When aspiring writer C. Kevin Smith was looking for a city to call home, he wanted a community of writers — to be surrounded by people who cared about literature. Then he attended the University of Iowa’s renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the world’s best MFA programs for fiction and nonfiction. Iowa City, Smith said, introduced him to an “amazing concentration of people who are placing writing at the center of their lives.” He never left.
In 2008, Iowa City became the first U.S. city — and third in the world — to be recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature. While the 83-year-old Writers’ Workshop’s alumni and professors have earned more than two dozen Pulitzers, the UNESCO honor was not granted because of the Workshop alone. It was bestowed because of the dedicated literary scene that has emerged there.
When I arrived, I did the typical Iowa City writer thing: I went to Prairie Lights Books (prairielights.com). Garth Greenwell, another alumnus and novelist living in Iowa City, calls Prairie Lights his “spiritual home.” He visits the shop most days, paging through books, chatting with the owner or meeting fellow writers at the top-floor cafe.
I was interested in the fliers posted in the entryway. Unlike most corkboards in college towns that advertise a gently used and stained futon, Prairie Lights’ ad wall was a collage of announcements for readings and poetry slams.
Besides the major venues — Prairie Lights, the public library, the Dey House, Shambaugh House — visitors can stumble upon readings in coffee shops, eateries, salons and even private homes.
Sometimes, though, you have to ask. At RSVP, a stationery shop that sells handmade cards and smart-looking journals, I asked the employee if she knew of any readings. In fact, she answered, “We’re having one tonight.” Bemused, I looked around the tiny shop. Display tables had taken over all available floor space.
But that evening, I returned to find the tables replaced with about 20 folding chairs, an attentive audience and a few bottles of Champagne. One writer (a Workshop alum) stood at the cashier’s booth and read from her manuscript about racial tension in 1950s Louisiana. Then a two-piece band (more alumni) performed beautifully eclectic songs.
To follow in the footsteps of a beloved writer, use the LitCity app (litcity.lib.uiowa.edu). The app will take Flannery O’Connor fans to Currier Hall, the women’s dorm where she stayed in her graduate years; St. Mary’s Church, her place of refuge; and the university library, which houses her graduate thesis. Kurt Vonnegut admirers will be guided to the so-called Vonnegut House, where the author sketched out “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
I took the T.C. Boyle route, dropping by the Dey House, where he had workshopped his fiction, and stopping into haunts that had inspired his writing. I even stumbled across a plaque that quotes from his novel, “The Tortilla Curtain.”
This bronze panel was one of 49 in the city’s Literary Walk — a Hollywoodesque jaunt over metal plates and past book sculptures, paying homage to writers tied to the state. But besides the Walk, there are few visible references to literary sites in Iowa City, although they’d likely be made into shrines elsewhere.
John Kenyon, executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, and I sipped coffees in the Prairie Lights cafe.
“Everyone’s clearly aware of who came through here, and where they drank, but there aren’t really any shrines. … In some ways it’s a blessing and a curse.” He looked around at the half-dozen young people punching at keyboards in the cafe. “In Iowa City, we’re about celebrating the future. Somebody is probably typing away on the next great novel.”
One of my favorite spots, slightly overlooked, is the Haunted Bookshop. The store carries more than 50,000 used, rare or out-of-print tomes. While likely not haunted, it’s certainly a peculiar place: A sign on the door asks shoppers not to let the cat out, the piano rules stipulate “No ‘Chopsticks’/No ‘Für Elise’/No ‘Heart and Soul,’ ” and puppets are sold because the owners love them and even exchanged wedding vows while they, their priest and their guests all wore hand puppets.
If the obscure is appealing, check out the Center for the Book, housed on campus in the basement of North Hall. On display are a book’s parts and the processes behind papermaking, printing, book design and binding — the necessary yet often overlooked art forms pertinent to physical books.
One of the best times to visit is during a festival that celebrates words. There’s the Iowa City Book Festival (Oct. 1-6) and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. More unsung are the Witching Hour Festival (Nov. 1-2) and the Mission Creek Festival in April. The former focuses on the creative process across the arts; the latter is a mini-South by Southwest in the heartland.
But remember, this is a literary city. You don’t need apps and plaques and writers to tell you what’s a literary site.
C. Kevin Smith likes to spend his time in Oakland Cemetery, where the Black Angel, a supposedly cursed statue, resides. Smith said, “To wander through the cemetery with all the names and gravestones going back to the 19th century feels very rich and alive with stories.”
Where to stay
Iowa Writers’ House: This B&B has four bedrooms and a half-dozen comfy corners for reading, writing and discussion. The house hosts about 15 workshops each semester. It also has monthly “write nights” and occasional readings. Of course, the house is filled with books, including “We the Interwoven,” an anthology that IWH publishes (iowawritershouse.org).
Graduate Iowa City: This downtown hotel features a lobby library, a literal and literary grab bag. Poetry is scrawled on lobby walls. Rooms contain literary references, from “The Glass Menagerie” to “Slaughterhouse-Five.” One can’t even run from literature in the gym; treadmills overlook the public library bookshelves across the way (1-319-337-4058; graduatehotels.com/iowa-city).
Iowa City reading list
Iowa alumnus John Irving’s “Setting Free the Bears” was submitted as his master’s thesis. Workshop faculty Philip Roth’s “Letting Go” is partly set at the university.
“We Wanted to Be Writers” gives an inside peek into the Writers’ Workshop through interviews with and reflections from nearly 30 graduates and professors.
Workshop graduate Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” features Iowa City.
Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” details one man’s struggle in the Workshop.
In Andrea Lawlor’s “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” a zine-making shape-shifter uses Iowa City as the springboard for adventures.
Noah Lederman (@SomewhereOrBust) is the author of a memoir, “A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets.” His work has been featured in the Economist, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Slate, the New Republic and elsewhere.