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If you’ve visited Barnes & Noble recently, chances are you’ve glanced at a novel written by an author who graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Perhaps the cover art piqued your interest (although novice book lovers know never to judge a book by its cover), so you picked it up and read the inside flap.
Then you fail to read the author’s biography until you’ve completed the book, only to find out they went through the Writer’s Workshop. A sense of pride comes with knowing the author of what could be your new favorite book graduated from the same university, or a university within your home state.
Stuck at home because of the pandemic last year, books increasing became a popular escape, with celebrities starting book clubs and titles gaining popularity on “bookstagram,” or “booktok.”
Reese’s Book Club, established by actor Reese Witherspoon, provides readers with diverse titles, behind-the-scenes glimpses into the author’s writing and thought process and additional content such as playlist or recipes when appropriate, depending on the plot of the novel.
Writer’s Workshop 2009 graduate Anna North’s novel “Outlawed,” was Reese’s Book Club’s January 2021 pick.
“It’s been really gratifying and surprising to me in some ways,” North said. “I think this novel connected with readers on a different level than my previous ones. A lot of that is due to Reese’s Book Club, which I think helped it reach a new audience. I feel like Instagram was so important for books this past year, especially when a lot of bookstores were closed or weren’t open at full capacity and we couldn’t have in-person readings as much.”
“Outlawed” is a Western set in 1894, where 17-year-old Ada makes the decision to leave everything she knows behind to join the Hole in the Wall Gang, after being shamed by her family and community for not being able to conceive a child.
Leader of Hole in the Wall, otherwise known as “The Kid,” wants to provide a safe space for runaway women who seek community. In order to achieve this, they devise a plan that makes Ada reconsider her decision to leave the familiarity and comfort of home.
Throughout the novel, North meshes themes of feminism, sexuality, gender and race into a genre where they have never been seen before.
“I think there’s been this real new appetite for reexamining the American West, not just through the lens of a John Wayne movie, but recognizing the diversity of people that have always lived there,” North said. “Even though I think the Western has this very much macho, masculine reputation, that the West could be a site of gender excrementation and gender play, that there’s a long history of queer Westerns and queer-adjacent Westerns. I think there’s been this increased acknowledgment that the traditional white guy in a cowboy hat isn’t what the West ever was and doesn’t have to be what Westerns are either.”
Throughout the Writer’s Workshop, North felt she could embrace the potential of becoming an author — a career she had always envisioned for herself.
“People always talk about permission to be a writer and I think that’s what the workshop gave me in a certain way,” North said. “Everyone there took writing seriously and acted like it was OK and normal to want to be a writer and want to be an artist. That wasn’t necessarily something I saw in the culture at large.”
A classmate of North’s, Maggie Shipstead, graduated from the Writer’s Workshop in 2008. Her novel, “Great Circle,” was the Read with Jenna May 2021 pick and recognized as one of Amazon Editors Best Books of the Year So Far for the year 2021. Read with Jenna is “TODAY” Show anchor Jenna Bush Hager’s book club.
In “Great Circle,” one of two main characters, Marian, drops out of high school in 1928, at age 14 to pursue a career in aviation. After becoming a pilot, she spends the rest of her life indebted to the wealthy man who provided her with a plane and aviation lessons.
One hundred years later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a movie regarding her disappearance in Antarctica. It is through this movie that Baxter hopes to redefine herself as an actress as she steps into a character whose qualities are similar to her own.
The novel takes readers along two journeys of women determining their own fate despite hardships in their specific fields.
“(With) ‘Great Circle,’ I am combining sort of tactics I’ve used in my previous books and skills in sort of writing them, so it was a lot more complex and it was much longer,” Shipstead said. “And some ways it tied into my real life more because I started writing for travel magazines during the time I was writing it, so I was also traveling a lot, I was going to very remote places, so bringing my own experiences into the book in a way that I didn’t really with either of my first two.”
Shipstead is also the author of novels “Astonish Me” and “Seating Arrangements.” Shipstead also is a journalist, with bylines in publications like The New York Times, Travel and Leisure and Outside Magazine.
A year after graduating from Harvard with an English degree, Shipstead decided to attend UI and go through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Unlike North, who had grown up writing stories and knew by the time she was in high school that she wanted to be an author, Shipstead “fell into” writing.
“Some of it was just a question of gaining experience and skill,” Shipstead said. “I think the stories I wrote as an undergrad were the first stories I’d ever written, so I had no idea what I was doing. And kind of by the end of my first year at Iowa my stories were functioning as stories more — they weren’t just someone trying to make a story, they were actually telling a story and someone trying to convey characters.”
Reaching a wide audience through Read with Jenna was “reassuring” to Shipstead, as the novel was selected five months before its release date.
“That stuff is all what you hope for, just that your book reaches an audience,” Shipstead said. “But then it’s also been meaningful to me, I get messages on Instagram from people saying how much the book meant to them or that it changed the way they thought about something in their own lives, things like that. And that’s always sort of a nice connection with readers.”
North and Shipstead are among the dozens of authors whose novels have gained recognition through celebrity book clubs, best of lists and popularity on social media that have graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For a comprehensive list of novels written by workshop graduates and faculty, visit writersworkshop.uiowa.edu.
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