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CHRISTOPHER MERRILL An accomplished writer and poet dreams up new ways to bring writers and readers together
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Christopher Merrill couldn’t convince his daughter to come to dinner.

Engrossed in her first Harry Potter novel, the 9-year-old was lost in the imaginative space that a good book provides, Merrill recalls.

“I remember thinking, ‘this is what my life has been all about,’” says Merrill, director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP). “Books have meant everything to me. They can make a life, shape a life, help you understand those difficult passages that everyone faces…Books are how I have navigated my life.”

Driven by a deep appreciation for the written word, Merrill is leading efforts to share The University of Iowa’s literary heritage with readers and writers around the world.

Merrill helped spearhead a proposal to make Iowa City one of three places in the world designated a City of Literature by the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Announced Nov. 20, the distinguished designation—which Iowa City shares with Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia—cements the community's reputation as a destination for writers and readers. It also creates opportunities to collaborate with others in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, such as Buenos Aires, Berlin, and Glasgow.

Merrill is an accomplished writer and poet whose work has been translated into 25 languages. But he also likes to put his creative energy toward making things happen.

As director of the IWP since 2000, Merrill connects visiting international writers with audiences, teachers, and translators. Since 1967, 1,100 established and emerging writers from more than 120 countries have attended the program.

His work often involves dreaming up new ways to bring writers and readers together.

“Novelists are always saying that novels come out of someone asking the question, ‘what if?’” he says. “Well, that holds for thinking about the kinds of programs we put together here.”

In summer 2006 and 2007, he moderated “The New Symposium,” which brought together writing’s creative minds on the Greek island of Paros. This year, he helped bring children from Arab-speaking countries to the University for the first time to participate in the Young Writers’ Studio summer program. (When flooding temporarily suspended the program, he made alternative arrangements with the University of Illinois at Chicago.)

He’s also working with Coralville on a project to establish a cultural attraction devoted to the area’s literary heritage. Located in the city’s new River Landing development, the attraction could include a writing “hall of fame,” bookstores, and entertainment.

And a committee he co-chaired in 2006 led to creation of the Virtual Writing University, a web site dedicated to collecting the University’s writing resources and making them available to the world.

“To be able to share the amazing experience that is available to everybody who learns how to read—that of sinking deeply into a book. That’s worth trying to foster in whatever way you can,” Merrill says. “I think that’s part of The University of Iowa’s gift to the world. We take writing seriously.”

Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Photo by Tim Schoon


November 24, 2008