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Writers' Workshop Graduate returns to Iowa City for debut novel

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | JANUARY 31, 2013 5:00 AM

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Ben Nugent found Iowa City an easy place to fall in love with.

“I miss the languorous pace at which evenings used to progress in Iowa City. People getting together in a house with peeling wallpaper and talking for hours about everything and nothing,” he said. “Time passes differently in a grad-student population.”

Nugent, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, can easily reminisce about his time as a student.

“I miss smoking a cigarette on the porch of my apartment in a drafty Victorian on a winter morning, the smoke really sharp against the off-white sky, and the woman I was in love with smoking next to me, standing barefoot in the snow. And I miss closing down Hamburg Inn No. 2, a plate of hash browns at my elbow, writing in a notebook. That’s where Good Kids began, in the bosom of Hamburg. I never bought a Hamburg Inn T-Shirt. When you live somewhere, you don’t need to buy the T-shirt. On this outing, I’m going to buy it.”

By “this outing,” Nugent means his trip back to Iowa City for a reading at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. Friday.

He will read from his new novel, Good Kids.

Good Kids is a novel about two 15-year-olds, a boy and a girl, who discover his father and her mother making out in a supermarket. They develop a friendship and vow never to cheat on anyone,” he said. “Thirteen years later, they meet again, both engaged to other people, and fall in love. The vow looks different to them now, and by extension, so do their parents’ choices.”

This is Nugent’s début novel, but he has been writing in some form or another for most of his life. In 2009, Nugent released the book American Nerd: The History of my People, about the history of nerds and nerd culture.

“I started out as a journalist; for two and a half years, in my early 20s, I was an arts reporter at Time,” he said. “And, of course, American Nerd is all nonfiction, except for the short story at the end of the paperback edition. Reportage was the kind of writing that came most naturally to me for a long time.”

Nugent said working on the novel was a bit of a change from journalism.

“It took me a while to learn how to love somebody I had made up; in fiction, you have to love the characters, to know them like friends,” he said. “Journalism is different. You don’t have to fall in love with me to write this story. Skewering can be great in journalism, but in fiction, empathy is a hundred times more interesting than skewering. Why skewer some ethereal wretch you conjured in your dreams?”

Michelle Huneven, who was familiar with Nugent during his time at the Writers’ Workshop, agrees that it took him a while to love his characters. She often visited him at the Dey House for what she called the “daily chat.”

“We talked about journalism, and books, and writing, of course. He was working on Good Kids, which I read at a couple of stages,” she said. “The first time, I thought it was smart, and very funny, and quite close to being done. But then Ben worked on Good Kids for another year, tweaking, the prose, going more deeply into the characters, and when I read it again, it was beautifully improved, more resonant and mature, and just as funny: a real testament to the revision process.”

Brant Rumble, Nugent’s editor, has worked with him extensively on revising different pieces over the last several years.

“With Good Kids, I had the pleasure of working with Ben starting with a very early and partial draft, so I gained a more complete understanding of his creative process, and that was a thrill,” Rumble said. “ My favorite aspect of Ben’s fiction is his sensibility with regards to interpersonal dynamics — the details he brings forth are unusual and insightful. My favorite fiction is that which I can easily relate to but also still feel like I’m getting a whole new perspective, and that’s what Ben does so well.”

What: Ben Nugent reading
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque
When: 7 p.m. Friday


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