A story about Storm Lake



As if you haven’t heard enough about The Storm Lake Times winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing — it has led to a book deal.

A book about Storm Lake.

I have reached an agreement in principle with a New York book publisher, one of the so-called Big Five, to write a book about Rural America from the perspective of The City Beautiful, a colorful center of agri-industry that rolls with mammoth changes sweeping the prairie.

The story will chronicle the many chapters of The Storm Lake Times, whose mission it is to chronicle life in Buena Vista County. That life involves agriculture and immigration, the spirit of renewal associated with our most basic enterprise, and how we try to build a community around an ag supply chain that relentlessly seeks efficiency.

The story involves interpreting the complex relationships we have built with the land.

And it will explore what draws people and keeps them here.

One thing I’ve learned in my eight weeks of fame is of the tremendous yearning to get the pulse along these county blacktops. People want to know why Iowa is Iowa, believe it or not. Folks in Seattle are keenly interested in the fact that a score of languages are spoken in our schools. People in Los Angeles are interested in a new Latino outpost. People in Atlanta wonder why young people flee Iowa by the drove. People in New York are trying to understand why Iowa voted for Donald Trump. Or Steve King.

I think it comes from the feeling of the air slowly being let out of the American Dream along the byways.

Since the Farm Crisis of the mid-1980s, the message has been to go to college and get out. Fewer than half our state university graduates stay in Iowa because there is no demand for them around here. All those high-paying jobs we talk about from a science and math education are not in Newell or Fonda. They are in Johnston with Dow DuPont or in Ames with Iowa Select Pork. Or they are at a marketing agency in the Twin Cities, or brokering insurance in Chicago.

The ones left behind — and that includes me — often feel like we are getting the raw end. The prosperity of America since the Reagan Revolution has not been distributed across the 39 counties of the Fourth Congressional District.

So when someone steps up and tells everyone else to suck eggs it makes us feel good. Like someone is finally speaking for us, out here, even when they are not.

Then there are the young immigrants finally matriculating from our colleges with big ideas for Storm Lake. We do not know what they can create. We have seen early sprouts: Ronnie Duque starting a summer painting business from the University of Iowa; Sabrina Martinez, the daughter of an immigrant, soon will move home to practice medicine here. It is happening.

The story has been the subject of media interest for years, most recently in The New York Times and Fox News.

Winning the Pulitzer helped catch the attention of book publishers.

Inquiries immediately came from two prominent publishers, one an independent house with a rich history in literary journalism and the other a venerable title that is part of an international publishing concern.

We hired a New York literary agent, who got her start editing Hunter S. Thompson at Rolling Stone.

I wrote an eight-page letter describing my idea for a book with about 30 pages of writing samples. The offer came back within a week.

We get a cash advance against potential sales, and then a royalty on all book sales.

The agent and publishers put this book in a class with White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, What’s The Matter With Kanas? by Thomas Frank and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. They are all sort of cultural histories.

That’s what this book boils down to: an examination of rural Iowa and what drives it.

It will be honest and loving. It will be, above all, a story of hope sustaining a community that has clear values. It will, I hope, call us back to those values that made Iowa great: tolerance, a sense of pulling together, a respect for civil rights and civil society, and valuing our land above all.

Writing the book will be something of a sabbatical. I will shift my attention mainly from editing and newspaper production to writing full-time, for the book and the newspaper. I will continue to write editorials and a weekly column. I will continue to oversee our news reporting. But I will lock myself in a little cubbyhole in the back room so I can pound out pages. I do not mean to be rude. Deadlines are deadlines.

Brother John has been in the bullpen of semi-retirement, chewing sunflower seeds while watching The Price Is Right and waiting for the call from the dugout. He will come in for middle relief and take over most of the editing functions. He taught me page design, so he should do as well. He has a steady fastball and a nice change-up and always throws strikes.

I expect that this will be a way to add depth to our newspaper reporting while writing the book.

If you like the newspaper you will like the book. If you love Storm Lake you will love the book.

Its working title: Storm Lake.

What else?

Write what you know, they say.