Michener Center for Writers

James Magnuson’s new book, “Famous Writers I Have Known” offers a saterical perspective on the writing world and recalls many of Magnuson’s daily tasks at The Michener Center. The novel centers around Frankie Abandonato, a con man who poses as a resident writer at the Fiction Center, which is based off UT’s Michener center.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

For the past 20 years, James Magnuson has been waking up early to write before coming into work as the director of the Michener Center for Writers.

Magnuson’s newest of nine novels, “Famous Writers I Have Known,” gives a satirical look into the workings of the Master-of-Fine-Arts culture. The plot centers on Frankie Abandonato, a con man who pretends to be V. S. Mohle — a resident writer at the Fiction Center, which is based on UT’s Michener center. In the novel, the Fiction Center is funded by author Rex Schoeninger, who is a transparent version of the Michener center’s namesake, James Michener.

UT’s Michener center is a three-year residency program for aspiring writers. Students can apply to concentrate in one of four writing fields: fiction, poetry, screenwriting or playwriting, and receive a $27,500 stipend each year. With an acceptance rate hovering around 1 percent — the center only accepts 12 writers each year — it is recognized as one of the top creative writing programs in the country.

Magnuson came back to Texas and took the director position in 1994 after a stint as a television writer in Hollywood. He said that at first the Michener center job was just a salary to support his writing career, but he began to love his students and care about their careers.

“Teaching has become an important part of my life,” Magnuson said. “You know you start thinking about this when you become an old dog. You start thinking about your legacy. I’m so proud of all of these young writers who have done so well. You know it’s interesting how personal it can be, the idea of creating an institution.”

It is his work directing the Michener center and building its reputation that has allowed him an insider view into the world of MFA students and famous authors. He used these observations as the basis for “Famous Writers I Have Known.” 

“I have known Jim Magnuson for a long time,” said Stephen Harrigan, a faculty member at the Michener center. “We are close friends so I read the book in advance years ago, and I thought it was a brilliant and subversive look at his own profession. He knows the world he’s writing about intimately enough to kind of sabotage it in a way.”

“Famous Writers I Have Known” is both a satirical look at the writing world and a recollection of Magnuson’s daily task at the Michener center, one of which is picking up authors at the airport with only a jacket photo as identification. This is how Abandonato’s character was formed. 

“I came up with this idea of a con man passing himself off as a writer, writers not being that different anyway in some cases,” Magnuson said. “They are both liars, con men and writers. They are both inventors, and they’re self-invented.”

Michener wrote more than 40 different and popular books throughout his career, but he received little recognition as an author of literary merit. He left all of his money to the University to create the Michener center.

“I think that what [Michener] got really right was the way there is this kind of towering presence that is infused into the life of the program,” former Michener center student Dominic Smith said. “As a student, there was never a time I got a stipend check that I didn’t think, ‘This is coming from the Michener estate.’”

Michener’s life inspired the book’s second plot, as Magnuson was able to observe it first-hand. The two worked together for many years, and Magnuson saw the sadness under Michener’s generous front.  

“I knew Michener the last 10 years of his life, and I was very aware of lots of people trying to get a hold of his money in one way or another,” Magnuson said. “He had no children. There was something very painful about it.” 

“Famous Writers I Have Known” is a satire, and one of the most obvious objects of satirization is Michener through Shoeinger. Magnuson was careful to show the duality of Michener. While Michener was caring and giving for the most part, he was also troubled and could be somewhat difficult to work with. 

“On one hand it is fictionalized,” Magnuson said. “On the other hand, I would say that he wasn’t always easy near the end of his life. He could blow up from time to time. It’s much different having to work for someone as opposed to having them shower you with all this largesse.”

The students and their writing workshops were playfully mocked in the book, but Magnuson said the students are not based on anyone in particular. 

“I feel like some of the dialogue in his book came from real classes that I’ve had with him, but students of past years will say the same thing because writing workshops have something kind of repetitive about them,” former Michener center student Domenica Ruta said. “They all fall under similar structures. There are different types and tropes, and [Magnuson] captures them all very well.” 

The book’s satire is not hurtful or mean-spirited. Instead, it points out poignant truths about Magnuson’s experiences with the Michener center, and writers in general. 

“My feeling is everyone gets dusted up a good amount in the book but everyone gets their dues,” Magnuson said. “There are different kinds of comedy. There is some comedy that really is totally vicious and delightful and there’s other comedy that is a little gentler and warmer. This is not the most savage book. I hope people can be moved by it, and I hope people can laugh.”

Read a review of "Famous Writers I Have Known" here.

English professor and renowned American poet Dean Young was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2005, and was named the William Livingston Chair of Poetry in 2008. YoungÂ’s poems, which draw from surrealist tradition, have been featured in numerous anthologies.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This is part of a bi-weekly series showcasing the many fascinating members of UT’s faculty.

Dean Young is an influential, nationally recognized poet and the William Livingston Chair of poetry at Michener Center for Writers here at UT. He is also a professor in the English department.

If Young’s poems were animals, they would be the most improbable crossbreeds you can imagine. Exotic yet familiar, wide but narrow, friendly, terrifying and beyond taxonomy, his poems are like house mice bred with dinosaurs. Whichever way you approach them, you can expect to be surprised. Young crafts collages of illogic and seeming contradictions that transcend the sum of their parts and challenge how we classify our world. “Do you think the dictionary ever says to itself/ ‘I’ve got these words that mean completely/ different things inside myself and it’s tearing me apart?’” he asks in one poem.

Young is the author of 10 books of poetry, including “Elegy on a Toy Piano,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he received a life-saving heart transplant after living for over a decade with a degenerative heart condition. His most recent book of poetry, “Fall Higher,” was written before the transplant and was published last April.

Daily Texan: Why do you write poetry?
Dean Young: Because I started writing it when I first learned how to write and didn’t stop. It doesn’t seem to be a question that poses itself to me. The question would be “why not?” At this point in my life, I’ve been doing it for so long that I write poetry the same way I exercise or do other things in my life that I’d feel incomplete without doing.

DT: What appeals to you about poetry?
The self-contained quality to it. I like ends a lot and poetry ends all time. It’s defining characteristic is that it occurs in lines, and the defining characteristics of a line is that it ends.

DT: Why does it appeal to you that poetry has so many ends?
This sounds overblown, but it is about confronting our mortality and the realization that all pleasures have duration and all agonies too. Most poetry is preoccupied with the limited nature of our current existence. Poetry is concise, and its brevity suggests that we don’t have time to waste. It’s not bad or good, but it does take some confronting because we live in a culture where death is primarily relegated to the periphery, unless it’s made into a kind of
cartoonish entertainment.

DT: You had a heart transplant a year ago, and your heart condition was something you were aware of for a long time before the transplant. Has that influenced your fascination with limits?
Absolutely. My father died when he was young from a bad heart and I was always aware of it as a possibility. Then, when I got diagnosed, it was irrefutable. I lived for about 13 years with a pretty clear idea of how I was going to die. I thought, ‘Okay, my heart’s going to give out and I’m going to die,’ and I went through the transplant, but it turns out I didn’t die that way. And it’s weird because I sort of had it checked off. Now, I’m sort of clueless. The one vague certainty that I had is gone. That’s not going to kill me.

DT: Your poems deal with themes of randomness and chaos. These themes don’t necessarily seem positive, but in your poetry they are comforting in a way. Is that intentional?
I can see how this sense that everything is going every which way could cause panic. But, to some extent, I feel like ‘suck it up,’ because that’s the way reality is. If you haven’t had something come along in your life to completely upset all your systems of filing, then it’s going to, and when it does, it will completely destroy you unless you say ‘okay this is part of reality.’ Once you say that, it’s kind of a party. Random particle motion is what got us here, and it’s what’s going to do us in, but it also brings sudden beauty into life. You run into somebody you’ve never met, fall in love and your life is never going to be the same.

DT: What do you learn from teaching poetry?
Teaching brings me in contact with the poetry of the future. It’s taught me to be perpetually open-minded and shown me again and again that I’ll never get to the bottom of everything poetry can do, which makes me happy.

DT: Among people my age, poetry isn’t culturally mainstream. Does that bother you?
It doesn’t bother me. We can whine and moan about the lack of attention paid to poetry, but there is still an enormous amount of people out there writing poetry, and there are an enormous amount of poetry books being published. I think poetry’s in an incredibly good position right now in our culture.

Printed on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 as: UT professor discusses influences on his poetry

For some writers, life experiences and a relationship with one’s parents can provide a great amount of inspiration.

The Michener Center for Writers, UT’s three-year residency program for students earning an MFA in writing, sponsored an event Wednesday night, featuring authors Naomi Shihab Nye and Joseph Skibell. Nye is a professor for the Michener fellow program and Skibell graduated from the program in 1996. The two authors chose pieces which reflected their lives and the events that shaped them. A common theme between Skibell and Nye’s works was the influence their fathers had on their lives.

Skibell is currently working on a book inspired by his love of guitars and a trip with his daughter to interview guitar players around the country. Skibell shared the story of when his father became sick and handed down his guitar to Skibell, which eventually prompted him to write about it. Nye is also in the process of publishing a collection of poems inspired by her father.

At the event, Skibell read an excerpt from his work, “A Curable Romantic” where the lead character discusses his experience of being Jewish and his relationship with his father.

“So many things happen in life,” Skibell said. “Life is more interesting when you have a project in mind.”

Nye shared a poem with attendees about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how Palestinians were removed from their homes. Nye’s father, a Palestinian, was a journalist and she said news articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict haunted him for his entire life.

“I believe Jews and Arabs can share that small plot of land peacefully,” Nye said.

Nye also read a collection of poems which were inspired by her travels in America and abroad. One particular piece was inspired by her time at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house in Massachusetts.

“I wanted to write a poem about Longfellow and those writers who inspired me in my childhood,” Nye said.

Several students from the Michener Center attended the event.

“Naomi is an extraordinarily gifted and generous teacher and that reflects in her work,” said Abe Koogler, a first year Michener Fellow.

Abhijit Joshi, an alumnus of the Michener Center for Writers, has been distinguished as the Graduate School’s Outstanding Graduate Alumnus of the year.

Graduate studies spokeswoman Kathleen Mabley said the annual outstanding graduate award is given to students who get their master’s or doctoral degrees at UT and display exceptional achievements in their careers.

“What we do then is we give a $5,000 fellowship in the name of the outstanding alumnus. It is awarded to a graduate student in the same program for which the award winner graduated,” Mabley said.

Joshi has written some of the highest-grossing films in Bollywood, a term commonly used for the Hindi-language Indian film industry.

Joshi continues to work with highly successful Bollywood screenwriters, filmmaker and producers such as Yash Chopra, who is hailed as one of the most distinguished directors in the Indian film industry, said Michener Center program coordinator Marla Akin.

“We are really proud because this is the first time a graduate student from a creative program has won an outstanding alumnus award,” Akin said.

“The boats will be ready for the Flood, and we’re not going to work for the Pharaoh unless we have a union contract,” an informed Adam says in “No Snakes in This Grass,” a one-act play written by the director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson.

A modern rendition of the Book of Genesis first performed during the Civil Rights Movement, the play revolves around Adam, who has prepared himself for whatever hardships God may throw his way, except one: a black Eve.

In this 35-minute performance, Adam and Eve attempt to reconcile their differences, but their inability to get along eventually leads to the Fall, and their banishment from Eden.

“It’s interesting to think about, because if you’re staying true to the Bible story, Adam and Eve are obviously joined,” Magnuson said. “She comes from his rib, they’re made of the same flesh.”

Written when Magnuson was 24, “No Snakes in This Grass” has since been reproduced at countless churches and theaters nationwide.

“I was working in East Harlem in the ’60s, so the issue of race was pretty hard to avoid,” Magnuson said. “I was a young playwright, a churchgoing kid, and I wanted to make something mischievous.”

Last summer, Magnuson returned to New York to witness The Lincoln Center’s rendition of his play, celebrating the 40th anniversary of their out-of-doors theater. Robbie Ann Darby, a recent graduate from UT’s theater program, played Eve. This Friday the same cast will perform on the Ransom Center plaza.

“Some of the language and the painful jokes and jives are bound to their time, so I was worried that the play might not be as applicable today,” Magnuson said. “But looking at the audiences’ faces ... these issues are still dismayingly alive.”

Coinciding with the Civil Rights theme, “No Snakes in This Grass” was first performed on the street, a popular trend at the time, especially for plays with political or social content.

“Street art has a very democratic air about it. It doesn’t cost 80 bucks, and anyone can walk up and be affected by it,” Magnuson said. “There are these sidewalk artists who paint with water, so the image only lasts until the water dries. That’s how I think of street theater.”

Performed outdoors and concerning itself with inflammatory topics, Magnuson’s play also employs unconventional dramatic techniques, like intentionally breaking character.

“Everyone was experimenting in the ’60s, and I guess you could call my play experimental,” Magnuson said.
Though Magnuson believes a less traditional approach to theater can be enjoyable and “puckish,” when it comes to his role at the Michener Center, UT’s MFA program for creative writers, he encourages young artists to stay true to their own voice.

“We try not to steer anyone in any given direction,” he said. “Talents are various and I want students to have the courage to follow tradition, too.”

Since writing his take on the Adam and Eve story, Magnuson has written eight novels and worked for TV shows such as “Knot’s Landing” and “Class of ’96.” Though he claims he “always feels like the newest thing is going to be the best thing,” he is happy to revisit his earlier work as well.

“It’s not exactly my most sophisticated work. It’s light, it’s accessible, but people keep returning to it, so I think it says something to people,” Magnuson said.