In the middle of February, Kim Magowan walked into her American Literature class, leaned against the front of her desk — she never sits at it — and began a discussion of the high modernist poets.
“I haven’t said this for a year, so I may mess up,” she said, her voice high-pitched but throaty.
She proceeded to recite T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” — all 131 lines of it — from memory, without making a mistake.
When entering her classrooms at Mills College, Magowan brings the usual things teachers tote to class — untidy stacks of paper, folders, a book bag, a to-go cup of coffee. But the things she holds in her mind are what make her lessons shine: myriad scraps from the books she’s read and read again, whole poems secreted away, page numbers, and word etymologies.
When Magowan recites and reads aloud to her classes, or when she tells her students that “decide” comes partly from the Latin “cesare,” which means “to cut, to kill,” she is pushing her students into a deeper relationship with language.
Magowan is the author of 28 published short stories and of a novel that is, as yet, unpublished.
Magowan’s work is sparse and sharpened to a point, most of the stories short, some of them no longer than a page or two. She has come to see short story writing as a challenge, like poetry: every word counts.
No scenario of human conflict is off-limits in Magowan’s fiction — cheating spouses feature prominently in her work — as she also writes about mentally disturbed women, sexually abused adolescents and distant fathers. She deals deftly with the humanity of all her characters, expressing their idiosyncrasies in ways that form clear mental images for the reader through similes and concise description — one character, memorably, has his armpit hair detailed: “the wet curl of Mr D’s armpit hair, like the toe of a Turkish slipper,” (from the story, “Warmer, Colder”).
Michelle Ross, a friend of Magowan’s and a fellow writer, said Magowan is stubborn in a good way. She and Magowan often share stories with each other and edit each other’s work.
“She’s not easily dissuaded by rejections. She sends that editor another story and then another story and then another story,” Ross said.
Magowan has been a visiting assistant professor of English at Mills College since 2001— a title she says is a “polite name for adjunct.” She teaches because she loves it. “If I won the lottery I would still be a teacher,” she said.
She lives in the hilly San Francisco neighborhood of Bernal Heights. Her family moved to San Francisco when she was 10; it was the seventh place she lived. Born July 16, 1967 in Washington D.C., Magowan moved often with her family — her father’s former job was CEO of Safeway.
Hilary Magowan, who is four and a half years younger than her sister, Kim, remembers Kim as a great older sister, but one who also went off into her own world a lot. “Sometimes I would want her to play games with me,” said Hilary, “but she preferred to be by herself in her room bouncing a tennis ball against the wall while she made up stories, which she would loudly dramatize.”
Margot, who falls between Kim and Hilary in age, is also a writer. The three sisters, who all live in San Francisco, get together once a week, usually, for what they call “cousin night.”
The first time Kim met a boyfriend of Margot’s, she was characteristically blunt: “She told him I was prickly,” Margot said, “but he should stick with me. He’s my husband now.”
After graduating from Stanford with her bachelor’s in English, Magowan began working on her doctorate at UC Berkeley, which she finished when she was 32.
Bryan Wagner, Magowan’s partner of nearly thirteen years, is associate professor of English at Berkeley, where they met through a mutual student. Both being English teachers, Wagner said he and Magowan don’t talk about books as often as people would assume, but that they do enjoy discussing their ideas.
The couple has two daughters. Nora, the elder of the two, is ten. She said her mom is always asking for her to rank things, everything from teachers to ice cream flavors. Magowan, too, ranks things. A Faulkner scholar, she can tell you which book of his is her seventh favorite, which is her tenth.
Magowan prefers public transit and walking to driving. Tamara Straus, Magowan’s friend, estimates that Magowan reads about 40 hours a week on public transit — “Like a full time job,” she said.
When in conversation, Magowan listens intently and swivels her eyes up as she thinks about her answers. Around her, you get the feeling she’s noticing everything. It’s her genuine joy in the different components of her life, coupled with her steady dedication that enables her to accomplish everything she does.
Robert Landon met Magowan 28 years ago in Oxford, England, where they were studying in the same overseas program.
“During our senior year in college, I wrote a very strange story in four frenzied sessions over the course of four consecutive evenings,” Landon said. “There was one single reason I wrote that story: the pleasure of reading it aloud to Kim Magowan.”
Landon said that Magowan was the only person he knew who loved books more than he did. “Her battered copies of “The Bell Jar,” “Absalom, Absalom!,” and “Tender is the Night,” were invested with secrets that had as much to do with her possession of them as the words of the great authors themselves.”
After each of the four sessions mentioned above, Landon said he would go looking for Magowan.
“She had fixed habits,” he said, “and there she would be, reading or talking, certainly smoking. And then I would read my three or so paragraphs. Her approval meant everything to me then. And when I got it, I was just about as happy as a person could be.”
Magowan spreads herself between family life, her job and her writing. But if she’s stressed, it’s hard to perceive. She gives her time freely to her students but still manages to write, sometimes finishing a story in a single day.
She’s efficient and strikingly intelligent. Her essence, though, is in her curiosity, her interest in the people surrounding her, their squabbles and hardships. Her empathy and astute observation are tools she applies across the boundaries in her life and make her the person to go to whether you’ve got a test question or a story you want looked at, or you just need someone to talk to.
Though her stories are compressed and sparse, Magowan doesn’t impress the same constrictions on her real life interactions. She’s got time: time to take the bus and to walk and to talk with people, all the while building up her worlds, both the imaginary ones, and the one she inhabits.