Stephen Harrigan

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.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

UT faculty will author 16 books comprehensively covering Texas history, culture, politics and more as part of a project called the Texas Bookshelf, recently announced by UT Press.

No other publisher has tried to tackle a project of such scope centered around Texas, UT Press director Dave Hamrick said. Hamrick, who proposed the project, said his goal is to capture a portrait of Texas and the U.S. in the 21st century.

“We’ve asked writers to look outwards, to look at Texas in a national and international context,” Hamrick said.

To kick off the Texas Bookshelf project, Stephen Harrigan, an adjunct professor in the Michener Center for Writers, will publish a comprehensive book of Texas history that will be published in 2017.

Harrigan said he hopes to bring an element of his essay writing background at Texas Monthly to his book.

“I’m hoping it won’t read like a textbook,” Harrigan said. “I want to tell the story of Texas as a vast, unfolding narrative.”

Born in Oklahoma, Harrigan moved to Texas when he was 5 years old and has lived in Texas for 60 years. His interest in Texas can be attributed to Texas’ engaging history, Harrigan said.

“I think it’s possible to grow up in a place and not be curious about it,” Harrigan said. “[But] when you grow up in Texas, which has been the staging ground for important shifts, it’s impossible not to be entranced by it.”

Harrigan said Texas has a rich involvement in national history, from training astronauts for the first missions to the moon in Houston to the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas, and  it still influences national politics as evidenced by the recent prominence of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“The history of Texas is more extravagant than the history of some other states,” Harrigan said. “It was a flash point in European colonization, a place fought over for hundreds of years and continues to define national identity and drives national discussion.”

Harrigan anticipates the book to be about 600 to 700 pages long, a length he said is meant to be accessible to the general public. He said he is currently in the research mode of the writing process, which began about half a year ago when Hamrick contacted Harrigan asking to participate in the project.

“I was very interested in taking it on, but [Hamrick] was envisioning something bigger: a collection of books covering almost every aspect of Texas history, politics and cultural makeup,” Harrigan said.

Robert Devens, assistant editor-in-chief of UT Press, said the books are meant for scholars and the general public alike.

“The idea was to produce a meaningful collaboration between the press and the University’s top scholars to produce books for academics and general readers,”
Devens said.

Editor’s note: Laura Wright is currently working for Texas Monthly, the magazine where Stephen Harrigan was a long-time contributor.

“My grandmother made two kinds of kolaches. They were equally threatening,” writes author Stephen Harrigan in his essay, “Where is my Home?” 

The essay, the last of 32 in the essay collection “The Eye of the Mammoth,” takes the reader on Harrigan’s journey to find a kolache that tastes just like his Czech grandmother’s prune version. Because this kolache triggers a Proustian reccollection of the author’s childhood, he traveled across Texas and, eventually, to the Czech Republic to try to replicate it.

Harrigan, a long-time contributor to Texas Monthly, has also written for The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine. In this book he has collected “a panoramic look backward” at the entirety of his more than three-decade long career. He assembled a group of essays that weave familiar historical narratives with Harrigan’s fascination with prehistory and his endearing, self-effacing style of questioning his own ideas and motives.

In the title essay, for example, Harringan begins a discussion of the Mammoth bones buried in archeological sites across Texas by remembering a television show from his childhood, “Science Fiction Theatre.” In one episode, the show depicted a baby mammoth, re-animated from a block of ice, dying out of longing for its long-gone mother.

“Deep into adulthood the memory lingered: a lonesome lost creature imprisoned in time, a frozen heart made to beat again, a block of ice like a window through which the light of prehistory still dimly shone,” Harrigan wrote.

So begins a romp through the prehistoric archeological sites of Texas, introducing us to the remains of a wounded mammoth known as “Big Momma” and a Texas Tech professor who only wishes she could butcher one more elephant, so that she might learn how difficult it was for the ancient Clovis people to kill a mammoth. The essay takes the reader to a Texas they did not know existed, and in doing so, begins to answer the question that many Texans have asked as they look across the landscape: What exactly is this place?

“The Eye of the Mammoth” will, for most readers, be a book about Texas. For UT students, it is worth reading for the essay “The Golden Age of Austin” alone, in which Harrigan remembers his time as a student on the Forty Acres when Austin wasn’t much more “than an overgrown, self-infatuated college hamlet” with no traffic and department stores on Congress Avenue. Harrigan manages to paint a vivid picture of the 1970s Austin of “Dazed and Confused,” a city drugged, lackadaisical and throbbing with culture, while praising its current incarnation. He even goes so far as to say that the hipsters carrying South By Southwest badges are indicative of an Austin that is “a real city now, edgier, less complacent, more demanding,” a city that should be celebrated as much as the Austin of old, which may do something to reassure the many Austinites who bemoan the city’s boom.

Harrigan, who split his childhood between Oklahoma City, Abilene and Corpus Christi, does not confine his meditations on Texas to the city of Austin. One of the finest essays in the collection, “What Texas Means to Me,” speaks to a feeling that can be nothing but familiar to life-long Texans. In the essay, Harrigan struggles to understand what exactly it is that attracts him to the state, which, for all its land, lacks the true physical beauty of national landmarks like the Grand Canyon.

“The coasts of Texas, its forests, deserts, hills, and even its cities, seem like minor variations of grander and more definitive things in other parts of the country,” Harrigan wrote.

Yet, on a trip to Enchanted Rock with his daughter, Harrigan resolves to “let the whole question” of his relationship with Texas rest, preferring instead to conclude, “I wasn’t sure if I had been put on Earth with an inborn love for Texas, but I certainly seem to have a high tolerance for it.”

Moments like this are what make Harrigan’s essays on Texas so relatable. Rather then dress up that state, he strips it down to half-buried mammoth bones and late-night Austin acid trips that are tamer than the movies recall. Which, as it turns out, are grand enough on their own.