The thirty-three Chilean miners buried in the Copiapó mine disaster were rescued four years ago this month. When they were still underground, the miners agreed that should they survive, they would only tell their story together, once, to one person. Novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Héctor Tobar wound up being that person. Here, he talks with his editor, Sean McDonald, about his relationships with the miners, and rising to the challenge of telling their story in Deep Down Dark.
Sean McDonald: When the miners emerged from the mine, they were instant global celebrities. What was your first meeting with them like? Were they still reveling in their freedom, and their fame?
Héctor Tobar: I first traveled to Copiapó, the city closest to the mine and where most of the miners lived, in May of 2011, seven months after the rescue. I was introduced to a large group of the miners in a Copiapó restaurant. I conducted my first interview there, with Richard Villarroel; I’ll never forget that conversation, because it ended with Richard telling me how much he was still suffering, psychologically, even though a mental health professional had pronounced him “cured.” During that first trip, I also travelled to the site of the mine with Luis Urzua, the shift supervisor, and I met many of the miners at their homes, sometimes with their wives and children present. In Chile especially, the label “hero” was quickly attached to them. In their first interviews on the surface, the men often rejected the label. But the media kept using it. About a year after the accident, Carola Bustos, the wife of miner Raul Bustos, told me, “The worst thing that anyone did was to call them heroes.”
SM: You spent a lot more time with the miners over the course of writing the book. What were your relationships with them like? How did they evolve?
HT: At the beginning, I often felt like a therapist, to be perfectly honest. Or a confessor priest. I could tell that talking to me was cathartic to them. Yonni Barrios—who was famous as the miner whose wife and girlfriend fought on the surface—broke down weeping in our first interview. His girlfriend, Susana, told me afterwards that he’d been suffering from sleeplessness and nightmares, but felt better after that first conversation. When I met a man who was clearly suffering, I briefly shared my own experiences with post-traumatic stress, and things I saw and lived through as a reporter; I’d tell them about my nightmares after returning from Iraq, for example. I just wanted them to know that what they were feeling was perfectly normal and understandable given what they’d been through. I don’t think many people quite realize how horrifying and exhausting those sixty-nine days underground really were. Over the years I think I’ve become someone they trust to explain how the world of the media works, and how the world sees their story.
SM: Did you have any trouble getting them to open up to you? Were there any particular surprises?
HT: Only once in hundreds of hours of interviews did anyone tell me, “I’m not going to answer that.” And a few minutes later, he answered the question anyway. I think one important thing I did was to make my first questions about their family histories, and how they got into mining; it was my way of letting them know I was interested in the full truth of what they had lived through, and not just the scandalous aspects. It also allowed me to really get a sense of who they were before they went into the mine that day—that’s sort of the novelist’s instinct, I guess. As for surprises—well, every interview seemed to have one; something totally unexpected, strange, spiritual, funny, or even poetic.
SM: I know the miners don’t read much English, but excerpts of the book have appeared in Chile’s largest newspaper—have they had any reaction to the book, its publication?
HT: As I was writing the book, I told a lot of the men about the parts in which they appear, and what other miners were saying about them. There were times when I had to ask some hard questions; of the shift-supervisor Luis Urzua, for example, and Mario Sepulveda, who was both an inspiring and a polarizing figure underground. Afterwards, when the book was still in galleys, Mario Sepulveda’s daughter read it—she went to college in Nevada and reads English—and when the New Yorker ran their excerpt, their famous fact-checkers called Chile and spoke with most of the men before it ran. All of that has given them a good sense of what’s in the book. Recently Mario gave an interview to the English-language newspaper in Santiago in which he joked, “but Tobar makes me look like a jerk!” He went on to praise the book, which was nice. Raul Bustos has read the book, and also praised it in the media there.
SM: As your editor, I remember being daunted by two crazy, unusual challenges heading into this project. First, pretty much everyone thinks they know what happened, and certainly how the story ends. Second, you have at least thirty-three protagonists—more than that, because you brought in characters from above-ground, too. Did you have any special strategies for dealing with all that once you had dug in?
HT: There’s always a more interesting story when you get closer to the people involved. So having thirty-three protagonists actually made the writing a lot easier. Human memory works in all sorts of crazy ways. Everyone remembered different kinds of details, different events. One guy recalled the speeches people made underground; another guy gave me vivid descriptions of what their feces looked like when they were beginning to starve (“like llama pellets”). And with the most dramatic moments, I often had four or five different people offering detailed testimonies. It made it easier for me to feel like the omniscient narrator of a novel. I brought in other people (wives, friends, rescuers) because it was clear they had a lot to add to the universe of the story. The biggest challenge was making sense of some of the very personal enmities between the men: Why is this guy angry at that guy, and is there something about that anger that’s interesting? In the end, you have to step back and just worry about what’s true, and what works on the page. The phrase “kill your darlings” is really apt, because it takes a certain ruthlessness and discipline to keep the reader’s attention, especially when you have so much material to draw from.
SM: You’ve worked as both a novelist and a journalist, and published works of both fiction and nonfiction—but this is really your first book-length work of narrative nonfiction. Did you find that it pulled more on your experience as a novelist than you expected? Did you find yourself embracing that or resisting it?
HT: Being a novelist, for me, means searching for the language that captures human truths that have never quite been put into language before. You work hard to create the illusion of the real—the richer the material you have, the more effective the illusion. So I tried, in my interviews especially, to fill out the world the men were talking to me about: “What color was that wall?” “What did the water look like?” “Why was your husband angry with you?” I studied the local slang and the local history: in written sources, by talking up the locals, and in one last journey to Copiapó, in which I spend an entire day just wandering the city alone. Writing novels makes you a better observer and a better listener, no doubt. Fiction writing also made me more comfortable in the emotional territory of this particular story, which is a lot about family and home. So, yes, I totally embraced the novelist’s trade in writing this book. I embraced the idea that if I knew the facts, and understood the human truths of what happened underground, I’d be able to use my craft to make the readers feel they were down there with the men.
SM: It’s been four years since the collapse and rescue. We recently saw the miners in a commercial supporting the Chilean World Cup team, but haven’t seen much of them otherwise. How are they doing? What are they doing?
HT: About two thirds of them are back at work; mostly at various jobs in the mining industry, above ground. About a dozen of them got retirement benefits from the government. Some went back to underground mining, but generally they’ve tried to avoid that line of work. Recently, they were granted a lifetime pension by the government, of about $600 a month, which is about half the salary earned by the lowest-paid man in the mine. A few are still suffering from emotional problems, but the ones who went back to work the earliest are doing the best, I think.
Héctor 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.
Sean McDonald is the executive editor and director of digital and paperback publishing at FSG, as well as the publisher of FSG Originals.