Author, playwright brings personal connection to storytelling

Jan. 22, 2017 at midnight

James Magnuson Author, ABR speaker

James Magnuson Author, ABR speaker   Contributed Photo for The Victoria Advocate

Inspiration for James Magnuson's books come from a million different sources: someone's diary he was secretly reading, a Bible story he turns on its head, childhood memories of harvesting wheat with his uncle in North Dakota or a friend's disappearance in the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

"Of course it's all personal," said Magnuson, the director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. "But the personal gets reworked and reworked by the imagination for a couple of years until it becomes something totally other. In the end, I have a lot of trouble sorting out what happened to me and what I invented."

Magnuson, an author, playwright and screenwriter, is the first author in the spring 2017 University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series. The reading will begin at noon Jan. 26 in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

It is free and open to the public.

"James Magnuson has a talent for delivering poignant yet amusing stories," said Jeffrey Di Leo, dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences and ABR editor and publisher. "He is a savvy writer with an interesting outlook on storytelling. I look forward to sharing his perceptions with the Victoria community."

Magnuson's most recent novel, "Famous Writers I Have Known," came from his experiences picking up writers at the airport as part of his work for the Michener Center. Many of these writers were people he had never seen before, and he sometimes wondered what would happen if he picked up the wrong person.

The center's main benefactor was James Michener, a best selling author who gave $20 million to the center. Michener became the inspiration for one of the characters in "Famous Writers I Have Known," which centers on a con man impersonating a reclusive writer who receives a teaching position at a writing center and tries to con a dying millionaire out of his fortune.

"When James Michener was dying, there were all these buzzards who came in trying to get the last of his money," Magnuson said. "It was so unseemly, and I started imagining what would happen if a real son of his came back to claim the fortune. That turned into a book about money, literature, fame and the agonies of being a young writer."

This was just one of Magnuson's pieces that was inspired by his own experiences. "The Hounds of Winter" came from an event that left a big impression on Magnuson. A friend slipped off a bridge and drowned in the middle of a spring flood.

In addition to books, Magnuson has written plays. When he finished college in the 1960s, he worked for the welfare department in New York. His experiences there, including the environment of racial tension during that decade, inspired him to write the play "No Snakes in This Grass" about what would happen if a white Adam had been given a black Eve. The play still is performed today.

In addition, he wrote episodes in the 1990s for the TV show "Knots Landing." Magnuson's friend was working for the show and invited him to come to Hollywood to write an episode. His friend convinced him to stay for more than a year working for the show and writing other screenplays.

"It was an exhilarating and demoralizing experience," Magnuson said. "I got to walk through the lot every day and see sets and movies being created. But there are times when people start second-guessing each other because of unexpected changes or ratings drops, and things get crazy."

Magnuson said he is looking forward to taking part in the series, and especially meeting the UHV faculty and reading to Victoria community members. He plans to read from "Famous Writers I Have Known."

"I hope people will be stimulated," he said. "I've been writing for 50 years, and I've seen my writing and my life change a lot. Each step has influenced my life, and I've learned a lot in the process."

For more information about the UHV/ABR Reading Series, call the ABR office at 361-570-4101 or go to americanbookreview.org.


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