Q&A with Michener Center Director and Author James Magnuson

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James Magnuson

Texas Observer contributor Anis Shivani, who writes fiction, poetry and criticism from his home in Houston, reviews James Magnuson’s novel Famous Writers I Have Known in the March issue. The novel centers on a J.D. Salinger-like literary recluse named V.S. Mohle, a James Micheneresque Pulitzer-winning popular novelist/philanthropist named Rex Schoeninger, and an East Coast con man/imposter named Frank Abandonato.

Magnuson, who directs the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, spoke with Shivani by email about campus novels, Internet self-promotion, writerly self-doubt, and the utility of MFA writing programs.

Texas Observer: I was fascinated by your description of Rex Schoeninger as a way of understanding the late James Michener. What kind of relationship did you have with Michener, and what did you learn from him?

James Magnuson: I would say that our relationship was mutually respectful. He was anything but a glad-hander. I quickly learned that the last thing you should do with Michener was ask him for something. He was a very shrewd man and knew when he was being worked.

TO: The founders of some of the country’s generously endowed writing programs and residencies would perhaps not recognize the degree to which their original function and rationale have altered. What do you think have been the biggest changes with Stegner, Yaddo, Fine Arts Work Center, and what would surprise the founders the most?

JM: I’m no expert on the history of writing programs, but I have seen how the Michener Center has changed. Twenty years ago we were the new kids on the creative writing block and a bit of an oddity, because we were interdisciplinary. We made lots of mistakes in the beginning, corrected them as best we were able to. Because of the success of a number of the students, we are certainly viewed in a very different way now. That can be unnerving. I’ve tried very hard to keep us from getting too fancy.

TO: In Famous Writers I Have Known, the writing-workshop students have a decent recognition of literary theory. That may be true on an individual level, but my understanding is that on a more systemic level, theory and creative writing function in isolation, even antagonism. Do you regret the passing of humanist criticism in favor of the technocratic language of theory?

JM: When someone showed me a Walter Benjamin article in the 1970s, it felt like a total revelation. A few years later, critical theory was spreading like kudzu. What had seemed so electrifying soon became doctrinaire and disspiriting, particularly to writers. You’re right about the antagonism. It does exist. I do still seek out eccentric and suggestive criticism written by writers like D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Zadie Smith is superb writing about books. But I confess, sometimes I will read a book like [Michael Taussig’s] Shamanism, Colonialism, and The Wild Man.

TO: What parts of writing can be taught? What can’t be taught? Are we under a mass illusion when it comes to the teaching of writing, or is something helpful being done with instruction? Do you think the age of great original writers is over?

JM: I think you can teach a young writer to spot and destroy the most egregious cliches, how to use point of view in a consistent way, how to develop a bit of an eye for the telling detail. You can get them excited about reading. You can teach them to prune dead language, even if you can’t really teach them how to make language come alive. But the storytelling instinct is either there or it isn’t. You have it or you don’t, and there’s not much a teacher can do.

TO: What do you think is the biggest con as far as the writing industry is concerned?

JM: A tough question. I think it’s probably instilling false hope. I wince at this, because I’m a natural encourager. But sustaining a writing career is so difficult. My greatest nightmare is telling someone he’s a genius, because I want him to feel better, and then he ends up wasting the next decade of his life.

TO: I like the degree of moral overlap in Famous Writers I Have Known between Frank as con man and the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt—if not feelings of outright fakery—most writers experience. Was the character of Frank the original germ of the story, or was there some other starting point?

JM: I appreciate your point. I spent eight years working on this novel and it was turned down by 30 publishers before it was finally taken. I absolutely felt like a fraud for a substantial part of that time.

As far as the germ of the novel goes, the book sprang from two very different notions. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of a low-life passing himself as a world-class writer. I’ve always taken pleasure in farce, in those Danish plays where the beggar wakes up in the king’s bed and everyone treats him as royalty.

But the other seed of the novel was planted as I watched so many people circling James Michener at the end of his life, angling for the remainder of his fortune. My wicked thought was, who could come along to ace them all out?

TO: Did you have any difficulty settling on the tone for the novel?

JM: Getting the tone just right was the hardest thing, and the most crucial. I had to take the utmost care not to impose my literary opinions on Frankie. In one sense I had to dumb him down (smart as he is). I went through and meticulously deleted all the words that I would use and he wouldn’t. I also had to keep from becoming too fair-minded and kind for as long as I could.

TO: We seem to be well past the era where a literary dispute could mean anything to the culture at large, as with the case of Mohle and Schoeninger’s spat on national television, which had dire consequences for both. Yet writers are eagerly enlisting in the latest phase of their own cultural emasculation—namely participation in social media, which really amounts to substituting a fake brand for any sense of individuality. What are your feelings toward the impact of technology on various aspects of writers’ self-understanding?

JM: I’m bewildered by all this. I’m one of the late adapters, one of those people who can never remember their password. It’s a little unnerving. On the one hand, I find some great literary things on the Internet I would never find any other way. But I wonder if it’s turning all of us nerdy literary types into something we’re not. A friend of mine says she feels like one of those clowns with the balloons out in front of Jiffy Lube, hopping up and down shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

TO: What are some of your favorite campus novels?

JM: I love the David Lodge novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

TO: It seems to me that Schoeninger—with his research orientation—does have a glimmer of truth in his possession, as far as the future of the global novel is concerned, even if his execution, and those of others like him, lacks much literary merit. Have you incorporated research in any of your novels? Do you think there can be a balance between the genuinely autobiographical (represented by Mohle) and the sociological approach (represented by Schoeninger)? Are there writers today who successfully integrate both elements, the autobiographical and the sociological?

JM: I used to do a lot of research for my novels. I loved to go out into the world with a small spiral notebook in my back pocket and just look at things. I learned about rat-baiting in nineteenth century New York, the layout of major league ballparks, the whereabouts of anti-war radicals in the mountains of New Mexico. But then a family and a job curtailed my roaming. I made adjustments.

I love novels with reach and ambition. It seems to me as if a lot of contemporary fiction is way too cautious, as if it’s been put through the rinse cycle one too many times. Peter Carey’s novels are wonderful in the way they blend history and the very idiosyncratically personal. What Salman Rushdie pulled off in Midnight’s Children was amazing. And don’t forget Doris Lessing and the way she shuttled back and forth between the autobiographical and the political in The Golden Notebook. Will there be another Tolstoy? I don’t know. I’d be happy with another Dos Passos.

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