James Magnuson

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.

Upon first arrival, Austin can be something of a shock. A pleasant one, but not one without its little quirks that we put up with, like strange roads that never lead where one wants them to and intense fear of cold weather that strikes whenever the temperature falls below 60 degrees. But Austinites allow these things and enjoy them because they contribute to why people fall in love with this strange city.

James Magnuson’s “Famous Writers I Have Known” is a kind of love letter to Austin, even as it pokes fun at it, just as the novel is an affectionate ribbing of the world of literary fiction. It’s fluff, but it’s entertaining fluff without a hint of pretension.

Frankie Abandonato, a self-described “world-class liar,” cons the wrong man and finds himself on the run from the mafia. He ends up in Austin, impersonating a reclusive writer who hadn’t been seen in years, teaching starry-eyed students how to write.

Just from the set-up, it is clear what to expect: the close calls where Abandonato has to bluff his way through topics he knows nothing about, the close friendships that form using his new identity and the moments where, for the first time in his life, he chooses to do the right thing. These elements are all here, and perhaps some of the literary characters in the book might look down at the familiarity of the story, but why change what works? 

He also takes the advice of writing what you know. Magnuson is the director of the Michener Center for Writers at UT, and he creates believable interactions between the students in the novel, who are just as likely to encourage each other as look down on their peers as a way to hide insecurity.

Magnuson uses his Austin know-how to create a genuine portrait of the city as well as genuine laughs with Abandonato’s reaction to it. It’s unfortunate that Magnuson doesn’t use the novel’s setting more. It might have been amusing for Abandonato to witness what happens to the city during the utter chaos of South By Southwest — perhaps that may have even made a better backdrop for the climax than what the book ultimately provides. Still, the authenticity Magnuson provides helps elevate “Famous Writers I Have Known” above the typical con-man imposter story.

The novel has no pretenses about what it is and, though it’s unlikely to win the Pulitzer, it’s equally unlikely that readers will have much of a need for their bookmark as they plow through this delightful look at the city we love through the eyes of an Austin virgin.

“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.