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Illustrating a memoir


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By Isaac Hamlet

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Mission Creek is, by its nature, a convergence point of genres. Not just of music or literature but of other art forms as well. Comedy, film, music, and literature all rub elbows at the festival. It’s fitting, then, that writer Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This is itself a fusion of art forms.

Today at 6 p.m., Nonfiction Writing Program graduate Radtke will read from her illustrated memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This.

“I didn’t plan to [compose an illustrated memoir] initially; I’d first imagined it as a collection of prose essays,” Radtke said. “I’ve always been a writer, and I was always drawing, and it took me a while to figure out how to put those things together. In my last semester at Iowa, I decided to use the graphic-novel form for an essay, but it was a couple of years before I decided to make the whole book graphic.”

Thanks to the encouragement of the former University of Iowa Professor Robin Hemley, she pursued her illustrated memoir. When she presented her early work to him, he pushed her forward.

“She’s got a great sense of timing,” Hemley said. “The images are not merely evocative but have a sort of dialogue with the text. It bumps it up to a higher level.”

When she did eventually commit to be writing illustrated pieces, she imagined it as collected essays about various abandoned cities and places.

“[Depending on the place] it could be difficult to draw,” she said. “I like to draw with a photograph to work from; it’s really hard to draw from memory and get things to look real without that [picture]. Now when I go to place, and I know I’m going to be drawing it, I take 2,000 photos.”

When she presented this collection to her editors, they proposed she thread a through-line between the essays. So the essays came to explore not only abandoned cities but also what it’s like to deal with the unexpected death of a close uncle.

Even a week before its release April 18 release, the book is receiving praise from the Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and other publications.

“I remember her arriving at Iowa at an excruciatingly young age but with an intellectual maturity that was way beyond her years,” said John D’Agata, the current director of the Nonfiction Writing Program. “She was ready for basically any kind of creative challenge that we threw at her, and so it makes sense that her first book would be such a doozy. It feels organically urgent, and it seems impossible to imagine it taking another form.”

After five years of rewrites and updating illustrations, Radtke is just happy to see her book released.

“I’m very moved by the idea of anyone reading it at all,” Radtke said. “It’s kind of extraordinary that you can spend so many years inside a project, and someone else can open it and bring it into their own life.”

Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque

When: 6 p.m. today

Admission: Free

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