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Interview: Mike Magnuson, Author

I owe you an apology. I’m afraid that was derelict in my journalistic duty and you, dear reader, are going to suffer for it. But without a phone-recorder, I was forced to type and take notes during my conversation with writer and tale-teller-extraordinaire Mike Magnuson. And the bouts of uncontrollable laughter, the tears running down my face, and Mike’s tommy gun approach to conversation all combined to make typing difficult, and at times impossible.

So you’re not going to come close to the good stuff. I’ll do my best to recount the interview, show you the quotes I did manage to get down on paper, and introduce you a little to the lummox himself. But I would recommend you do a little work yourself. Track the man down, go on a bike ride with him and you’ll see what I mean.

The author of The Right Man for the Job, The Fire Gospels, Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180, and Lummox: The Evolution of a Man, Mike Magnuson was born in Wisconsin, made his way as far south as Florida to study with Padgett Powell, and now teaches creative writing Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. A drummer, factory worker, defecation detective, incredible story-teller, and grade-A certified no-bullshit man, Magnuson is for real. Buy his books and find out for yourself.

As a professor of creative writing, Magnuson naturally bristled at the idea that art can’t be taught. “There are things about writing that can be taught. Grammar, punctuation, bullshit like that. You can teach that. You can teach people that in order to get your first book out, it’s going to have to be fabulously better than other stuff,” he said.

Magnuson tries to be practical and clear with his writing students, without resorting to Simon Cowell-like attitude, and he always reminds them of the intense desire and resilience that is needed to succeed in this industry. “I lay it out to them, if you don’t want to write your ass off and revise your stories ten times, then maybe this isn’t for you. I think that’s what you need to be a writer. To never be satisfied,” he said. “I have told students who have written a bunch of stuff that is all shit, you may want to do something else. If you can’t take it that 12 out of 13 people in class think your story is bad, you’re never going to be able to go through what happens when you actually start publishing books.”

Oftentimes, young writers entering writing workshops for the first time chafe at the teacher’s directions. They want to focus on their art and they don’t like the attention paid to formatting and grammar. Magnuson tries to make this more digestible by simply relating to students. “There is a way to present this stuff so the kids like it. Some of these people are in their 40’s or 50’s and some of these writers are 19 or 20. As a teacher you have to be hip to what the kids are hip to. If someone’s in their late 50’s and they’re reading Henry James, they may not be able to communicate to a younger person who is getting porn on his cellphone,” Magnuson said. Magnuson’s ability to reach a diverse group is evident through experiences related in his memoir Lummox: The Evolution of a Man. In the book, he details, in hilarious and insightful fashion, his experiences working at a detention center for young boys, living in a house full of lesbians and hippies, and working at factories. It’s a stereotype to generalize about the people in those three environments, but it does offer a glimpse of the cross-section of people Magnuson relates to.

If the dean walked in and said that instead of having a full semester to work with his students, if Magnuson only had five minutes to tell aspiring writers a tip about writing, he would “have them read The Art of Fiction and all the other books John Gardner wrote.” As for a single tip aspiring writers should use to get published, Magnuson said “you need to get an agent. That can sometimes take a long time to find one you like, who you trust.”

As someone who has “published four books and stuff, none of which have been a big seller,” Magnuson is not overly optimistic about the state of publishing today but he doesn’t seem ready to write it off either. As a professor used to handing out grades, Magnuson rates the publishing industry “definitely a C. The bigger house you’re with, the more of a clusterfuck it is. They run 50 books a season, counting on 49 to fail. What if you’re in the 49? It’s no biggie, it’s only the thing you’ve been working on for 10 or 15 years.”

There is a sense, however, that Magnuson isn’t going to go away. His criticisms are valid and reasonable, but Magnuson seems like he will keep charging into the fray. Never one to shy away from hard work, it’s a safe bet that the self-described “working class novelist” will continue to put out great books, full of heart, insight, and humor, born out of hard work.

This is, after all, a man who drove his pickup truck thousands of miles to visit bookstores in support of Lummox, at one point driving over 4,000 miles and reading at 15 bookstores in eight states. One unfortunate event on that truck tour was that the Lummox.org magnetic sign on the truck was stolen in Oxford, Mississippi, the spiritual home of American literature, the mecca of writing, and most unbelievably of all, the theft took place right next to a church. The Lummox.org website reported that “Mike says that he is not surprised somebody stole the magnet, but for this to happen in Oxford, Mississippi? Worldwide capital of literary coolness and fun? The horror.” However, Magnuson now sees the theft as an event in a larger transformation in his life. “It was the end of an era. It was a shot across the bow. I quit smoking,” he said.

There is an element to the working class novelist that is often overlooked. Magnuson curses, he talks about football, and he isn’t hesitant to voice an opinion when asked. That is him on the cover of Lummox with the gut and the bottle, but since that time, he has lost about a hundred pounds, given up beer, and races bicycles on a semi-pro basis. What hasn’t changed is that Magnuson posses a tremendous intelligence, wit, and emotion. He has several advanced degrees and was Phi Kappa Phi. Like the haggard old man in the kung fu movies who can barely stand up straight but can unleash a torrent of death on dozens of attackers, Magnuson’s intelligence and skill make quick work of critics who only focus on the amounts of farts and goddamn’s in his work.

Like the man himself, there is a depth to Magnuson’s stories that may not be obvious at the surface. Like an old Hank Williams song or a Robert Johnson riff, just because a work of art is simple, that doesn’t mean it is unsophisticated. And for that we owe Mike Magnuson. For telling simple stories of simple people, but telling them beautifully. We owe him for bringing art to the factory floor and bars. And we owe him for his no-nonsense, no-bullshit attitude that demolishes the ivory tower and values hard work over lingo and “isms.”

If you see Mike, cheer him on at his next bike race. We owe it to him.

Check out Mike’s website here.

Buy Mike’s latest book, Heft on Wheels here.