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A Serious Writer

A chat with Jim Magnuson, the founding director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

By April 2017Comments

First things first: Jim Magnuson wants to make it clear that he’s retiring only from teaching, not from writing. We’re in his office in the historic J. Frank Dobie House, across the street from the University of Texas campus in Austin. He’s seated on a couch between his desk, where he writes and marks up student manuscripts, and his bookshelf, which showcases an impressive array of published novels—his own and those of people he’s mentored. Magnuson opens his arms, as if to demonstrate the great, mysterious distance between the two stations. “I have so much to write,” he says. “I keep thinking I can beat the odds, I can write a great book at seventy-five. There’s stuff I have to get to.”

Magnuson is the author of twelve plays and nine novels, most recently the well-reviewed 2014 academic satire Famous Writers I Have Known. But perhaps his most profound legacy is his 23 years as director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at UT, a tenure that will end next month. Under Magnuson’s leadership, the Michener Center has become one of the most prestigious graduate writing programs in the country. These days, news of the center’s alumni seems to roll in weekly: theatrical debuts, green-lit Hollywood productions, important literary awards. But Magnuson is reluctant to bask too much in these successes. All he really aimed to do by taking the gig, he says, was find a way to survive as a writer.

“I’m fairly oblivious,” he says. “I didn’t quite see what was happening. I’d write in the morning, and you know what it’s like when you’re writing—you’re in a little bit of a cloud when you come in. Marla [Akin, the center’s longtime program coordinator] would kind of snap me to, and I’d realize, ‘Geez, I’d better take this stuff seriously.’ It wasn’t as if I was gung ho—‘I’m gonna create the best thing ever.’ ”

If you ask Magnuson, much of the credit for the Michener Center’s success belongs to the program’s namesake, the best-selling author of Texas and Tales of the South Pacific. In 1993, James Michener gave $20 million to UT to build a graduate program that would aim, in his words, “to create professional writers, not just teachers of writing.” It’s a unique mission among American MFA programs, and one that Magnuson is feeling protective of as he retires.

“I never had an academic job until I was forty-three,” he says. “I wrote for a living.” As a young up-and-comer in the early seventies, he lucked into a Hodder Fellowship, a paid residency at Princeton University that carried no teaching load but allowed him to write without financial pressures for four years. Magnuson’s fond memories of that time formed the basis for his approach to running the Michener Center, which boasts generous stipends for its students. “I was the brokest writer in New York,” he says. “The Hodder changed my life. I thought, ‘Let me do this for somebody else. Just turn them loose.’ ”

Magnuson, who is famous for his enthusiastic encouragement and crushing bear hug, isn’t one to push any particular style or even pedagogical approach on his students. (Full disclosure: I was a student of his a decade ago.) “I don’t want to hover over them, wagging my finger,” he explains. “It’s more, ‘Hey, you’ve got enough to live on for this length of time—it’s kind of up to you.’ Freedom, you know?”

Working writers whom Magnuson helped through the Michener program tend to look back nostalgically at the creative liberty he fostered, which included freedom from the make-do coursework typical of academia. “Jim made sure that the Michener Center’s emphasis was always to produce working artists rather than academics,” says Philipp Meyer, a 2008 Michener grad whose novel The Son was a Pulitzer finalist and has been turned into a cable drama (see “The One-Question Interview”). “A lot of MFA programs lump writers in with the English department, when in reality, we have nothing in common. It’s like lumping athletes in with sports commentators.”

“Jim’s own career as a writer was inspiring,” says Karan Mahajan, a 2015 grad and the author of the recent National Book Award finalist The Association of Small Bombs. “You saw the dedication he brought to his work, putting in a few hours of writing every day. It helped that the head of a serious program was a serious writer.”

Looking back over his tenure, Magnuson is self-effacing about what he has brought to the Michener Center as a teacher, director, and role model to generations of writers in Texas and beyond. “It’s a good way to pass my time when I’m working on my own books,” he says, leaning back on the couch in what will soon be someone else’s office, decades flitting by before his eyes. “Then suddenly all these other people and their books become really important. You do something, you’re not paying that much attention to it, and suddenly it becomes the meaning of your life.”

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