IOWA Magazine | 02-27-2024

Iowa Journalism Alums Turn a New Page as Novelists

6 minute read
As the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication marks 100 years, an essayist delves into notable books produced by fellow J-School graduates.

As a University of Iowa journalism and mass communication student in 1996, I walked into my job at the Resource Center one day to find a colleague intently reading The New York Times. I inquired about what held his interest, and he pointed to a review for a book written by a name familiar to both of us. Chelsea Cain (95MA) graduated from the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication the year before and wrote a column for The Daily Iowan when I worked on the metro desk. I looked in reverence at Cain’s name in black ink as part of the news that was fit to print.

Her debut book, Dharma Girl: A Road Trip Across the American Generations (1996, Seal Press), was nonfiction, but Cain has since become a New York Times bestselling novelist. She has written thriller series for adults and youth, and has more recently produced graphic novels. Cain credits Iowa City—and the university’s journalism school—as part of her success.

“One of the things I love about Iowa City is that everyone is working on a book,” Cain says today. “It has that sense of community: going to Prairie Lights every time there was a reading, going to coffee houses—the J-School, especially. I’m still really good friends with people I went to school with in Iowa.”

Now in its 100th year, the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication has long taught students to question details from sources and investigate the facts when stories don’t add up. Publicists, who also often graduate from journalism schools, help to control messages and foresee the perceptions of the public. These skills are transferrable to novel writing. In reading Cain’s 2015 novel, One Kick, I discovered the book’s 21-year-old heroine, Kick Lannigan, uses her detective skills and experience as an abducted child to help others who have gone missing.

“One of the things I love about Iowa City is that everyone is working on a book.” —Chelsea Cain

This past fall, my job change from editing magazines to editing books sparked my interest in discovering bestselling works of fiction written by Iowa journalism graduates. That led me to a young adult novel written by the first person to earn a master’s degree from the school: Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson (25BA, 27MA). After graduating in 1927, she became well known as the first ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series, under the pen name Carolyn Keene.

I read some Nancy Drew books as a youth, but my preferred fictional crime solver was Encyclopedia Brown. As an adult reading The Hidden Staircase (1930, Grosset & Dunlap), the second book in the Nancy Drew series, I discovered Nancy was ahead of her time—not afraid to slog through puddles, follow complete strangers, or ask tough questions.

Another Iowa-educated writer whose main characters tiptoe around corners to solve crimes is John Roswell Camp (66BA, 71MA), who goes by the pen name John Sandford. In the late 1980s, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tried his hand at fiction to earn money to help send his children to college.

“I’d always been a reader of top thrillers,” says Sandford. “I wrote a couple of books that did not work. I had to analyze what successful books looked like. That took me a couple of years.”

Although he enjoyed reading crime novels, he started writing them because his research discovered thrillers paid the best. Sandford has now written 59 novels, nearly all of them part of a series. His latest, Toxic Prey (2024, Penguin Random House), comes out April 9. Not having previously read Sandford, I started with his first book, Rules of Prey (1989, G.P. Putnam’s Sons). The book is fast-paced and fun, because his detective Lucas Davenport doesn’t always adhere to the rules.

Author and journalism graduate Rebecca McKanna (07BA) incorporated Iowa City into her fiction after earning an MFA degree from Purdue. Her mystery novel, Don’t Forget the Girl (2023, Sourcebooks Landmark), was optioned last year by screenwriters. While she says being optioned is no guarantee the book will be made into a movie, having Hollywood interested in her story was a “really cool experience.”

“I think the journalism program really nurtures and encourages [curiosity] in the students.” —Rebecca McKanna

McKanna says an Iowa journalism education helped inform novel writing in a couple ways. “I think there are practical applications to it,” she says. “I think that practice of having to write on deadline, not having to be precious with your writing because you have to get it done, was really helpful.”

Journalism also gave her, and others, a more developed sense of curiosity. “I think the journalism program really nurtures and encourages that in the students,” she says.

Don’t Forget the Girl was one of my favorite books by a UI journalism grad. It combined a thrilling murder mystery with the familiarity of Iowa City landmarks such as the Black Angel.

While many Iowa journalism alumni love reading and writing mystery novels, others write literary fiction. Stephanie Wilbur Ash (97BA) wrote The Annie Year (2016, The Unnamed Press), a novel about a small-town accountant who becomes smitten with a new teacher in town. The book is interwoven with a storyline about the growing methamphetamine crisis of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those who haven’t lived in small towns may not relate, but I found it quietly educating.

Ash’s novel has been optioned for several years. She noted the UI’s dedication to developing writing in its students across disciplines greatly helped her. “Some students in my MFA program [at Hamline University] didn’t have an identity as a writer, and they were chasing that identity a little bit,” says Ash. “And I, by my freshman year of Iowa, was already identified as a writer, in my mind. By sophomore year, I was writing at The Daily Iowan, there was the undergraduate literary journal, there were readings at Prairie Lights.”

One of the biggest accolades for any author is a nod from media mogul Oprah Winfrey. In September 2023, she chose Wellness (2023, Knopf), the second novel by Iowa journalism graduate Nathan Hill (99BA), as her book club selection.

Hill’s writing career, and switch in majors, came almost by accident. “I had always wanted to be a writer, but my parents were very much like, ‘You can be a writer in your spare time,’” he says. “So, I was studying engineering. I discovered [writing] when I was living in Iowa City, and I took my first creative writing class.”

“To be taken seriously as a reporter very quickly was wonderful and unexpected.” —Nathan Hill

Hill noted The Daily Iowan was important to his development as a writer. “We broke stories that ended up in the Associated Press and other wires,” he says. “That was a great experience to learn on the job at the DI, and to be taken seriously as a reporter very quickly was wonderful and unexpected.”

Wellness pokes fun of middle-class, middle-aged Americans in a way that was painful to this middle-class, middle-aged American, though its biting commentary still made me laugh in places.

My reading of books by fellow journalism alumni reinforced my personal experience that Iowa develops writers who can use their skills across disciplines. The School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in particular, teaches students how to write on a deadline, take an editor’s advice, and find the devil in the details. For more than a century, those lessons have equipped alumni for meaningful careers—whether in journalism, public relations, or the literary world.


Daisy Hutzell-Rodman (98BA) is the managing editor of Content Studios Omaha, a new division of Omaha Publications that focuses on branded content and business books. She is on the boards of the Iowa Women’s Alumni Network and the Nebraska chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, and lives in Glenwood, Iowa, with her husband and their four cats.

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