On February 17th this was the topic of a talk at the 7th annual San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) Writers Conference. The speaker was Kristen Iversen, Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The University of Memphis.
She said setting your personal story in a broader historical context makes it more interesting and more meaningful. You should identify moments in your own life that are important for you and develop them in writing as fully as possible. Then think about what was going on in the world at the same time and research local, national or world events that appear connected to your story and weave those facts into your story. Consider writing your story in the present tense to make it more immediate.
Iversen then talked about how she did this herself.
As a young girl, she and her family lived in Arvada, Colorado, which was close to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, which secretly produced more than 70,000 plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs and contaminated the environment with toxic and radioactive materials. Over the last 10 years or so, she conducted research into what happened at Rocky Flats. She read hundreds of pages of documentation, including oral history interview transcripts at the University of Colorado, newspaper articles, photographs and previously classified information. She also conducted extensive interviews of some of the workers at the facility.
In late February 2011, after the prior year’s San Miguel writers’ conference, she finished her book about growing up near this facility.
She read a section of her book about the “Mother’s Day Fire” at the facility in 1969. While she and her family were having brunch at a restaurant, a fire broke out in the production line at the facility, and only two guards were on duty with limited knowledge about how to fight such a plutonium fire. Her present-tense account of fighting the fire was gripping. After the reading, she added that the roof of the facility almost exploded in this fire. If it had, it would have been a Chernobyl-like disaster for the entire Denver metropolitan area.
Iversen hired an agent to get the book published. Then on March 11, 2011, Japan was hit with an earthquake and tsunami that created the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant with radiation leaks into the air and contaminated water spilling into the sea. Now there was intense interest around the world in nuclear disasters.
Her book was now a “hot item.” it was auctioned in New York City by her agent with publishers’ representatives calling Iversen with questions at her office in Memphis. It was eventually sold to Crown Publishers and is to be published on June 5, 2012. A subsequent auction in London sold the rights to another publisher for the U.K. Iversen added that Angelina Jolie had expressed interest in the movie rights to the book.
The tentative title of the book is “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.” I told the author that I did not think it was a good title because most people and I did not know what “Full Body Burden” meant. (I found out later it means the burden on a human body of nuclear radiation or other toxic chemicals.) Nor did I think most people would recognize the term ‘Rocky Flats.” In addition, I thought the tentative cover of the U.S. edition of the book did not help to sell the book.
Naomi Wolf, the noted author and public commentator, was another speaker at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and afterwards published an article in The Guardian in London titled “From Rocky Flats to Fukushima: this nuclear folly.” Wolf reported that as Iversen grew up, she became aware of the growing incidence of bizarre cancers being diagnosed in local children. Thirty years later, cancer rates remain elevated in neighborhoods around Rocky Flats (plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years), and recent tests confirm there is still contamination in the soil. Yet purportedly to “save” the high costs of cleaning up the site, most of the Rocky Flats has been designated a “wildlife refuge” to be open to the public in 2013. Wolf uses these facts to argue that it is folly to plan any expansion of nuclear power as the U.S. is planning to do.
Iversen discussed many of these same issues as well as her new book in last Sunday’s New York Times‘ “Sunday Review.”
“Full Body Burden” will hit the book market at about the same time as a new book by physicist and historian Spencer Weart. His book, “The Rise of Nuclear Fear,” is reported to argue that scientists do not know about the physical impact of radiation. On the other hand, the psychological impact of radiation exposure is evident. Precisely because physical damage from very-low-level radiation cannot be detected, exposure leaves people in great uncertainty. Many believe they have been fundamentally contaminated for life. They may refuse to have children for fear of birth defects. They may be shunned by others who fear a sort of mysterious contagion.
I recommend Iversen’s forthcoming book on what should be a fascinating approach to an important public policy issue.