Mountain man: Talking with Yucca author John D’Agata

John D’Agata

While John D'Agata's About a Mountain is, in large part, about a mountain (Yucca, specifically), it attempts to gather in much, much more. The story of a young suicide victim named Levi; the politics of nuclear waste; the nature of Las Vegas; and, at a deeper level, language, uncertainty, time and the unknowability of things. Also, his mother.

About a Mountain (W.W. Norton, $24) is set for a February 8 release. We spoke to D'Agata from his Iowa City, Iowa, home, where he teaches at the University of Iowa.

The book release is almost here. How's the anticipation?

I feel okay. Some initial reviews have been very kind. There's one that seemed a little mean-spirited. I think someone suggested in a review that no one should be allowed to write about Las Vegas unless they're going to do so like Hunter S. Thompson. That's really dumb, and obviously I failed on that front ...

I can't think of a Vegas book that's more opposite of the Hunter Thompson approach, really. A reader who sees even a partial summary of your book — which bounces from the city's centennial to Yucca Mountain to suicide to the importance of signs and symbols — would wonder, what's the unifying force or theme that ties it all together.

My answer is not the end-all, but for me the thing that propelled me through all the subjects is doubt. Uncertainty. Wanting to pull things together. Wanting to wrench meaning or significance out of something, especially when we're confronted with events or experiences that feel unnecessary or impossible to comprehend, or even simply unfair. I think in those situations we tend to go into overdrive to try to find the meaning of things. So I think, maybe, interestingly, the book stretches to try to make a lot of connections. And I think at the end, in some ways, it fails, but it also kind of announces that failure. That's my feeling of the book, that it starts out trying to approach its subject somewhat journalistically, although I put that in quotes because I'm in no way a journalist. But it tries to enter its subject through the most obvious entry point and tries to gradually reveal information and reveal significance or meaning or evidence along the way. And it does so through the conventional journalistic tenets of who, what, when, where, why, and how.

But eventually it loses faith in that approach. And I think that's when it gets, toward the end of the book, a little more manic in pulling in more and more and more subjects. And the transitions become slighter, and a little more dramatic. It's trying to announce its inability to find that significance.

About a Mountain by John D'Agata

That certainly isn't anything the publisher would allow me put on the book jacket. But that's what the experience of the book was like for me — learning that meaning isn't always possible. And I think in nonfiction especially that's pretty interesting to discover. Because in our culture, at least, we tend to expect nonfiction to be not only easily digestible, but immediately impactful and clearly meaningful.

I think that's why people in recent years have gotten in trouble with factual fabrications in nonfiction, or even just introducing the imagination into nonfiction. So that's why the experience of writing this book for me was interesting because in it I'm clearly declaring I don't know; I'm not sure how to get my head around this.

There are plenty of passages that dramatize that seeking for meaning or connection — when you spend three pages listing everything that would have to be destroyed in the event of a nuclear transportation incident on the Spaghetti Bowl. Most writers would have settled for a few paragraphs.

I think it was a Sandia research lab that said that if the level of contamination after a spill is in fact what Yucca's "worst-case scenario report" suggests it would be, there's nothing that could be done to clean it up. We'd just have to dismantle and discard the city. If that's the case, it's interesting to think about what that would entail. There'd be more material that would have to be safely stored away than Yucca itself could hold. I find that fascinatingly ironic.

But it's a risk, obviously. I'm definitely pushing the envelope a bit by risking losing the patience of the reader in that passage. But I think we might be a little numbed at this point by threats such as this. It doesn't really work anymore to just say, "We would all be vaporized by a direct nuclear hit." We have to remind ourselves what exactly would be lost. It's not just buildings that would have to be demolished; it's everything inside those buildings. It's not just streets and sidewalks, but even the topsoil around them.

I think the point is to remind us what actually is at stake. And again, it's hopefully not just about losing a piece of Vegas; the point of going into those details is to remind us of all of the little things that are around us everywhere. I wanted to make sure that idea wasn't abstracted.

In writing about Yucca Mountain, you devote as much time to the project to design warning signs for future generations as you do to nuclear policy.

That's actually what I thought the book was going to be about exclusively. I thought that warning sign project was funny, because it's obviously absurd. Trying to mark a site with a sign that could remain not only physically intact but also coherent for 10,000 years (or now a million years, as the EPA is suggesting). That's silly because there's no human language that's lasted that long. And we're pretty sure that there aren't any materials that could last that long.

But also — and this will sound a little cheesy — I'm still touched by the implicit acknowledgement by the US government that it isn't going to be around 10,000 years from now. I mean, obviously it wouldn't be around in 10,000 years, but in some ways that's admirable for the government to say it. I find that strangely encouraging. But also, and this is the cheesy part, I find it touching that we think it would be necessary to even mark the site. In other words, there's a gesture of faith there, that there will be people around, and things around, that would need to be warned about our incompetence millennia earlier. Our inability to entirely understand the science we're playing with.

You said you initially thought that's what the book would be about. At what point did it open up onto these other topics?

What changed was actually my mom. What the book suggests is that it was my mom who kind of introduced me to Yucca. But in reality I'd kind of been sniffing around the subject of Yucca for a while. But I wasn't committed to it, I hadn't started writing about it until my mom moved to Vegas. And then that's when Yucca changed for me as a subject, because it was no longer just a silly subject for me — and I'm sure readers in Las Vegas would be offended by my suggesting that I ever considered Yucca merely "silly." I apologize for that. But with my own mom suddenly living in Vegas, Yucca Mountain because a personal threat. And that's what made me want to investigate the politics of how Vegas got saddled with the project.

Levi became a part of the book almost immediately after he died; I really did think I had spoken to him the night he died, although, as the book explains, I didn't. But for a number of months, before I was able to meet his parents and piece together what happened the night he died, I thought I had.

And this is a little crass, but I'll be honest about my thinking at the time. Levi was very clearly for me a metaphor for Yucca — about how devastatingly scary it is, and how that fear can be demobilizing in some ways. Initially of course, I was just concerned with finding out who Levi was and trying to figure out whether he was the person I thought I'd spoken to. Once I also learned about the high rate of suicide in the city, though, it was just clear that this story was a part of how I was thinking about Yucca. Not that suicide and Yucca are at all related. And neither is Levi's death connected to Yucca in any way at all. But I think these two subjects are emblematic of the tension I feel in the city.

I'm kind of uncomfortable talking about this, because I'm the last person among your readers to have the authority to talk to do so, but there's a kind of atmospheric stress that I still feel in Vegas, even now when just going to visit my mom there. And I think this must have something to do with the suicide rate. And I think Yucca, either directly or metaphorically, had been a part of that stress too until of course very recently. It felt like something hanging over the city. Again, it doesn't even have to be Yucca specifically, but just that stick-it-to-Vegas kind of mentality that I think people who live there might unconsciously internalize.

My mom loves Vegas, I still love Vegas, but she is also far more stressed there than I've seen her before. She's very happy; don't get me wrong. But she's also very on-edge. I find that interesting. I can't put my finger on it entirely, and I also wouldn't want to write a book that tried to put its finger on that specifically.

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