1974), an unabashedly autobiographical tale of an unhappy husband and wife on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the sixties. The fledgling novelist then hooked up with literary agent Wendy Weil, who—having just entered the field—was willing to take a look at the manuscript. “I’ve known Jim for our entire respective careers,” says Weil. “He’s a good writer, a great storyteller.” But Weil’s early assistance wasn’t merely professional. “I fixed him up with his wife,” she recalls with glee. Hester Ferris was the sister of Bill Ferris (now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities), another Weil client; she and Magnuson married in 1979 and have been together ever since. Another Weil client and Magnuson friend, incidentally, was highbrow writer Laura Furman, who, like him, later left