Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Writing University conducts a series of interviews - the "5Q Interviews" - with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

This year, we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the University of Iowa Press with a special editon of 5Q Interviews of UI Press authors throughout the years. Happy Birthday UI Press!

Today we are speaking with Ashley Wurzbacher!

Ashley Wurzbacher

Ashley Wurzbacher's debut short story collection, Happy Like This, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and will be released on October 15. She was recently named a National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honoree. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, The Cincinnati Review, and other journals. She holds a PhD from the University of Houston and an MFA from Eastern Washington University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Montevallo. Read more at

1. Do you have a specific project that you will be working on this year?

For the time being, I'm focusing on celebrating the release of my short story collection, Happy Like This. I'm looking forward to reading in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Denver, and other cities in the coming months alongside some stellar fellow women writers, including Allie Rowbottom, Sarah McColl, Emily Geminder, Elizabeth Hall, Chris Cander, and Emily Wortman-Wunder.

I'm also working on a novel about two sisters, a decade apart in age, whose love for one another is tested by the very different personal, political, and reproductive choices they make. I'm very interested in the concept of choice, especially as it relates to women. Choice is something we all strive for, and ensuring its availability for all women is a foundational feminist goal that I strongly support. And yet there's a paradox at its heart: as choices proliferate, so can a sense of loss, guilt, or regret over choices not made and paths not taken. This is a theme I explore in the short stories in Happy Like This, and it's one that I'm not done writing about.


2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

My daily practice changes with the seasons. During the academic year, I'm a teacher first and a writer second; most of my time goes to guiding my students' writing-- commenting, critiquing, and jotting down notes here and there for stories I plan to write or revisions I plan to make when time permits. I'm fortunate to work with a very bright, eager, enthusiastic, and talented group of students. Their wild imaginations and their kindness and generosity toward one another in workshop inspire me. During the summer, I write frantically, getting as many of the ideas and phrases and images and sentences I've been storing in my notes and in my head onto paper as I can. I've never been someone who could write every day; my routine, if it can be called that, has always been pretty sporadic.


3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

My students and I are reading Bryan Washington's excellent recently-released story collection, Lot. It's set in Houston, a city where I used to live and that is very close to my heart. I'm also excited to read my fellow Iowa Short Fiction Award winner Emily Wortman-Wunder's collection, Not a Thing to Comfort You.


4. Tell us about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania and grew up in nearby Titusville, Pennsylvania. Titusville is a small town whose claim to fame is that it is the "birthplace of the oil industry": "Colonel" Edwin Drake and "Uncle" Billy Smith drilled the first commercially successful oil well there in 1859. In school, I learned all about my hometown's former glory, but there was very little evidence of it left in the town around me. It's possible that this constantly being asked to visualize my hometown as something it no longer was-- affluent, booming-- was a useful exercise for me as a young writer.

My family lived on a dirt road outside of Titusville. My parents were always shuttling my sister and me to town for swimming lessons, dance classes, and other activities, but our childhood was fairly solitary and secluded. Our house was surrounded by woods where we used to play. We made up our own games, which usually involved casting my little sister as some sort of gremlin, troll, etc. To be honest, I didn't always love growing up where I did. I felt isolated, but I didn't know enough to be able to identify what it was I felt isolated from. I had a vague sense of myself as left out of the world, and I was prone to feeling outraged about this. But I took solace in stories about brainy, bookish girls living resiliently in rural settings, like the Little House on the Prairie series and, especially, the Anne of Green Gables books. Looking back, I can identify lots of important ways that the place where I grew up shaped me and exercised my imagination.


5. The UI Press is turning 50 this year! Share with us a bit about your experience and relationship with the press.

It's an honor to be a part of the Iowa Short Fiction Award's long history. The award's previous winners include one of my teachers, Robert Boswell, and many other writers I respect. It was an honor, too, to have been selected for the award by Carmen Maria Machado, whose work I admire immensely. I'm particularly grateful to Allison Means, the UI Press's Marketing Director, for the support she provided as I prepared for my book's release.


Thank you Ashley!


Established in 1969, the University of Iowa Press serves scholars, students, and readers throughout the world with works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. As the only university press in the state, Iowa is also dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the Midwest. The UI Press is a place where first-class writing matters, whether the subject is Whitman or Shakespeare, prairie or poetry, memoirs or fandom. They are committed to the vital role played by small presses as publishers of scholarly and creative works that may not attract commercial attention. For more information, please e-mail

Photo by Alyssa Green