Grant allows Marquart to return to her native North Dakota to capture the stories of the ‘oil boom’

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Debra Marquart

AMES, IA – While growing up in rural North Dakota, Iowa State University’s Debra Marquart never imagined returning to her roots during the state’s current chaos.

Marquart, professor of English in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing and Environment, has been called upon by the North Dakota Humanities Council to lend her creative hands to the issues facing her native state.

North Dakota is currently experiencing an “oil boom” in the northwest region causing overcrowded towns and schools, and – sometimes – a rise in crime. Populations have nearly doubled in “boom towns” such as Williston, and housing in the region is at a premium. The boom has radically changed the local landscape.

The discovery of two large oil deposits – the Bakken and the Three Forks Formation, considered to be the largest oil find in North American history – has caused the boom, which has been compared to the great California Gold Rush of the 19th century.

Marquart is one of two professional writers invited under a grant by the NDHC to gather the stories and experiences of people whose lives have been impacted from the oil boom. Later this fall Marquart will be going into the boom towns to host creative writing workshops in libraries and high schools to offer a foundation for residents to tell their stories.

“Our main goal is to get in there and start to hear what people are saying,” Marquart says. "This is such a closed off region, and the invitation from the Humanities Council gives us the opportunity to put new artists on the ground, and to give people a voice.”

Marquart says that the oil boom is impacting everyone who lives in these towns.

“There are people who have been living on the same land for four or five generations and are now overwhelmed by thousands of people coming in. The boom has been going on about five years, but the last three years are when things have really escalated.”

The region is facing several issues related to the oil boom, Marquart said. Many farmers own their land, but not the mineral rights, so they have oil rigs constantly digging on their property. Due to the increase in population, many people are living in RVs in the local Wal-Mart parking lots. The oil companies have built "man camps," temporary living quarters where workers live between their shifts. The increased population stretches public services.

Marquart has remained in touch with her roots since she’s left North Dakota. While living in Iowa, she wrote a memoir (The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, 2006, Counterpoint) about what life was like growing up in such an isolated place.

“This project is important to me personally, because the memoir I wrote was about the state of the state, and now the state is different,” Marquart said.

After the three-week session this autumn to collect stories, Marquart will select the best ones and the North Dakota Humanities Council will publish them in an anthology, to try to preserve memories and experiences of this time in state history when things are so rapidly changing.

“I get to help other people write their stories, and being present during this time provides me with credibility to write about it. Right now, living in Iowa, I don’t feel qualified to write about the situation from this distance,” Marquart said.

Marquart is the author of four books including the memoir, The Horizontal World, and a short story collection, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories. Her fifth book, a poetry collection, Small Buried Things, which includes a long poem about fracking in the North Dakota oil boom, will be published by New Rivers Press in 2014.


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Contacts: Debra Marquart, English, (515) 290-7731, Katherine Marcheski, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, Steve Jones, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (515) 294-0461,