Monday, March 28, 2022

The University of Iowa is bolstering its writing resources in an impressive way as construction began earlier this month on a new building for the renowned Nonfiction Writing Program.

“The NWP’s new building will give the program a bold new presence on campus, and it will give creative nonfiction writers a greater voice in the collection of gorgeous words already being written under many different roofs at Iowa,” says John D’Agata former director of the NWP who spearheaded the effort for a new building for more than a decade.

D’Agata, a 1998 Iowa graduate, was director of the Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP) from 2013 to 2020 and is currently a faculty member in the Department of English.

The two-story, 3,500 square foot building will be located on the southeast corner of North Clinton and Church streets, directly across from the President’s Residence. The building will centralize the NWP’s program, which is bursting at the seams in its current home in the English Philosophy Building. It will include offices for NWP faculty, workspaces for graduate teaching assistants, seminar classrooms, and an open library/lounge space that will open to an outdoor patio.

“As we explored appropriate sites, the area often referred to as the ‘writers’ neighborhood’ seemed very fitting,” says Rod Lehnertz, UI senior vice president for finance and operations.

The NWP building will be located adjacent to the Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Shambaugh House, home of the International Writing Program, on North Clinton Street.

The building is 100% donor funded.

A space to house the program’s courses, community events, and more will be a welcome change for students and faculty.

“One particularly lovely part of the new building is that it'll feature a memorial garden for the NWP's founder, Professor Carl Klaus, who helped start the program in 1976 and just recently passed away,” says D’Agata.

The NWP is a three-year graduate-level program within the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). The exclusive program admits about 4% of the students who apply, and graduates of the program find great success, including Hope Edelman, author of the international best-seller Motherless Daughters, and Eula Biss, author of New York Times best-seller On Immunity: an Inoculation and Yiyun Li, author of close to a dozen books and a MacArthur Award winner.

“We have an embarrassingly great track record when it comes to helping our students secure excellent jobs within a few years after graduation, and the books that our alumni eventually publish quickly become watersheds in the genre,” says D’Agata, “Just this past year alone we’ve had three alumni on the bestseller list, one on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list, and three who have sold the film rights to their books.”

Sara Sanders, dean of CLAS, says the Nonfiction Writing Program’s reputation is known around the world.

"We are thrilled to see the new building come to life thanks to the vision and efforts of John D’Agata and so many others,” says Sanders. “We are committed to supporting writing excellence at Iowa, and the Nonfiction Writing Program is an important part of those efforts."

New building delayed after 2008 flood

D’Agata has been involved with planning the new building since 2008. The project was set to move forward in May of that year, just weeks before an historic flood destroyed much of campus along the Iowa River.

“With so many of our colleagues and students from other departments displaced, it just wasn’t right to pursue a building for the NWP at that time,” he says.

Fast forward to 2016 when plans for the UI Stanley Museum of Art, the final facility affected by the 2008 flood, were finalized. D’Agata then decided to revisit the NWP building.

“A few donors over the years had approached us with generous gifts to help seed a fund for a building, but the gifts were never large enough on their own,” says D’Agata. “But then 2018 happened.”

In 2018, D’Agata opened a Broadway play based on his book of the same name, The Lifespan of a Fact, which starred Daniel Radcliffe. The play was a hit that season and made a significant amount of money. As attention came his way, he used the opportunity to partner with the UI Center for Advancement to attract new donors for the NWP building.

The campaign was a success, with all but one of the major donors joining D’Agata for a showing of the play, talking about his book, and learning about the NWP through that unique experience.

“The play’s based on a book that’s about the art of writing nonfiction, so I like to think of the NWP’s new building as one that’s literarily being built by the genre. Its very foundation is nonfiction.”

D'Agata hopes that when it opens at the end of 2022, it will help start a trend of elevating other writing programs to the level of the esteemed Writers' Workshop.

“We really are the ‘Writing University,’” says D’Agata. “We have one of the nation’s best writing programs in translation. The extraordinary playwriting program that spawned Tennessee Williams. An enormous, vibrant undergraduate creative writing major in English. And one of the only Spanish Creative Writing programs in the country. All of these programs deserve recognition, and buildings too. My dream is for a writing corridor stretching down Clinton Street.”