An Interview with Katherine Standefer: “I must tell the story I lived”
I first encountered Katherine Standefer’s creative nonfiction and experienced her brilliance in the spring of 2021. When I was a senior at Ohio University, the English department invited Standefer to give a reading to our broader literary community from her debut memoir Lightning Flowers and to host a colloquium for students the next day. Both events were held over Zoom, but her presence and eloquence were as captivating as if we had all been together in the same room. Her book braids topics of healthcare and environmental advocacy through chapters of journalistic research and personal memoir, all recounting her “journey to uncover the cost of saving a life.” I was awestruck. I remember sitting alone in my studio apartment, hanging on each of her words and thinking to myself, what story do I have to tell? I found her narrative to be so layered and compelling, even from the brief sections that she read, and I knew it would be a night that changed my whole perspective on a potential future as a creative nonfiction writer.
I was even more moved during the colloquium session the following day, as Standefer spoke to the challenges of trauma-writing and tips for telling these difficult stories. At the time, I was writing my own undergraduate thesis—a collection of essays that dealt with experiences of sexual assault and medical miscommunication—and listening to her validate such narratives was empowering for me as an emerging writer. She was the complete embodiment of confidence, rocking a pair of gorgeous hoop earrings and bright lipstick. Meanwhile, her voice was calm and unassuming, open to whatever we wanted to discuss. After signing off that call, I bought her book, dug out my best pair of hoops, and put pen to paper. Easy to say, I was inspired.
Standefer’s Lightning Flowers is her most recent publication and a 2021 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction Finalist. This text highlights the nexus of people, place, and health, particularly addressing how they all coalesce and conflict to create modern medical systems and land policies we see at play today. Much of my own nonfiction pulls together similar threads which reflect on climate change, human well-being, and trauma, so when asked to complete an interview with someone—anyone—involved in the writing world, I immediately thought of her.
I reached out, and she graciously agreed to meet via Zoom. One afternoon in late October, we talked for close to two hours (both of us being a bit long-winded), and the whole experience was surreal to me. Truly, it was like meeting a celebrity. Recounting her career as a writer, she was as kind and honest as I remembered, making for an incredibly insightful and eye-opening conversation. From hidden truths about the publishing industry today to the intersection of advocacy as it relates to storytelling, we covered a spectrum of topics—and then some.
The following conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
For starters, could you speak a bit about your career trajectory as a writer? When did you know you wanted to write?
I have been a writer pretty much forever. In second grade, I told everybody I was going to be a writer in the cabin in the woods in Wyoming. I got the location wrong a little bit—I’m on a mesa in New Mexico right now—but I was obsessed from an early age, and it always felt really clear.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I realized that even though I always did a lot of other things—I played sports, I acted in plays, I was a singer and songwriter—writing lay at the heart of all. I would write about whatever else I did.
At Colorado College, I ended up double majoring in Fiction Writing and Sociology. Which meant I got to write two theses—and I know many people would not want to do that! But for me, it was a huge plus. Colorado College is a school where you take one class at a time really intensively, so you have seven weeks to write your thesis. As a double major, I had two two-month periods during my senior year where I was just writing theses. It was heaven, and sort of the test run for my future.
I didn’t understand at the time that fiction writing plus sociology is creative nonfiction. Especially in terms of the skills you’re developing—dialogue and place description, but also reading studies and crunching them into accessible essaying. You’re looking around the world and developing conclusions. All of that, working together, was what I ended up wanting to do. But I couldn’t see that then—the only nonfiction writers I was reading in college were environmental writers, since that was already a passion of mine.
How did you transition into creative nonfiction?
I graduated college and was living in Wyoming, where Lightning Flowers starts—I was working in outdoor education and writing fiction and poetry in the off seasons—and then when I passed out in that parking lot, when I woke up, something had shifted for me. I kept trying to tell the story of my heart condition as fiction, and it just never worked. It was always so thinly veiled—my experience lightly remixed, but not meaningfully so. At a certain point, I had to recognize that it needed to be nonfiction. Like, you don’t understand your experiences well enough to put them in the bodies of other people. Sometimes there are themes we can play out in fiction and learn what we need to learn that way. My previous fiction had been a lot about strong women surviving weird kind of assaulty dynamics with men. It can be me and not me at the same time. But for illness, it really needed to be my body. It was all packed into my body in a way I didn’t understand.
After my first heart surgery, I was working at this sexual health clinic in Boulder. It was really important in those years to have that job for insurance, but eventually it became clear it was time for me to go actually be a writer like I always thought I would. I tried to apply to programs in both fiction and nonfiction, but I ended up only applying to nonfiction because that’s all I could make happen.
I began grad school in 2012. The only school I got into was University of Arizona, which was amazing, because arguably it was the best school I applied to. I really dug into the question of, How do I tell these stories of my body, as someone who has a lot of writing chops in terms of lyricism and voice, but who doesn’t know how to conceive of what she’s doing in nonfiction? And it was about two months into that program when I took those three accidental shocks to the heart during an intramural soccer game—the scene that opens the prologue of Lightning Flowers. The book sort of fell into my body at that point. Although, of course, I couldn’t have known then everything else that would happen while I was writing the book—the events in the second half of it didn’t occur for a few more years. But on that night, I sort of emerged all at once into: This is what I’m going to be doing, this is what I’m here to do.
Do you consider your writing now to be focused on one particular element of advocacy? Or do you see all these elements as merged?
We put many of these things in silos, but they don’t want to be siloed. They were always the same thing. The work of the writer, to me—the creative nonfiction writer specifically—is to ask questions and connect disciplines in ways that no other discipline can. There is no other space where the environmental movement and healthcare and our cultural relationship to death get to talk to each other in the way I was able to set up through creative nonfiction.
That bringing together of the disciplines is not an artifice. It’s literally my body. It’s all literally present right here, all the time. How can we use our writing to notice the things that are already there, these sort of long contexts of the world in which we live? It’s not that we’re creating it or inventing it—we’re just doing the radical work of finding a way for those things to be seen together in a work of art.
How have your motives or inspirations shifted over the years?
When I first started my MFA, my professor Chris Cokinos made some reference to me being an environmental writer, and I was like, “I am not an environmental writer!” Which, now, is really funny. But I’d been living in the sexual health world, and the application I wrote to come to the MFA was like, I want to write about sex and death. I thought I’d settled my previous focus on environmental and sense of place stuff and put it behind me. I was kind of bored with it. I didn’t understand that in the life of an artist, you have a lot of stages, and the things that you might feel done with just get baked into the foundation you stand on. Often, they never stop interesting you—it’s just about at what level. The way I conceived of that work in college of course wasn’t the way I wanted to conceive of it later.
I had a very playful, curious period in grad school. I used it as a laboratory. Ander Monson was a huge mentor for me. He gets people working in directions they wouldn’t have otherwise written. I read things I wouldn’t have read, and I did these weird, jumping-through-hoops assignments. Ander called us out a little bit sometimes, but working with him forced me to decalcify some of my typical moves, and it made me a braver writer. I ended up seeing what’s at the center of my work, rather than just its artifice. Grad school for me was like: If I use this period right, I can blast off career-wise at the end of it.
I got really obsessed too with questions like: What are the craft challenges that happen over and over in illness writing? What are the craft challenges that happen over and over in sex writing? What are the places I’m weakest as a writer? I always had lyricism, I always had rhythm and voice. But I would write in these tense fragments and just never move beyond the tense fragments! The nonfiction department at U of A was like, how are you thinking about this? Can we push on this a little bit?
What ended up bursting out of me was my essayistic voice—the version of me that could say I want you to look at this, and here’s how I’m thinking about this, and here’s how a few other thinkers are thinking about this, and here’s the devastating scene that’s going to bring all this thinking into your body. It was about not just having a few tools and using them over and over—but having all of the tools and using them at the right moment. I published a lot of different types of work in grad school, and I published in a lot of different venues—the experience was very much based in skills development for me.
So, the journals do mean something after all?
They do—I mean it’s so tricky! I love that you’re asking that question, because back then I got to know journals by submitting to contests so that I could have the “free” year-long subscription. Or I would hang out in the University of Arizona Poetry Center and read a bunch of them. Or I would go to AWP and pick up copies of the journals professors had told me might be a fit for a particular essay. Back then, I was really trying to dial it in. I got to know the literary publishing landscape because it seemed critical to submitting well, which led to getting essays accepted, which led to having something to put in my bio.
I got a lot of attention from agents that way, too. I never had to query agents. I know that’s not everyone’s story, and I want to respect the story other writers have lived. But I got my first agent inquiry when I funded a Kickstarter project in 2014, I got another one when a Colorado Review piece came out, I got another one when my essay “In Praise of Contempt” won the Iowa Review contest, and yet another one when that piece actually published. Ultimately, I got my agent because the Iowa Review piece was selected by Jonathan Franzen for The Best American Essays 2016, and it caught the eyes of editors at Simon & Schuster and W.W. Norton. And the Simon & Schuster editor hooked me up; he sent emails on my behalf to agents he thought I might like. I’m extremely privileged to have gone this route, but it’s an important story to tell in terms of building a writing career.
I don’t know how or if this has changed with online publications. I feel behind the times because it changed so fast. So many journals went out of business or transitioned online, and there are new publications that are doing really well, and which ones are the agents reading? But if your essay goes viral, that’s as likely to get you an agent as beating the pavement. Where you submit and what type of readership those publications have matters.
But know that there are agents always looking for new talent, and literary journals are absolutely a part of how we establish a name for ourselves. If you’re consistently placing in good literary journals, it shows agents that your work is resonating, even if there’s a small readership. Just the fact that editors who are reading so much are thinking of your work: This shines. This is of interest.
What’s something you would have never imagined to be true of your writing life now?
It depends on ‘from what point,’ right? What would have been inconceivable to me at this stage, versus at that stage?
One thing that surprises me now is how difficult it’s been to move into new projects. From the wide lens of watching other friends put books out, this shouldn’t be surprising. The ‘sophomore book problem’ is a real thing and people talk about it. Writers finish their first books and start questioning, How do I start over? Or: What if I start over in a direction that’s not gonna fly? Some peoples’ first book did really well and they don’t know how to follow it up. Or maybe their first book was, in some way, under-noticed and now it’s sort of devastating to try again. There’s some shift in your relationship to your writing that’s like, it’s no longer just about hope but about track record. What that track record means formally in the publishing industry is one thing, and what that track looks like inside you is another.
When my agent and I sold my book in 2017, we actually wrote a secondary book proposal. It was a sexuality memoir called Strange Gifts of the Body. So I always assumed I would have a very smooth transition. But something in these years of writing Lightning Flowers changed me profoundly enough that that book is no longer a fit. It’s hard to feel into what needs to happen there, since I’m still so in the midst of Lightning Flowers. To make the book is one thing; to shepherd it through its first years is another.
I keep having these false starts where I’ll try to get going in the directions that interest me most, including writing about this abortion clinic that I worked at in my 20s. And then I’ll get totally distracted by, Oh my god, I’m not making a living, I have all these teaching obligations, et cetera. I didn’t know quite how much that would stop me, how creaky the transition would be.
Going back for a moment and closing out with a question about Lightning Flowers, what was your intention in coming out with this book? Was it to promote these environmental and medical issues? Or was it more about this being a story you felt like was inside you—like I need to put it out, regardless of how others would respond?
You know, it’s both. As artists, our desire and need to be witnessed—our desire and need to process—is not the same as the work of art itself. But for those of us who are born artists, who have always existed with a certain sort of sensibility and ability to touch others with the way we do things—the doing of one makes room for the other.
We live in a world that wants to shame us for personal storytelling—and also, there’s rarely a better way to get something done than the singular marvelous personal story that has policies and structures quietly embedded within it. So: yes, absolutely—I always knew I was going to tell this story, and I always knew it had to be my story. I interviewed a lot of different people who had long QT or defibrillators, but they didn’t make it into the book because this book wasn’t about doing a survey of other people, or about, for example, the development of Obamacare more broadly. Those were craft choices I could have made. But instead I followed a sort of internal mandate—that I must tell the story I lived, then allow the other parts of me—my art mind, my intellectual mind—to say, Okay, what’s in this story that can be of use? How can I be of service?
In that way, yes—it was about telling my story as best I could, excavating the dynamics of what it meant to be young and ill, and what it meant to face death, to confront the human condition. But none of the things I experienced were divorced from our systems and structures. In the way I wrote certain portions, I was absolutely thinking, what are the policy implications here? How do I respond to certain political conversations? Which political conversations am I opting out of? When people read this book, what should they want to do? How does the tone contribute to that? How do the types of research I incorporate contribute to that?
Ultimately, I think of Lightning Flowers as a book-length essay because it is asking a question so thoroughly, and you don’t necessarily get one answer at the end of it. There are books that spend their final chapter on direct, specific policy solutions or some other type of polemicized speech. With this book, I hope readers end up thinking in a lot of different directions. I hope it scrambles their brains a little bit, because what we need to start doing is asking questions that are really hard to hold, and asking them a lot of different ways, and not allowing them to remain invisible.
There are some clear policy takeaways on the healthcare side, and there are a few on the supply-chain side. But there’s also just a lot on, how can we live more awake to these questions? Because my life and other people’s lives would be different. The lives of other beings on this planet would be different too, if we lived with these questions in mind. If we did a better job of building spaces within our organizations and governments to hold these questions more creatively, and more bravely.
Katherine E. Standefer is the author of Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life (Little, Brown Spark 2020). The book was a Finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction and a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice/Staff Pick, as well as the Group Text Pick for November 2020. Her previous writing has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016 as well as The Los Angeles Times, The High Country News, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Standefer currently lives on a piñon- and juniper-studded mesa in New Mexico with her chickens.
Support her work on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/katherinestandefer
Alli Mancz currently serves as the head web editor of Thin Air Magazine. Much of her creative nonfiction revolves around personal perceptions of place and intertwines environmental concerns with human health, appearing in journals such as Scribendi over the past year. She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona as an MFA student at Northern Arizona University, teaching English Composition and writing towards a medical memoir.