Hannah's Time in Iowa is Based off the Writer's Experience

Show writer Sarah Heyward shares the facts and fiction behind "Female Author."

  • What was it like to attend the Iowa Writers? Workshop?

  • It was incredible for many reasons. I?m sure it?s like this in all good writing programs, but my peers were some of the most talented people that I?d ever met in my entire life. I?d never been in a focused program where I was only with other writers, so I felt I was part of a community in a way that I never had been before. You?re surrounded by people who are really smart, really funny and really talented, and they do a good job of letting in people who are writing in different genres and styles. I felt like I was learning so much every single day. It really was the best two years that I could possibly imagine.

  • Basically the opposite of Hannah?s experience so far this season.

  • That part of telling her story was hard for me, as I?m sure my bosses could tell you in detail. I was frequently on set covering my eyes, like, ?I loved Iowa! I loved everything about it!? Everyone kept reminding me that while many -- if not most -- people who go there love the program, we?re looking at it through Hannah?s eyes. Hannah is pretty much the constant emotional fish out of water, so she doesn?t fit in anywhere -- especially at a program where everyone else does.

    For me, Iowa was exactly what I needed in my life at the time. It also indirectly led to me getting the job writing for ?Girls? because my writing sample was a short story I had written in the program.

  • Did any of your experiences overlap with Hannah?s?

  • Definitely. The brief moment that we get of her being happy there, for sure. Also, her realizing what she could pay for an apartment in Iowa versus New York is exactly my experience. I moved to New York when I was 22, right out of college, and I needed help from my parents to afford my little sublet. I got to Iowa and learned pricy meant between $500 and $600 a month, and I had a huge first floor of a house with a wrap-around porch, vintage wallpaper, a driveway, a heated garage. I felt like I was living in a palace. I hope someday I live in such a nice place again, but it definitely won?t be at that price!

  • What about Hannah?s winged intruder? Fact or fiction?

  • The bat in her apartment is fully based on my own experience. I woke up to a bat circling my head after coming home drunk from a party, and if you were drinking, asleep or on drugs and there?s a bat in your home, you have to get a rabies shot since you don?t know if it bit you or not. I had to get a series of rabies shots over six months and everyone knew about it -- that?s how small life in Iowa is.

  • Speaking of drinking, what?s the Foxhead like?

  • There are two bars that the Workshop kids go to. There?s one that?s famously the poetry kids bar called George?s, and then there?s the Foxhead, which is where the fiction kids went. Very true to the show, if your story got a particularly harsh workshop that week and then you skipped going to dinner or to the bar with your classmates, everyone assumed you were home crying. [Laughs.] It?s not quite that mean, but you definitely wanted to show your face if anything controversial happened.

    As for the bar itself, it?s totally divey in the best possible way: old jukebox, dirty pool tables, carvings and Sharpie all over the tables and walls. In fact, our set designer replicated exactly this carving of a fox head onto our set, and it was a total trip. I was above and beyond impressed at how accurate it looks based on my memories. They really managed to capture the feeling of the Workshop building, the feeling of the Foxhead, the feeling of the little main street in Iowa, even without us shooting there.

  • What were the actual workshops like?

  • Hannah?s experience in workshop is dramatized for television. For example, they would never spend that short amount of time on one story or longer on another, and no one ever sits there and says that everything is working in a story, or the opposite. It?s a pretty fair and constructive environment when it?s not being filtered through Hannah?s point of view.

    However, I did have one experience similar to Hannah?s, where people accused me of writing a character that was me. ?I want to say that this is the most selfish, immature person that I?ve ever read about, but because it?s you, I feel uncomfortable.? [Laughs.]

  • Was it challenging to write about a place you loved so much through Hannah?s distorted lens?

  • Once I let go of my childish feeling ? thinking, ?I want to depict it accurately so my friends don?t get mad at me that I got it wrong? -- I understood how right it was for Hannah to have a problem with everything from an academic environment to the claustrophobia of a small community. For Hannah, all the stuff I found comforting could only lead to disaster.

  • At the end of ?Female Author,? the episode you wrote, Hannah hitches a ride in a Mennonite taxi. Is this something gleaned from real life?

  • I do not have experience riding with a Mennonite, and I?m sure we?re wrong that that could even happen, and I don?t care at all! Prior to writing the season, I had put together a big document about life in Iowa and one of my colleagues [writer] Murray Miller really latched onto the idea of Hannah riding in a horse and buggy. It was one of the first ideas pitched when we started writing the season and somehow it stuck. I was lucky enough that it fit into my episode, and then we waited until the end of the summer to film. All summer I was scared that it was going to get cut! The day we filmed it everyone had their arms around me because I was so excited. It was like living out a fantasy that I never got to live at Iowa. And I love that that it?s a mysterious ending -- what happens after he puts his arm around Hannah? I just loved everything about that scene. It really sums up her loneliness in this foreign place where she doesn?t belong.

  • Part of me wondered what lengths Hannah might go to make a story out of that moment.

  • Totally. It?s similar to her moment kissing Laird in season 2?s ?Bad Friend,? which coincidentally is also an episode I wrote. There?s been a lot of debate over whether she hooked up with him or not, and I?m hoping that there will be similar debate with the Mennonite.