Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat tells the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown follows the exploits of the University of Washington’s eight-man crew, whose national dynasty culminated in Olympic gold, transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. A compelling story of nine working class boys – the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers – who defeated elite rivals first from Eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolph Hitler, The Boys in the Boat is the improbable, intimate story of a group of boys from the American West who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. Daniel James Brown will make a Traverse National Writers Series appearance at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City on Tuesday, June 10th to discuss The Boys in the Boat and more in a conversation with guest host Lucas Wittman.
Wittmann is the Executive Editor and Associate Publisher for the newly launched book and multimedia publisher Regan Arts. Prior to that Wittmann served as the literary editor and senior articles editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
The following pre-interview with Brown is by Marcy Branski, board member and scholarship chair for the Traverse City National Writers Series.
Branski: Most readers want to know how an author decides what to write. In a Powell interview you said the story of The Boys in the Boat “walked into your living room.” What did you mean by that?
Brown: Well, about six years ago my neighbor, a lady I knew only as “Judy” at the time, came to my house and asked if I would come down to her place and meet her father. He was in the last couple months of his life and living under hospice care at Judy’s home. She had been reading one of my earlier books to him. He was enjoying it and wanted to meet me, so of course I went down the next day and met her dad, Joe Rantz. Joe and I talked about that earlier book for a while, and then he began to tell me an absolutely heart rending story about what he faced growing up during the Depression. Then he started talking about how he began to row crew at the University of Washington and how he and his crew mates had rowed for Olympic gold in Berlin in 1936, rowing against a German boat in front of Hitler and all the top Nazis. The story was so improbable, and so beautiful that by the time he was done he was in tears, Judy was in tears, and I was in tears. I started working on the book the next day.
Branski: How much did you know about competitive rowing before you started the book?
Brown: I knew nothing at all, and the day after I met Joe I had a moment of real doubt as I contemplated the prospect of writing about a sport I don’t participate in myself. But over the next weeks and months as word got around the UW shell house about what I was doing all sorts of very good rowers and rowing coaches began to help me. With that help, by the time the manuscript was finished four years later and I asked more rowers to review it, it was pretty solid on both the technical side of rowing and, just as importantly, the experiential side–what it feels like to row in high-stakes races under different kind of conditions. So I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many folks who helped out there.
Branski: Many editors advise their authors to use weather references sparingly; you, however make weather a character, a force the crew is always fighting. And you do it so convincingly. Have you accompanied a crew practicing in rough water or cold sleet?
Brown: Yes I have, though in the coaching launch not the shell. It actually made a big impression on me. Being out on Lake Washington in the wind and the rain and the sleet–it makes a very tough, physically demanding sport all the more so. You can’t watch these young men and women subject themselves to that kind of abuse without developing tremendous respect for them. So throughout the book I wanted the weather to be almost a character, because in a sense it is–it influences and in some cases shapes the destinies of other cases
Branski: You possess skills of both a storyteller and a teacher. Did you consciously work to balance the personal stories of Joe Rantz and the other crew members with the technical details of shell construction and rowing? Assuming your readers knew nothing about the sport, how did you decide the level or amount of explanation?
Brown: I did try to balance a number of things–Joe’s personal story, the other boys’ stories, the art of rowing, the craft of building cedar shells, some American history, and a peek into Nazi Germany before the war. As far as the rowing stuff goes, I basically wanted to be technically accurate but not swamp non-rowers with a lot of unnecessary detail. Basically it came down to what I, as a non-rower felt would be the right level of detail for a general reader like myself.
Branski: The insightful quotes by expert boat builder, George Yeoman Pocock set the mood for each chapter. He also acted as an advisor to the University of Washington crew. How much do you feel it was his philosophy, along with his sleek shells, that led the nine boys to Olympic victory?
Brown: It would be hard to overstate the influence that Pocock had on this bunch of boys. He was so much more than a boat builder. He was a true wise man, a sage. He taught the boys to reach beyond themselves. He encouraged them to row to win, certainly, but more than that to make better men of themselves–to become part of something larger than themselves. There was a spiritual side of rowing for Pocock, and he instilled a sense of spiritual questing into not only these nine boys but generations of rowers and coaches at Washington.
Branski: How important was it to you to draw a contrast between the wealth, status and experience of the Eastern U.S crews and the Seattle boys?
Brown: It is definitely part of the fabric of the story. These Seattle boys had mostly grown up on dairy farms and in mill towns around western Washington. To realize their dream, they had to vanquish kids who had learned to row in prep schools, kids who were often the sons of titans of industry, or bankers, or US Senators. So there was a very different attitude towards life, specifically what life did or didn’t owe you. certainly their humble origins are an essential part of their appeal, both now and back in their day, when many ordinary Americans found it easy to identify with them during the travails of the Depression.
Branski: You could have ended The Boys in the Boat with the very emotional 1936 Olympic victory in Berlin, but you chose to tell readers about the crews’ return to “normal” life. Why did you make that decision?
Brown: For a couple of reasons. One is that I’ve found in writing these kinds of nonfiction books readers really want to know what happened to the principal characters after the main story is over. People care about them and want to make sure they were okay. The other thing is that I wanted to let readers know how humble these guys were and remind them how tough the times were. For the most part the guys came home, put their gold medals in sock drawers and immediately started looking for jobs to get them through another school year. That was their priority, not basking in the glory of their triumph in Berlin.
Branski: You read a couple of books about underdogs, including Seabiscuit, while writing The Boys in the Boat. Was it one of your goals to teach a lesson through sharing the story of Joe Rantz who became a true winner against all odds?
Brown: I’m a huge fan of Laura Hillenbrand’s books—both Seabiscuit and Unbroken, and I got a huge thrill recently when she reached out to me to say how much she had enjoyed The Boys in the Boat. I don’t think, though, that I set out to teach any kind of lesson about underdogs in writing this book. I just wanted to tell the story and let the readers draw whatever conclusions they chose. I will say that the big lesson for me–the take away– is that the story of these nine young Americans who climbed in a boat together and learned to pull together so powerfully and so beautifully is an almost perfect metaphor for what that whole generation of Americans did. They all found themselves in the same boat, courtesy of the Great Depression, and they too learned to pull together to do great things, like win a World War Two and make America on the most prosperous nation in the world.
Branski: Even though I knew the U of W crew won the Berlin Olympics, I was on the edge of my seat following their successes and failures along the way. How do you create tension when the reader already knows the outcome?
Brown: Well I tried to put you in the place of the boys in the boat. You know they won that gold medal race, but they didn’t know, of course, what was going to happen at each stage in their saga. I wanted you to experience it as they did.
Tickets to Brown’s National Writers Series Event can be purchased at NationalWritersSeries.org
More Northern Michigan Literature and Books