Kristen Iversen: ‘Our stories choose us.’
We spent an afternoon with author, researcher, and teacher Kristen Iversen in her historic home off the idyllic Ludlow Ave. We sat between two stacked bookcases filled with photographs from the past and pages of words written by famous authors – one of them being herself.
She describes to us what it’s like to be the executive director of the documentary based on her memoir, Full Body Burden, and the impact nuclear weapons, secrecy, and silence can have on a family and community. And to this day, she takes a similar approach toward every story she writes: to capture every side and always tell the truth – even when the world is telling her to stay silent.
Interview by Sarah Urmston. Photography by Kali Robinson Rothwell.
You travel quite a lot! Can you tell us about that?
I’m writing multiple books at the same time, which is crazy… But some of my travel right now has to do with the [Full Body Burden] film that’s coming out.
I’m also finishing up research about a book on Nikola Tesla; it’s such a fascinating story. He was a writer, poet, and inventor. I was in Europe for seven weeks; I saw where Tesla lived and studied to understand his life before he came to America.
What made you want to tell Tesla’s story?
Well, I think we don’t necessarily choose our stories, but our stories choose us. I came across a photo on the web of Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain in Tesla’s laboratory in New York. I thought, “This is ridiculous!” So I researched. I learned more about him and the people in his life. He was a pacifist, a peace activist – which I am, myself – and he was ahead of his time with technology, views on the environment, and women in education. That’s the side of Nicola Tesla that nobody knows.
I like that you’re drawn to capturing more than just the one story that’s always told, but really capturing all the sides.
I’m drawn to these kinds of stories. I realize the real-life story is more interesting.
I don’t think inspiration has ever been part of it; I just love stories.
Basically, my field is literary nonfiction, but I write fiction, as well. As a writer, you bring the same literary tools to the table. When you’re writing lit nonfiction, I tell myself what I tell my students: “Write like a poet; think like a novelist, but tell the truth.” That’s the difference for literary nonfiction: You have to back up reality with what you say. With fiction, it’s a whole different game. So I do both.
You’re a professor at the University of Cincinnati; what are you teaching now, specifically?
I teach creative writing to graduate and undergraduate students: literary fiction and nonfiction.
It sounds like you have a lot of passion for history, as well. Does this come up in your teaching?
[In writing], there’s a great deal of research involved. With my book, Full Body Burden, I had to research my own life to a certain extent. I interviewed my sisters and brothers. It’s interesting how different people remember different things.
Tell me what it was like to go back and relive these stories for your book.
So, the storyline is about me growing up in Colorado – just outside of Boulder. I grew up near a secret weapons nuclear facility (Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility). We had no idea it was there; the government lied to us. My siblings and I were outdoors all the time, and my parents thought they were raising us in the perfect environment. We would ride our horses in the fields and go swimming in the lake, and we had no idea there was radioactive toxic contamination in the air, water, and soil. We were exposed to all of it, but the biggest contaminant of all was plutonium. And there was a lot of cancer in my neighborhood.
I’ll be talking about this for the rest of my life.
Later, when I was in grad school and was a single parent with two boys, I worked at the plant because I needed a good, flexible job. But also... I was really curious. So I worked as a technical writer, and I got a crash course on what was happening at the plant and what was being produced.
So people had no idea where all of this was coming from?
There were a lot of suspicions. They changed the title to Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site… [Laughs.] There was nothing environmental going on there!
If you worked for the plant, you had to sign and swear to secrecy that you wouldn’t share information outside of the plant. They were building houses all over the place. People were afraid if word got out [their property] was contaminated, they would lose their house value. It’s a catch 22: You’re getting sick, but you can’t sell your house – and the government won’t admit it’s contaminated.
So how were you able to write a book about it if you legally weren’t allowed to talk about it?
I was very nervous; I didn’t know what would happen. Lots of people in Colorado said, “Don’t publish this story. Let sleeping dogs lie.”
What was it like for you to hear this?
I was of two minds. One, I was concerned for my safety and the safety of my kids, but also, I knew I was telling the truth. I thought, “If just one person would tell the truth, then other people would start to tell the truth.” So that’s what happened.
Once I got into the stories of people, it’s fascinating how history comes to life when you tell it through the eyes and lives of the people who actually lived it.
Now, let me tell you the story of the day I quit my job at Rocky Flats.
I put [my boys] to bed, made a cup of tea, and turned on the television. There was a “Nightline” episode where they were interviewing people I worked with; the lawsuits were starting to happen, and people were being forced to finally tell the truth. [Plant Manager] Mark Silverman was the first one to say it’s the most dangerous site in America. He said, “There’s all this contamination and we don’t know how to control it; it’s at a critical point, and people are being exposed.”
I just remember sitting in the dark with my cup of tea like, “Oh my god! How can I grow up next to this plant and work at this plant and not know all of this!” That was the moment I knew I was going to quit my job.
When the book came out, some of the people I worked with were very angry with me. They felt patriotic and nationalistic – that I revealed secrets that should not have been revealed.
But I felt I had to tell the story. There were too many lives negatively impacted – and it’s still going on today.
What kind of impact have you seen this book have, or what kind of impact did you hope it would have?
I really just wanted to tell the truth and tell the story. I wrote about secrets within family, community, and the cost of secrecy and silence.
I thought, “If just one person would tell the truth, then other people would start to tell the truth.”
The book is about two things I was forbidden to talk about: Rocky Flats and my father’s alcoholism. Writing about those two things and how they moved together was transformational in an unexpected way for my family. Also, internationally, I helped raise awareness on nuclear issues, particularly with nuclear weapons. I’ve also been involved in I.C.A.N. (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), which just won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In Colorado, three to four organizations began because of my book. People are more aware; there are new lawsuits partly inspired by people who read my book.
I love that you tie together the secrecy within community, secrecy within government, and then secrecy within your family. You also mentioned your father’s alcoholism. Can you speak more to this and how this connected to the story?
Anytime anything dangerous would happen, we would just look the other way and not say anything. And that was the exact same thing we were doing as a community and in Rocky Flats: “Let’s just pretend it’s all okay.” The media and the newspapers at the time were completely supporting this front. All people heard about Rocky Flats was: “Lots of jobs!”
What was it like growing up in a household like that?
I think for me, and maybe for all of my siblings, we each just figured out how to cope. For me, it was my horse. I would come home from school, get my horse, and jump on bareback – sometimes with just a cord around the horse’s neck. There were no helicopter parents. [My parents] both loved us – particularly my mother.
[My sisters and I] were raised during a time where girls had a lot of prescriptions on who we were supposed to be. We always had very interesting and demanding careers, and yet, we were raised [to think] that we were supposed to get married, have a family, and not really do the career thing. But we wanted it all. We wanted families and a career, and part of that came from growing up with a lot of independence.
What else are you currently writing?
I have four books coming out, actually. It sounds like a lot, but I’ve been working on all of them progressively.
How are you staying inspired when you’re writing and staying on top of all these projects?
I don’t think inspiration has ever been part of it; I just love stories, and I love language. It’s what I’ve built my life around.
Whatever work is meaningful to you, stick to it.
It’s terrible to go to a movie with me. I’m like, “Oh! Someone should write a story about that character over there!” or whatever. For me, the bigger problem is selecting and focusing and tuning out the rest of the world so I can finish that one particular thing.
You want to tell every story.
It’s funny, I hated history classes in high school. It made no sense to me. But once I got into the stories of people, it’s fascinating how history comes to life when you tell it through the eyes and lives of the people who actually lived it.
With this many projects on your list, how do you keep them all moving?
I’m not waiting around for inspiration to hit me; that never happens. You know that never happens, right? You have to create space in your life.
I try to stay in the moment and turn off all those internal, critical voices that criticize when and how you’re doing the work. I just try to focus on the scene.
That’s hard to do sometimes, but so important. And for you, the way you tell stories, you tend to focus on the mind and the eyes of the person. In order to do that, it does take a level of empathy.
Exactly. I love that you used the word “empathy,” because that’s exactly what it is. It’s the same with reading, too. If you can draw the reader in with the same sense of empathy through a character… even if the character is yourself…
Talk to me about your book (Full Body Burden) becoming a film. What do you wish people would take away from the documentary?
One of the more powerful aspects of the book is telling the story through the eyes of the people who live it. I can give a lecture on plutonium and put everyone to sleep in minutes, but when you see how it has an effect on people’s lives, it’s transformational. This has turned into a life passion. I’ll be talking about this for the rest of my life.
Is there anything you would want our readers to know about being a woman and doing the kind of work that you do?
I think meaningful work is very important, particularly for women. Whatever work is meaningful to you, stick to it.
Can you tell me about an influential woman in your life?
I’ve always been very inspired by women writers: Virginia Woolf, in particular. My bookshelves are all full of [women writers]. [Looks around at her bookshelf behind her.] That’s been very important to me.