Bestselling Non-Fiction Author Daniel James Brown Has Done It All Without Rushing

Boys in the Boat writer Daniel James Brown at his Washington Home.
Bestselling non-fiction author Daniel James Brown.

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

Author Daniel James Brown's book, The Boys in the Boat
A Bestseller on both coasts.

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.
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Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.

9 Ways to Break a Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block: we all get it. The question is how do you deal with it? Here are a few exercises to get your mind jogged in those times when you find yourself struggling to get the words on paper.

 

1)      FREE WRITE

I know it may sound silly, but just getting your mind in a place where it is ready to start channeling ideas through your pen can be really helpful, even if what you produce is not. Grab a piece of scrap paper and just write something. Anything. Whatever comes to mind. My free writes usually start with something like “OK, so I am stuck again and so here I find myself free writing.” It’s like talking your ideas out with yourself without the threat of looking like an absolute loony, or worse, a jerk using a Blue Tooth in public.

 

2)      WRITE A SCENE USING ONLY DIALOG

This is a challenging exercise that can sharpen your skills as a writer while you are trying to stir up some new ideas. Focus on a real conversation you heard in public or one you had with a friend. The cadence of writing real dialogue may well help you to find a rhythm that helps you in your more serious writing endeavors.

 

3)      RE-WRITE AN OLD SCENE FROM A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Drag one of your old works out of the closet and look at it with fresh eyes. Toy with new perspectives, voices, or points-of-view in the piece. You may find yourself breathing new life into something you once thought tired, or at the very least, you will be providing your brain with very valuable, novel information on work you have already produced. Don’t have anything written to look at? Re-work your favorite classic essay or short story in a similar fashion.

 

4)      WRITE A TWEET-LENGTH NON-FICTION PIECE

Sometimes all you need to get moving is a little bit of confidence, and completing a piece in less than 5 minutes may just be the boost you have been waiting for. The journal Creative Non-Fiction actually publishes a handful of these little gems in their quarterly issues. Worth looking at if nothing else.

 

5)      START A DISCUSSION

Take advantage of those social media platforms and get some people talking. Linked In groups, Facebook, and Twitter all provide forums for writers to talk with other writers about whatever they choose. Use it—you just may be pleasantly surprised.

 

6)      GO OUTSIDE

Take a walk and look around you. Listen to the sounds and voices, look closely at the objects, plants, buildings, and people around you. Think about how you might describe those things in prose. Bring a notebook if you like or just absorb it all until you get home and make notes then. The world outside, believe it or not, is often a better place to look for inspiration than even the internet.

 

7)      READ SOMETHING NEW

Introduce yourself to a new writer or author and study their style. Try writing a paragraph emulating that style and compare your work to the original.

 

8)      READ SOMETHING OLD

Re-read something you love and pay attention to what it is you love about it. Is it the language? The imagery? Are you fascinated or in love with a particular character? What about them draws you in? Examining the work you admire in a critical way is a great way to sharpen your own skill sets.

 

9)      WATCH A BAD MOVIE OR TV SHOW

Again, this one is about confidence. Some of the stuff out there for which people are actually being paid is downright bad. Take it in and take some of that pressure to perform off of yourself.

 

We writers often feel some intense duty to create and a lull in that process can be maddening. But relax. Even the greatest of the great writers were human—they too had off days, though we do not read about those as often as the good ones. If all else fails, do something else. Just like trying to remember where you put your car keys, those great ideas will probably refuse to reveal themselves to you until you are elbow-deep in dishwater.

Happy Writing.