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UI grad student awarded $30K through Jaffe Writer's award

BY RANA MOUSTAFA | SEPTEMBER 13, 2012 6:30 AM

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It took three years of careful observation for nonfiction writer Inara Verzemnieks to get the complete story of a group of people living at a rest stop on an interstate in Portland, Ore. 

That diligence paid off — this story was one of the reasons the graduate student was selected as one of the six writers in the nation to be honored with the Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award and given $30,000 this year.

The award was created in 1995 by famous writer Rona Jaffe, who set aside money to give women writers who are starting out in their literary careers the support and the encouragement to take time to focus on their writing. Since the award was established, more than $1 million have been allocated to talented writers.

The award is given out anonymously by anonymous choosers who are on the lookout for outstanding writers. 

The second piece that led to Verzemnieks’ selection is an unfinished work of creative nonfiction and a part of her book tentatively titled External Exile. The piece acted as a lens to capture the history of her homeland country Latvia and her family’s journey as refugees after World War II.

Verzemnieks said her grandparents instilled a passion for writing in her at an early age. Her grandparents helped raise her, and because they were refugees, the only way they could show her where they had come from was through telling stories.

She said she grew up continually hearing beautifully detailed stories that, in essence, was the home she had never set foot in.

“That was an early exposure for me — that you could make a world for others through words, so I was primed from an early age to think in that way,” she said.

Robin Hemley, the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, said Verzemnieks has a unique style of writing that attracted him when she began writing at the UI.

“She is able to create characters and scenes and make everything into a moving portrait of whatever she is writing about, whether it is a group of people living in a rest stop or her grandparents’ history in Latvia,” he said.

She said she has long been drawn to things that are overlooked, things that take people a while to access, and things that unfold slowly.

“When I was a journalist, the best part for me was when I was sitting on someone’s sofa,” she said. “I feel like I was invited into someone’s unfolding life, and that’s the kind of thing that gets me excited about writing.”

Hemley said her strong effort in research before writing a piece stands out.

“I’m always struck by how meticulous she is as a writer and how her research doesn’t show awkwardly on the page,” he said.

Verzemnieks reported for the Oregonian and worked for 13 years before coming to the UI. Her former editor, Barry Johnson, said he was impressed with the amount of commitment and time she put in to each of her stories.

“She tried to reinvent the story form for each story she wrote,” he said. “She didn’t do this for ‘aesthetic’ reasons, though. She really did want to reflect the squirming, wriggling, hard-to-pin-down life she found on the page as well as she could, in a way that made the reader think it was as singular as she thought it was.”

Verzmnieks said reporting for the Oregonian was an invaluable experience. While working at the paper, she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Her nomination was based on a portfolio she had written during the year prior that included a piece about her discoveries of a hidden world, desires, and dreams in a park in Portland, Ore., and piece about a couple obsessed with velvet paintings.

“It was a tremendous experience, and I learned more about myself, and my voice, and the things I was drawn to,” she said. “With that, I learned that I wanted to focus on my writing and stretch my writing, so I decided to go back to school and get my M.F.A degree, so I came here to Iowa.”

She said Iowa was the perfect choice for her because it values writing and it is a wonderful community in which to meet people who are passionate about it.

“Every single day, I have the opportunity to be exposed to other writers who are just incredible,” she said. “A big part of coming here was that I was inspired by them and their work.”

Verzemnieks will attend an awards ceremony in New York on Sept. 20 and will then read at New York University along with the other five finalists.

She said the award will give her the opportunity and time to immerse herself in her writing.

“I don’t have to worry about trying to find another job or worry about my potential, because now it is being supported and recognized,” she said. “That really makes all the difference in the world when you’re trying to pursue something like a book.”


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