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SunLit Interviews

A Colorado author sought to add context to the Gold King Mine disaster. What he found was unexpected.

"Piecing together the history of the Gold King Mine was especially interesting, because it hadn’t really been done before," Jonathan Thompson said

Jonathan Thompson. (Handout)

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. All of the selections were nominated for 2019 Colorado Book Awards. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit

Jonathan P. Thompson has been an environmental journalist focusing on the American West since he signed on as reporter and photographer at the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper in 1996.

He has worked and written for High Country News for over a decade. He currently splits his time between Colorado and Bulgaria with his wife Wendy and daughters Lydia and Elena.

The following is an interview with Thompson about his book, “River of Lost Souls.”


What inspired you to write this book?

The Gold King Mine blowout that occurred on Aug. 5, 2015, was kind of the primary catalyst driving me to write this book. But in a way, the reaction by the community and the media to the “disaster” was even more of an inspiration. The event got massive media coverage (and it continues to get plenty of ink and pixels as the legal battles rage on), but a lot of the coverage was decontextualized, and some of it was flat out wrong. I found that very frustrating, and wanted to put the event in context. The only way I could do that was to write a book!

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

Uggh. This is a tough one. There are so many. Chuck Bowden, Lydia Millet, Roberto Bolano, James Lee Burke, Raymond Carver, Paul Auster, Nicole Krauss, Marguerite Duras, David Foster Wallace, … and on and on. Favorite characters? Alex in “Everything is Illuminated,” but also David Lavender in Lavender’s “One Man’s West.”

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

I chose this excerpt, about a strike, because it’s not what you’d expect from a book that’s about “the science, politics, and greed behind the Gold King Mine disaster” (but that is actually about a heck of a lot more than just that). Also because it stands on its own pretty well. I debated between this one and another one about a gunfight in downtown Silverton in 1881. This one spoke a little more to the current political situation, so I went with it.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I love the historical research, digging through old newspapers and documents and, as weird as it might sound, looking through mining permits and the like. Piecing together the history of the Gold King Mine was especially interesting, because it hadn’t really been done before, at least not in detail up to the present day, and because the history gives insight into the big puzzle that still vexes officials: What’s going on inside the mountain, and how did it lead to the Gold King blowout?

“River of Lost Souls” by Jonathan Thompson. (Handout)

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

I don’t know that one section of the book, in particular, was more or less difficult than others. But the hardest aspect was trying to communicate the science of mine-related pollution and the byzantine layers of ownership of the mines in a clear and compelling fashion.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Oh, wow, there are so many things I learned during the writing of this book. I don’t even know where to begin. One of the most interesting things is how ardently folks downstream from the mines — be they farmers, anglers, or community leaders — fought against mining pollution, even back in the 1880s and 1890s. There was this rather powerful environmental movement taking on industry in the legislature, the public sphere, and the courts, trying to get them to clean up their act. That was unexpected. We tend to think of environmental action like that getting started in the 60s.

What project are you working on next?

I continue to write and edit for High Country News. But I’ve also just finished a novel, a sort of environmental thriller that takes place in the Bears Ears National Monument, which I’m now trying to get published.

— Buy “River of Lost Souls” at BookBar

Excerpt: “River of Lost Souls” by Jonathan Thompson

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