Michener Center director James Magnuson will retire this spring


James Magnuson, the longest-serving director of any creative writing program in the country, will retire as head of the Michener Center for Writers at UT this May, the university has announced.

The Michener Center home to a three-year, multidisciplinary Master of Fine Arts program created in 1993. It has become one of the country’s most prestigious and well-regarded.

The program originated with best-selling novelist James Michener’s gift of $20 million to create an interdisciplinary program in fiction, screenwriting, poetry, and playwriting that would, in Michener’s words, “train professional writers, not simply create more teachers of writing.”

Magnuson was already at UT’s English Department faculty when he was  tapped to be the Michener Center’s first full-time director in 1994.

Today, as many as 1,000 candidates compete for the 12 fellowships that are awarded annually. Each fellow receives an annual stipend of $27,500, in addition to tuition.

Since 1994, visiting faculty has included J. M. Coetzee, Colm Tóibín, Denis Johnson, Ben Fountain, Geoff Dyer, Margot Livesey, Zadie Smith, Richard Ford, Louise Gluck and many more.

Magnuson himself is the author of nine novels, including “Famous Writers I Have Known,” which was inspired by his friendship with Michener and his years as director of MCW.

In the 1970s and 1960s, Magnuson wrote a number of plays that were produced as part of that era’s street theatre movement and was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

More recently, Magnuson received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for fiction and won the Jesse Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters.

During Magnuson’s tenure, Michener Center graduates have published more than 115 titles, many of which have been nominated for national and international prizes.

The books include:

  • Philipp Meyer’s “The Son,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist which he adapted into a miniseries for AMC;
  • Poet Kevin Powers’ debut novel “The Yellow Birds” won the PEN/Hemingway Award;
  • Prize-winning Australian novelists Dominic Smith (“The Last Painting of Sarah De Vos”) and Fiona McFarlane (“The High Places” and “The Night Guest”);
  • National Book Award finalist Karan Mahajan (“The Association of Small Bombs”);
  • PEN/Faulkner winner James Hannaham (“Delicious Foods”);
  • Former Texas Monthly editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, now the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine and author of “Nothing Happened and Then It Did.”

Poetry alumni include National Poetry Series winners Steve Gehrke, Carrie Fountain, and Sam Sax.

Screenwriting graduates include Kieran Fitzgerald (“Snowden”), Beau Thorne (“Max Payne”), and playwright Abhijat Joshi, now one of Bollywood’s leading screenwriters.

A nationwide search for Magnuson’s replacement is currently being conducted by the Graduate School at the University of Texas. Retirement celebrations in his honor will be held on March 31 and April 1  at UT.

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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