National Book Foundation recognizes UI Press author Ashley Wurzbacher for upcoming short-story collection

What began as a passion project over a decade ago, is now a short-story collection and career-defining achievement for UI Press author Ashley Wurzbacher.



Cory Tays, News Reporter

University of Iowa Press author Ashley Wurzbacher’s upcoming fiction book about the trials and triumphs of various professional women — a decade-long project — garnered her national recognition.

Wurzbacher’s début book earned her a spot on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honoree list. The collection of short stories, called Happy Like This, won the 2019 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and is set to release Oct. 15 through the UI Press. 

 “In 2006, the National Book Foundation established the ‘5 Under 35’ prize to recognize young, début fiction writers whose work promised to leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape,” said National Book Foundation Communications and Marketing Director Beverly Rivero in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Through her progress as a writer and appearance in various publications, Wurzbacher said she is looking forward to making more impressions in her career and more impact through her writing. 

“I was overjoyed to publish this book, but I never imagined that it would garner much critical attention,” Wurzbacher said. “And now all of a sudden, this recognition is a very public and high-profile endorsement of my work and an expression of belief in me as a writer.”  

The short stories in Happy Like This explore the identities, roles, and expectations of women from several professional backgrounds, she said. Wurzbacher said she drew inspiration from her own academic and professional careers and sought to create a consistent collection of stories that connects with readers on a personal level. 

“The stories are concerned with women that are trying to find happiness and figure out who they are and how they fit into this world where roles seem to be pre-made and scripted,” Wurzbacher said. “I think the stories offer some ways that women can find fulfillment outside of the usual roles we’re taught to believe it will be found.” 

Now an assistant professor at the University of Montevallo, Wurzbacher writes stories touching on the same subjects she confronted in her book — which she began doing as an undergraduate at Allegheny College. 

At that time, Wurzbacher said, she was unaware that her writing content would appear in her début book. As the years went by, the concentration of her writing began to narrow and the opportunity to compile her stories into a full-length book presented itself, she said. 

In an email to the DI, UI Press Director James McCoy expressed his appreciation of short-story writing and noted how Wurzbacher’s work embodies the values of the press. 

“Short fiction is an underserved genre in American letters,” McCoy said. “It’s not commercial enough for most large presses yet as Ashley’s collection illustrates it can make a major cultural impact. And that’s always what this university press is attempting to do: advance culture, society, and scholarship through its publications.”

Happy Like This is the second UI Press publication recognized by the National Book Foundation. The first was Susan Wheeler’s 2012 poetry book Meme, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and edited by Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty member and UI Associate Professor Mark Levine.

“That experience signaled to me that the Press, despite being extremely small, could play with the big kids in the publishing world,” McCoy said. “By working with great editorial minds … and being extremely discerning in our creative-writing publication program we could compete for the most prestigious literary awards in the world including the National Book Awards. Happy Like This has reinforced that belief.”