Q&A with Melanie Holmes, author of A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A Johnston

Melanie Holmes is the author of The Female Assumption, recipient of a 2014 Global Media Award from the Population Institute. She recently answered some questions about her new book, A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I didn’t “decide” so much as I was engaged in a conversation with a longtime friend (David’s sister) and realized that too many people had taken liberties with his story over the years, and that a book informed by those who knew him best could possibly heal wounds inflicted by past hurts. I never met David, thus he was outside the sphere of my friendship with his sister; we had barely discussed him in all the years of our friendship. Thus writing this book involved asking the must fundamental questions; the more I learned about him, the more compelling his story became. We tend to forget what people of past generations went through because of the social and political climate; this is an attempt to frame one life, set in the context of the turbulent 1960s.

Q: How did you conduct research for this book?

It began with dinner. With the idea of a book in mind, we met for dinner to discuss it. We were both nervous, but it went well; she gave me names of David’s friends from childhood and college and I contacted all that I could track down. People were generous with their time, in sharing stories about David as well as what went on at Mount St. Helens. I read thousands of pages of research articles, books, letters sent to David’s parents after he died, as well as David’s own writings (letters home, etc.). I traveled to the Mount St. Helens area and toured the Cascades Volcano Observatory. I stood on lahar sediment west of the mountain. I watched a voluminous number of documentaries on the eruption as well as on the recovery of the ecosystem. Perhaps as important as research on the man and the mountain was researching the time period in which David grew up—it felt important to view him from a cultural viewpoint. This is one man’s story, but it’s also the tale of a generation.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing this book?

The human condition is a fascinating landscape; it is hard to narrow it down to one thing. Perhaps discovering that David had a very anxious disposition, and learning about what might have fueled those anxieties, and especially how he overcame that as an obstacle. From the perspective of Mount St. Helens, it is most interesting that the science we have today quite frankly did not exist in 1980. Volcanology was an immature science. Even though the United States had a volcano hazards program, it wasn’t well-funded. The only volcano observatory that existed in 1980 was in Hawaii—despite the fact that the United States has the greatest number of active volcanoes of any country other than Indonesia. But in 1980 people saw the Cascades as beautiful snow-capped mountains, perfect for skiing.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope this book will help readers unlearn?

Some say that David “knew” the volcano was going to erupt as it did. Media quoted him when he called it a dynamite keg with its fuse lit. Did David “feel” it was going to erupt? Yes. Absolutely. He even mentioned a volcano in Russia that erupted with a directed/lateral blast in 1956, which is what ended up happening at Mount St. Helens. But the science did not exist that would have helped scientists to know what was going on. To say that David “knew” what would happen is to say that he “knew” people would be killed, and that’s not fair to the families of those who died or were seriously injured. What it would be good for people to “unlearn” is to not believe everything you read. As David’s mother used to say (she was a newspaper editor), check the facts, verify. The other thing is not to treat David and the others who died as just another news story. They were people. Their families have feelings that have been trampled over and over.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from this book?

This depends on who you are. An overarching theme is: “heroes walk among us.” There are many that we can point to from the period in which David grew up. Those who fought in Vietnam deserved so much more honor than they received. Vietnam vets flew helicopters that performed search and rescue after the eruption; I wonder how many people know that. Scientists also are true heroes. Diseases have been eradicated. Lead times for warnings about tornadoes and volcanic hazards have improved. Scientists typically toil in obscurity, even as their discoveries improve (or save) lives. Every scientist will tell you that preparation is key when it comes to natural disasters. The other takeaway is: we are each other’s keepers. There’s a quote in the book, David’s words from when he was 25 years old (during 1976, America’s bicentennial): “Everything that America is, was, or ever will be is the result of what its people are.” That’s a good ethic to live by.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I read mostly nonfiction (memoirs, self-help). The last fiction book that I really loved was probably The Book Thief; even though it came out 10 years ago, I read it only a year ago. Its focus on a little German girl who couldn’t understand the hatred of the Holocaust really resonated. Children aren’t born hating; they learn to hate. As far as what I watch? Jeopardy is like a religion in my home. I love superhero movies (my older brother introduced me to my first Wonder Woman comic book circa 1970) And I’ll watch any movie with my adult daughter that she selects (our favorite is Mamma Mia!)

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