James Magnuson talks: dirt, death, and the MFA.

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james magnuson

James Magnuson, the director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, sat down with our literary director Steph Opitz to discuss his new novel Famous Writers I Have Known (W. W. Norton & Company, January 2014). Frankie Abandonato, while dodging a run in with the mob, attempts to pull off his biggest con yet: teaching a workshop at a renowned MFA program.   


SO: With a title like this, and the position you’re in, is this really a novel?

JM: I can claim it’s autobiographical or I could claim it’s not; I could go either way. Like Frankie, people will make up their own minds.

SO: You mentioned Salinger and Pynchon were inspirations for the character of V.S. Mohle, the famously reclusive author Frankie impersonates, and James Michener is very clearly the inspiration for the benefactor of the fictional Fiction Institute of Texas, Rex Schoeninger. Are there any other recognizable authors in there?

JM: Well, they’re obviously in there. I’ve been a writer for 50 years so have worked with quite a few well-known authors. There are some hilarious stories I could tell you, but I SHOULD NOT.

SO: I’m sure lots of readers are hoping for some dirt.

JM: I have classes do an exercise called “10 Things I Know About My Nemesis” because the person you’re the most pissed off at is the person you notice everything about – “Oh, they got new shoes!” “Did you see what they did with their hair?” You really know that person. That person should be in a book! Since you know them so well, there’s some real energy. When the students do that exercise, I do it alongside them . . .  I never show it to them. If you could see those pages we would really have an interview!

SO:  Were you worried that famous writers you, Jim Magnuson, have known might see themselves in your characters?

JM: Yeah, I was, and I was really careful. Especially with Michener and the people close to him because we’ve shared stories over the years about Michener and figuring him out, and he was always a little bit of a puzzle.

SO: You didn’t spare yourself, either.  There’s an obvious comparison between you and the character Wayne, who is the director of the Institute. But, it seems like Frankie’s sweeter side sounds more like the Jim Magnuson we all know.

JM: One of the things that was challenging was to distance Frankie from me, because always when you write a first-person novel you start identifying with the narrator so strongly. His perceptions are your perceptions.  I had to make sure that he not have literary perceptions. I would go through and edit the book, and if a word was more than three syllables I’d cut it. It’s funnier when he’s mean, but there is a sweetness in him that I think comes through. And part of the thing about Wayne, well,  I don’t want to say he’s a straw man, but I figured if I was going to make fun of everyone else, I should be the hardest on myself. He’s sort of the sad-sack version of me.

SO: What about the relationship between Frankie and Rex, is that similar to the relationship between you and Michener?

JM: One of the things I learned so quickly about Michener, who was a great man, was never personally ask anything from him and he would trust you.

I find Michener really interesting. He meant a lot to me while he was alive and he means a lot to me now.  I think about him a lot. What a curious life. A man who wrote all these books, who was very smart, who never did get much of a literary reputation—the books got more wooden the older he got, he was never read by his students, maybe his students’  parents, the ones who weren’t literary—how interesting that his legacy would be this literary program. It’s kind of great.

SO: Did you feel like this was going to be such a popular story? Already you’re getting so much praise from writers and reviewers.

JM: I feel like this has been the hard one. When I started writing, the first book got some nice attention, some great reviews. I published a book every few years and then the whole world changed. This book took about ten years to get done. It was turned down by everyone in New York. Everybody said they liked it, all the young assistants cracked up, but people weren’t sure it was big enough. So, this feels truly like a miracle. A friend of mine, who was published by Norton, had Starling Lawrence as an editor, and I asked my agent if he would send it to him and see if he liked it. Well, five months later Star writes me back and says, “Some of this is brilliant, but it’s a little too picturesque, but we can talk.” I went to work on it for months. And then he turned it down again. I was ready to give up. I sent Star an email saying, “BRAINSTORM: here are the 5 ways I would fix all those problems. If you would just read it again,” and he said, “That’s exactly what I wanted” and then he took it! A friend of mine recently told me there were times I was working so hard, she thought secretly that I should put it aside and go on and do something else. But my stubbornness paid off.

Please join the Texas Book Festival, the Michener Center for Writers, Texas Monthly, and the Bullock State History Museum in celebrating the publication on Tuesday, January 21st at the Bullock Texas State History Museum at 7pm. Seating is limited.