Thanks to our amazing cities and universities, Iowa has been blessed with a myriad of talented authors, known across the globe for their compelling novels, short stories, poetry and the like. And because we’re going to be stuck indoors for a while longer, it’s the perfect excuse to catch up on some reading!
We rounded up a handful of Iowa’s most famous writers and compiled them right here—along with a couple of suggested reads, of course! Below you’ll find recommendations for autobiographies, crime novels, poems, children’s picture books and so much more. So, the next time you get a chance, be sure to stop by one of our favorite local bookstores (either in-person or online) and pick up a few titles from these talented creators.
Mildred Armstrong Kalish was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1922, on a farm near Garrison in Benton County, IA. Her childhood was strongly influenced by the Great Depression and the work ethic of her grandparents. Her famous novel, Little Heathens, details the remarkable challenges and rewards of living a rural life where children were expected to accept responsibilities beyond the ordinary—something she, herself, experienced growing up. At just 13, Kalish became the companion, cook and caretaker of a retired missionary. She would go on to earn an Elementary Teacher’s Certificate; move to New York to work as a governess; join the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve; and become a professor of English in Long Island. Kalish currently resides in a retirement community in Cupertino, California.
Author photo courtesy of the Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Eva Carter Buckner was a prominent African American suffragist, poet and songwriter, born in 1861 in Washington, Iowa. As a young child, her family lived in Des Moines and Colorado Springs. It was at a public school in Colorado Springs where she began writing poetry, eventually winning a poetry contest run by Mrs. J. D. Robinson, the mayor’s wife. Today, Buckner is remembered as a poet and songwriter, whose work inspired African American voices in both the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. Her work appeared in the Denver Post, The Colorado Springs Sun, The Western Enterprise and several other well-known publications. She was also heavily involved in political work, volunteering for the Los Angeles Forum of Colored Women, the NAACP and the NCAAP School Committee of Los Angeles during her life.
Born in 1939 in Charles City, Iowa, Robert James Waller was an author, photographer and musician known for his most popular novel: The Bridges of Madison County, a romance that was later turned into a blockbuster film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Before he wrote the iconic novel, he was a professor at the University of Northern Iowa from 1968 to 1991 where he taught management, economics and applied mathematics courses. He was also consulted on the topic of problem solving and decision making, even writing a non-fiction book The Summer Nights Never End…Until They Do: Life, Liberty, and the Lure of the Short-Run, which addresses problem solving models.
William Bryson (known as Bill Bryson) was born in 1951 in Des Moines. But while Bryson was born in the United States, he has spent the majority of his adult life in Britain, after falling in love with it during a backpacking trip through Europe. His first job in Britain was at the Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey before returning to Des Moines for a few years with his wife to finish his degree at Drake University. He went on to work as a journalist, eventually going on to write acclaimed books—some of which have been translated to the silver screen! Many of his stories talk about his love of travel, and are inspired by many of his adventures, including hiking the Appalachian Trail in the 1990s, a tale he later recounted in his book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, which was turned into a movie starring Robert Redford in 2015!
Born in 1945, Donald Harstad is an Iowan novelist and former police officer who has been publishing novels for more than two decades. Harstad specializes in crime fiction and police procedurals, using his 26 years as a police officer with the Sheriff’s Department of Clayton County as inspiration. Most of his novels are set in rural Iowa, primarily centering on police officer Carl Houseman, a loose analog for Harstad himself. Currently, he resides in Elkader, Iowa with his wife of 40 years, who was his high school sweetheart with whom he has one daughter.
Marilynne Robinson may just be one of the most famous authors on this list—best known for her iconic novels Housekeeping and Gilead, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. She was born in Sandpoint, Idaho in 1943, but moved to Iowa City in 1991 to join the faculty at the University of Iowa as a professor of English and Creative Writing. In addition to her novels, she’s also written numerous articles, essays and reviews for reputable publications like Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New York Review of Books. While she officially retired in 2016, Robinson still resides in Iowa City and was named one of Time Magazine‘s list of “100 Most Influential People” that same year.
Born in New York in 1936, Frank Conroy is one of the many Iowa authors who found a home here later in life. He graduated from the esteemed Haverford College in Pennsylvania before acting as the director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1987, he moved to Iowa City to become a director of the influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He served in that position for more than 18 years. In addition to being an incredible writer and professor, Conroy was also an accomplished jazz pianist, winning a Grammy Award in 1986 for liner notes. This influenced many of his books, including Body and Soul, which is regarded as one of the finest evocations of the experience of being a musician.
Kashmira Sheth was born in India, with her first language being Gujarati, her mother’s tongue. She began learning English in fifth grade and eventually moved to Ames to attend Iowa State University at 17 where she received a degree in microbiology. Before becoming an author, Sheth held several different jobs, including running a dance school and choreographing and performing Indian dances, working in a bakery, and working as a food microbiologist. She later went on to become the author of several picture books, chapter books, middle grade and young adult novels—taking inspiration from her own life and experiences. Much of her work centers on Indian culture and features Indian and Indian American characters.
What books by local authors are on your bookshelf? Let us know in the comments below!