Brown steps into the boat with the boys

19/08/2013 - 18:23:00

An interview with author of The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown
(Macmillan, 2013)

If you are a rower who is partial to a bit of history then you’re going to be in heaven with this book. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown has received rave reviews and, before it was even published, the rights to the movie version had already been snatched up.

Brown follows the story of the United States men’s eight that competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Focusing on one member of the eight, Joe Rantz, Brown begins the story with Rantz as a child through to his time rowing for the University of Washington crew. This journey puts the story in historical context of the United States leading up to and during the Great Depression, the years that Rantz was growing up in as well as the developments in Nazi Germany prior to the 1936 Olympics.

Describing the scenes as if he was there, Brown enables us get to know intimately not only Rantz and the people he came in contact with, but also Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahi and a taste of Adolf Hitler in Germany. On the rowing side, boat builder George Pocock plays an important role as well as Rantz’s team mates and coaches.

Brown’s style of writing means this book has a much wider appeal, in the mould of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, than to just rowing fanatics as it is very readable and placed in a wider context than just rowing.  

This book is fascinating, although prone perhaps to some over-dramatisation and occasionally getting deep into waxing lyrical about flow of the boat, but this is all part of the style that makes it so readable. There is no doubt that each sentence of the nearly 400-page book would have required a huge amount of research and the book’s finishing notes are testament to that.

World Rowing was very fortunate to be able to talk to author, Daniel James Brown and he described the process in the writing of The Boys in the Boat.
World Rowing: How did you get involved in writing this book?
Daniel James Brown:
This story literally walked into my living room one day almost six years ago. My neighbour – Judy Willman – came to me and asked if I would come down to her house to meet her father, Joe Rantz. Joe was in the last weeks of his life, living under hospice care at Judy's house and she was reading one of my earlier books to him. He was enjoying that book and wanted to talk to me about it.

When I met Joe we talked a little about that earlier book, but then he began to talk to me about his experience growing up during the Great Depression. He had a particularly heartrending story to tell about that. Then he began to talk about his experience rowing crew for the University of Washington and, ultimately, rowing for a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in front of Adolf Hitler.

As I listened to Joe's story I became absolutely mesmerised by it. It was poignant but also uplifting, painful but inspiring. By the time he was done I knew I wanted to write a book about what he and his crew mates had done. Joe gave me his permission to do that, but only so long as the story was about all the boys in the boat, not just him.

WR: Why did you choose Joe as the focus of the story?
DJB:
Joe was one of only two crew members still alive when I started to write, so it was natural to structure the story around his personal experience. But I went to great lengths to honour that last wish of Joe's – that the story be about the whole crew rather than about any one of them. So I wound up beginning with Joe's story and then adding in the other boys as they began to row in the same boat as Joe.

WR: What did you know about rowing before you started writing?
DJB:
I knew next to nothing about rowing when I started. I had the good fortune, though, to have a lot of support from the modern day coaches and rowers at the University of Washington in Seattle as well as a number of other rowers – all the way from former Olympians to beginner club rowers. Over the course of several years I managed to learn a great deal about the sport. I had both coaches and rowers review drafts of the manuscript to make sure that I got the rowing stuff right – not just on a technical level but on the level of the overall experience of rowing in high-stakes competitions, the ‘feel’ of it, if you will.

WR: When you started out writing did you have an idea of the direction the book would take? DJB: Well, after that first conversation with Joe, I knew what the overall trajectory of the story would be.  But this kind of writing involves years of research and there are always many surprises along the way that alter the course of the story to some extent. In this case, many of the revelations were pure joy as I came to know each of the eight other boys who rowed with Joe. They were a fascinating bunch of young men, each with their own interesting back-story that needed to be told. So for instance I wound up writing a whole chapter about the summer that three of them spent working together on the Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington State. The setting was so interesting and the experience of working together under a broiling sun in the American desert helped both to bind them together and to toughen them for the challenges they were about to face in becoming one of the greatest collegiate crews of all time.

WR: How long did it take for you write from idea through to finish?
DJB:
It was almost six years from the time that I had that first conversation with Joe until the book was published. For some of that time I was finishing up an earlier book, though. So when you subtract that time I probably worked about four solid years on The Boys in the Boat.  Most of the time was consumed doing research; only perhaps a third of it was the actual writing, editing, and revising.

WR: Rowing books are not considered to have a wide appeal - was it difficult to sell your idea to a publisher?
DJB:
Not at all. In fact virtually all the major publishers in New York wound up bidding against one another for the right to publish it and we sold it within about 24 hours. Once they got a look at the inherent drama of the underlying story, I think it was clear to all that it would be a major book.

WR: You write as though you were there - what scenes were the hardest to bring alive?
DJB:
I write pretty much everything as if it were a scene in a movie. That is, I look at the subject I'm about to write about as if I were looking at it through the viewfinder of a camera. So if I am describing a race scene for instance, I make sure I completely understand what's in front of me – feeling the wind, hearing the crowd, seeing the smallest details in the scene in their totality. I want to make sure that I'm not missing anything important before I start to write.  

Because I approach it in a very visual, physical way, it is always hardest to deal with subjects that are abstract or difficult to comprehend. It was difficult, for instance, for me to bring Joe's step mother – Thula – to life because I just couldn't understand why she did some of the things she did. She was so cold and uncaring in regards to Joe that it was hard to humanise her and see things from her point of view. Eventually, after talking to one of her surviving children, I think I got there, but it certainly didn't come easily.

WR: What about scenes that were easy to write?
DJB:
The race scenes were probably the easiest to write. Once I had read every press account and looked at the boys' own accounts and figured out what the weather was like and what the spectators were doing and all those kinds of specific details, the race scenes almost wrote themselves. You get to the point where you have so much detail about the race packed into your head that it just has to come out and it flows across the page with its own urgency, more or less matching the urgency of the guys doing the rowing.  Race scenes are immensely fun to write, actually. It's a huge release of pent up energy.

WR: Did you spend much time in Berlin for the German parts of the book?
DJB:
I spent about a week in Berlin. Enough to get a good look at the key venues – the Olympic stadium and the race course at Grünau and the village of Kopenick where the boys lived – so that I was comfortable describing them in detail.

WR: From feedback do you know if the book has had appeal outside of rowing circles?
DJB:
Yes, I'm happy to say that the book seems to be gaining an audience well beyond rowing circles, though certainly rowers have been the first to embrace it. The book is just about to go into its ninth week on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction, so clearly word is spreading about it. From the emails I get and feedback left on the online book vendors' sites, it seems as if both men and women are enjoying it in more or less equal proportions. I have to say, though, that one very notable trend in my emails is the very large number of men who say that they shed tears as the read the book. That frankly surprised me and I've been trying to figure it out. I think it has something to do with the intensity of the male bonding experience that is at the heart of the book.

Find the book in World Rowing's Library here.

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