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 New York and ended up in Texas.
Magnuson spent ten years devoting himself to fiction writing. His novels include The Rundown (1977), a version of his childhood baseball fantasy, and Orphan Train (1978), a tale co-written with Dorothea G. Petrie about unwanted children sent out West for adoption in pioneer days. The latter commanded high ratings as a television movie in 1979, a decade before Magnuson’s screenwriting debut. Despite steadily positive reviews, sporadic earnings forced him to leave New York in 1982. He and Hester headed to her family’s farm in Mississippi with their young children, Martha and Billy. Grants and savings enabled them to live for brief periods in Santa Fe, the setting for his next two novels, Money Mountain (1984), about a country singer who sets out to find a legendary treasure, and Ghost Dancing (1989), about a movie director who discovers that his late son may still be alive.
When Laura Furman told him that a faculty position was opening up at UT-Austin, Magnuson jumped at the opportunity. “I wasn’t their first choice,” he admits cheerfully. “But all the other candidates said no. By the time my name scrolled up on the list, they were so weary of the search that the English Department threw a party for me, and not a single faculty member showed up.” Hired in 1985, he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in fiction writing and playwriting and resumed his old habit of parking himself in a library and working on his latest novel in longhand.
In 1991 Magnuson’s career zigzagged again. A screenwriter friend in Hollywood suggested him as a seasoned pro who could revitalize the scripts of the TV series Knots Landing; the spin-off of the fabled prime-time soap Dallas was limping along in its thirteenth season. When one of the series’ producers approached him about the job, Magnuson was flattered but largely uninterested—at first. “Then he explained what he would pay, and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’” Magnuson promptly took a leave of absence from UT and moved his family to Los Angeles, where they settled into a house seven blocks from the ocean. He sums up his eighteen-month spell in California as “sun, sand, and stress. The surroundings were great—lush offices, fat chairs. There would be a big bowl of Tootsie Roll Pops in the middle of the table, the Times Literary Supplement in the corner. But people quivered. Everybody was tense. It was hard watching people rip up what you wrote. They were only responding to ratings, but . . .” He also worked on other series, including Sweet Justice and Class of ’96.
Magnuson is good-humored but unapologetic about his screenwriting, an occupation that Larry McMurtry once dismissed as “at best, an indifferent, pedestrian craft-literature.” But it was Magnuson’s screenwriting hiatus—arguably, “selling out”—that earned him his Austin stripes. “I think it was a daring decision,” opines writer Harrigan. “Jim was already a novelist and a professor, not a journeyman writer, when he left for Hollywood. That made the decision that much more radical.” Magnuson himself likes to claim that his professional diversity has created “hybrid vigor.” When he returned to UT in 1993—his freshly acquired screenplay credentials just waiting to morph into a new writing course—he was suddenly a name within Austin’s literary community. He resumed teaching, continued his novel writing, and managed to fit in profitable screenwriting gigs too.
Then, the next year, he was named director of what was then called the Texas Center for Writers. The first of its kind—a graduate program for professional-writing hopefuls—the center accepts only ten students a year to study writing fiction, nonfiction, plays, and screenplays. Its burgeoning reputation has attracted guest lecturers like Chilean novelist Isabel Allende and Sri Lanka–born Michael Ondaatje. Dozens of the center’s graduates have already made their mark in terms of financial success or critical acclaim; Magnuson is equally pleased with either accomplishment. The students, in turn, seem pleased with Magnuson. Joseph Skibell, who during his time at the center started A Blessing on the Moon (which won the prestigious Rosenthal Foundation award last year), calls Magnuson “magnificently generous.” Skibell adds, “His self-stated aim has always been simply to give his students the time to write whatever and however they want. And that is what he does.”
For Magnuson, there has been only one major setback over the last few years: The manuscript on which he had labored since 1990—variously titled The Dictator’s Mistress and The Shaman of Amsterdam Avenue—hit the market during a publishing downturn and, despite Weil’s best efforts, never found a publisher. Magnuson was deeply disappointed but only temporarily discouraged; he took a breather and then, two years ago, began Windfall.
As his new novel proves, Magnuson’s strengths are his ability to build suspense and his knack for natural dialogue. Texans familiar with Austin will enjoy playing spot-the-landmark (this is Magnuson’s first book set in Texas). The plot effectively contrasts “the effects of prolonged deceit” with the high-minded ideals of Emerson and Thoreau, the academic specialties of the protagonist, Ben Lindberg. Magnuson can surely turn a phrase: Wielding a shovel to bury a cooler, Lindberg stops digging when he hears “a reassuring thunk—the hard bottom that Thoreau had always been looking for, below freshet and frost and fire.” And there’s the occasional flash of humor: “It was one thing to steal seven million dollars, but you don’t f— with somebody’s car.”
Not that Windfall is entirely above reproach. It veers into schiziness occasionally, when Magnuson’s various styles collide; for example, he bookends chapters of pell-mell action with the hero’s darkly searching thoughts. The story has “major motion picture” written all over it. But even scenes that are clearly cinematic—like a chilling classroom discovery Lindberg makes late in the book—work on a verbal level too. Lindberg wins our sympathy but not our affection; his cold wife, Katy, from whom he hides the booty, wins neither. (She is clearly not inspired by Magnuson’s own spouse, though he acknowledges that to flesh out Windfall’s protagonist, he drew heavily on his own background: his Wisconsin childhood, the New York theater, Texas academic life—and “oddly enough, the desperation.”) Finally, Windfall is hardly original; the obvious comparison is with Scott Smith’s 1993 novel, A Simple Plan, in which a trio of men find a downed plane full of cash. But Magnuson, unperturbed, points to his career-long fondness for tried-and-true themes. “The dilemma of sudden good fortune is common in literature and folklore,” he says. “There are all kinds of legends about buried treasure, and Steinbeck, for example, dealt with it in The Pearl.”
Currently Magnuson is juggling his academic and administrative duties while embarking on yet another book, this one set in the frigid terrain of Wisconsin: “In Texas, after so much heat, you start dreaming of the cold.” He still essays his first few drafts in longhand before transferring the work to computer. He may never make Michener’s kind of money, but someday he may acquire Michener’s kind of fame. Certainly he is the heir to that writer’s pragmatic philosophy: “Writing is a job. Do it well, it’s a great life. Mess around, its disappointments will kill you.”