By Julia Eckardt
As an undergrad at the University of Iowa, Arna Bontemps Hemenway, now an assistant professor in the English department at Baylor, would drive 20 minutes outside of town to the nearest Barnes & Noble just to peruse through the Discovered Author section.
“I would go just to look at the rows of shelves of people who had the Discover Award,” Hemenway said. “I was like, ‘Someday I’m going to have a book, and it’s going to be on there’.”
Hemenway said he was determined early in life to one day be accepted into the best master’s in fine arts program – the Iowa Writers Workshop.
After college, rather than jumping right into graduate school, Hemenway moved overseas and worked as a tour guide in Europe and Africa.
While living in Jerusalem, a bus he rode daily was the target of a terrorist attack that killed several people just eight days before he arrived in Jerusalem.
“You don’t have it in the front of your mind at all times, but the knowledge that a week ago there were people sitting in the same place that ended up being killed really makes you want to live and experience everything you can,” Hemenway said.
After returning to the United States, Hemenway reached a distinct fork in the road. He could either return to school to study law or return to his sixth-grade dream of earning a master’s in fine arts.
“On one hand I was really scared about being broke for my whole life, and I was really good at pre-law classes,” Hemenway said. “My heart just wasn’t into it. It sounds crass, but I said to my fiancee, now my wife, ‘I would rather be broke and happy doing something I loved than rich and doing something I didn’t care about.”
Achieving his life goal, Hemenway became the youngest person accepted into the Iowa Writers Workshop.
It was a period of rapid transition for Hemenway. Two weeks prior to starting school, he married his wife, and in his second year, they welcomed a daughter into the world.
“I learned what it took to make this your art and your profession; to work at it every day, to come back to the table in the morning when you failed spectacularly in front of all of your friends and are racked with self-doubt,” Hemenway said.
At Baylor, Hemenway said he models his teaching style after mentors from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Sam Chang and Ethan Canin.
Dr. Greg Garrett, professor of English, spoke of Hemenway with high regards.
“Whenever a new person comes into a setting, he can bring new ways of thinking and doing things that can refresh everyone’s ways of thinking and doing things,” Garrett said.
Kansas City, Mo., senior Alex Alford is a student of Hemenway’s and said his encouragement and feedback enabled her to become a more confident writer.
“He is never judgmental about what we write or how we right,” Alford said. “He always gives constructive criticism and I am confident that each writing assignment I turn in is better than the last.”
In July, Sarabande Books published Hemenway’s first book “Elegy on Kinderklavier”. It is a series of short stories, most relating to the Iraq War, and a novella about the relationship of a couple and their 8-year-old son with a brain tumor.
It was added to the Barnes & Noble Summer 2014 Discover Great New Writers Selection, making it the second life goal Hemenway has set and accomplished.
“When I first went into the store and saw it on the shelf it was really special. It was on of those moments you saw it for years and years and then it happened,” said Hemenway. “I can vividly remember the feeling walking out of a Barnes & Noble wanting it and not knowing if I would ever get that goal, knowing as a writer you can’t control award series’. It did feel awfully good; I’m not going to lie.”