James Magnuson is the director of the prestigious Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. It’s a big job, and you’d be hard-pressed to select its most stressful charge. Each year he winnows over 1,000 applications down to 12. Then he’s got to lead classes that encourage and empower the young talent. And to top it all off, he has to pick up visiting writers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“Every fall and spring, I go to the airport to pick up some writer who I’ve probably never met,” says Magnuson. “I may have seen a photograph on the flap copy that could be quite old. As they come down the escalator I’m looking for someone who seems to be looking for me—and I thought, ‘Wow, what if I got the wrong person, you know?’ ”
A case of mistaken authorial identity is just one thrust of Magnuson’s side-splitting ninth novel, Famous Writers I Have Known. Frankie Abandonato is a small-time New York City conman on the run after witnessing a mob hit—an homage to classic hideout movies Sister Act and Some Like It Hot. Lucky for Frankie, he’s a dead ringer for V.S. Mohle, a reclusive writer recently coaxed into a lucrative teaching gig at a program endowed by Rex Schoeninger, his bestselling rival. Frankie and Mohle hold tickets for the same plane, but only one is greeted at the airport by three adulatory coeds, capisci?
While Frankie sets his eyes on the long con, defrauding Schoeninger of his many millions, he happily picks up a professor’s paycheck in the meantime. A born storyteller, he makes few missteps acquiring the MFA lingo: “One of my favorite bits was to flip through a manuscript and randomly pick out a word. ‘Take a look at page seven,’ I would say. ‘Three lines down. You see the word “ploddingly”? You need to go home tonight and spend an hour meditating on exactly what that means and I think the whole story will open up for you,” Magnuson writes. And: “ ‘Excellent point,’ I’d say. ‘I agree about the voice. Once you get the voice, you’re off and running.’ ” Famous Writers I Have Known becomes a blazing sendup of the literary-industrial complex as it explores the age-old question: Can writing be taught...by a conman?
A second question imbues the novel with some unexpected poignancy, that of a writer’s legacy. It’s no coincidence that Schoeninger bears a striking resemblance to the late James A. Michener, who gave his name and fortune to Magnuson’s place of employment. “I worked with James Michener the last 10 years of his life, and knew him well enough—you know the way writers observe each other. He put up a front as if literary reputation didn’t matter, but I think it really did. There were many in the literary community who would sniff at him either out of superior taste or just snobbery or envy, consider him nothing but a hack. So it was a poignant story, and some of the things in this book are pretty close to life,” says Magnuson.
While Michener/Schoeninger isn’t entirely spared, neither is Magnuson, self-parodied in the form of program director Wayne, who has a sad collection of remaindered novels on his office shelf. “I have that, too, just because someone once let the washing machine overflow, and I had to take them out of my basement. A mark of total disgrace, your remaindered novels on the shelf—Wayne is me making terrible fun of myself,” says Magnuson.
Wayne worries about his own legacy in earnest: “I didn’t become a writer so I could end up directing a writing program. I did it because I thought that one day I would create something great, something that would endure,” Wayne laments. But Magnuson’s experience has led to a more clear-eyed view regarding the eternal life of fiction. “It’s classic whistling in the dark because few things outlive you. Even someone like Michener,” Magnuson says. Michener’s books once filled shelves at bookstores. Now maybe four of his novels still sell well. “But it’s a great dream and pushes you every day to do better, to write better. When you’re a writer you have to be your own cut man. You have to wipe off your own face with a big sponge,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.