INTERVIEW WITH THE MICHENER CENTER FOR WRITERS

For years there have been rumors flying around the Michener Center about the novel the director, Jim Magnuson, has been working on for the past decade. A literary person of some note, who requested anonymity, sat down at the Dobie House to see if we could get him to set everything straight.

MCW: So it sounds as if you may be heading out onto thin ice with this book.

JM: You think?

MCW: Certainly people are going to be asking questions. Listen to this, also from the Norton catalog: “The program has been funded by the world’s richest writer who’s dying. Buzzards are circling, angling for the last of his fortune . . . .” That sounds like James Michener.

JM: I won’t deny it. It is close. And yet I’m writing fiction, I’m taking liberties. I was around for the last ten years of Michener’s life and here when he gave twenty million dollars to fund what became the Michener Center for Writers. I found him a complicated, heroic, and finally heart-breaking figure. I got to know him well enough to see that however much he pretended to be indifferent to the opinions of critics, he was deeply wounded by the fact that he was never considered a serious literary writer, and that to some he was no more than a best-selling hack. What struck me most when he died was how alone he was. There was no family, no children. Outside of a small circle, it was the students who mourned him the most. The more I learned about him, the more I became convinced that the face he showed to the public was largely a mask, a defense, and a long way from the real one. James Michener was self-invented.

MCW: So that brings us back to this con man. Where did he come from?

JM: Part of my job as director is to go to the airport to pick up our distinguished visiting writers. Many of these writers I’ve never met before, and my only means of identifying them is a jacket photo, sometimes decades old. I wait outside the gate, scanning the faces for someone who looks as if he’s looking for me. It’s a curious moment. I don’t know when the thought first occurred to me, but it was an entertaining one: what if the person raising a hand in greeting wasn’t the famous writer I was supposed to meet, but an imposter?

MCW: It sounds a little like a movie.

JM: I’m sure it does. I’ve always taken a somewhat childish pleasure in movies like Tootsie, Some Like it Hot, and Sister Act, comedies where characters pass themselves off as something they’re not. In Sister Act, a Las Vegas lounge singer ends up taking refuge in a convent. What, I wondered, if you had to hide out with writers instead of nuns?

MCW: So is it a comic novel?

JM: In part. The trick of the book was to take two radically different narratives—a fictional version of James Michener facing death, and my con man on the run—and fuse them. But if Shakespeare could play high and low in his comedies, why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I combine an outrageous romp—think Tony Curtis wobbling down the train platform in high heels—with fiction of psychological depth and bite.

MCW: So how do the students come out in the story?

JM: Remarkably unscathed. They do very well. It’s the director who really gets taken to the cleaners.