Daniel James Brown is the award winning author of three books of non-fiction including, most recently, The Boys in the Boat, which tells the underdog story of the 1936 American Olympic gold medal rowing crew that claimed victory over a rising Facist party in Berlin. Brown came to my hometown of Tucson for an event a couple of months ago and I was fortunate enough to get to interview him for a short local newspaper article. He talked to me about his path to becoming a full-time writer, his process, and some behind-the-scenes bits about putting The Boys in the Boat together. Here is the transcript of that exchange:
How did you come to be a professional tech writer and then author? What is your educational and professional background before you were writing professionally?
After I earned my master’s degree I taught college English for a number of years in California, as did my wife. When she and I decided we wanted to buy a house and start a family we realized that we really wouldn’t be able to do that on teachers’ salaries. I noticed a help wanted ad for a technical editor at some little company up in Seattle called Microsoft. I didn’t know what Microsoft was, and hardly knew what a computer was but I applied for the job. They flew me up to Seattle, had a realtor show me and my wife some houses, and signed me up. I worked there for the next twelve years, doing technical editing, technical writing, and managing small groups of writers and editors. This was during a period when the company was growing explosively and by the end of those twelve years I realized that I had enough financial padding that I could take some time to try my hand at doing what I’d really always wanted to do—write books. So I left the company and spent the next couple of years writing my first book—Under a Flaming Sky. That eventually led to a second book and then six years ago to The Boys in the Boat.
How did you come to meet your primary source for The Boys in the Boat, Joe Rantz?
Actually, my neighbor is Judy Willman, Joe Rantz’s daughter, and Joe was living under hospice care at Judy’s house for the last couple of months of his life. She had been looking for someone to write about her dad and the 1936 gold medal crew
for some time, so she asked me to come down to her house to meet him. I didn’t know that she was looking for a writer and I didn’t go to visit Joe with that in mind, but once I sat down with Joe and he began to talk about his experiences I was just mesmerized immediately. I mean, it has all the technical elements of a great story, but as Joe was telling me the story I could also see from his emotions that there was a huge amount of heart in it.
Why was it important to you to tell the story of “the boat”?
That same day that I met Joe, at the end of the conversation, I found myself asking Joe, “Can I write a book about your life.” And I remember that he immediately shook his head, “No,” he said, “I don’t want you to write a book about me.” But then he looked up—and I’ll never forget this because he had tears in his eyes—and said, “But you could write a book about “the boat.” At first I didn’t know what he meant—I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the beautiful cedar shell that he and his crew mates had rowed in the Olympics in Berlin. But then I came to understand that of course by “the boat” he meant all of the boys together, what they had done together. And something even more than that—what they had all become together that summer in Berlin 75 years before, the almost perfect thing that a crew becomes when it finds its swing. So I set out the next day on what turned out to be a four year odyssey of researching and writing the story.
How had the world expected the American’s to perform at Berlin?
I think the American boat was always seen as a contender. But the boat to beat was really the British boat, full of boys from the prestigious Leander Club in England. And in fact, the Americans had to set a world and Olympic record to beat them in a preliminary race. That forced the Brits to have to row another race to qualify for the medal round and it left them too burned out to really be a factor in the final race. The other boats that were seen as major threats were the German and Italian boats, representing the Fascist powers just before the war. And in fact, Germany wound up winning gold medals in the first five rowing events the day of the finals. By the time the Americans in the eight-oared boat got ready to row their race, against the Germans and Italians, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. With Hitler looking on they were chanting “Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!” as the boats lined up for the start. And…halfway through the race the Germans and Italians were far out in front, with the Brits and the Americans tied for dead last.
What was/were the most poignant lesson(s) to you personally from writing this book?
You know, the big lesson I take away from this story is that each of these guys had a measure of humility to him. They were all genuinely nice guys, and over the three years they came together as a crew they learned to trust one another and believe in one another on a level that’s almost impossible to convey in words. I think they were able to build that trust because each of them was able to suppress his own ego a bit and open his heart to the others and learn from them and value them and, ultimately row the race not just for themselves but for each of the other guys in the boat. That has a lot of resonance for me. I think this story of these nine young men who climbed in a boat and learned to pull together so beautifully and so powerfully is an almost perfect metaphor for what that whole generation of Americans did. They were the generation that was humbled by the Great Depression and they learned to pull together and build great teams and get great things done. They built great public monuments like the Grand Coulee Dam, they won World War II on, not one, but two fronts, they built the greatest era of prosperity we have ever known after the war. For me this story is really about all of them.
How long does it take you to write and research each book? What about with The Boys in the Boat in particular? What is that process like for you?
This book took about four years of research and writing. The first two took perhaps two or three years each. My books are very research intensive so it is always a big commitment do dive into one. In the case of The Boys in the Boat I needed to understand the lives of all nine young men in the boat, so it took a lot of time and work to track down their families and interview them. I was fortunate in that each of the families was very willing to help and gave me access to boxes of letters and diaries and photographs and so forth. At the same time that I was talking to all of them I was reading widely about Germany in the 1930s, about the Great Depression, about the Dust Bowl, and so on. I also spent countless hours in the library hunched over microfiche machines reading newspapers from the 1930s, looking for news about the crew but also just absorbing as much as I could about life in Seattle in 1933-36. As I researched each phase of the story I also began to write chunks of the manuscript. I write in units that I think of as “scenes” rather than in chapters. A scene might be as short as three paragraphs or as long as ten pages or so, but it’s always one coherent unit. So I proceed in that way, stringing out one scene after another until I finally wind up at the last one. Then, of course, there is a long process of editing and revising and polishing before it’s ready to go to the publisher.
Subscribe now to catch my next interview post with Ken Weaver, editor of All About Beer Magazine.