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Literary Events

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The Nobel Prize in Literature was given to author Kazuo Ishiguro.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Of Magnuson, Michener, and the MFA

We had the honor and pleasure of hosting a visit with James Magnuson, author, television writer, and Director of the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. We had read Magnuson's newest book, Famous Writers I Have Known, and some of us had read other books Magnuson has previously written. We enjoyed reading Famous Writers I Have Known! The book was funny, with quirky characters and a fast pace that started on the first page and continued to surprise us and make us smile and laugh. Our discussion tended to touch on the book occasionally but mostly focused on James Magnuson's career, his interactions with the legendary James Michener, and the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at the Michener Center for Writers.

Magnuson told us how he got his big break when he was 28 years old and broke. He met a religion professor from Princeton University who nominated him for a position at Princeton for promising but unknown writers. Magnuson sent in an application and got the job. He wrote a play while at Princeton the first year and stayed at Princeton for 5 years, writing more plays.

Janice asked Magnuson the question I think we all were wanting to ask: about his career in television script writing. Magnuson  told us that one of his friends from Columbia University became in charge of Knots Landing and asked Magnuson to help with the writing. Magnuson, totally unfamiliar with the show, saw some pictures from Knots Landing in a copy of People Magazine on the plane to Los Angeles. He then wrote scripts for the show for a year. Magnuson was told he was 1 of the 3 best 1-hour script writers in Hollywood. His friend was fired, but the new boss thought Magnuson was the best writer and asked him to stay. All the other writers were fired.

Magnuson continued writing books.

Pam mentioned that she had noticed that Magnuson had published a book approximately every 8-10 years and that each book had a different publisher. This double question was a powerful one for Magnuson. He became nostalgic for a moment. He remembered that he had published every 2-3 years when he was young, accumulating 9 novels, 12 plays, and 20 hours of television scripts. Back to the present, he seemed glad to announce that his next book is on the way, making the most recent gap between books a short one. As to publishers, which apparently are fickle, he told us that the young people, even the new MFA graduates from his program, command higher bids on their work than older writers. This seems counter-intuitive to a reader, but it makes sense looking at the world from a media/business point of view.

Magnuson works hard, writing 3 hours/morning 7 days/week. He told us a few stories of grueling rewrites, being turned down 6 times for one book, spending 9 months on a rewrite of another book for a publisher and then having to spend another 9 months rewriting before the publisher accepted the book.  He has completed 5 drafts of the book he is going to be publishing soon.

James Magnuson met James Michener in Texas, when Michener was writing Texas.  Magnuson was teaching  writing at UT Austin, and Michener sat in on some classes. The famous author donated $2 million to the UT MFA program and soon after that another $18 million, the biggest creative writing award ever.  Not sure at what point in the process, but the program was named after Michener, now the Michener Center.  Michener published 10 books while he was aged 80-90 years. It unusual and amazing to think of Michener being so productive at those ages! Magnuson told us a few details about Michener; he said the older writer was generous but enjoyed a bargain when he had a chance. Magnuson said that Michener had great ideas and was credited with bringing in 60% of Random House profits for some years. Yet Michener wasn’t taken seriously by the critics, who didn’t like those big books.  At this, Dennis mentioned that he liked Michener's early novels but noticed that they got worse and were poorly edited. Magnuson mentioned that for all historical those pages Michener published, he did have researchers but not writers.

I asked Mr. Magnuson whether the character, Rex, in Famous Writers I Have Known, was based on Michener; and Magnuson said the character was indeed based on Michener. He said that during the last 5 years of Michener's life, people were vying for his money. Michener reminded Magnuson of his father, growing up during the depression. Magnuson did make some creative changes with Rex; he mentioned that there was no Ramona, no cook, no rivalry with Salinger, and no feud, but there were battles with Mailer and Buckley. So you can draw your own conclusions as to what James Michener was like as an elderly man.

The Writers' Workshop at the Michener Center now accepts 12 among 1200 applicants and gives a $27,000 fellowship. The students have been successfully published. The Center website has a page listing the books students have published:  Michener Center Student Books. The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, has made a big splash, and Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in a movie based on the book, for 2016 release. Jake Silverstein, who studied nonfiction for his MFA at the Michener Center and was editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly magazine, is now the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine. Philipp Meyer was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year for his book, The Son.  Student F.T. Kola is currently on the short list of 5 contenders for the Caine Prize for African Writing, with a book called A Party for the Colonel. The list of honors won by students of the Michener Center is also easily accessible at the website.

Patty asked Magnuson what sort of classes and student-teacher interaction are involved in the MFA program. Magnuson said part of the program is a workshop with critiques of everyone's work. Part of it involves writing exercises, similar to some mentioned in Famous Writers I Have Known. Magnuson said one successful exercise is writing 2 pages starting with "My mother never..." He sometimes asks the students to describe something from an odd point of view. Magnuson also helps with theses and meets one-on-one with the students. He says he often finds himself in the role of counselor, as the young writers are going through a difficult part of their youth and need plenty of support of all kinds.

Linda asked another tough question. She asked what the true benefits of the writer's workshop are, in that the classics were written without the benefits of writers' workshops. Magnuson seemed to have considered this, as he had a several-part answer ready. He said that he is glad the UT program has become famous and popular, so that it can be as selective as it is and avoid selling classes to any untalented writers or setting up any untalented writers for later disappointment. With 250 writing
programs now available across the country, Magnuson indicated that there are probably many students who will probably not be able to pay for their education directly from a writing career.

Then Linda asked what Magnuson thinks is the best way for a writer to be educated. The simple answer was: reading! Magnuson made an analogy between a writer reading and a musician listening to music. He said his students tend to be avid and intense readers. As an example, he told us he suggested that a student from Montana who had been a carpenter should read Anna Karenina, and the student read the book immediately.

Pam asked Magnuson to list his favorite books and authors. Was there going to be a Frankie Abandonado moment? Of course not! Magnuson quickly listed Ian McEwan and his Atonement; The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford; Parade’s End, by Thomas Hardy; Trollope as an author; Don Quixote; the Russian authors, perhaps Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and particularly the book The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov; Edith Wharton;  Larry Wright;  Stephen Harrigan; Sarah Bird; and Dennis Johnson. An inspiring list for any of us!


The final question was from Pam, who had read 3 of Magnuson's books before our meeting and thus earned the right to the last question! She asked Magnuson to tell us which author(s) he feels he should be compared to. Thanks to James Magnuson for making us feel comfortable enough with him to ask the questions we had on our minds, and for answering them candidly! Magnuson likened his books to those of Peter Carey and, since we had told him we will be discussing one of his favorite authors, Ian McEwan, next month, he mentioned that he liked to grab the reader on the first page as McEwan does.

Magnuson told us what his new novel is about: the early life of a famous legend, whose name I don't feel right disclosing. The rest of what was said at the RRNN Book Discussion Group stays at the RRNN Book Discussion Group. But I'll bet Magnuson's upcoming book will catch the reader on the first page!

3 comments:

austin coach said...

Great questions, and (candid) answers by James Magnuson. What a remarkable career -- there aren't many writers who excel in novels, plays OR tv; but he has done all of these.

Pam Fuchs said...

Thanks for the great writeup Claudia and thanks Frank for bringing James to our attention.

Did anyone write down the title of his next book? I remember it was LONG and we laughed when he mentioned it.

Pam

ClaudiaH said...

I don't think he seriously gave us the title of his book. I can't be sure, but I think I would have at least tried to note it. But it's possible I didn't note it because I am careful to not publish things on the blog that are private info, and I know he wasn't ready to publish info about the book. Maybe he said something as a sort of joke?