Interview with Katherine Standefer
May 08, 2015
Katherine E. Standefer writes about the body, consent, and medical technology. Her essay “Shock to the Heart, Or: A Primer on the Practical Applications of Electricity” appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Colorado Review. She generously agreed to share her thoughts on her craft with Natalya Stanko, Colorado Review associate editor.
Natalya Stanko: I love the rhythm of “Shock to the Heart.” With its short vignettes and repeated subheadings, it sounds like a stuttering heartbeat. I wonder how you went about finding this essay’s rhythm. Did you have a strong sense of its particular rhythm from the outset, or did its rhythm develop in later drafts?
Katherine Standefer: “Shock to the Heart” is an essay I wrote because I needed it to survive. In the hours and days after my defibrillator went off by accident, I was terrified of what I contained inside me. I worried that my tissues had been permanently harmed by so much current. I feared the intense pain of more shocks. I was suddenly aware that it could go off anywhere, at any time, and that if it did there was nothing I could do. I also realized for the first time that, rather than saving my life, my defibrillator could actually kill me. And whether or not I had such a device, I realized, I would someday die. I no longer knew how to consider this thing attached to my heart—if I should hate it, fear it, appreciate it. If I should have it taken out.
All this haunted me. I obsessively began researching: how much current did it take to injure a human? I began to think about how few humans have experienced electrical shocks beyond a bit of static sliding over carpet. There was a sort of tribe of us, the electrocuted and tasered and lightning-struck. I wanted to know how my experience stacked up to theirs, why electric chair victims died and I didn’t. I wanted the numbers on my own shocks: how much voltage, for how long, delivered where. Was I scorched inside, as I felt?
From the beginning, I was trying to write the narrative of what happened to me. But early on I saw that my own experience wasn’t blending well with my research. The voices were too different. I struggled to establish a weave that made sense, but it felt jumpy moving from one type of research to another, and the research read too dryly. In comparison, lumped all together, my own narrative was melodramatic. And then, one day, I realized that perhaps this was a strength—the voices speaking to me about my defibrillator were different voices. They could cut each other. I sat down on my porch in the sun and read through my research, and began to jot different headings. How should I consider what happened to me? I was asking. The narrative was one thing—the happening itself, the “Shock to the Heart.” Then there were “Practical Applications” of electricity—things electricity had been used for. “Review of the Literature” helped me understand how electricity itself operates, and to gain insight on my defibrillator. “Lightning Flowers” were the more spiritual, poetic ways I was trying to soothe myself—finding beauty and mythology in my device and the shocks.
I think forms have to justify themselves. This was an essay that refused to be written any other way; I couldn’t play host to the conversation I’d discovered without isolating syntax, splitting up storytelling. I did a lot of work moving around the different pieces to make sure the strands pulled tension and didn’t overwhelm each other—so this accounts for some of the rhythm you’re talking about—but as you may have noticed, the sections get longer toward the end of the essay, and the categories loosen up a little. It was important, I think for the essay (for me!) to lose control, to move from the technical language at the beginning into the dance between my fear and Roy Sullivan’s, and the sort of consolation of the Lightning Flowers.
NS: You’re currently working on a book that traces the supply chain of your internal cardiac defibrillator. How does the process of writing a book-length work compare to essay writing? Does your book also employ experimental rhythms and structures?
KS: In many ways, this book is an essay. It’s one sustained inquiry, an attempt to answer a question; that inquiry is just too long to be a single chapter. In this sense, the process is very similar. At the beginning, there was a lot of random drafting and experimental research. I had to find out the shape of the thing, whittle the question down, propose some routes forward for myself. If an outsider had looked in they wouldn’t have been impressed. But this sort of unknowingness is normal for me in my essay writing process.
What’s different was the length of the period in which I didn’t know what I was doing. It was unnerving. It required that I grow a sort of faith in the artistic process, a sense of when to push and when to let material settle. What has also been different is the level of research involved. I knew early on that I wanted to visit the factories where my internal cardiac defibrillator was assembled, and I was able to do a few short trips—one to a facility in nearby Scottsdale, AZ, and one to another facility outside L.A. But as I understood my questions better—and as I moved backward through the global supply chain—it became clear that I would need serious capital to follow this research where it needed to go (which was, primarily, to contentious mines in the developing world).
I applied to a lot of grants through my university, with minimal luck. So finally, about a year ago, I launched a Kickstarter project. This was terrifying because I had to ask basically everyone I’d ever met to support me financially—to throw their weight behind a project that was still full of the unknown. Incredibly, it funded, to the tune of nearly $17,000.
Having 300 people involved has really changed the book for me. For one, I have to write it now! Ha. Sometimes that has felt like a stifling pressure. But mostly it’s amazing to know I have a tribe behind me. Last summer, their funding sent me to Madagascar to conduct primary source research at a couple of newer industrial mines, as well as to an old mine in South Africa. Since then, I’ve done two other research trips Stateside, too. The craft challenge now is organizing the material. Even though I say the whole book could be an “essay” in terms of inquiry, of course the material needs to be split up into smaller essays or chapters now. I’m at a very messy stage of it now, but I’m learning a lot and it feels good.
So no, this book project doesn’t use experimental forms at all. Such forms aren’t necessary to tell the story I want to tell. I see this as being a pretty narrative book, combining the story of my sister’s and my heart arrhythmia with my research on what it takes to make a lifesaving device—or, in other words, how saving the life of a single American echoes back globally. I’m really into the dance between content and form—do we need a form to explore a certain topic? Does a certain inquiry need to be a book? The piece of art should justify itself.
NS: Since much of your work considers your relationship with your physical body, I wonder what role your body plays in the writing process. How do you prepare your body—yourself—to write?
KS: I love this question. The state of my body is so intimately connected to my writing process. My most creative hours are early in the morning, so I tend to be an early-to-bed person. I arrive at the same coffee shop every day between 7:00 and 7:30 am. I work until 11 or 12, and then take a break to move my body. If I drive, I leave around lunchtime to go trail running in the Tucson Mountains just west of town; if I ride my bike, I often swing into a lunchtime yoga class. Then I’m “reset” and can work a few hours in late afternoon.
This sounds simple, but it’s been the product of a lot of years of learning. I’ve found that for me “less but better” is a good policy. Working long hours, especially without exercise, can make me less creative and less productive—short hours interspersed with endorphins or other meaningful activities is key.
Along the lines of “less but better,” I’ve had to give up the idea of writing on top of a day job. That’s never going to work for me, because there’s too much exhaustion and stress involved—I burn out. I’ve played that tape to its end: I wind up not writing. And when I get intensely stressed like that, I’m much more at risk of having an arrhythmia (due to the heart condition described in “Shock to the Heart”). So I often find myself prioritizing health over finances, passion over security. I’m working right now to develop the right balance of freelance teaching, freelance journalism, and working on my own book. I eat local food, cook as much as I can, and attend acupuncture every week. If I don’t take care of myself as a body, the good work of writing will never happen the way I want it to. Sometimes this is hard to do—we have so many messages telling us to make money our priority, to work long hours, to do more more more—but I cling to the advice Dear Sugar once gave a reader: “You don’t have to have a great credit score. You just need to keep the electricity on and be kind.” Being kind to my body is a central part of this ethos.
NS: Much of your work, including your book-in-progress, explores the relationships between environmental, medical, and technological issues. Can you recommend other authors who are taking this multidisciplinary approach to understanding the body? Which authors have inspired your work?
KS: It’s interesting, I’ve found many writers working at the intersection of technology and environment, or environment and medicine, or medicine and technology, but not all three, and they didn’t necessarily inquire deeply into bodies or embodiment within these frames (although a few certainly did).
Still, there’s much work I’ve learned from. I was stunned by Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, not only for her ability to explain the science to an everyman reader, but also because of the way she allowed her research process to become the narrative of the book, exposing herself and the impact our researching can have on the researched. I love Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats for the way she manages her voice as she moves between her family narrative and the historical unfolding of the nuclear weapons productions facility she grew up beside.
Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World. Bonnie Rough’s Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. Katy Butler’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door. Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, of course. One of my stalwarts is Bill Carter’s Boom Bust Boom, about the global copper trade and its intersection with his family’s health in Bisbee, Arizona. And Sallie Tisdale is one of my idols; she’s done a lot of smart thinking about the body and medical systems. I’ll stop there! My debts are long.