Interview: 'Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats' by Kristen Iversen

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“Nuns and hippies, housewives and physicists, attorneys and Buddhist monks. History makes for odd alliances,” writes Kristen Iversen, in her third book titled Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats. Indeed, her new book is packed with vibrant, eclectic, often blue-collar characters that deal with the lot they’ve drawn in life, settled near or downwind of a nuclear power plant that manufactures plutonium bomb triggers for the U.S. Government.

For a long while many of the surrounding suburbs have no idea what is being made just three miles away from where their children swim in lakes and chase their dogs in the brisk but beautiful land outside of Denver, CO. There’s a rumor that the newly-erected buildings produce cleaning supplies, a rumor perpetuated by 1970s housewives donning beehive hairdos and popping little white pills to cope with the boredom and isolation of life at home.

The plant, though shrouded by secrecy, brings jobs and increases urban development–so the town is torn in a bureaucratic battle over falling housing rates versus public health. Kristen Iversen, one of the children who rode horses and played in the land just beyond Rocky Flats, grows up to fully realize the secrecy, the lies, the danger, and the cancer caused by plutonium. Full Body Burden gives a detailed journalistic account of the lack of safety, the MUF (materials unaccounted for), the hazardous fires that occurred because production was valued over safety, and the subsequent court cases. She also gives us a glimpse of a seemingly picturesque life in western suburbs, a life that encompasses riding horses, breaking bones, drinking Coors, and seemingly archaic notions of marriage and divorce. She also accounts for her personal struggle with her family, particularly her alcoholic father, although it’s not a topic anyone in her family, especially her mother, wants to bring up.

Full Body Burden resists the gruesome—Iversen could have painstakingly illustrated the many details about brain and lung cancer due to the exposure to the most miniscule amount of plutonium, but Full Body Burden reads much like a hyper-journalistic account of the goings-on at the power plant—a much more informative rather than sensational report. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Iversen during her book tour for Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. Read what else she has to say about research, writing, her mother, being a mother, and more:

Ally Harris: What about the creation of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats was the most fun for you—research or writing?

Kristen Iversen: I love doing both, and often they seem to happen simultaneously.  The research comes together and I begin to imagine a scene, and then one scene leads to the next.  And then I circle back to the research to doublecheck facts and details.  It’s a continuous process.

AH: In your book, you mention Hans Christian Anderson, John Irving, John Barth, and Virginia Woolf. What made you gravitate towards writing non-fiction? Do you have any non-fiction influences of note?

KI: Fiction and literary nonfiction have similar aims, aesthetically and stylistically, as well as striving for what John Gardner calls “a vivid and continuous dream.”  But nonfiction has real consequences in the real world, and carries a different kind of meaning for the reader.  Some stories must be written as nonfiction.  I’ve always been drawn to the power of literary nonfiction, including books like Hiroshima, Desert Solitaire, and The Solace of Open Spaces.

AH: You write: “Silence is an easy habit. But it doesn’t come naturally. Silence has to be cultivated, enforced by implication and innuendo, looks and glances, hints of dark consequences. Silence is greedy. It insists upon its own necessity. It transcends generations.” Did growing up in a household where certain subjects were rigidly taboo contribute to your non-fiction writing? Do you ever find remnants of that upbringing in your personal life?

KI: As a child and even as an adult, my impulse has always been to turn inward and write.  I carry tiny notebooks in my purse and the backpockets of my jeans; I make scribbles on napkins and post-its and scraps of paper.  It’s how I make sense of the world and learn what I think and feel.

AH: While reading Full Body Burden, I found some of the most interesting personal material was your experience growing up as a woman in the 1970s. For example, in high school, boys in your Auto Shop class were allowed to work on cars but you weren’t. Did you have any hard feelings about that? Were there any other moments growing up that you felt ashamed or inhibited by being a woman?

KI: There were some things I would have liked to do during my school days that were simply unavailable to girls.  Sports, for example.  Girls could be on the track team, which I did for a little while, but that was about it.  I knew I wasn’t the cheerleader type.  So I rode horses.  Eventually I learned how to change a tire.

AH: I also get the sense that as a child and teenager you operated between the poles of what is traditionally expected of a girl and the rejection of that tradition. On this front, your mother seems to be a particularly unsympathetic character, and perhaps a catalyst for that delicate balance. Does that resonate with you? Was she a difficult character to flesh out in your book?

KI: My mother had very complicated expectations of her daughters, and she herself had been frustrated with what was defined for her in life.  She had wanted to be an artist, but she became a nurse and then a housewife.  All the women in my family were nurses, teachers, or stay-at-home moms.  Women were not expected to be ambitious.  When she had three daughters, my mother wanted the best for us, and some of the things that she couldn’t have.  The old and the new.  She wanted us to be wives and mothers and have educations and careers, to conform to tradition and also, to a certain extent, to break the mold.  But it was complicated.

AH: In your interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, you mention being a single mother. How much of this book do you think is written from a mother’s perspective?

KI: Mothering and caretaking go hand-in-hand.  It is our responsibility, not just as mothers but as parents, to make sure our children grow up in a safe and healthy world.  We have to look after the environment in a caretaking manner.  The profit and goals of the nuclear industry, particularly the nuclear weapons industry, don’t take that into account.

AH: Do you have any plans for another book?

KI: Yes.  Several.  I have a big to-do list.

Listen to an interview with Kristen Iversen about her new book on NPR’s Fresh Air. Full Body Burden is available for $25 at Crown Publishing, a division of Random House.

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