Jeff Glor talks to Daniel James Brown about "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics"
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Daniel Brown: Inspiration literally walked into my living room in the person of my neighbor, Judy Willman. She had been reading one of my earlier books to her father, Joe, who was living out the last days of his life at her house, under hospice care. She had been reading one of my earlier books to him and he wanted to meet me. So a few days later I went down to Judy's house and sat down with her father. We talked for a bit about that earlier book, but then the conversation shifted to his experiences growing up during the Great Depression. Then it shifted again to his experience rowing for gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As he spun out his tale I became absolutely mesmerized. It was utterly compelling. And I noticed that from time to time he was tearing up, particularly whenever he began to talk about the other boys who had rowed with him on the crew. He was a big, tough guy, and men of that generation don't generally cry easily, so I knew there was even more going on under the surface that he was telling me. I asked him right then and there if I could write a book about his experiences and he said yes, but only if it was about all the boys in the boat.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
DB: There were many surprises as I dug deeper into the story, but I have to say that stepping back from it the biggest surprise was just how deep the bond between these nine young men was, and how that long that bond endured -- really until the last of them died. Rowing is an unusual sport in the degree to which it requires strong-willed individuals to subsume their egos to the larger needs of the whole crew. To perform on championship level the coxswain and the eight rowers have to perform with such precision, in such unflinching unison that they become one, perfect thing in motion -- a kind of symphony of motion. They have to learn to trust one another utterly. They have to throw themselves into each stroke knowing absolutely that the others are going to be right there with them, over and over again. That's what these guys had done 75 years ago, and they never really let it go. For the rest of their lives they remembered what they had once been, and remained almost like family, constantly checking in on each other. When there were only two of them left -- Joe Rantz and Roger Morris -- the two of them would get together on the phone for hours at a time and say almost nothing, just needing to be connected.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
DB: I would probably be what I once was -- a writing teacher. That at least would keep me close to what I love. And words are what I love. I love the feel of them rolling around in my head and finding their way out onto the computer screen. I love feeling their texture, sensing their nuances. I love the way they come out of nowhere and manifest themselves suddenly in crisp, clean black and white before your eyes. I love arranging and rearranging them, sculpting shapes out of them, piling them up in pleasing ways. I even like deleting them--cutting them carefully here and there, pruning them from a composition to make the remaining words stronger, livelier, more resonant. So, I guess that means I could be an editor, as I also once was. A writing teacher or an editor, either would suit, but something to do with words certainly.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
DB: I just finished Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken," which I think is absolutely stunning. I have widely eclectic tastes in reading -- a lot of history, biography, adventure, contemporary fiction, Victorian novels, popular science, you name it. But in the end I always come back to the kinds of books I like to write myself -- narrative nonfiction -- and I think Hillenbrand is the current reigning champion of the genre. She is so good at unveiling the drama inherent in her subject, finding the apt detail, pacing the unfolding of the story, building character. Just masterful. I also recently read the manuscript for David Laskin's upcoming book, "The Family," and was thoroughly engrossed by it. And I'm particularly looking forward to a recent book by another narrative nonfiction writer I admire a great deal -- Timothy Egan's "Short Night of the Shadow Catcher."
JG: What's next for you?
DB: A long book tour, followed, I hope, by enough time and space for some serious reflection on what I want to write next. The one downside of having a great story walk into your living room is that it's hard to find a worthy successor. You can't really expect great story ideas to just show up uninvited like that. Over the course of the last year or so I've considered and rejected perhaps a dozen subjects for a next book, not because they wouldn't make good books, but because they wouldn't make great books. I research my books very intensively--for four of five years each time -- and it's hard (and unwise) to give your heart away to something you are going to spend that long with unless you really love it.
For more on "The Boys in the Boat" visit Daniel Brown's website.