Behind the Books - Kristen Iversen

As the praise for "Full Body Burden" continues to pour forth like a geyser from the ground of reviews, we decided it was high time to chat with author and biographer Kristen Iversen. Iversen received a BA in English at the University of Boulder in Colorado, then lifted her studies to the heights of a PhD after a stint in European travel writing. She also grew up in Arvada, Colorado, which would merely be a passing point in the story of one's upbringing had it not been for the toxic devil in that detail: Arvada sits near Rocky Flats Plant, a once-secret nuclear weapons facility constructed by the American government in the simmering heat of the Cold War arms race. Shortly after its introduction to the Colorado landscape, radioactive waste and particles from the plant began threatening nearby communities, manifesting itself in strange ways among the local population.

As her book unfolds, the cracks of the nuclear factory -- and her nuclear family -- begin to show.  It's a painstakingly beautiful portrait of the personal foibles of a family, as well as the political faults of a government hard-pressed to find ways to hush up the harm they've caused. The book continues, and one cannot help but be reminded of an Erin Brokovich-type figure, bent on being the voice of the voiceless and elevating investigative journalism to new heights. In our second installment of Behind the Books, we discover Iversen's literary interests: A tape recorder in the car, the staying power of poetry, a physical/digital mix, and "the ability to shut out doubt and all those who doubt you."

What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

My writing happens all the time. My children are in college now, so my time is a little more manageable, but for years my writing had to fit into the corners and edges of my life, around my schedule of teaching full-time and raising my kids. But writing has always been at the core of who I am. I can’t imagine not writing; it’s how I process what I think and feel and how I engage with the world. I capture thoughts and ideas in whatever way I can. I carry small composition notebooks in the back pockets of my jeans; I have a tape recorder in the car that I can talk into while I drive; I write on napkins and receipts and post-it notes. I have a notebook next to my bed and I write down what comes to me in dreams. When I’m fortunate enough to have a long period of time to write, I make it a marathon. I gather up all my notes and scribbles, make a pot of strong coffee, and go for hours without interruption.

What book are you currently recommending?

I’m enjoying "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" by Jeanette Winterson.

What genre do you read the most? Does it change often?

I love nonfiction and fiction and switch back and forth, but I also tend to read a lot of poetry. Stanley Kunitz is a long-time favorite.

Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

I adore "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice" by Terry Tempest Williams.

What classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?

Over the years, I’ve worked through most of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (and I’ve had to teach a few of them), but I have a dream of someday being able to settle into a big armchair with a bottomless cup of tea and read through every single play, beginning to end.

It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

For me, reading is really about a process of discovery: of a new character, an exotic place or situation, a different way of seeing the world. For a short period of time, I share the heart and mind of a character or writer, someone completely unknown to me previously, and I discover resonances and parallels with my own life and experience. When I read, I learn something about myself as a person and as a writer.

What’s the first book in which you recognized the author’s voice more than the story or plot?

Three books come to mind: "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth, "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf, and "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson. An odd group, perhaps, but I came to those books at about the same time and they profoundly affected the way I think about writing.

What five writers - dead or alive - would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and maybe Hunter S. Thompson, just to mix things up a bit.

What’s next on your reading list?

"The Cat’s Table" by Michael Ondaatje. It’s been waiting on my nightstand for months. I can’t wait to get to it.

eBook or paper book?

Depends. eBook if I’m traveling. But I love paper best, and if I love a book I want to see it on my shelf. I often read a book first as an ebook and then buy the hardcover.

Faulkner said that a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another?

All three are essential and play different roles at different times. I like what Henry James said about observation: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” But a writer needs other things as well -- practical things, including a good place to write, whether it be a café, closet, or cubicle; and a quiet confidence in the story and your ability to write it. You must have the ability to shut out doubt and all those who doubt you.