Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Congrats, Kelly on the Oprah Pick! Memoirs We Love

Welcome To Shirley, A Memoir From an Atomic Town

I posted about this wonderful book by Kelly McMasters last year. It's a memoir about life on Long Island, in a town called Shirley - located far too close to the Brookhaven Nuclear facility to avoid illness and death and yet too far from the money of Montauk to matter to the powers that be (although they are next door neighbors.) Distance is often measure in social class and money, not miles. From Kirkus Reviews:

"Powerful...debut explores the author's happy childhood next to a controversial nuclear laboratory that leaked toxic waste into a Long Island aquifer. McMasters follows up this moving material with pages that delve into case-study numbers and scientific quotes ... Sincere and expertly researched."

As I've learned from my pal John Robison's book, Look Me in the Eye, the best non-fiction reads like fiction. This book was a terrific read. Engaging, informative and with a good story at its core. I'm sure Kelly and the people of Shirley, Long Island, New York, wish this book was fiction.

The story traces Kelly's nomad-like childhood with a golf pro Dad, who found the 18th hole in Shirley, New York, where Kelly ultimately grew up. Although Shirley was supposed to be a town of flowers according to its founder, it turns out to be anything but floral when the nuclear facility nearby wreaks havoc on old, young and in between.

I see a lot of similarities to our struggles in the autism world. The government and medical establishment turning a blind eye to the obvious problems growing around them and in them(literally inside the people of Shirley, as cancer ravaged so many.)

You can buy a copy HERE. Kelly was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her book. Here's our "interview."

When did you realize you had to tell this fascinating and frightening story?

The lab is a Superfund site, which is a researcher’s dream—literally hundreds of pages of documents available to the public. And after working on the project for three years, I was finally able to get access to do some research at the lab itself. There is a “Public Documents” room in their library (which is anything but—it was impossible to get access, and then they only allowed me 3 days there, during which I needed to show my approved badge four times to get in). The reports I found there felt like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. During that meeting I met with a representative from the lab who asked why I wanted to bring up all of these bad memories again. I explained that I was interested in telling the story from Shirley’s point of view. I was interested not just in the lab itself, but in the way the relationship between the lab and Shirley has impacted the town. She replied. “But there is no relationship between Shirley and the lab.”

At that moment, I realized how important this story as, because while the lab had the luxury to decide they did not have a relationship with the town, Shirley had no choice—their relationship permeates the drinking water aquifer, the soil, and the air. The town had a relationship whether they wanted one or not, and I think this scientific arrogance and the idea that the pollution and poisons our neighbor produces and releases into the environment are only the business of that neighbor is deadly.

How long did it take you to research and write the book?

I originally started circling the issue in a series of essays during graduate school. One of my favorite professors, Richard Locke, pulled me aside and showed me that the lab was functioning as this haunted house on a hill in each piece, and he said although I was clearly afraid of it, I had to look straight at it to understand what I was writing. He was absolutely right.

Along with my own memory, hours of written and tape-recorded interviews were supplemented with other research, including newspaper articles, scientiļ¬c studies, reports resulting from Freedom of Information Act requests, and hundreds of pages of documents culled from the (not so) public reading room at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. My imagined scenes of the town’s founder, Walter T. Shirley, were informed by history books and archives. Five years after my discussion with Richard Locke, the book emerged from the printer.

You’ve really brought the story to life – I’ve heard that the best non-fic reads like fiction. You’ve captured that. How did you do it?

Thanks so much—that was an important goal of mine. When my agent and I were first showing editors the proposal, they were pretty split down the middle: half wanted me to remove myself from the mix and tell the story in a purely journalistic fashion, and half wanted me to take out all of the science and medical information and focus strictly on the memoir. I thought it was important to keep that mix in there, and I was lucky to find an editor and a publishing house that believed in the hybrid as strongly as I did. So many scientific studies had already been done that didn’t tell the whole story, and since we were dealing with the Department of Defense I knew there would be no Erin Brokovitch moment of finding the incriminating evidence (or, if there was a moment like that, I’d have to go into hiding!). And while I do believe the genre of memoir can be incredibly powerful, I felt that there were so many facts and figures to marshal, that pure memoir ultimately wouldn’t be able to do the story justice.

I love literary nonfiction because it is able to take the best of both the nonfiction world—fact-based, real human drama—and the fiction world—plot, character, suspense, landscape—and apply both brushes to a single canvas. I believe it is the most exciting genre to work in right now. Literary nonfiction has that frontier feeling of anything-is-possible because the borders are so malleable and flexible. My next book is absolutely going to continue to push the hybrid form.

Do you think because Shirley was not as affluent as other areas that your concerns were ignored?

Absolutely. And almost every national laboratory around the country has a town like Shirley nestled up next to it—a blue-collar dumping ground. The most frustrating message I kept getting was that Shirley didn’t matter—that our people were disposable. You can imagine how painful it is to be told that your family and friends, the people you love most, are disposable and that their lives are not worth as much as the Nobel prize or results from an experiment.

More damaging, however, is the fact that after decades of being sent this message, it was internalized. The people in town really began to believe that they were disposable and that somehow this was just par for the course, or what they deserved. That’s the saddest and most damaging part, I think.

How do you manage the anger you must feel at that folks who refused to listen for so long?

Wow. That is a really difficult question to answer. I think writing this, of course, really allowed me a kind of release. To be honest, I cried through so much of the writing. And I was mostly crying over things that happened twenty years ago. It is difficult to know where to put that kind of anger because it is displaced—people are already sick or dead, and there is no way to change that. And since cancer often takes 20 years to show up, there is no way to retroactively protect my friends, family, or even myself right now.

Most of my anger is wrapped up in this powerlessness. My mother’s character in the book acts as a kind of Cassandra—she sees where things are headed and tries to warn people, but no one listens. I think anyone who deals with environmental health issues must feel this way. But it is a faceless anger, which is the worst kind—since there is no one person to take it out on, it can really engulf your world, and I’ve also seen this kind of anger turn inward and engulf the person, which helps no one. I think the most constructive thing you can do is simply to try to accomplish one thing each day. Tell one person or write one letter or learn one more thing to strengthen your case so the next letter you write might be the one that shines the light in that deep, dark basement where no one wants to look. Translate that anger into something useful.

Thank you, Kelly!


Michelle O'Neil said...

Does Kelly know if the autism rates are higher in Shirley?

Kim Rossi Stagliano said...

Not sure, but I can ask her. I'm guessing yes, but not sure if there's a correlation. I grew up near a SuperFund site in Massachusetts. Loaded w/ metals and something nuclear. Perty, yes?