Iowa Alumni Magazine | November 2017 | Features

City of Literature

By Shelbi Thomas
A graphic novel joins a long line of books set in—and inspired by—Iowa City.

Kristen Radtke launched the book tour for her debut novel in the place where her literary dreams first took flight.

The UI Nonfiction Writing Program graduate returned to Iowa City this past spring to read from Imagine Wanting Only This, a critically acclaimed graphic novel that pays tribute to her experiences living in the creative community. It was a warm homecoming for Radtke, 12MFA, who read excerpts from her book among friends and fellow bibliophiles at Prairie Lights Bookstore during the Mission Creek Festival. "I love Prairie Lights like I love no other bookstore," she told the Iowa City Press-Citizen. "I worked a lot in the café and saw so many writers speak there. It's kind of jarring to be one of those writers now."

With her literary debut, Radtke joins countless other authors who have found inspiration in Iowa City. Since 1936, the Iowa Writers' Workshop has been the bedrock for this nurturing artistic haven, drawing young talents such as Flannery O'Connor, 47MFA, to enroll in the nation's first graduate-level creative writing program. From this foundation, other traditions such as the International Writing Program and Iowa Playwrights Workshop naturally flourished, solidifying the UI's reputation as the Writing University. Iowa City's prominence in the literary world endures today as the town prepares to celebrate 10 years as a globally renowned UNESCO City of Literature.

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8 Literary Landmarks

Next year, Iowa City will host the first meeting of the UNESCO Cities of Literature to ever be held in North America—and celebrate the 10th anniversary of receiving that special designation. Yet even before the City of Literature distinction, Iowa City—home to the first creative writing program in the country—has been known as a literary haven among the cornstalks. Here are a few of the places that catapulted this Midwestern college town to international literary fame:

1. Dey House and Glenn Schaeffer Library and Archives

The Dey House is home to the oldest and most renowned graduate creative writing program in the nation—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since 1936, the country’s brightest literary minds have come to the UI to earn their master of fine arts degrees under accomplished instructors such as Ethan Canin, 84MFA; John Irving, 67MFA; and Marilynne Robinson. Many Workshop graduates—including Michael Cunningham, 80MFA; Rita Dove, 77MFA; and Jane Smiley, 75MA, 76MFA, 78PhD—have published award-winning work that defines the literary landscape of America. These alumni are among the distinguished guests who regularly hold public lectures in the Glenn Schaeffer Library and Archives’ Frank Conroy Reading Room, where visitors can also view more than 4,000 books by accomplished Workshop graduates.

2. Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

On a stroll through downtown Iowa City, the enriching words of famed writers such as Nancy Drew creator Mildred A. Wirt Benson, 25BA, 27MA, and playwright Tennessee Williams, 38BA, decorate the sidewalks.

3. Kuhl House

The oldest remaining home in Iowa City, the Kuhl House was built around 1840 from locally quarried limestone and now serves as headquarters for the University of Iowa Press.

4. Prairie Lights Bookstore

Prairie Lights consistently ranks among the top independent bookstores in the nation. A quintessential trip to the beloved store includes listening to emerging or established authors (including those from the UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program) talk about their work on "Live from Prairie Lights," a series that has featured the likes of Annie Proulx, David Sedaris, and James Galvin, 77MFA.

5. Shambaugh House

In 2002, the Shambaugh House moved three blocks down the street to a fitting location diagonal from the Dey House. It then became home to the International Writing Program, which has hosted over 1,400 writers from more than 140 countries in its 50-year history. Founded by Paul Engle, 32MA, and Hualing Nieh Engle, 66MFA, as a complement to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the fall residency offers international authors an ideal environment to advance their work and engage in meaningful cultural exchanges.

6. Vogt House

Kurt Vonnegut penned the modern classic Slaughterhouse–Five here while teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1960s. The Queen Anne-style home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also hosted many memorable parties during Vonnegut’s tenure in Iowa City.

7. Fox Head Tavern

The oldest bar in the city, Dave’s Fox Head Tavern (established in 1934) has been the watering hole—and unlikely inspiration—for some authors affiliated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Inside this dimly lit, red-paneled shack, picture Kurt Vonnegut in the corner sipping scotch and water, Frank Conroy shooting pool through a smoky haze, and Hunter S. Thompson kicked to the curb for unruly behavior.

8. George’s Buffet

A Northside institution for nearly 80 years, George’s Buffet remains largely unchanged from your college days—right down to its flocked wallpaper. Though known as the poets’ hangout among Iowa Writers’ Workshop students, wordsmiths of all stripes have joined the townies in praise of George’s cheeseburgers, prepared in a 1950s electric broiler and served on a soft sesame-seed bun.



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Prairie Lights co-owner and past Iowa Writers' Workshop alumna Jan Weismiller, 79BA, 84MFA, credits not only the town's prolific writers, but also its voracious readers for putting Iowa City on the literary map. Says Weismiller: "Everybody who wants to be a writer knows about it."

In fact, it was the UI's rich literary heritage that first brought Radtke to this cultural oasis amid the corn. By enrolling at the UI, the Green Bay, Wisconsin, native fulfilled her long-held goal of following in the footsteps of her favorite authors, such as Eula Biss, 06MFA; John D'Agata, 98MFA; Denis Johnson, 71BA, 74MFA; and James Alan McPherson, 71MFA. "Iowa City is such a small town that I thought there was no way I'd stay for my third year [of the Nonfiction Writing Program], but by my third year, there was no way I would've left," says Radtke, art director and New York editor of Believer magazine. "It's such a comfortable place where everyone is working on creative writing. It drew me to my closest friends—many of whom are still my most trusted readers—and the community followed me even after I left."

Other writers share a similar experience of falling in love with the Iowa City literary scene while honing their craft at the UI. The close-knit community allows aspiring writers to brush shoulders with some of the world's most distinguished literary figures—both in and outside of the classroom. In the process, they have transformative life experiences that help shape their work. "I have such a memory of it from a writing standpoint as a blessed time of being," says Adam Haslett, 99MFA, an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate whose latest novel, Imagine Me Gone, was selected as a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. "There was a sense of being on an island with a bunch of other writers because everyone—almost everyone—had come from elsewhere. It was a time where I felt a great absorption in the activity [of writing] and got a lot done. Much of my first book I wrote while I was a student here."

The idea for Radtke's Imagine Wanting Only This was similarly hatched in Iowa City during her final semester at the UI. While taking a course on visual storytelling, former Nonfiction Writing Program Director Robin Hemley, 82MFA, encouraged Radtke to incorporate her drawings into an autobiographical piece. That short assignment soon became the foundation for her graphic novel. Described as "a portrait of a mind grappling with alienation and loneliness" by the New York Times Book Review, the book contemplates these themes through the lenses of her beloved uncle's death and an exploration of abandoned ruins around the world. "Iowa City is one of the only places in the book with any real longing or reverence," Radtke says of the refuge from life's trials that she found at the UI. "It's a very singular place and keeps regenerating in a way a lot of the abandoned cities don't."

"They were here who made the sentence behave and misbehave, who added chapter and verse, and recast the myths." Marvin Bell, 63MFA, in "Writers in a Café," written in honor of Iowa City's designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, November 2008

Like other books conceived in Iowa City, Radtke's memoir includes the town as a natural backdrop. She illustrates historic neighborhoods that house college students near campus and intellectual debates held after class at Dave's Fox Head Tavern. Past portrayals of Iowa City in literature capture its vibrant sports scene (The World According to Garp by John Irving, 67MFA), academic life (Letting Go by former Iowa Writers' Workshop instructor Philip Roth), and medical culture (Johnson's short story, "Emergency," from Jesus' Son). Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella, 78MFA, once shared with Sports Illustrated that through his time at the UI, he "quickly fell in love with the state [of Iowa]—with the rolling fields of corn, the dense humidity, the tall bamboo canes thick as hoe handles." His passion for Iowa's topographical beauty helped inspire Shoeless Joe, the book that served as the basis for the classic sports film Field of Dreams.

Sometimes, Iowa City's influence is more subtle. In an article published in the New Yorker this past May, Curtis Sittenfeld, 01MFA, recalls her time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and reveals to what extent it informed her short story, "Show Don't Tell," about a character earning her M.F.A. "The good news is that many of the lessons I learned, especially from my professors, have stayed with me, and their wisdom has become even clearer with the passage of time," Sittenfeld said. "This seems like an appropriate place to say that, although I really wanted everything in 'Show Don't Tell' to feel plausible and realistic, that's not the same as being autobiographical."

Whether the source of truth or fiction, Iowa City remains a popular place for those who treasure literature to learn, teach, and read. In April 2018, the town will showcase its writing tradition to the world during the annual meeting of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The United States' withdrawal from UNESCO at the end of this year doesn't affect Iowa City's designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, which will be celebrated on its 10th anniversary next year. "UNESCO was looking for a community where literature was an important thread that pulls together the fabric of the community, and that's a succinct way to describe Iowa City," says Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Executive Director John Kenyon, 92BA, who adds that the organization's funding is all generated locally, without federal or UNESCO support. "So much about this community celebrates, champions, and facilitates writing, and on the other side of the coin, readers are dedicated and intense."

For City of Literature events such as the anniversary celebration and the Iowa City Book Festival, Kenyon finds it easy to convince UI alumni to return for readings, reconnect with former instructors, and mentor young writers. "I invite [alumni authors] to come back to where their writing careers took a leap and celebrate that," he says. "When given the opportunity to come back, they really like that. Fondness drives their work, and if they're looking to set their next book in a small Midwestern college town, why not Iowa City?"

Extending this rich tradition, Radtke is touring to promote Imagine Wanting Only This. Emerging as the Los Angeles Times' "face to watch" in the literary world, she joins a notable list of UI alumni such as Gail Godwin, 68MA, 71PhD; Mildred A. Wirt Benson, 25BA, 27MA; and T.C. Boyle, 74MFA, 77PhD, who once made Iowa City their home—and their muse. "Iowa City is just a magic place where you actually can focus on your art, your work," Radtke told the Press-Citizen. "It's a time and a place that I really miss."

PHOTO CREDITS: Fox head Tavern: google maps; Dey House and Glenn Schaeffer Library and Archives: JUSTIN TORNER/UI OFFICE OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION; George's Buffet: ROADTIPSROADTIPS.TYPEPAD.COM; Iowa Avenue Literary Walk: ADAM BURKE/LITTLE VILLAGE; Kuhl House: UI press; prairie Lights bookstore: pRAIRIE LIGHTS; Shambaugh House: INTERNATIONAL WRITING PROGRAM ; Vogt House: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS