Working It 

Spotlight: creative nonfiction at the U of M.

Kristen Iversen

Kristen Iversen

Writers of creative nonfiction: Don't be too disappointed that you're not among the participants in the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop (directed by Memphian Susan Cushman), which runs this Friday through Sunday at the University of Memphis. The three-day event will offer manuscript critiques, in addition to talks on crafting your manuscript and fashioning a winning book proposal. Literary agent John D. Mason will also conduct a "pitch fest" and be on hand to discuss author/agent relations and legal issues.

The deadline to participate in the Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop is past, but the public is invited to meet the workshop's four-member faculty and hear them read from their work. The event is at Burke's Book Store on Friday, September 23rd, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Those faculty members are:

Bob Cowser Jr., who grew up in West Tennessee and went on to write the well-received Dream Season and Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between;

Kory Wells, an essayist and poet, who serves as a mentor in the creative writing program at Middle Tennessee State University;

Neil White, whose memoir In the Sanctuary of Outcasts detailed his days spent serving prison time among Louisiana's last victims of leprosy;

And Kristen Iversen, director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Memphis and editor in chief of the program's award-winning literary journal, The Pinch.

White, who helped direct last year's creative nonfiction conference in Oxford, Mississippi (along with Cushman and writer Kathy Rhodes), has started the Nautilus Publishing Company, which is set to release a deluxe coffee-table book, Memphians, in November.

Iversen, for her part, is possibly set — along the lines of former faculty member at the U of M Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) — to hit the big time. This past March, Crown Publishing won the rights to Iversen's Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, a look at what radioactive contamination in a small Colorado town did to the families of that town, including the author's own.

Iversen has already authored Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth and the textbook Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. Nothing, though, prepared her for the reaction of publishers to the Full Body Burden manuscript.

When I spoke to Iversen, she was fact-checking the galleys to send back to Crown, which won the auction for the manuscript against the offers of nearly two dozen publishers. (The book is scheduled to come out next spring.)

After the 10 years it took for Iversen to write it, the sale of Full Body Burden was "the most amazing day of my life," she said. "Except for the birth of my children," she added. "It's been a wild time. A lot has happened so quickly."

That goes, as well, for the reputation of the creative writing program at the U of M, which has grown, in the words of Poets & Writers magazine, into one of the top up-and-coming programs in the country.

As director of that program since 2003, Iversen's especially proud of The Pinch, which is sold in stores nationally, with a 97 percent sell-out rate, a statistic Iversen called "almost unheard-of" for a literary journal. The fall issue of the journal is due soon.

Due next from Kristen Iversen: a novel, which is no surprise. Her Ph.D. is in fiction, not nonfiction.

"Full Body Burden covers a difficult, complex subject. It's a painful personal family story," Iversen said. "I just don't want to take 10 years for my next book!"

Go to susancushman.wordpress.com for more on the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop. For the latest on Kristen Iversen, see kristeniversen.com.

While we're on the subject of the U of M's creative-writing program: On Tuesday, September 27th, the department will host native Memphian Richard Tillinghast — award-winning poet, critic, essayist, and translator — who will kick off this fall's River City Writers Series, now celebrating its 35th year.

Tillinghast will be reading from and signing his work at 8 p.m. in the University Center, Room 350. And the next day, students will interview Tillinghast at 10:30 a.m. inside Patterson Hall, Room 456. Both events are free and open to the public. Look for readings and signings by Bobbie Ann Mason on October 25th and Randall Kenan on November 7th.

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