NEW YORK – Lan Samantha Chang (search), a Harvard University professor and award-winning fiction author who specializes in stories of Chinese-Americans, has been named director of the nation's most prestigious writing program, the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.
A student at Iowa in the 1990s and later a teacher there, Chang succeeds Frank Conroy (search), the longtime director who announced last summer that he was retiring and died of cancer last week, at age 69. Chang, a Briggs-Copeland lecturer in creative writing at Harvard, will begin at Iowa next January.
"I can't describe how thrilled I am to have this position," Chang said Monday. "When I was a student at Iowa, I used to admire Frank and watch to see what kinds of decisions he made. It seemed he always had the long view and made decisions that would be the best for the long run. I want to sustain and develop this wonderful program which has played a crucial role in American letters."
University of Iowa president David Skorton (search) said Monday in a statement that he wanted Chang to consider her new job "as a homecoming" and said the school was "fortunate to have someone of Samantha's stature and promise."
The 40-year-old Chang is just the fifth director overall, the first Asian-American and the first woman director in the program's nearly 70-year history. She will take over a program where alumni include Flannery O'Connor and John Irving (search) and where Pulitzer Prize winners James Alan McPherson (search) and Marilynne Robinson (search) are among the current instructors.
Chang's selection concluded a rigorous application process that featured public readings, interviews and teaching a sample workshop. The finalists were authors Richard Bausch, Jim Shepard and Ben Marcus.
Chang is a native of Appleton, Wis., whose parents emigrated from China after World War II. She majored in East Asian studies at Yale University and received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard before studying at Iowa, where she received an MFA from in 1993 and the James Michener-Copernicus Award, a fellowship for Iowa students of exceptional promise.
"I wanted to be a writer since before I knew how to read, but my parents are immigrants and they believed that pursuing such an impractical profession would lead to a life of grief," she said with a laugh, adding that her parents years ago had read about Iowa in a Chinese newspaper and admired it as a haven for writers from all over the world.
"They're very happy I'm taking this job. They're proud of me."
Chang, whose books include "Hunger: A Novella and Stories" and the novel "Inheritance," has won prizes from the Greensboro Review and the Transatlantic Review.
She will receive a salary of $115,500 and will likely work hard — Conroy needed three months each year just to review about 750 applications for 25 openings.
"Frank also did his own work as director," Chang noted, saying she wasn't worried about having enough time to write. "When I was at the workshop, Frank was writing his novel, `Body and Soul,' and he said he got in about three hours a day. That's pretty good."