Not In My Backyard: PW talks John D’Agata

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 12/21/2009

D’Agata uses Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, once a proposed site for storing the U.S.’s nuclear waste, to meditate on a variety of ecological, political, and personal topics, including the suicide of Levi, a Las Vegan teenager, in About a Mountain (Reviews, Dec. 21).

Why did Yucca resonate so powerfully with you?

A friend of mine, a technical writer for a subcontractor at Yucca, knew that I’d find something peculiar in what was going on there. I toured the mountain and immediately found the project interesting. An attempt to hide nuclear waste for 10,000 years? That’s kind of fascinating. At a Q&A afterward, someone in the audience asked a spokesman from Yucca, “How are you going to ensure the mountain is secure?” And the spokesman matter-of-factly responded, “We’re going to build a sign, and we’re going to make sure the sign remains physically intact and coherent for 10,000 years.” And I thought: that’s preposterous. Written language isn’t even 10,000 years old! I was hooked and spent the next few years researching the goofy government-sponsored studies that had been conducted in preparation for the project. But then out of the blue, my mom moved to Vegas, and my relationship to Yucca changed. I wouldn’t have written the same book if my mom weren’t going to be living in the path of high-level nuclear waste. I would have written an excessively ironic book about nuclear waste being sent to a mountain outside of Vegas, America’s preeminent “throw-away” culture. Hardy-har-har. Thankfully, I didn’t write that book. This project made me take Yucca and Vegas more seriously. And it made me try something as a writer that I hadn’t attempted before.

The book covers so much ground. Did you follow various whims or did the issues ramify as you went along?

Initially I found myself forcing a very “writerly” braiding of these issues, but these attempts felt too postured and overly processed. Eventually, I started juxtaposing material, allowing these issues to speak to each other more naturally. The risk in doing this of course is that everything can become metaphor. Is the boy who kills himself a metaphor for what’s going on at Yucca, or is Yucca a commentary on this boy’s suicide? But I like the ambiguity. I like not being entirely clear where the emphasis lies.

You perform a very delicate balancing act in juxtaposing Levi’s suicide with a host of other issues without minimizing the tragedy of his death.

It’s crude to admit it, but before I tracked down his parents, I had only been thinking of Levi as a way to talk about Yucca. But that changed once I met his parents and saw his photos on their refrigerator and his art in his old bedroom. I started feeling as if I knew him in some way, and yet, I also know that I don’t understand the first thing about what he felt before he died. But it took getting to know Levi through his parents before I could really feel the potency of that kind of unknowing. This book, for me, is about that not-knowing: whether it’s concerning Yucca Mountain, suicide, or the delicate vulnerability of our future as a species.

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