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Katy Butler is a writer and a Hedgebrook alumna. We asked her about her work and about being a Woman Authoring Change.


Katy Butler: Woman Authoring ChangeTell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?

I started out as a child-poet, wrote essays in high school and short stories in college, and spent a dozen years as a cityside reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, a union job with benefits! I was convinced this was the only way a writer could make a living. Then I yearned to write in a more personal voice, and moved on to the insecure but freer world of magazine-writing. My first pieces were for Mother Jones and the New Yorker, about urban gentrification and San Francisco’s spiritual and artistic response to the AIDS epidemic. I came to Hedgebrook shortly after the death of my father, thinking I was going to write a book about another death, that of a friend in her fifties.

Hedgebrook turned out to be the incubator for a much more ambitious book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, (2013, Scribner) which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. That book interweaves a memoir of our family’s years of caregiving (an unspoken women’s issue if there ever was one) with investigative reporting about the rise of medical technologies that have erased the bright line between saving a life and prolonging a dying. My father had a stroke and lived another six and a half years, exhausting my mother. During that time he was given a pacemaker, which probably forced him to stay alive two years more than he would have otherwise. They were terrible, terrible years of mini-strokes, creeping blindness and muteness, and dementia. A natural, timely, and peaceful death would have been a blessing to us all.


Do you consider yourself an activist?

Yes and no.

Yes in the sense I speak publicly at medical centers urging better, earlier honest communication with families and patients facing prolonged and ultimately fatal illnesses, so that they can plan. I administer a Facebook Group called Slow Medicine for nurses, doctors, and caregivers to discuss these issues, including the politics and economics behind our current fragmented medical system, which serves the aged and dying badly but profits one of the most powerful and wealthy lobbies in Washington.

I certainly hope my writing makes the world a better place.

No in the sense my ultimate loyalty is to the reader, beauty and the truth, and not to a narrow agenda. I may not always live up to that ideal, but I have always tried. I love the beauty of writing as a craft, above all.


Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?

​I hope my writing is a tool for the education and empowerment of readers. At least in my current cycle.


What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

Currently, to “move the needle” culturally so that more people are better prepared for the approach of death and have a better experience of it.​


What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader/audience member?

Katy Butler Book signingThe book was based on an article I wrote for the New York Times, called “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” which went viral. I got a heartfelt letter from a nurse who loved to work with the very old, and had never heard the word “over treatment” before. She told some of her stories, which only confirmed that what had happened to our family was far from unique. My mother and I were not, after all, outliers in our beliefs that my father had been forced to live too long. I hear similar stories from family members every time I speak. I think my book, a year before Atul Gawande’s much more influential and enormous bestseller “Being Mortal,” has really changed the conversation about death in America. I like to think I helped get the ball rolling!

The book also won a “Books for a Better Life” award from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of New York, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2013.

It was briefly a bestseller. It really got started at Hedgebrook—allowing me to have the ambition and take the leap into writing a full length book after so many years as a journalist! I began writing the query letter to the New York Times at Hedgebrook when the book I thought I was writing just wouldn’t get going.


About Katy Butler:

Katy Butler is an award-winning journalist who has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. After eight years as her parents’ part-time caregiver and fulltime medical advocate, she wrote her bestselling memoir, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death. A lyrical exploration of the redemptive power of familial love and a passionate argument for better end of life medicine, it explores how difficult “the good death” has become in an era of advanced medical technology.

A braid of incisive investigative reporting, exquisite writing, and deep spiritual guidance, it was named a “New York Times Notable Book of 2013.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a lyrical meditation on death, written with extraordinary beauty and sensitivity.” Katy has lectured at Harvard Medical School and medical centers across the country. Learn more about Katy on her website at www.katybutler.com/.



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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.


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  • Mary Tang
    3:11 PM - 4 August, 2016

    Katy, you have written an important book. Over treatment to prolong dying is cruel but those of us who are over treated/medicated without the relief of death in sight are also victims of those powerful and wealthy lobbies-for-profits.

  • Katy Butler
    2:41 PM - 5 August, 2016

    I love you Mary Tang! Thank you for helping make my Hedgebrook time, and beyond, so meaningful and full of joy.

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