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Héctor Tobar Talks Chilean Mine Disaster

An Interview with the Author of ‘Deep Down Dark’


On the afternoon of August 5, 2010, 33 miners became trapped 2,300 feet below the earth’s surface when a massive section of Chile’s 121-year-old San Jose copper/gold mine collapsed. The disaster quickly made international news as the Chilean government mounted a rescue attempt. It took 17 days of drilling down to reach the men below. By then, they were filthy, hot, and nearly starving but all alive. But their ordeal was far from over.

In his bestselling book Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Héctor Tobar takes the reader inside the dark, sweltering mine and compassionately conveys the emotional and physical suffering that the men endured during their 69 days beneath the tonnage of rock. I recently spoke with Tobar over the phone about writing Deep Down Dark and what he took away from the harrowing story.

I am so excited to talk to you about your book. Thank you. You’re very kind.

It was one of the best books I’ve read, ever, honestly. That’s so sweet of you. Thank you.

You’ve probably been hearing that a lot. I found it quite gripping; and it’s been now out for a while and you’re touring for the paperback issue and people are still interested, I imagine. Oh, yeah. I’ve had a week to relax, but I hit the road again on Friday. I go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then Indiana, and last week I was in New York and New Haven and Washington — yeah, I’ve been on tour. It’s been crazy. I’ve never been on a paperback tour before, you know, because usually you go on tour when a hardcover comes out. But a paperback tour has been a lot of fun.

You must feel so close to these characters — well, they’re not characters; they’re real people. You spent a while interviewing them and now all this time still talking about them and their lives. Are you in contact with any of them still? Oh, yeah. You know, they were in Rome yesterday for the anniversary. At least 30 of them were out there in Rome. I don’t know if they met the Pope. So yeah, they, they’re doing well.

I read somewhere that they selected you to write this book while they were still underground. Is that correct? Well, not precisely. While they were still underground, they decided that they should share the proceeds of a book together. And so when they got out, they signed up with a law firm in Chile, and that law firm hired a talent agency, William Morris Endeavor, and that talent agency recommended me.

So were you covering the story while it was happening for the L.A. Times? No, I wasn’t. I was a columnist for the L.A. Times then and I was working in L.A.… I followed it, but I didn’t cover it.

The book is full of so much information. I was really impressed with your ability to distill it down and make it a human story. How did you wade through it all? I had written two novels before tackling this book. And then another book or two of nonfiction. And there’s something to be said for experience. [Chuckles. ] I think that what especially the novels taught me is how important characters are. I mean, in this case, they are real people, but you’re describing to the reader their desires and their fears and their foibles, and not to be afraid of that terrain.

I think as journalists we sometimes are afraid to enter into the emotional lives and the complications of the lives of the people we write about — we don’t really have the space and the room to deal with those things. But as a novelist, that’s precisely what you’re writing about. So having that experience allowed me to tell myself that I could enter the emotional world of these men and their families. And then you just build a story around the central emotional themes and scenes and, you know, the social moments. And fortunately there were key moments when I had four or five great witnesses, and then there were things that happened that just one person told me. But you know, just realizing that this story had so many brilliant and unexpected and strange scenes in it and so many really compelling men and women in it. So you just build the story around, you just try to have novelistic discipline, and build a narrative that is centered around those points, around the elements and just also the just physical aspect of both the setting of the book and the men and the suffering involved, if that makes any sense.

There are so many people in this story. My allegiances, for lack of a better word, to who was my favorite changed. What I’m trying to say is that by representing their foibles, they were just very easy to relate to as people, as opposed to making them all heroes. Oh, yeah. They did some heroic things, but no one is really a hero. I think even a hero is someone who has sort of the flaw or imperfection of character. I remember Alice Walker saying that once — she’d written a novel about a civil rights hero, and it was someone who had this flaw, this central flaw. So yeah, I think that makes them more relatable. People can see themselves in them.

What was their response to the book? Did they have to sign off on it? I think that, according to our contract, which [chuckles] I did read at the end, they had the right to make corrections. But no corrections were made. I took the manuscript, in English, to their representative. But more importantly is the summary of the book, in Spanish, and I mean, I’d written it in English. So the … summary? And I think that, from my questions, and later from the questions from the New Yorker fact checker — the New Yorker excerpted eight or nine months before the book came out — they had a sense early on what was in the book. And now they have it in Spanish. I think the most common response was, “Wow. You really put a lot of work into that.” [Chuckles. ] There’s a lot of stuff in there … and that’s a nice response.

How long did it take you to write this book? Three years.

Nonstop, or working on other things, too? I started in the spring of 2011, and I turned in the final draft in let’s say January 2014. So it was a little less than three years. … I had like a four-month leave of absence from the L.A. Times, where I was working as a columnist. And so I had those four months to work on it full time, and other than that I was doing it while I was doing a regular job both as a columnist and a book critic at the L.A. Times. And that was crazy.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Chile. I loved the people; I thought it was such a cool country. It’s the only South American country I’ve been to, but I was pretty impressed. You hear about South American corrupt governments, and I know Chile’s has had its troubles, but I found it to be quite European. Oh, yeah. Chile is definitely. Of the countries I went to in South America, and I went to maybe eight or nine — I’ve lost track — it’s definitely a country that has the most orderly infrastructure. It’s not the economic behemoth that Brazil is, but it also has a reputation for having extremely honest government and honest police. You cannot bribe a Chilean police officer — I know this firsthand.

There’s also incredible class divisions there… [We] just learn to appreciate the politeness that comes from having a strong middle class. So in this country, it’s rude to assume someone is less than you. Even though people do it all the time, you can’t publicly express it. It’s very rude to publicly express it. … But in Chile, in South America, it’s much more acceptable to look down on the poor, and publicly express it. And the flip side of that is that the poor, the working class, know this, and so they have a huge chip on their shoulder all the time, and they are always [ready] to defend themselves and distrusting of people with privilege, including these guys, who distrusted their lawyers, sometimes with good reason, other times not, other times just definitely working-class paranoia. [But] even with that, it’s definitely a very… and it’s also one of the safest countries in South America. Uruguay’s pretty safe, too, but definitely Chile is a very safe country.

It was interesting how the Chilean government responded to the mine collapse and the aftermath; they did do some overhauling with their mining infrastructure — is that right? Yeah, that’s right.

Did you get a chance to go down into a deep mine? Well, I went to that mine many times. You can’t go inside the mine; you can only go outside. Although once, I was with a group of movie producers and Luis Urzúa, and we walked 10 steps into the mine, and Luis was so freaked out. I went a lot of times to San Jose mine, which is a really fascinating, desolate, empty place. But I went to another mine, which is pretty close, another copper and gold mine, and I went down into it, and the people we were with said, “Okay, turn off your lamps, now,” and we turned off our lamps, and we were in total pitch-black darkness, which was very, very interesting, to feel the wind shifting back and forth. And then someone showed me this interior space, this abyss that exists inside the mine, which just totally blew me away that you could just shine your light into this space, and it just wouldn’t hit anything. It’s just a big, empty space. That helped me tremendously.

Reading the book, I just felt claustrophobic at times. And you definitely get the sense of being inside the mine with them. It just sounds horrible. Oh, yeah! And you know, we’ve recently had this heat wave here in southern California…

We’ve had it in Santa Barbara, too. Everyone’s ready to riot. Right, exactly. So imagine what it’s like to be in 90-degree weather and high humidity for a couple of days, but imagine being trapped in that, in the dark, for 10 weeks! … Just on an ordinary day, eight hours of that is hard enough, and for 10 weeks, and then to have experienced this collapse underground. That in itself is pretty scary, and a nightmare to see. It was a very physically demanding experience, and it was part of my job to render that on the page, and my job was aided because I had all these 33 different guys with 33 different memories of it, and each adding little extra tale.

So was there anything that surprised you writing this book? I was just surprised at how hurt a lot of these guys were, how hurt they were by what they had suffered underground. Looking at it from the surface, looking at it from the view of the news media, I was not aware of the torture they had suffered, and it was both a physical and a psychological torture. It was the physical torture of starving for two and a half weeks, 17 days, and then there was the emotional of being trapped in your grave. And thinking, having time to reflect on how you’ve lived your life, and what your passing will mean to the people who loved you. And that became the central thing of what we talked about, when I talked to these guys was, we talked about the hurt and the time that they reflected on how they had led their lives, and just how hard it was and then the things that sort of brought them together and then tore them apart, which is what the book is about.

So all that was a big surprise to me, this absurd third act, I guess you could call it, in which they become famous while they’re still trapped and they talk about money, and we’re never going to have to work again. I had no idea that unfolded underground, so all of that was just really fascinating to me, as both a human being and a writer. And then just to have this whole thing really revolve around family, and that to me was the hardest part — how do I render the families of these men? The fullness of the love they have for each other, and the complications of the families. I mean, families are always complicated. I was an only child, and now I have three kids, and to see the interaction between siblings, and my wife and me, and our three kids, which already is complicated — that’s a really complicated universe. And so, some [of the men] married more than once, and had kids with more than one wife or whatever. … I felt like I could have done so much more with that, but that to me was a revelation, like, “Oh my god, at the heart of all this is family.” I feel like I’ve only begun to understand — because I was an only child and an isolated person, a bit of a loner like a lot of writers. I just didn’t really feel like I understood how complicated and how rich a family story could be. So that’s what this taught me… You want to go back to family; you want to go home to the routine. All of them wanted to go back to their routines. Which, people think of the routine of the home as something trite, you know, dinner on the table. But it’s a healing, life-giving thing, the routine of the home. So yeah, that’s my big takeaway from this — how important that is to all of us.

4•1•1

UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents author Héctor Tobar Monday, November 2, at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For more information, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.



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