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UI alums Eula Biss and Kerry Howley read for Mission Creek

BY CLAIRE DIETZ | APRIL 02, 2015 5:00 AM

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Hear from one of the readers, Michael Morse, below. Morse read during Mission Creek Festival's Wednesday set of events, reading excerpts of poetry from his new book, Void and Compensation. Morse graduated from the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop in 1992.

Multimedia compiled and edited by Lily Abromeit

Iowa City is no stranger to literature, and neither is the Mission Creek Festival. Names from all across the industry and country will be featured at the festival, including well-known nonfiction writer Eula Biss and essayist Kerry Howley.

While Mission Creek is arguably best known for its music, over the years, it has used Iowa City’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature to attract readers, including alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

One noted writer returning to town this year is Howley, who has an M.F.A. from the UI with a focus on creative nonfiction. Howley is known for her most recent work, Thrown, which chronicles three years spent in the company of mixed-martial artists, narrated from the perspective of an excitable, semi-fictionalized graduate student. The work was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2014.

Howley will appear at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 6 p.m. today, with the doors opening at 5 p.m. The reading will also feature Writers’ Workshop graduate Arna Bontemps Hemenway.

Howley said that she found her inspiration for her latest work in a local gym and a love for mixed-martial arts fighting.

“I had seen mixed-martial arts on television, and I was interested in my complex emotional reaction to it,” she said. “A little research revealed the existence of a historically important gym in Davenport, just an hour away from Iowa City. It seemed like a natural subject to start exploring.”

Howley said this in-depth research, while enlightening, was not her favorite part of the creative process.

“Much of my writing involves deep reporting, which has afforded me all of these bizarre stimulating experiences I would not otherwise have had,” she said. “But the reporting does feel like work. Writing, when it’s going well, feels more like play. I love structuring a long piece of writing, finding its shape.”

Biss, another notable alumna of the UI’s creative Nonfiction Writing Program, will read at Prairie Lights at noon Saturday. Biss is the author of three books, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, The Balloonists, and her most recent work, On Immunity: An Inoculation
Instructor and M.F.A. candidate Beatrice Smigasiewicz, who became familiar with Biss when she read Biss’ first work, The Balloonists, said that the search for content is what sets the writer apart from her peers.

“As a nonfiction writer, I think what makes her stand out to me from other nonfiction writers is the degree to which she lets the information, the research, [and] the search alter the shape of her writing,” Smigasiewicz said. “It’s rare now, I think, to find a nonfiction writer who relies on the search rather than personal narrative to lead the essay. She’s great at it.”

Biss’ latest work, On Immunity: An Inoculation, discusses the metaphors and myths surrounding the conception of immunity and its implications for the individual. As she hears more fears about vaccines, she researches what they mean for her own child, her community, America, and the world, historically and in the present moment.

Lynne Nugent, the managing editor of the Iowa Review, said creative nonfiction has begun to garner more readers’ respect in recent decades — especially in the hands of such writers as Biss and Howley.

“[When] the Iowa Review got started in 1970 … nonfiction writing wasn’t really considered to be on the same level as the two genres [fiction and poetry],” Nugent said. “At this point, nonfiction has taken its place as a genre that is equal in importance and complexity to poetry and fiction … Just looking at this literary landscape, people are writing nonfiction that is as interesting and captivating as fiction and poetry writers are.” 

Apart from representing her genre during Mission Creek, Howley said, she is simply glad to be back in Iowa City. At her reading tonight, she said her audiences should expect “A reader who is happy to be home.”


Mission Creek Lit Events

Today
Kerry Howley, 6 p.m., Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque
Jeff Chang, 7 p.m., Mill, 120 E. Burlington
Lorrie Moore, 8 p.m., Van Allen

FRIDAY
Mission Print: Publishing Through a Digital Landscape, 3 p.m., Prairie Lights
Lit Crawl, more than 60 authors, various locations

SATURDAY
Indie Presses Book Fair (turn to 3b for details), 11 a.m., the Mill
Eula Biss, noon, Prairie Lights
Kiese Laymon, 6 p.m., the Mill
The Human Body house reading, 8 p.m., 402 Fairchild


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