THE TEXAS CENTER for writers has graduated cum laude. Eight years after it was launched by the University of Texas at Austin, the professional-writing center is succeeding to an astonishing degree. Dozens of its students have had plays produced, screenplays optioned, and books published—most recently Karla Kuban, who used her time in Austin to write Marchlands (Charles Scribner’s Sons), a deft and intense novel about a young woman on a Wyoming sheep ranch. Hers is a coming-of-age tale; the Texas Center for Writers’ is too.
“When James Michener arrived here in the early eighties,” says James Magnuson, the center’s director, “everyone treated him very well. He returned the favor—we’re the best-funded program in the country.” The late author of Hawaii, Centennial, and other best-sellers gave UT a Texas-size contribution of $18 million. That generous endowment allows the center to limit its enrollment to ten students per year (teachers outnumber students) and give each a $12,000 stipend. The center’s reputation has lured guest lecturers like Isabel Allende, Tom Stoppard, and Jane Smiley, and the permanent faculty shines too. “They’re helpful, generous, and obviously astute,” says alumnus Joseph Skibell. “They find a great pool of students every year.”
Skibell himself, once part of that pool, made a publishing splash with his novel, A Blessing on the Moon (Algonquin Books). It netted him the 1998 Rosenthal Foundation award, previously won by the likes of Alice Walker and Thomas Pynchon. Fellow graduate Katherine L. Hester published a polished short-story collection, Eggs for Young America (University Press of New England); Laeta Kalogridis is working on a Joan of Arc script for producer Joel Silver; Susan Busa has optioned a screenplay to the Hallmark Hall of Fame—and she hasn’t even finished her degree. “Some students at other schools seem monomaniacally focused on their own careers,” Skibell notes, “but at the center they were happy with one another’s successes. It was a very sweet place.” Kuban, who terms her years there “an unfortunate experience,” disagrees. “My dissatisfaction was divided equally between students and staff,” she says. “The political environment wasn’t constructive.” And surely rival universities are miffed too. At the nation’s oldest writing program, the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, director Frank Conroy terms the Texas Center for Writers “a very large experiment” and stresses Iowa’s “aesthetic point of view”—as opposed, perhaps, to UT’s equal emphasis on financial gain. Iowa concentrates solely on poetry and prose fiction; UT also offers classes in playwriting and that bourgeois upstart, the screenplay.
Yet no one disputes the puredee talent of the Texas center’s graduates or Michener’s generosity. “I feel woefully in debt,” Skibell says. Even Kuban declares, “I’m so grateful to Mr. Michener for the money and the time to write.” Concludes Magnuson: “It’s a pleasure—and a rarity for a writer—to be part of an enterprise where you get good news every two or three weeks.”