Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Demetri Raftopoulos, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Hector Tobar about his book Deep Down Dark (Farrar, Straus, and & Giroux), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Nonfiction, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Demetri Raftopoulos: Since the events in Deep Down Dark have already happened, readers are aware that thirty-three Chilean miners are trapped. In chapter one, there are several clues leading up to the mine collapsing, specifically the “finger-wide-crack” discovered on the ramp at level 540. How were you able to remain patient and not lead off with the action of the mine collapsing?
Hector Tobar: Well, among other things, I had the wonderful example of “In Cold Blood.” In that first “nonfiction novel,” Truman Capote spends more than fifty pages describing the Kansas town of Holcomb, the lives of a family who lived there, and of the two men who killed them — all before the murders actually take place and the bodies are discovered. It’s a novelist’s trick. You want people to be invested in the story. Part of doing that is making them care about the people whose story you’re telling, and to have them understand the place where the story is unfolding. The first twenty-five pages of my book serve as an introduction to the surreal world of the mine, and to the ordinary, surface lives the men who work there.
DR: I understand that the thirty-three miners chose you to tell their story. How did that make you feel?
HT: I felt an enormous sense of responsibility, and of privilege. This was an event that a fair portion of humanity watched unfold on television. But as soon as I had them before me, I could see men who didn’t seem that different from me. They were very relatable. They reminded me a lot of my own parents, or people in my family.
DR: Your dialogue is so fresh, so clean. Nonfiction writers are allowed some free reign with dialogue but it’s difficult to recall everything word for word. I’m sure it helped being able to relate to the miners but what was your technique in putting together the dialogue during scenes?
HT: The dialogue comes from several different sources, the chief among them being the memories of the men and their families. (And also from the diary Victor Segovia kept, and a handful of recordings that were made underground). One of the things I learned from this project was how different human memory can work. I had some men who could remember lots of technical details, but whose recollection of dialogue wasn’t as sharp—they would paraphrase more than anything. For example, I had to really work to get Jose Henriquez, the “Pastor,” to remember what he said during the very first prayer. On my third interview with him, I finally had to insist that he tell me “textualmente,” i.e., “word for word,” and he gave me a phrase that really resonated: “Señor, no somos los mejores hombres,” “Lord, we aren’t the best men.”
DR: It’s hard to disagree with Mr. Henriquez. Did you have a similar experience talking to all the men?
HT: Sometimes it takes work and patience to find the poetry in the speech of “ordinary” people — and then other times it just falls in your lap. I was lucky to interview the miner Omar Reygadas, who had a wonderful ear for remembering the speeches people made. It really helps when you can interview thirty-three men and piece together any given moment from several different perspectives.
DR: “I wrote this diary to survive, not turn it into a book ... I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.” As you mentioned, Victor Segovia kept a diary during his time trapped in the mine. A lot of the other men had described the diary as the device that would tell their story. How did you feel being able to read it, to be able to use it to help do what the miners entrusted in you to do?
HT: His diary was a true lifesaver for me in the process of writing. It gave me a time-stamp to the events, especially those of the first 17 days. Victor began the diary as a farewell to his daughters, thinking it might be read after he died and his body was recovered. So it had a sense of immediacy, and sorrow too. Even more remarkable, it’s a document written by a man who had never left northern Chile before the accident, and who had a grade-school education.
DR: When meeting the miners, each of their families shared a similar concern with you; “the man who came out of the mine isn’t the same who went in.” It seems that their families trusted you to help them recover the men they knew before August 5, 2010, by telling their story in a way that not only illustrates their astounding perseverance but also humanizes them as normal guys who chose survival over defeat. Do you think this is why you were able to receive such personal testimony from both the miners and their families?
HT: As a journalist, I always work under the assumption that the people I’m interviewing are intelligent and insightful — and that they’ll notice right away if I’m insincere, manipulative, or just plain phony. So every time I sat down with one of the men, or with their family members, or with the rescuers, I just tried to convey my profound respect for them. I think if you’re sincerely curious and open-minded with the people you’re interviewing (in other words, if you’re really listening) they will tell you things they might not tell you otherwise. People want to share; they want to unburden themselves. It’s human nature.
DR: The thirty-three have already been trapped in the mine for seventeen days when drill 10B finally penetrates the passageway above the Refuge where the men are buried but this newly obtained hope is crushed by the scary reality that they still aren’t going anywhere for a while. Can you explain the miner’s emotions as they shared and unburdened this part of their journey?
HT: One of the challenges I felt as a writer was the need to find language that captured the wide swings of emotion from one part of the story to the next. There was a spiritual and existential mood to the first section of the book; and then it became this absurd and surreal event. For the first seventeen days, they felt forgotten to the world; and then for the next fifty-two days they realized there was a media circus on the surface above them. They were buried underground and in contact with the outside world, and they knew they’ve become worldwide celebrities even though their lives were still hanging in the balance.
DR: Do you think that affected the way they rehashed what was happening to them?
HT: In telling me about these days, they still had this sense of wonderment, or having witnessed something that was miraculous and also very strange. There were also a lot of bad feelings among the men that were the product of those last fifty-two days, when a lot of them thought they would be rich — money has a way of bringing out the worst in people. So I had to sort through a lot of personal enmities that were sometimes, admittedly, quite petty.
DR: It’s difficult to compare being trapped in a mine for sixty-nine days. But I can imagine there was some type of parallel journey you went on with the thirty-three, trapped in the midst of your prose and liberated upon your books completion, especially writing the ending when the men were finally rescued. Did you feel a similar type of relief, not only that their freedom was finally on paper but their untold story would soon be shared with the world?
HT: Like a lot of writers, I have an active and occasionally dark imagination. I kept lots of copies — digital and print — of my manuscript of the miners’ book in various places and with various people as I was working on it and getting near the end. I’d tell myself, “Well, if something happens to me on this plane trip, what I’ve written will find its way into print, somehow.” It was a big and very solitary responsibility to carry around for the years I worked on it. I was especially relieved when I found what I felt was the true “ending” of the book, a scene of domesticity and reflection that summed up all the themes of the collective story the men and their families lived. I also carried the pressure of knowing that thirty-three men and their families wanted to have the story in print, as soon as possible. Getting the story told soon was very important to them, and I knew that, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t linger too long on the manuscript. I wrote it in three years, which is the fastest I’ve ever written a book. It needed to get out into the world.
Hector Tobar is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a novelist. He is the author of The Barbarian Nurseries, Translation Nation, and The Tattooed Soldier. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, he is a native of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Demetri Raftopoulos is a writer receiving his MFA in Creative Writing at The New School, with a concentration in nonfiction, where he is the program’s event and chapbook coordinator. His writing has appeared in The Ink and Code, Thought Catalog, and Sports of New York. The son of Greek immigrants, he resides in Long Island.