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Q&A: Hector Tobar on 'Deep Down Dark,' his book about the 2010 Chilean mine collapse

Hector Tobar, author of

Hector Tobar, author of "Deep Down Dark" (Picador, Sept. 2015) Photo Credit: Patrice Normand /Agence Opale / Patrice Normand

Job interviews can be marathons. But I've never heard of one quite like what Héctor Tobar went through to become the chosen author for "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free." Tobar, a journalist and author, is the son of Guatemalan immigrants and a Los Angeles native.

The miners, trapped underground in a collapsed Chilean mine for 69 days in 2010, endured an ordeal that put the whole world on watch as the men waited for rescue. They made a pact as they waited underground -- that they would choose one person to tell their collective story.

The miners' lawyers retained the William Morris Endeavor talent agency. The agency contacted Tobar, a longtime writer for the Los Angeles Times who had published three previous books. Then Tobar had to go to Chile, to meet with the miners and secure their trust.

All 33 of them.

The miners picked Tobar, and the result is a classic work of adventure reporting. "Deep Down Dark" was a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award this year and has just been released in paperback (Picador, $16). In November, a movie based on the book, "The 33," starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche, will be released in the United States.


How did you go about reporting and shaping a story with so many characters -- the 33 miners, not to mention their families and the people who were trying to save them?

My first questions were about mining culture -- I had to learn how the mine worked. As I asked my questions, I could also begin to see the natural structure.

There was the first 17 days, from when they were trapped to when they were discovered. There was a certain purity to the way they talked about it, and what happened to them.

And then there was what happened to them between the time the drill broke through to when they got out. That was more funny and absurd and strange.

The first part of the story was about the better part of their nature, and the second part was about the darker part of human nature.


It was so interesting to watch how different men stepped forward to become leaders -- not necessarily the men you would have expected.

Without a doubt, the very strong personality of Mario Sepúlveda and a couple of other men were absolutely essential. They were people who were assertive and communicated what had to be done. The leadership of the shift supervisor was not there.

Without their leadership, it would have descended into chaos.

And then there was faith, to have men who could say, we need to be strong but we need to call on a higher power, to call on the faith we have in our family and in our countries.


I assume you were not allowed inside the mine that collapsed. How did you come up with your descriptions of the environment?

The mine is closed, but you can walk up to the entrance. You can see the tunnel that the men went in, though only a few feet into it. I went just to be there. It's the middle of the desert, which requires you to travel for an hour outside of town through this moonscape. That was a pretty unforgettable experience.

I got to enter a mine close by that was similar to the San José mine. I went down with the filmmakers several hundred feet. That really showed me the abyss.

Finally, I had access to videos the men shot, too.


Were there characters in the stories that helped you put everything together?

I kept on hearing the story about this woman [María Segovia], who was mayor of the camp [the miners' families formed a camp outside the mine and lived there during the rescue effort].

It turned out that she lived eight or nine hours on the other side of the desert. She took a bus and came to speak to me at her brother's house. She was just a wonderful interview, she transported me back in time to her brother [Darío Segovia] and herself -- where they grew up, the fortitude that growing up poor required, the belief that "I am marginal, but I am going to fight to survive, and I am not going to allow anything to tear that apart." She gave me the material and the confidence and the vision to put that in the story.

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