A Lifelong Commitment to Iowa: Zachary Michael Jack, July 21 at the Bettendorf Public Library Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 14 July 2011 07:24

Zachary Michael Jack

Author Zachary Michael Jack is a seventh-generation Iowan – the son of a farmer – who lives in Jones County, and like many people with deep roots in the Hawkeye State, his identity is intertwined with his home.

“It’s a state that we imprint very strongly on where we’re from and [that] we consider a lifelong commitment,” he said in a phone interview this week. “Each person manifests that advocacy in different ways. ...

“If you do love a place, part of that love ultimately evolves into advocacy for that place. ... Kind of put your weight behind things that are homegrown.”

The 37-year-old Jack – who will speak and read from his creative-nonfiction book Native Soulmate (scheduled for September release) at the Bettendorf Public Library on July 21 – is throwing his weight around in writing. An associate professor of English at North Central College, he has edited Iowa: The Definitive Collection and Letters to a Young Iowan: Good Sense from the Good Folks of Iowa for Young People Everywhere.

But with last year’s What Cheer, Jack started on a new path. It was his first novel, and a mystery wrapped around a love story – in the conventional man-and-woman sense, but also reflecting a love of the Midwest and of traditions and things nearly lost to time.

“Loving a place is not that much different than loving a person,” Jack said. “The same struggles, the same commitments, the same loyalties, the same pleasures, the same quest, the same everything.”

He said he was hesitant to finish his “novel in a drawer that we all have” because it was “embarrassing.” While he was comfortable with the mystery aspects of the story, he said love stories carry a significant stigma. “It takes a lot of courage to read a love story,” he explained. “You’re kind of marking yourself as somebody who believes in love. And also often somebody who is also seeking some part of love that they maybe don’t have.”

To read a love story is to admit that you’re a “dreamer,” Jack said, and surely the same is true if you try to write a heartfelt one.

He needn’t have worried, though. In her jacket blurb, author Barbara Lounsberry correctly pegs the tone of What Cheer as a “blend of experience and innocence, ingenuity and earnestness.”

The story focuses on the recently dumped Jeremy, who writes an advice column for a singles magazine. He starts to receive letters from a mysterious woman calling herself Heidi. “I want to share with you a list I’ve been making of little things we’ve had a chance to experience in our lives, sweet things most people don’t stop to appreciate,” she writes in her initial correspondence. And that sparks a quest to figure out the identity of Heidi, as well as a road trip to the Iowa town of the title.

It sounds precious, and the book sometimes gets dangerously close to too cute and too cheesy. But as Lounsberry suggests, What Cheer is grounded enough that it never crosses the line. Heidi’s list and the book overall are nostalgic, but it’s not a false nostalgia. In one entry, for instance, she notes: “The tire swing, like that other playground dinosaur, the monkey bars, is dangerous, as anyone knows who’s been walloped blindside by a 10-pound Michelin with some serious Isaac Newtons behind it.”

She also notes that tire swings have become nearly extinct: “Of course, a tire swing is a non-starter unless an unused radial can be found bouncing around in the backyard somewhere, and that’s pretty rare these days. ... The spent radials taken off at the Jiffy Lube end up in everything from high-tech rubberized running tracks to the soles of shoes. That’s a good thing, but not if you’re a tire swing.”

Here you can see Jack acknowledging environmental progress but thoughtfully exploring its unintended consequences: the loss of an exciting, unpredictable, and perilous plaything.

That clear-eyed approach, Jack said, came naturally to him as an Iowan. “Easy nostalgia is not something that Iowans are really prone to,” he said. “We’re pretty realistic in our love of the past. ... I think it’s kind of a workmanly kind of advocacy that we do.”

The quest didn’t end in What Cheer – at least for Jack; he took inspiration from his characters: “What they do is what you ought to be doing if you had a little bit more courage,” he explained.

And so last summer he toured Iowa. Near the end, he said, “I started to think: If I even think about calling myself even a part-time writer, this is something I don’t want to see pass me by. ... Something was happening ... .”

The result is Native Soulmate, which Jack called a combination of participatory journalism, travelogue, and love story.

And, yes, in addition to being a love-of-place story, it’s also a personal love story in the man-and-woman sense, although he declined to say how it turned out. That he’s leaving for readers to discover in the book.

Zachary Michael Jack will speak and read from his work on Thursday, July 21, at 7 p.m. in the Junior League Program Room at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive).

For more information on Jack, visit ZacharyJack.org.