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Three Raymond Carver Contest Alums Go to Iowa

Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character on the HBO series Girls, isn’t the only one who has gotten accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshops. In real life, William Shih, our 3rd-place prizewinner in last year’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, will be attending Iowa this fall, along with Carve’s 2010 contest winner, Shaun Hamill. They will be joining the first-place winner from last year, Jake Andrews, who is going into his second year in the program. This means that three Raymond Carver contest alums will be attending the Iowa Workshops at the same time. Is it just a coincidence?

Lena Dunham’s character in HBO’s Girls was accepted to the Iowa Workshops at the end of Season 3.To better understand the connection between the Raymond Carver contest winners and the Iowa Workshops, we interviewed Jake, Shaun, and William. Here’s what we learned.  

Why did you decide to get your MFA?

Jake: I had spent a few years trying to get published with no success. Applying to MFA programs seemed like the next step.

Shaun: My wife, Rebekah, and Carve were the deciding factors. Rebekah insisted that I apply to programs. At that same time, Carve started offering their Literary Services. They teamed me up with Douglas Goetsch, who gave me the tools and confidence to approach the application process.

And why Iowa in particular?

William: I was deciding among writing programs. When I visited the Writers’ Workshops at Iowa, I sat in on a seminar taught by Karen Russell and workshops led by Lan Samantha Chang and Kevin Brockmeier. I knew it had to be Iowa.

Shaun: John Irving, the writer who made me want to be a writer, went to Iowa. Kyle Minor got an MFA there. Kurt Vonnegut used to teach there. Philip Roth used to teach there. Ethan Canin, Lan Samantha Chang, James Alan McPherson, and Marilynn Robinson teach there. There’s magic around the word in writers’ circles: Iowa. Like Hogwarts for creative writers.

Jake, what can you tell Shaun and William about life in America’s heartland?

Jake: I spent the winter in awe. Nature is a force that could kill me! I have developed a love for American IPAs and rye whiskies. For me, this is the heartland: weather that will kill you and the discovery that American booze isn’t as bad as I had remembered.  

Shaun: As a lifelong Texas native, I’m terrified of the Midwest winters. I’m looking at it as an adventure. At 31, I’m finally running away from home.

William: I’ve lived in New York City all my life, so I’m thrilled about moving to the Midwest. Iowa City has a great vibe.

Will the Iowa Workshops live up to the hype?

Jake: Absolutely. I read stories for workshop and am blown away. There are people here that we’ll all be reading in the next few years.

William: I’m honored that I’ll have the opportunity to study among such incredible talent. There’s a great energy about the Writers’ Workshop, the people, the place—present and past—which I look forward to taking part in.

Jake: The teachers, in my experience, treat everyone’s work with respect and care. It’s just the kind of place for writers to be at the start of their careers: one demanding top-notch work and providing a supportive environment to pursue that goal.

Shaun: At least once a day, I consider the enormity and rarity of this opportunity. It’s humbling and intimidating, and I feel bound to make myself worthy of this privilege.

What’s the best thing you’ve read recently?

William: James Salter’s novel All That Is. I find myself rereading Graham Greene. It’s like listening to great pieces of music over again.  

Jake: Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners is pretty great.

Shaun: Kyle Minor’s short story collection, Praying Drunk.

And how did you feel about Hannah Horvath from Girls getting accepted to Iowa?

Shaun: I’m grateful because it means that people understand what it means when I say I got into Iowa. Pop culture shorthand.

William: I was proud of her.

Jake: I thought, “Who? Oh, the woman from Girls.” Then I went back to watching Game of Thrones.

So is there a connection between winning the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and attending the Iowa Workshops? Correlation doesn’t equal causation, of course, but submit to our contest, and perhaps this streak will continue. As for Hannah Horvath and all the others accepted into MFA programs around the country, good luck and happy writing.