Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2009 | Features

Magic in the Air

By Madelaine Jerousek-Smith
After almost two decades of entertaining literature lovers, the Live from Prairie Lights radio show has ended. Here, we celebrate some of the highlights of this quintessentially Iowa show.

As she did on many nights, Jan Weissmiller, 79BA, 84MFA, settled in to listen to Live from Prairie Lights on her kitchen radio. The hour-long show, featuring readings by authors live from the independent downtown Iowa City bookstore, was comforting, almost like hearing a writer read to you in your own home. But when mystery writer Carl Hiaasen began to read from Native Tongue on this night, Weissmiller knew she had to see him in person.

"That would happen to me sometimes," says Weissmiller, co-owner of Prairie Lights Bookstore on South Dubuque Street. "I'd have a long day at the store, so I'd come home and just sit by the radio, like it was the 1930s or something. Then this wonderful writer would come on and I'd say, 'OK, I'm going down there.'"

Live from Prairie Lights, which ended in December, had that kind of effect on people for the 18 years it brought poets, novelists, memoirists, and more into the homes of Iowans. The show, broadcast on University of Iowa radio station WSUI-AM 910, featured big-name writers like Norman Mailer, Garrison Keillor, and Susan Sontag, as well as little-known writers from Iowa and around the world.

While the program may have drawn big names, Iowa Public Radio officials said it attracted a small audience. When the public radio stations at Iowa's three state universities merged in 2006, the show shifted from a live broadcast to a scheduled program on Saturday and Sunday evenings, broadcasting readings recorded during the previous week. About 1,600 people listened to the show after the merger, compared with some 1,250 before.

Now, Iowa Public Radio officials say they hope to reach a larger audience by broadcasting interviews with authors on programs like The Exchange. Still, Live from Prairie Lights' cancellation brought impassioned letters to local newspapers and phone calls to the station from loyal listeners.

"It's good to know that the show mattered to people," says Julie Englander, 78BA, who hosted the show all 18 years. "It gave me the opportunity to talk with all these amazing authors writing these marvelous books. Their legacy will be forever. It was an opportunity I'd never have someplace else."

The goal of the first-of-its-kind radio program was to expose the public to great authors reading their work, discussing their craft, and taking questions from readers. In 1991, producers from WSUI approached Prairie Lights Bookstore about broadcasting the readings already held on the store's second floor.

"We didn't know if it was going to be a big deal or not," recalls Prairie Lights founder Jim Harris, 69BA. Around the same time, though, publishers began to expand budgets for publicity tours, bringing more writers through the Heartland. "It was the right time and right place," acknowledges Harris, "particularly the place, because Iowa City was so well-known for its literary community" thanks to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

The first reading was broadcast on June 14, 1991, when authors Mary Swander, 73BA, 76MFA, and Jane Anne Staw, 81MFA, read from their new book, Parsnips in the Snow, about the lives of diverse Midwestern gardeners. The authors brought along several of the featured gardeners, and Englander and audience members had a lively conversation with the guests.

The show became more frequent over the years, sometimes with readings almost every night of the week. Celebrities like Michael Chabon or Amy Tan often attracted such large audiences that the show would be broadcast in larger auditoriums on campus or at the Englert Theatre downtown.

Over the years, the live nature of the show produced moments unexpected and unusual, strange and silly. In 2001, NPR humorist David Sedaris came to read from his collection of personal stories, Me Talk Pretty One Day. In the book, Sedaris tells the story of taking guitar lessons at his father's urging. Sedaris had no interest in the guitar; rather, he wanted to sing commercial jingles in the style of Billie Holiday.

"Someone in the audience asked if he would sing the Oscar Mayer song," Englander recalls, "and Sedaris said, 'Only for $20.'" The audience took up a collection, eventually passing more than $25 to the front of the room. Sedaris reluctantly sang the song to uproarious applause.

"Because it was live, it was like walking on a high wire every night without a net," Englander says. "You never knew what was going to happen."

Audience members came to the readings to be part of the conversation with authors. On any given night, an audience could range from professors to farmers to students from local high schools and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Typically, the makeup of the audience depended on who was reading that night.

When former Marine Anthony Swofford, 01MFA, read from his 2003 memoir about the Gulf War, Jarhead, he attracted a number of veterans—both male and female. One audience member recalls looking around and being struck by the incongruity of all those military buzz cuts and tattoos against the backdrop of book-lined shelves.

In 2000, UI journalism professor Stephen Bloom read from Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, his book about the effect that an orthodox Jewish slaughterhouse had on a small Iowa town. Weissmiller recalls that a man in the audience seemed to be agitated, asking pointed questions about the book. The man stuck around after the reading while Bloom was signing books, making Weissmiller nervous: "I said to Steve, 'Let's go down the back stairs.' He said, 'You look a little small to be a bodyguard.' I said, 'I can manage. Let's sneak out through the alley.'"

For the most part, however, the audience members' questions were as intriguing as the author's responses. "What makes a novel, and is it different from what makes a story?" a Writers' Workshop student asked Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and faculty member Marilynne Robinson in 2004. "How do you find such perfect words?" was the essence of another question.

"Having this community of writers here, it was interesting to hear what other writers asked," Weissmiller says. "If you're a young writer and you can hear faculty in the Writers' Workshop asking these questions, it gives you a lot of insight—both the questions and the answers."

Over the years, the show introduced audiences to many new authors. In 1992, a little-known novelist named E. Annie Proulx called Prairie Lights. She would be driving cross-country from Vermont to her home in Wyoming, and wondered if she could stop by to read from her first novel, Postcards.

"I think we had five people in the audience that night," Harris says. "I was there and I can name the others."

Proulx read from the book and talked about a novel she had recently completed, The Shipping News. The next time she was on Live from Prairie Lights, more than 400 people filled the audience to hear Proulx read from that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which later became a movie starring Kevin Spacey. A short story she'd written in 1997 went on to become the Academy Award-nominated movie, Brokeback Mountain.

The show also introduced audiences to a variety of international writers. In 2004, mesmerized by a short story he'd read in the New Yorker, Harris praised the piece—written by an unknown Chinese writer—to a friend while sipping coffee in the bookstore's coffee shop. Across the way, a woman stared at him. Then she burst out: "That's my story! That's my story!"

Later, when the writer, Yiyun Li, 00MS, 05MFA, appeared on Live from Prairie Lights to read from her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, she told the audience that she'd written the stories in the Prairie Lights coffee shop. The book won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the California Book Award for first fiction.

"She had written all the stories up there," Harris says, pointing to the bookstore's second floor. "I had seen her before, sitting up there with her headphones on. I didn't even know she was a writer."

Because many of the show's writers had ties to the Writers' Workshop, returning to Iowa City for the reading was a homecoming of sorts. Jane Smiley, 75MA, 76MFA, 78PhD, told an audience that she'd just stood in her hotel room and peered into the parking lot where she left one husband and found another, and then looked farther to the law office where she married still another.

"Iowa City made me, I have to say," she said, provoking laughter.

The show had many serious moments, too, such as an appearance by C. Vivian Stringer, the former Iowa womenps basketball coach who took three different teams to the NCAA Final Four. Her 2008 memoir, Standing Tall, recounted her rise to the top, but also her many personal tragedies, including the sudden death of her husband, the illness of her child, and her own struggle with breast cancer. Englander, who was rarely intimidated, sat in awe of her guest that night.

"She was so wonderful," recalls the host. "We talked for an hour. She didn't read, but she talked about everything."

For Weissmiller, it was always moving to glance around during a Live from Prairie Lights broadcast and to see readers so engrossed in the writer's words. For writers, the experience was just as profound.

"A life as a writer involves a constant ongoing relationship with readers," Michael Cunningham, 80MFA, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, said on Live from Prairie Lights in 2005. "We're writing these books together, in a sense."

On December 13, 2008, graphic novelist Jonathan Ames starred in Live from Prairie Lights' swan song. The radio show may be over now, but high-caliber writers will continue to read at Prairie Lights, Weissmiller says. And readers across Iowa will always have the unforgettable memories of sitting by the radio at home or in the car, listening to the magic of a writer's voice.