Iowa author Rachel Mans McKenny's 'Butterfly Effect' part of 2022 All Iowa Reads program

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Rachel Mans McKenny has a new sense of empathy for insects after writing her first published novel about an Iowa State University entomology student, but the book has also involved processing unresolved emotions about the experience of caretaking for an ill sibling that she was too young to grapple with at the time.

"Fiction lets us go to places that we wouldn't necessarily go in real life," McKenny said of the boundaries between personal vulnerability and creativity in making a narrative.

"You see something and you know it's not real and you know that the stories are fake and that the characters are made up, but you still feel something because of that, and I don't think that experience is any less important just because it's made up," she said.

Iowans will have more opportunities in 2022 to engage with McKenny's novel, "The Butterfly Effect," and see how it changes them as the All Iowa Reads program selected the book as its selection for adults in the coming year.

Though the novel was released in December 2020, the book's selection by All Iowa Reads means it will probably be seen and read more through libraries, book clubs, schools and other local organizations that sponsor discussions of it as a book of the year that communities statewide will come together around, according to All Iowa Reads' website.

This convergence of events makes McKenny on of the Ames Tribune's People to Watch in 2022.

A 'sibling relationship where you could support someone going through a time of emotional need'

Rachel Mans McKenny, an Ames author, works at her desk at Iowa State University's Writing and Media Center, where McKenny is assistant director. McKenny's novel, "The Butterfly Effect," is in the foreground.

The experiences of the main character in "The Butterfly Effect" may be ones that anyone who's been a part of a family navigating a health crisis might be able to relate to, to recognize their own metamorphosis in — as McKenny can.

In McKenny's words, "The Butterfly Effect" is about a "grumpy entomology Ph.D. who goes to Iowa State." While the student, named Greta, is doing research in Costa Rica, "she gets the news that her brother has had an aneurysm, and so she has to make the decision if she's going to come home and help take care of him as he recovers."

Greta does come home, and "the book is basically about how she balances trying to get her Ph.D. program on track, how she tries to balance family drama as she's figuring out this health care situation and sort of figuring out how to be a kinder person to those around her, which is really hard for her."

McKenny — who is the assistant director of Iowa State's Writing and Media Center and said she's also a frequent writer of humor and essay pieces — found inspiration for the main character's field of research in the Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing at Reiman Gardens.

The idea for the main character's field of research also began to mesh with others McKenny had in her head — "Midwestern niceness and what would it be like to write a character who just decides not to be nice and who doesn't subscribe to that sort of social contract that we all have with each other to be kind."

Greta "says what she thinks and it makes some very awkward situations," which was fun to explore, as an author, McKenny said — a character who doesn't necessarily think like she would.

McKenny also wanted to explore caretaking for a sibling at an unexpected age, "where you could support someone going through a time of emotional need." Though she was too young at the time to be a caretaker herself, she was 8 years old when her 16-year-old brother developed cancer, in the '90s.

"It was a really fast process from him getting diagnosed to him passing away from that cancer," though it was actually the chemotherapy that killed him, McKenny said.

"It's a shock to the system, and it's a shock to the family unit, too, when that kind of unexpected health crisis comes up, and I think it helps — it reveals certain aspects of your family that you may not have known were there," she said.

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"It can cause more tensions. It can cause people to come closer to each other or push them away. There's so many things that happen in those intense, emotional moments that make you make decisions that you didn't think you had to make."

"For my family, I was too young to be able to process that a lot, but I was able to see how my parents were able to stay together during that time when it's really hard if a child dies, and how much I relied on my other siblings during that time," McKenny said.

In the novel, Greta doesn't have any other close family except for her brother, so she reaches out to people she wouldn't want to otherwise — "her brother's fiance, who she hates," and her estranged mom — "and it forces her to rethink not only those relationships but also who she is."

As with chaos theory — also known as the butterfly effect — "the small choices that the characters make truly do impact all of the other characters and all of the other actions in the book."

'I like to demystify the process of writing for people'

Rachel Mans McKenny, an Ames author, works at her desk at Iowa State University's Writing and Media Center, where McKenny is assistant director. McKenny's novel, "The Butterfly Effect," is in the foreground.

Not only is McKenny's book — the first of hers that's been published, though she's written others — going to get renewed and expanded attention in 2022, but she also hopes to be out in the world to promote it, in-person, as well as reading in general.

She's done some virtual appearances to promote the book since its release, but that's not the same as a more classic in-person book tour.

"I'm kind of an extrovert, so it's a little bit hard to just get that social connection through a screen," she said.

McKenny has scheduled several events planned with multiple libraries and bookstores in Iowa next year, including one at 6 p.m. Feb. 15 at Dog-Eared Books in Ames. More details about her other events are available at RachelMansMcKenny.com/events.

McKenny said she's a member of four book clubs. "I'm a huge reader and so to be able to talk to other people who love books, in general — and who've read my book — is just so fulfilling."

Another appeal of talking about writing: "I like to demystify the process of writing for people," she says. "Some of the most interesting conversations I have with people are about just the process of writing a book" — that anyone can do it.

She said writing is a core part of who she is. Though she faces her share of struggles — "No writer who's being honest will say that words ever come easy to them," she said — writing is a necessary part of her life that keeps her balanced and focused, ever since she wrote her first novel in a notebook in fourth grade.

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Book has webs of connection to Ames, central Iowa

Rachel Mans McKenny, an Ames author, works at her desk at Iowa State University's Writing and Media Center, where McKenny is assistant director. McKenny's novel, "The Butterfly Effect," is in the foreground.

Writing "The Butterfly Effect" and researching entomology to craft Greta's character took McKenny from "zero interest in insects" to becoming the kind of person who will catch and release a spider outside if it finds its way into her home.

Learning more about bugs "has made me more generous to them and more interested in them," she said.

There are other strands in and related to the novel that connect the book and McKenny with her wider home of communities in central Iowa.

Being set in Ames, she's gotten a lot of feedback from people who enjoy seeing places like Cafe Diem get a shoutout. Other locales include blends of places around town.

Candy Noelck, a librarian at Ericson Public Library in Boone, said, "people like to read about places they have visited and can visualize."

Noelck said the library is a place McKenny has done more than visit. "I know that she frequented our Writers Workshop group that met here in the past at Ericson Public Library once a month on Saturdays prior to COVID-19."

Noelck said McKenny mentored many people during those sessions, "listening and critiquing their works."

Margaret Manatt, a fellow librarian in Boone, said everyone at the library is delighted to see the level of recognition McKenny has gotten for "The Butterfly Effect," and, "we're honored to have watched it progress from its early stages to a much-deserved status as the 2022 All Iowa Reads selection."

As for whether McKenny can satisfy Manatt's request as a bibliophile for more books from her, McKenny said she strives to write at least one book a year and hopes to have more published in the years ahead.

She wants to build upon humor in "The Butterfly Effect," which is a desire that stems from processing another loss in her family.

Ten days after the novel's release, McKenny's father died. "I spent the last year processing the happy release of this book and making connections with readers, but also this big loss. And what I found is that I really wanted to write something joyful."

She said she's hoping to find a way for some sort of collective emotional release with a theme of "togetherness," "which is I think what we all really need right now."

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.