Writers He Has Known

After 23 years as director of the Michener Center for Writers, esteemed author James Magnuson is moving on.


When James Magnuson was first asked to run the Michener Center for Writers two decades ago, the program didn’t even exist. This spring, the gregarious novelist is retiring as the director of one of the most prestigious and selective creative writing programs in the country.

After having spent time on the English department faculty at UT, Magnuson was in Los Angeles working in television when the lauded novelist James Michener donated $20 million to create a three-year multidisciplinary master of fine arts program. Michener had a lofty goal—to “create new generations of working writers”—and Magnuson, a man who he famously called “honest as milk,” was who he envisioned at the helm of the program.

Michener was onto something. Since Magnuson left Hollywood to become the Michener Center’s first full-time director in 1994, graduates of the program have published over 115 titles, including Pulitzer Prize finalist Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Kevin Powers’ award-winning novel The Yellow Birds.

The Alcalde caught up with Magnuson at the historic J. Frank Dobie House, where he has spent the past 23 years molding some of the best writers in the country.

What was it like to start a brand-new program?

I didn’t know quite what we had. No one knew what we had. [Michener] wanted it to be an interdisciplinary program involving those four genres—fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting. And I was skeptical because I thought, how do you do that? Won’t you just make great dilettantes? Well, I was wrong. One of the best things about the program is people crossing over genres.

How did you turn this program into the powerhouse that it is?

I think Michener … he was impatient. He wanted it to be the best program in the country. After the first year we were having a picnic and he said to me, “Jim, I always wanted to support a talented writer and I never could find one,” and I thought, Oh my God, these kids have only been here like eight months and they have not won the Pulitzer Prize. So it took a little time.

It’s also the most generous program in the country—students are awarded $27,500 annually.

I was always [saying], if we could, “Raise the stipend, raise the stipend.” Michener gave the money. We had the resources to do it. I don’t think it’s a matter of spoiling these kids. It gives people freedom. That’s the big thing.

Only 12 students are in the program each year. How is that different from other MFA programs?

I think they really do bond. We feed them. There are readings and there are receptions afterward and that’s nice. It’s so corny to say this but it’s a very homey place. You can see that right? You want to spend time here. We have a lawn. We have a creek! How many departments have a creek?

Some people think it’s better to skip an MFA and head to New York City. You’re obviously on the side of getting an MFA.

Yes, but I come from the other one! I came from NYC. Here I am, Mr. MFA. I’m a traitor to the cause!

So what do you think of that whole debate?

I was always on the other side. I wrote for a living until I was 43. I was on the outside. And I thought there was something good about that. I still encourage people when they graduate to just keep writing as long as they can. Don’t duck in for cover too quickly. Try to focus on your work. Try to do a great thing.

How has your own writing been shaped by being here these past 23 years?

You know what, I guess I sort of rebel against the idea that I want to write the kind of book a head of a writing program would write. It’s so funny because my own writing is still … groping. Here I am telling them what to do when for myself it’s like,  Oh, man I can’t think of the right word for this sentence. It doesn’t get easier. It’s much easier to be inspiring than to …

… Be inspired?

Yeah. Than to do it. But I’ve learned to do it.

What do you mean learned to do it?

I’ve learned just to keep working. Writing three hours every day in spite of this job. And part of [retiring] is being 75. One of the reasons to retire now is [because I have] two big-time jobs/enterprises going. I still have this American optimism of oh no, the next one’s gonna be the great one. So I want to really give it a shot.

Any advice for your successor?

Just keep taking care of the students. You’ve gotta keep the focus on reading and writing. Have some good parties.

Keep maintenance up on the creek?

Yeah, exactly. Make sure the tree doesn’t fall on the house.

Photo by Anna Donlan


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