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Kerry Howley packs Prairie Lights

BY CLAIRE DIETZ | APRIL 03, 2015 5:00 AM

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A cinematic fight scene took shape in the minds eyes of a captivated Prairie Lights audience last evening as Kerry Howley read from her book Thrown.

“Duke had not realized Eric was directly in front of him, swaying, and so Duke, a 6-foot-4, 180 pound champion kickboxer, jabbed a 145-pound Eric in the head," the author said. "For the first time in his life, Eric staggered backwards, as if tripped….” 

Howley and fellow reader Arna Bontemps Hemenway attracted a full house to their readings yesterday; where the room wasn't lined with bookshelves and books, it was packed full of students and literary fans alike. Some even to resorted to standing to see these two authors.

Mission Creek Festival has helped draw in a wide variety of authors to Iowa City in its 10 years, helping sustain the town's status as a UNESCO City of Literature.

Prairie Lights Events Coordinater Kathleen Johnson said that while many authors featured this week have read at the bookstore before, they are drawn back because of the atmosphere that the music, literature, film, and art festival provides.

“Mission Creek has a great reputation as an interesting place to be,” Johnson said. “Authors are very eager to be associated with it and always have the best time; they leave Iowa City having seen and heard some great authors and bands and having met a lot of interesting people. It feels remarkable to be part of that."

Arna Bontemps Hemenway, a recent Iowa Writers' Workshop M.F.A. graduate and a Truman Capote Literary Trust recipient, opened with a reading from the titular short story in his collection Elegy on Kinderklavier. The narrative follows a family struggling to cope with their young son’s cancer diagnosis in the aftermath of war. From the one story alone, the debut collection promises to break hearts and captivate simultaneously. 

Hemenway said Iowa City is different from other college towns across the nation because of the arts culture that permeates the area.

“I think that literature in general has really helped work in and speak to the character of Iowa City,” he said. “One thing that I have always loved about Iowa City is that it is not just a collection of insulated communities. People are interested in books and art and music and film all at once, and that’s really unique, even among college towns. There’s a real will to integrate these things here.”

Following Hemenway’s reading, Kerry Howley took the stage and apologized for her slightly fussy child (who was actually not fussy). After she read from her newest nonfiction work *Thrown* which chronicles three years spent in the company of mixed martial arts fighters, narrated from the perspective of an excitable, semi-fictionalized graduate student. 

Howley artfully integrated the world of these fighters with a bit of humor that made the work seem accessible to everyone — regardless of how well-versed they are in the world of mixed martial arts, especially cage fighting.

The work also described just how out of place a native Iowan — the fighters being from Cedar Rapids — feel when transplanted into a large and frankly overpowering city such as New York City.

Howley was sweet and bubbly, eager (if cautious) to answer a question posed to her about  how literary nonfiction has grown in recent years. It is no longer a genre reserved for academic papers, she said, but is carefully researched and may be just as thrilling and interesting as any fictional account. 

Working primarily with essays, Howley said the essay is not as limiting as the general public may perceive it to be, but rather allows for a wide range of expression.

“I think the essay is a really interesting and fluid form," she said. "There are fewer rules [than in the past], and so there is a lot more for experimentation than people often realize and I think that’s exciting to writers and exciting to readers.”

Prairie Lights will host an editors panel Friday featuring Tom Lutz of the L.A. Review of Books, Jessica Hopper of Pitchfork, and Christopher Beha, editor at Harper's, beginning at 3 p.m.

Fellow nonfiction writer and University of Iowa alumna Eula Biss will hold a reading at the bookstore Saturday at noon.


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