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.
The 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."
The 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
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.
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 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
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.
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
You have also worked extensively as an editor. Could you share some of your experiences in this regard (The Pinch, Reed 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?
Oh, 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..
-Check out the teaser of Full Body Burden by clicking on this sentence-
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.