New Nonfiction Internships

Aug 04, 2014

Back when Jenna Sauers was studying English as an undergraduate at Iowa, she wasn’t really considering a career as a writer.

“What I really wanted to do was model,” Sauers says. “I had done a few shoots and I had had some success, so I thought ‘why not?’ But I was also studying writing with John D’Agata at the time, and it’s thanks to his encouragement that I ended up applying for an internship at McSweeney’s one summer.”

Based in San Francisco and founded by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is one of the most popular literary magazines in America.  “I had been writing for them for a few years,“ says D’Agata, Director of the University’s top-ranked Nonfiction Writing Program. “I knew they regularly hired summer interns, so when Jenna came along I thought she’d be a perfect fit. She’s a brilliant, passionate, and highly imaginative writer... And I also didn’t want to see the literary world lose her talents to the fashion world!”

On D’Agata’s recommendation, McSweeney’s accepted Sauers’ application, and invited the 22-year-old to work for them for a summer—a position that ended up sparking her career.

“It was a tremendously rewarding experience,” says Sauers.  It was my first glimpse at how a magazine comes together, and my first time seeing all of the different tasks that are involved in commissioning and editing magazine pieces. I did fact-checking, proofreading, copy-editing, and came away from the experience with new skills that I later put to use in my career as a freelance writer.”

Sauers subsequently moved to New York City, where she quickly started freelancing as a writer for Bookforum, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Observer. Eventually Sauers was invited to start her own fashion column for the website Jezebel, and has since been interviewed on television programs such as NPR, CNN, MSNB, and The Today show.

“An internship can give a student invaluable practical experience,” says D’Agata. “And Jenna’s experience demonstrates this. I therefore took the chance and asked McSweeney’s if they’d consider taking one of our students every year, and luckily they were just as wowed by Jenna as I had always been, because they immediately said yes. And that’s how it started. We’ve been sending nonfiction students to McSweeney’s for almost a decade now.”

Inspired by that relationship, D’Agata and the Nonfiction Writing Program have now established five regular internships for undergraduate writing students.

Besides a summer internship at McSweeney’s, the Nonfiction Writing Program now sends summer interns to Sarabande Books in Louisville, Kentucky; Little Village magazine in Iowa City; Sarasota Magazine in southwest Florida; and Mission Creek, a music and literary festival based in Iowa City.

“A partnership with Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program is a natural move for us,” says Sarah Gorham, president of Sarabande Books. “The nonfiction program has produced some of the most talented and innovative practitioners of nonfiction, so we are thrilled to expand our relationship with Iowa by inviting students to work with us as publishing apprentices.”

Tony Tran, an English major at the University, will be serving as one of this year’s interns from the Nonfiction Writing Program.

“This internship is a chance for me to work side-by-side with professional publishers and writers, and also to gain valuable experience in an industry that I one day hope to be a part of,” says Tran. “None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the encouragement and help of everyone in Nonfiction Writing Program. My classes, teachers, and fellow students have all been an integral part in the development of my craft and confidence as a writer.”

It is that focus on student development that helped encourage other organizations to accept Iowa students as interns, explains Pam Daniels, the managing editor of Sarasota Magazine.

“We often seek interns who have demonstrated talent, creativity and enthusiasm for print and online journalism, and who’ve already had training and practice in nonfiction writing” says Daniels. “The Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa has such a stellar national reputation that we knew we couldn’t go wrong with this arrangement.”

“That's probably what I like most about our nonfiction program,” says Anna Lee, another student who’s received one of the Nonfiction Writing Program’s internships this summer.  “Besides the fact that the workshops are so focused and attentive to the development of each individual's work, I really feel like I'm immersed in a supportive community of intelligent and uniquely gifted writers who encourage and inspire one another.”

D’Agata says all interns will be receiving course credit for the summer.  “But I hope that we’ll eventually be able to fund these students,” he says. “San Francisco is a pretty expensive city, after all, so it’d be wonderful to one day be able to make sure that any student who wants to do an internship can, regardless of their ability to afford it.”