"I couldn't have continued at Iowa without private support - and I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't stayed and finished."

If Ellie Catton’s life were a novel, its words would whisper of wind-swept glaciers in New Zealand and tree-lined boulevards in a small Midwestern city. Its characters would include a cast of talented and fiercely honest writers. And its denouement would happen through a last-minute change of heart—and the power of private support.

That support is what turned chance into good fortune for Ellie, after the New Zealand author came to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop—a unit of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—in 2008. The 25-year-old novelist, who recently made the short list of nominees for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize for her 2008 book, The Rehearsal, was in fine company in the program. Begun in 1936 as the nation’s first creative-writing degree program, the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop is marking its 75th anniversary, with decades’ worth of famous and award-winning poets and authors among its graduates.

One of the first UI students to receive an M.A. degree in creative writing was poet Paul Engle, whose collection, Worn Earth, earned him the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Engle assumed directorship of the Workshop in 1941 and held it for 25 years, during which the program became a literary powerhouse.

This reputation was what drew Ellie—who says she can’t recall a time in her life when she didn’t write—to Iowa. She arrived at the Workshop on a one-year exchange, after completing a master’s degree in creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. When her Iowa tenure ended, the Workshop’s faculty asked the young novelist to stay on for another year. However, she declined—and was just 10 days away from flying home when she changed her mind.

“I confessed to a Workshop friend that I’d made a terrible mistake. He encouraged me to tell them I wanted to stay, but I thought it was hopeless,” Ellie says.

“When I called, they immediately found funding for me. I couldn’t have continued at Iowa without private support—and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t stayed and finished,” says the 2010 graduate, who received the Flannery O’ Connor Graduate Fellowship—created through a gift commitment from the Ralph Schultz Family Foundation of Waterloo, Iowa—and the Taylor-Chehak Prize, established by novelist Susan Taylor Chehak and her father, Robert Taylor.

“There is just something sacred about the Workshop,” says Ellie. “While you’re there, you’re saying what you honestly feel, but you’re also conscious of the fact that the author is listening. It’s an interesting psychological exercise.”

Ellie completed her first book on her family’s home computer at age nine and still indulges her childhood fascination with “sentences and syntax.” She currently is teaching at The University of Iowa while “pulling strange all-nighters” to finish her second novel—set in 1860s New Zealand—for Granta, a publisher in the United Kingdom.

Once it’s done, Ellie hopes to move to Canada to complete a Ph.D. degree in English literature and, perhaps, teach creative writing. No matter where she finds herself, she will carry with her all the words worth remembering from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And they will help create the next chapters of her life.