Research Spotlight

Interview with Dr. Kristen Iversen

Conducted by Rodrigo Mariño-López

Kristen author photo creditKristen Iversenis the author of "Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats" (2012), winner of the Colorado Book Award and the Reading the West Book Award, and selected as one of the best books of the year by Kirkus Reviews, the American Library Association, and Mother Jones magazine. "Full Body Burden"was also chosen as Best Book about Justice by The Atlantic and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Iversen’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, Reader’s Digest, American Scholar, and other publications, and she has appeared on PBS, C-Span, NPR’s Fresh Air, and BBC World Service’s Outlook. She has worked extensively with A&E Biography and The History Channel, and has lectured widely across the US and abroad. She holds a PhD from the University of Denver and currently heads the PhD program in Literary Nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati, where she is also Literary Nonfiction Editor of The Cincinnati Review. Iversen is prior managing editor of The Pinch and Reed Magazine, and served as an editor at Denver Quarterly.

Your book "Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats" has been a great success. Could you tell us about the process of this book, how did you get to write it, how did it came to life?

Well, at first I thought I was going to write a memoir about growing up in Colorado, in the foothills near the mountains, with horses and dogs (laughs). Then I thought I’d write a separate book about the nuclear weapons factory called Rocky Flats. I had grown up next to it; it was always a mystery to us. When I was a graduate student at the University of Denver, and a single parent with two little boys, I went to work at Rocky Flats myself because it paid well and I could work around my classes. But I was also very curious about it. It was a very intense time when I worked there, and I discovered what was going on: they had produced more than 70,000 plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, the heart of every nuclear bomb in the United States. I learned about the contamination and all the related problems: the politics, the health issues, the environmental disasters, the money trail. But it took some time and there were many cover-ups and lies.

Full Body BurdenThe turning point was one night I got off work, picked up my kids at daycare, put the kids to bed after dinner, and turned on the television."Nightline," a documentary show, was on and they were interviewing some of the people I worked with, including my boss. It was an exposé that was shocking—stunning—and I learned that there were more than 13.2 metric tons of plutonium stored at the plant, when a milligram of plutonium can cause cancer. And I was literally working right next to it. It was stunning to me. So that was the night I knew I was going to quit my job (laughs). And the day that I quit was the day I knew I would write a book about it.

After that, ten years of research, ten years of very intense research – with research assistants helping me – went into that book before it finally went to press. But at that point in time the two stories came together: It was about my growing up in a neighborhood where we had environmental issues and health issues going on, but it was also the story of growing up in an alcoholic family. My father was a very brilliant attorney and an alcoholic, and he eventually lost everything, so the book was partly about the rise and fall of our family. And then it was also about Rocky Flats and how the plant impacted everybody in my neighborhood and beyond, in terms of health and everything else.

So ultimately the book turned out to be about secrecy and silencing, at the level of family and community, and beyond. And the two stories fit together perfectly, and I had to write them together.

Let’s talk about your project "Lightning and Thunder."

Tesla in office creditsThe title has changed! (laughs) I’m not sure what the final title is going to be. This book is about the broader historical and cultural context of Nikola Tesla’s personal life. People have written a great deal about all the things Tesla invented—there are many books about his discoveries and the general parameters of his life. What I’ve been doing for the last six years is deep research into Tesla’s personal life. He had some very interesting and powerful friendships with men and women around the turn of the century, including many writers. Not just Mark Twain but also Rudyard Kipling, whom he was very close to, and all sorts of other writers and actors as well – Sarah Bernhardt, for example. He was also very close with architect Stanford White.

It’s just a remarkable story. Tesla’s personal story is fascinating, even in terms of his politics and his religious beliefs. He was raised Greek Orthodox, then eventually became a Buddhist, and was one of the first people to help bring Buddhism to the United States. He was interested and involved in political issues in the U.S. and abroad, particularly his homeland in what is now part of Croatia. He was a pacifist and, indeed, a peace activist—there are so many parts of his life that no one has really touched. So I wanted to write his life story within the context of his friendships with other writers and creative types– he, himself, was a poet and he loved literature – and I wanted to explore some of the other deep and significant friendships that he had.

One of his closest friends would always address his letters to him saying: “To my strange and brilliant friend,” and I think in some ways this really epitomizes Tesla.

Kristen U of Belgrade  (near Tesla Museum) credit (3)So I made two trips to Europe and traveled all throughout Serbia and Croatia, and then this last spring I took a third research trip. Before I left I went through every single telegram, letter, postcard, business documentation, everything I could find that had an address on it – where Tesla went to university, where he lived, the apartments he had when he was at university – and I put together a big list, and then I figured out how to get there. And I visited every single place. I visited every place where Nikola Tesla had either lived, worked or studied, six countries in all. I’ve also made several trips to the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Wardenclyffe (his laboratory in upstate New York), and the site of his laboratory in Colorado to do deep archival research and work with microfilm. I’ve conducted a lot of interviews as well. Now this book is in its final stage, and I am so completely excited about it.

What can you tell us about "Wink's Lodge: The West’s Hidden African American Jazz Club and Literary Salon?"

Well, this book is very interesting in terms of how the story got to me. It’s a little bit like the Tesla book. I wasn’t looking out for that story, and it came to me. Many of my stories have a Colorado connection, which is very surprising to me. I grew up in Colorado but I haven’t actually lived there for a long time, although I often visit. I have a friend who is a judge in Denver, one of the first African-American judges in Colorado, and we were having lunch one day, talking about a little mountain town called Nederland, just outside of Denver. When we were kids and teenagers, my sisters and I used to ride our horses all over the mountains there. We were talking about this and he asked: “Well, have you ever heard of Lincoln Hills or Wink’s Lodge?” I said “No,” and he said: “Well, it’s right there, where you used to ride your horses.” So I went home, looked it up, and started doing some research, and it turned out to be this remarkable story of a kind of hidden African-American community that started just around the turn of the century. Wink’s Lodge (also called Lincoln Hills) was one of the first resorts in the country, the very first one in the west, where African-Americans could actually purchase land and cabins and live in the mountains. There was an outdoor camp for girls, and a famous jazz club. Through my friend, whose parents and grandparents were deeply involved in that community, I was able to conduct interviews with many of the people who had lived there, and some that still do, including several remarkable women in their 90’s who had memories of living there while they were growing up.

Wink's Lodge 3 credits (1)Wink’s Lodge very quickly became not only a resort area but a kind of refuge for musicians and writers during a time where Denver, in the 1920’s and the 1930’s, was deeply influenced and controlled by the KKK. The mayor of Denver was one of the heads of the KKK. It was a very hostile environment for African-Americans. So the fact that this community thrived during that time—and beyond—is remarkable. Many of the jazz musicians and singers who traveled to Denver to perform would stay at Wink’s Lodge because it was safe, because it had a sense of community, and because it was an important cultural and literary hotspot. And I’m happy to say that, in some ways, the community still exists.

How can this story not be in every high school history book in Colorado, and beyond?

What can you tell us about your novel in progress, "The More Deceiv'd?"

This novel, for now, is happening between the work I’m doing on my other books, but I am eager to finish it. I’ve published parts of it in literary journals. I guess I don’t quite have my elevator pitch yet, but I can say it begins with a young woman who is returning to her family for the funeral of her mother, who passed away unexpectedly. She has her mother’s ashes in the trunk of her car and she is bringing them to the funeral. This family has experienced a lot of sorrow and conflict and it’s a big deal for her to be coming to celebrate the life of her mother. On the way there, she is hit by a car from behind. The trunk bursts open and the box with the ashes explodes, drifting to the sky. This is the opening scene.

This is a novel about changing relationships between siblings over time, and connections between two sisters in particular.

Your work has often intended to examine the political through the lens of the personal…

Exactly, that’s a good way to put it. I always think of the line “the personal is the political.” I’m not overtly political in my work, but by putting personal stories in a broader political context, my work, "Full Body Burden" in particular, has had a very strong political impact.

How do you combine, or intertwine, academic research and literary writing? How do you see Creative Writing to be positioned within academia?

Creative writing is an essential part of the University and of academic culture, particularly in English and literature, although there are many natural ties to other disciplines. For instance, with literary nonfiction in particular I have worked with students from medicine, law, history, psychology, and environmental studies. By learning how to conduct creative research, write creatively, and tell a good story, you can, as I mentioned earlier, put a personal face on a very important story. I’ll use my own book as an example: I could give you a twenty-minute lecture right now about plutonium and put you to sleep immediately (laughs). But if I tell you a story, a true story, about a young woman who grew up next to my house near Rocky Flats, and how her family was deeply contaminated and she has suffered nine brain tumors as a result of plutonium contamination, and how that forced her to drop out of college, and how her life dramatically changed—if I can tell that story, and tell it well, that helps people understand the impact of plutonium in a way that is much more powerful than just describing the technical properties of it.

Creative writing is a very powerful tool. Learning to write a good story is something you’re not going to really get in any other part of the university. Creative writing also creates fantastic readers: people learn how to read closely and how to read well, and that has a great impact on their lives as well. I’m happy to see how creative writing programs have grown and are now at the heart of almost every university in the country.

Shadow boxingWhen I got my PhD, Literary Nonfiction was not part of academia. Nobody talked about it; you couldn’t take a class in it. The textbook I wrote years ago was actually one of the very first ones to come out on the subject ("Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft Creative Nonfiction," 2004). So I tell my students—and this is really my motto—think like a poet, write like a novelist, tell the truth. That’s the way I think about my literary nonfiction.

Regarding research and literary writing, I think it’s important to think about all the different types of research that are available. I teach a course here at UC called “Research and Creative Writing.” Research can include personal experience, of course, particularly if you’re writing memoir, but even that involves interrogating and questioning your own memory, and perhaps interviewing family members as well. Then there’s experiential research or field research, archival research, finding letters, consulting microfilm… so many different ways. And the more you travel on that research path, the more things open up to you.

So my strategy is to gather up anything and everything I can find. I pull together photographs, microfilm, letters, telegrams, scrapbooks, books, articles, interviews, notes, whatever. Then I put together a big timeline. I get long sheets of paper and I tape them up on the wall in my office. Sometimes I have different timelines. This all helps me keep the chronology straight and keep the research in my head. I rarely tell a story chronologically, because I have to write dramatically, but I need to have that information.

You have also worked extensively as an editor. Could you share some of your experiences in this regard (The PinchReed Magazine, Orphan Press)?

I’ve worked as an editor in a number of different capacities. I was involved with Reed Magazine at San José State University, and then I managed The Pinch at the University of Memphis for ten years, which was fantastic. When I first started there, the journal was still called River City. I changed the name, changed the look, and expanded it to include art and photography. I really enjoyed it. I’m now the Literary Nonfiction Editor of the Cincinnati Review and I’m very excited about what’s happening with that publication.

But before all this happened, I worked as an editor in a number of different ways. I was a book editor for about a year and a half, where I did acquisitions and book editing. I was a magazine editor in California for a couple of years, where I learned magazine production, how to put a magazine together, and how to edit an article. I was also an editor for a financial services company, believe it or not, which was very useful because we did tax publications—I knew I wasn’t going to do that for the rest of my life! (laughs)—but I learned to communicate complex information in a way that everyone could understand.

These multiple editing experiences helped me to eventually become a good teacher in terms of reading student work, and it has been extremely helpful with respect to my own work. I think I have a greater sense of distance, for example. I am able to print my work out and then edit it as if I were an editor looking at someone else’s work.

Could you tell us about the work you have carried out with A&E Biography and The History Channel?

Molly BrownOh, that has been so much fun. Several television documentaries have been made based on my book "Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth."And that has been very important to me because, politically, that was an important story. There’s a 1964 movie called The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring Debbie Reynolds, that is almost entirely untrue. It marginalizes Margaret Tobin (her name was never Molly) and portrays her as a saloon girl and golddigger. It’s nonsense. In reality, Brown was a very significant human rights activist and feminist, years before women even had the right to vote. No one had told that story, and that’s a very important story to tell. When A&E did that biography, in which I worked very close with the producer, suddenly the story was shown in people’s living rooms. And that’s when the story really had a broad impact. Even museums, including the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, had to change their stories and focus, finally, on the truth.

More recently, Full Body Burden is being made into a documentary. As an executive producer, I’ve been working closely with the director and producer, and we recently returned from California where we filmed an extensive interview with Daniel Ellsberg. The film is coming out next January.

Full Body Burden has just been optioned for a television series, and I am serving as a Contributing Producer.

Full Body Burden Documentary (2)

-Check out the teaser of Full Body Burden-

What role has Taft played in your research?

I am deeply grateful to the Taft Research Center for all the things it provides: the time, for instance, is just essential, so very important. The interaction with other Taft Fellows, the presentations and readings, the sense of intellectual and creative community, the support for research and travel. It’s all just remarkable.