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IOWA Magazine | December 2020

Iowa Writer Adapts Story of Whistleblower Reality Winner for Film

Nonfiction Writing Program professor Kerry Howley explores the intriguing personality of the woman who leaked a classified document on Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Kerry Howley PHOTO COURTESY KERRY HOWLEY UI Nonfiction Writing Program alumna and assistant professor Kerry Howley

In 2017, a 25-year-old intelligence specialist named Reality Winner walked into her job at the National Security Agency, printed a document that seemed to confirm Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, and mailed it to The Intercept. Now, Winner is serving the longest federal sentence of any whistleblower in American history.

Summarized like this, Reality Winner's story seems deceptively straightforward. But when University of Iowa professor Kerry Howley (11MFA) set out to write a 2017 profile on Winner for New York magazine, she quickly discovered that Winner, whom she describes as "intense," "unrelentingly caring," and "a delight to be around," was enmeshed in a complicated web of events that touched everything from 9/11 and the drone wars to national security, election security, surveillance, and the deep state.

These are heavy subjects, but Howley has never been interested in telling an exclusively heavy story. "I'm interested in joy and playfulness and intelligence and the way that absurdity and profundity are connected," she says. "The reason I love the story of Reality Winner isn't because of the politics around her act. It's because I love this character, and this character is a brilliant, charming, disagreeable, sarcastic, self-deprecating woman who has this deep compulsion to help."

This character exists at the heart of Howley's screenplay, Winner, which she adapted from her New York magazine profile last year and which is now forthcoming from Big Beach Films under director Susanna Fogel. It's worth mentioning that Howley is both incredibly direct and slyly funny, the kind of person who relishes the strange humor inherent in our moments of joy and grief even as she pries apart these moments to reveal to us something entirely unexpected. It's no surprise, then, that Winner is a comedy.

"So many screenplays about whistleblowing are quite literally dark. It's ominous and we're in the halls of the NSA. That wasn't my interest," Howley says. "I wanted to write a coming of age story about this woman who has all these fascinating characteristics and also somehow ended up working for the NSA."

Howley is also working on a book, forthcoming from Knopf, about the many ways Winner and her actions intersect with the recent history of the U.S. As she explores the opaque mechanics of national security, Howley hopes to tell a story that is ultimately grounded in the same sense of playfulness that characterizes much of her work.

In particular, she's fascinated by the abstract horror of surveillance, a vast system of underground cables and invisible waves transmitting more information than we're able to interpret. "We're walking through air that is dense with the matter of surveillance," she says. "I'm constantly reminded of the limits of my own perceptual tools. I cannot see these waves that I'm wading through. In one way it excites me: it makes me more interested in the world. There's so much to discover and there's so much that we can perceive only bluntly."

Alongside this project, Howley recently finished writing a television pilot based on another one of her profiles, and she's planning to continue to adapt the work she does for New York and other publications for the screen. Winner is set to begin filming in the near future.

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Read Howley's article "Who is Reality Winner?" in New York magazine.


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