To celebrate the gritty spirit of the Pacific Northwest, Daniel James Brown wrote the story of how one Washington rowing team defied expectations to win Olympic gold, as the whole world, including Hitler, watched closely. The story will soon be told on the big screen, but first, Brown talks to Reflections about how it all started.
Reflections magazine: Where did you get your passion for history and retelling it?
Daniel James Brown: I’ve always been interested in history, but it really never occurred to me to try my hand at writing it until about 10 years ago. I stumbled across a box of old letters and newspaper clippings my mother had put in her attic. Reading them, I learned about a horrific forest fire in Minnesota, a fire in which my great grandfather died in 1894. The more I looked into it, the more intrigued I became by the larger story of that fire and the many heroic rescues that took place that day. I thought it would make a good book, so I just sat down and wrote it. It did pretty well, and so I was off to the races.
RM: Can you describe your personal relationship with Joe Rantz, the protagonist of the book, and how it led you to write The Boys in the Boat?
DJB: Well, I met Joe when he was in the last couple months of his life. He was living under hospice care at my neighbor Judy’s house, and she asked me to come down and meet him. The first time I sat down with Joe, he began to spin out this incredible tale about how he and a bunch of other rough-and-tumble boys from Washington had rowed for an Olympic gold medal against a German boat in front of Hitler in 1936. That story itself was extraordinary, but as I got to know Joe better, I learned that there was so much more to it than that. His own personal family story growing up during the Depression, for instance, was a remarkable tale in and of itself.
RM: Aside from your conversations with Rantz, what was the research process like? How long did you work on the book?
DJB: As soon as the families of the other eight fellows in the boat found out what I was up to, they began to sit down with me for interviews and they gave me boxes of photos and diaries and scrapbooks. So I was able to get to know all nine of the boys that way. There was also, of course, a huge amount of traditional library research as I delved into what was going on in Germany in the 1930s, what was happening in Seattle during that same time, the Dust Bowl, and any number of other topics I felt I needed to explore in the book.
RM: What was the biggest challenge in relating the story?
DJB: I knew from day one that many readers, especially those in the Seattle area, would already know that the boys won Olympic gold. So the challenge was to build suspense and keep readers engaged even though they know the ending. It turned out that there were so many interesting twists and turns along the way that it wasn’t an insurmountable challenge.
RM: With such a rich historical, political context, was it challenging to balance what was happening in the background with the story of the boys and coaches?
DJB: Yes. I tend to get obsessed with the historical stuff. But I’m pretty aware of that tendency in myself, so I went through each chapter many times, editing them until there seemed to be just enough historical background to help rather than hinder the development of the boys’ story.
RM: Has the modern rowing community responded to the book?
DJB: Oh yes. I’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive reaction from rowers of all ages. I think this is partly because many of them feel that their sport tends to get overlooked, so they are delighted to have a spotlight trained on all the things that make it so interesting.
RM: This is largely a classic underdog story. In your opinion, what sets this one apart from all the others?
DJB: I think what sets it apart is the role that mutual trust and respect play in the boys’ ability to overcome the many obstacles that faced them, both individually and as a crew. It is really a book about how you build trust—how you build the bonds that allow for extraordinary collective effort.
RM: What do you think the story of these nine boys says about the spirit of the Pacific Northwest?
DJB: For me, that’s one of the most appealing aspects of the story. These were kids who had grown up on dairy farms and in mill towns around western Washington. To realize their dream, they had to vanquish boys from Ivy League schools, then kids from Oxford and Cambridge, and finally a Nazi crew. The story really highlights some of the virtues and values of the Northwest, particularly a rugged, outdoorsy lifestyle. And it contrasts them with the lifestyle of boys from the East, boys who in many cases had learned to row in very exclusive prep schools. It also certainly builds on the great nautical tradition we have here in the Seattle area, as well, of course, as the outstanding rowing culture at UW and many rowing clubs in the area.
RM: What does it mean to you to have the book turned into a movie? How involved in the creative process will you be?
DJB: The way it’s set up, I’m not likely to have a great deal of influence in the process of making the movie. I’m hopeful, though, that the folks who are working on it will understand that the underlying story is so compelling that they don’t really need to embellish it much. If the movie turns out as well as I hope, I think it has the potential to be very popular. I’m hoping also that it will revive some of the interest in rowing as a spectator sport, something that has faded a great deal since the 1930s and 1940s.
RM: What is next for you? Are there any new books on the horizon?
DJB: Well, I’m looking for a topic that will engage me as much as this one has. It takes four or five years to develop a book like this one, so whatever I choose to write about next, it needs to be something that I know will hold my interest and be worth the effort, not just for me but for my readers.
RM: In the same vein, what historical event would be your dream to write about?
DJB: I’m interested in American stories set between say 1865 and 1975. I don’t think the topic has to be a huge historical event during that period, though. What I’m really looking for is a great personal story with an interesting historical backdrop.
An Evening with Daniel James Brown at the Bellevue Club
September 11, 2014
6 p.m. cocktail hour and book signing
7 p.m. dinner and presentation
For reservations or more information, please call 425-688-3382.