On August 5, 2010, a drama began in an underground mine in Chile that would ultimately grip global attention: 33 men working in the mine were trapped when it collapsed. They would spend 69 days together before an international rescue effort unearthed them and returned them to the surface.
Once they were above ground again, however, they realized their lives had changed irrevocably. Their bodies and psyches had been tortured by their entrapment, and their relationships with family and larger society–not to mention their relationships with each other– had become complicated by their sudden celebrity.
Journalist Héctor Tobar has spent hours with the men and their families in the years since the mining accident and their dramatic rescue. The hardcover edition of his book, Deep Down Dark, was released by Macmillan last year; the paperback edition hit shelves this week. A movie based on the incident, “The 33” (released in Spanish under the title “Los 33”), will start showing in U.S. movie theaters on November 15.
We spoke with Tobar via email about the book and about the long-term impact of the mining accident on the men, on Chile, and on global consciousness.
Could you explain how you came to write Deep Down Dark? Did you cover the mining entrapment as it occurred or was it only later, when the book project came up, that you began researching the event?
I was contacted by my literary agent. At the time, I was working in California as a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. I had worked in Chile before, as a foreign correspondent, but at that time I was living in Los Angeles. And like many millions of other people, I saw the rescue unfold on television.
Can you tell us a bit about your process of researching the book? How did you reconstitute not just a timeline of events, but the mental, emotional, and physical trajectories of the miners, both while in the mine and after their rescue, as well as those of their families and the government officials and private sector rescuers who were involved?
I traveled to Chile five times over the course of three years, conducting interviews of all 33 miners, and of many of their relatives, and government officials, and rescuers. From the very beginning, my objective was to create a work of art that would tell the true story of the miners and the ordeal they endured. A nonfiction novel, if you will.
My interviews were almost always at least an hour long and sometimes as long as three or four hours long. My objective was to learn about mining culture, and about (the) family lives of these men and women. I think when you spend such a long time talking to people, it’s easier for them to open up about their emotions. And it was the emotional universe of the story that interested me as much as the physical space of the mine.
One of the qualities of your writing that I appreciate so much in the book is how you convey the personalities of 30 plus protagonists in a way that isn’t just organized, but is thorough and, above all, respectful… combined, that seems like an almost impossible task.
Ann Patchett noticed this, too, calling your book a “masterpiece of compassion.” In renderings of human dramas, so many writers are tempted to turn protagonists into characters, flattening them by making one a more or less pitiable character and others more or less heroic. You manage to keep everyone 3D, with their fragilities, strengths, and flaws in balance. How did you do this and why did you think it was important to do so?
I’ve written two novels, and other works of fiction. When you write fiction, you use your imagination to recreate what people feel and think. You develop imagination muscles, for lack of a better term. Those same muscles can be used to place yourself inside the point of view of a real person: you use observation, empathy, research, and reflection to reconstruct a lived experience from the inside.
Fiction is undermined by clichéd characters, so you learn to respect the reader’s intelligence when you’re writing fiction. I think that once you learn to respect the reader in that way, you learn to avoid clichéd characters in writing nonfiction as well.
Ultimately, how did the Copiapó mining incident impact the political careers and futures of former president Piñera and mining secretary Golborne?
President Piñera saw a big boost in his popularity, but it quickly dropped off and he became vastly unpopular due, in part, to his handling of other crises. Golborne became one of the most popular politicians in Chile, and was considered a leading candidate to be a presidential nominee of the conservative party, but he had a small scandal that did him in and he withdrew his candidacy.
Has mining safety improved in Chile since the Copiapó incident (or since the release of Deep Down Dark)? How about labor and wage issues?
The monitoring of middle-sized mines like the San José improved in the wake of the accident. But not much else has changed. Having said that, I think that mining is, generally speaking, safer in Chile than it is in many other countries of the world.
Similarly, have any “new” activist or advocacy groups sprung up around mining issues since the incident?
Not that I know of.
At the end of Deep Down Dark, you leave readers with a sense of how the miners have struggled, both individually and among themselves, with their notoriety and all that has accompanied it. Is the release of “The 33″/”Los 33,” the movie coming out in both English and Spanish, affecting them in significant ways? How so?
I think that for the majority of the men, the release of the movie and of the book in Spanish allows them to close another chapter of their story. They’ve been waiting for five years for their underground experience to become public. I recently attended a press event with Mario Sepúlveda in Los Angeles. He told the journalists there that, “We hope the movie and the book give us our dignity back in Chile.”
I think the feeling among many of the miners is that the Chilean press, especially, has treated them like reality television stars. And I think there’s this hope that with a serious dramatic retelling of the story, people will finally see what they suffered underground and in the years afterward.
You do such an effective job of making readers feel and sense the space of the mine-its simultaneous expansiveness and tendency to suffocate. After reading your book and/or seeing the movie, I suspect that a significant number of readers/viewers will feel moved to become more conscious about how their own lives depend upon mining.
From the perspective of a global citizen and consumer, did you learn anything while working on this book that could be useful for the conscious consumer?
Well, I think the most important thing is that we all realize that, thanks (to) the global economy, our lives are linked to the labor of men and women in distant countries where working conditions can often be dangerous and are almost always underpaid.
The copper the men extracted from the San José mine was used to make pipes and wires in American and European homes, and to supply the Chinese economy, which in turn supplies goods to the rest of the world. I think that if we want to be good global citizens we have to become aware of how… struggles and suffering are links to our more comfortable existence.
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