Interview with Author Daniel James Brown – ep. 2

June 29, 2023

The Boys in The Boat author Daniel James Brown discusses how he first learned of the triumph of the University of Washington’s crew team in the 1936 Olympics and how he connected with the family of one of the rowers.

Transcript:

[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, and welcome to the Seattle Magazine podcast.

I’m Jonathan Sposato, the owner and publisher of Seattle Magazine.

Welcome back to part two of our fascinating conversation with author Daniel J.

Brown.

In this second part, we will be focused on his most famous book, “The Boys in a Boat.”

This is the improbable, intimate account of how nine working class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, what true grit really meant.

The University of Washington’s eight-or-crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams at the East Coast and Great Britain.

Yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler.

The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rose not only to regain his shattered self-regard, but also to find a real place for himself in the world.

Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era and a celebration of remarkable time.

Now, two-year books deal with the same era, basically, World War II.

Franklin Roosevelt is in “Facing the Mountain” and “The Boys in the Boat.”

Very different ways.

I love the story about how they just sailed up to his Hyde Park residence.

So how did you discover that story?

And what made you want to write that story?

So, yeah, it was really cute.

These guys, they were in the East getting ready for the Poughkeepsie race.

And I do not remember how I found the story.

But the story is– and it was verified by the sources– they had an afternoon off.

So they went up the river to Hyde Park, got out of the boat, walked up to the president’s mansion.

They’re knocked on the door to see if the president was in.

Can you imagine that happening today?

It’s just astonishing.

And it turned out he wasn’t, but his son, James, who himself was a rower, was there.

And he opened the door.

He had them come in.

The guys sat around in the president’s parlor for a half an hour an hour.

I don’t know what it was.

They had a chat about rowing.

And then they went back down the river.

So it’s a cute story.

I was really thrilled when I found it.

But yeah, so Franklin Roosevelt, obviously, a constant in any account of the World War II era and the Depression era.

Now, of course, when it comes to the Japanese-American story and facing the mountain, it’s a different picture because Roosevelt signed the executive order that incarcerated Americans of Japanese descent.

And that’s a very, very problematic piece of policy making, obviously.

It’s a real blight on his record, I think.

I grew up in a family of FDR Democrats, basically.

My parents absolutely adored Franklin Roosevelt.

They had a portrait of him on the kitchen wall.

And so I grew up with a very, very high opinion of FDR.

And much of that is still intact.

I mean, I think he was an extraordinarily successful president in many ways.

But there is no doubt that the initial policy in regards to incarcerating Japanese-Americans was an abomination and a blight on his record and a blight on American history.

And it has legal consequences that are still reverberating today.

So it’s a big deal.

And it can’t be swept under the rug.

So boys in the boat, were you surprised that story had never been told?

You know, I was.

First of all, I hadn’t heard it myself, of course.

I just was introduced to it when I met my neighbor and Judy.

And she introduced me her father, who was Joe Rance.

And so I heard the story for the first time from the central character in the book that flowed out of that.

I learned later that a lot of people who were more familiar with Seattle history and the history of the UW were surprised that it had never been published before.

But for me, the surprise was in hearing it for the first time.

And it was one of those experiences as a writer that you just you yearn for all the time.

Because as Joe was telling me the story of the boys in the boat in the first place, it just within half an hour sitting down with him, it was apparent to me that it was a remarkable story and that it was a story that I couldn’t believe nobody had written.

So immediately after talking to Joe that first day, I went out and I looked to see if anybody had actually made a movie of this or written a book about it and nobody had.

But it was one of those stories that as I dug deeper into it, every time I got a little deeper, new doors opened and new surprises opened.

And they were things that made the story better.

Lots of times when you start writing a book like this, the story sort of peters out.

And what you thought was going to be a great story just sort of unwinds.

And it turns out not to be as good as you had initially thought.

This one, as I say, just got better and better, the deeper I dug.

I think back in the 1930s, there was a lot of coverage in the Seattle PI and the Seattle Times.

There was a lot of coverage of the story at the time.

But part of what happened was that that summer, summer of 1936, when they won the Olympic gold medal, Jesse Owens won those gold medals that same week.

And it just sort of blew everything else off the sports pages and, in fact, the regular pages of newspapers all across the country.

So I think that story buried it to some extent.

And then it just started to fade away.

What would you like the readers today, given our current climate, to take away from reading “Boys in the Boat?”

Boy, you know, when I talk about “Boys in the Boat,” I usually wind up at the end talking– there’s a passage I read that I won’t do here.

But it basically relates to sort of an epiphany I had when I went back to Berlin.

And I saw the place where they had rode.

The epiphany basically was that these young men represented something that I think we’ve lost along the way.

They represented a set of values and virtues that have sort of faded and are particularly absent in today’s political culture.

And I’m talking about things like basic civility and humility and openness to the idea of pulling together.

The book is really a metaphor.

It’s about rowing on one level.

But it’s really on a larger level.

It’s a book about the power of people pulling together.

And it seems to me if we’re missing one thing in our culture today, particularly our political culture, is any semblance of the notion that we can and should somehow all pull together.

So for me, that’s the lesson of the book.

And I know it’s easier to say that than to do that.

But it’s nevertheless the thing that I think is the big takeaway for me.

Beautifully, beautifully said.

I personally am also a fan of the historical characters, Harold Abrams and Eric Little.

Different sport, of course, running instead of rowing.

But I think a lot of us are drawn to that story precisely because of the civility of sacrifice, of coming from different backgrounds and yet pulling together and working together as a team, even though you have to sort of take a step back in your humility to let somebody else succeed.

So I would agree with you very much that those seem, sadly, a little more absent these days.

And I think that we have to remember these stories and these heroes to keep those values alive.

Yeah, you know, I mean, I’m not sure I’ve talked about this before.

But when I met Joe Rantz for the first time, he immediately reminded me of my father, who was born the same year that Joe was.

My father didn’t row.

But he lost his own father in 1929 right at the beginning of the Depression.

So that left his mother to raise him and his sister without any real good means of doing so.

So he had to go out and he had to work at some pretty horrific jobs shoveling sardines into a sardine grinder down on the San Francisco Bay and all kinds of things like that.

But my dad had the sort of same civility and humility that Joe Rantz did.

In some ways, that book is, for me, is also a testament to my own father, even though I don’t think I ever mentioned him in the book.

It resonates in that way for me.

Were you or are you a rower?

No.

Too short, too fat to be a rower.

The only time– I’ve been in a boat a few times, a shell, that is, but with spectacularly bad results.

I was out in poor towns shortly after the boys in the boat came out.

And the local rowing club out there wanted to take some photographs.

And so they put me in an old Pocock shell.

And I was posing for photographs, holding the oar and all that.

And all of a sudden, the coxon sitting behind me said row.

And everybody started rowing.

And so I sort of flailed away.

And we floundered out into the poor towns in Bay.

And it was pretty ugly.

My part of it was pretty ugly.

Everybody else was doing fine.

It’s a really difficult sport, both physically, in terms of just sheer strenuousness of it.

But also, technically, it’s very challenging getting the oars in and out of the water at the right time and at the right angle and all that.

So it’s hard.

Did you learn a lot about crew while doing this?

Are you a crew fan now?

I am now.

You know, when I was growing up, my dad was a fan of the cowl crew.

And he kept trying to get me interested in it.

And I didn’t have any interest at all in rowing.

It could be more boring than rowing.

But I’ve become a huge fan, actually, because I’ve learned a lot about it.

The coaches at the UW rowing program were very, very helpful to me.

Right from the beginning, they put me in the launch.

I went out with the guys and discovered how absolutely, miserably cold it is out on the Montlake Cut on a February day.

Man.

But beyond that, the folks at UW and then other rowing programs around the country, people I’ve met, have been really, really helpful.

I did sort of a crash course in learning the basics of how the sport works.

And I’d say that first year when I was researching the book, one of the biggest challenges for me was just understanding the sport on a technical level and also experiential level, like what it’s like to row on what rowers call flat water versus rough water, or what’s it like to row in a current versus a lake with no current and things like that.

So I immersed myself in rowing lore during that first year of research and had a lot of help along the way.

My wife used to row when she was younger and she talks about just what you said.

It’s like, you’re up at 5 30 in the morning.

You’re out there.

It’s cold.

It’s miserable.

And it’s hard work.

So let me talk a little bit about your writing style, because your first two books, obviously, nobody was alive.

It’s all based on research.

You have mentioned having access to some of the families in facing the mountain.

You’d mentioned Joe and his family.

How difficult is it?

Where do you rely on research and how important are these oral histories to your work?

So of course, if they are alive, talking to the person himself or herself is the most valuable thing you can do.

But in almost all cases that I’ve been writing about, we’re talking about people who are already deceased.

So the cooperation of families is probably the most valuable thing.

I wouldn’t write a book about somebody if their family wasn’t entirely on board with having their story told and me being the person to do the telling.

That’s really important to me to earn their trust before I even start.

So family members are probably the most valuable source, because when I was writing Facing the Mountain, for instance, Katz Mijo, one of the characters in the book.

His daughter, Mariko, Katz had passed away.

But Mariko took me to her mom’s house in Honolulu.

And in the back room of that house, she had saved all of Katz’s high school yearbooks and letters and photographs of old girlfriends and just all kinds of stuff.

And so Mariko and I spent this wonderful afternoon in that back room going through boxes of stuff and her explaining to me.

And that just enriched my understanding of him so much.

Those are the kinds of experiences that are most valuable.

If you’re talking about somebody that you don’t have that kind of access to, then oral histories are really valuable.

Because again, it’s the next best thing to sitting down looking somebody in the eye and talking to them.

So again, that’s why the resources at Dencho have been so valuable.

They’re just terrific.

And then from there, it’s sort of diaries, letters, printed documents, books that might be about the same subject, newspaper clippings.

All those are part of the mix of researching these stories.

Once you get to know somebody on such an intimate level, is it an ongoing relationship?

Yeah, very much so.

I mean, even some of these Donner Party people that I work– I mean, it’s been more than 10 years since I wrote about them.

And they’ve been dead for 150 years.

You’d be surprised how attached I am to some of those people.

It’s very– I mean, if you’re going to write the kind of thing I do, which is, as I say, very personal stories that shed some light on a slice of history, you really have to get to know that person and develop a relationship with that person in the way she or he saw the world.

And by the time you do that on a level that’s sufficient to write their story, you come away really feeling that you know them.

And some of that may be illusory, because if you haven’t known them, you might find the reality somewhat different from what you thought it was going to be.

But you do the best you can on that.

And it very definitely becomes part of your inner life.

You had mentioned, Daniel, that you knew the boys in the boat was going to be a great story early on.

What’s your favorite part of the story?

Wow.

Well, I’ll tell you the part that I looked forward to writing the most.

It’s just a race scene.

But the race in Poughkeepsie in 1936 was so dramatic.

And I had such wonderful source material for it that I held off on writing it.

I wrote around it.

I wrote stuff that was before and stuff that was after it chronologically before I let myself write that particular passage or scene.

It’s about a five page scene, because I was holding out as sort of a reward to myself.

And the writing of it was just sheer joy.

I tend not to write.

I try not to write until I get to the point where I think I understand the scene, because I think in scenes mostly, where I understand the scene deeply enough that I can’t wait to write it.

That’s not always possible.

But whenever it is possible, I wait for that moment where I feel like, OK, I’ve got this.

I’ve got to get it out on the paper.

And then I just sort of splat it out on paper.

And oftentimes it looks like it was splat out on paper.

And I have to go back and massage it and work with it.

But that sort of feeling of relief when you get it out of you and onto the paper is a wonderful thing.

Did you always feel that way as a writer?

No, I’m not sure I did.

I think I labored more earlier in my writing career just with the cranking stuff onto the page, whether I was really ready or not, and then having to go back and do it again.

So it’s kind of a thing I learned along the way to try to hold back on the writing until you feel as if it’s time to get it out and onto piece of paper.

Jonathan, I want you to know that I don’t crank anything out.

Everything is highly thought out and very thoughtful.

It always is.

I completely can see that.

So one more question before we turn it over to Linda.

Did you ever picture that this was going to be a movie?

What was your reaction when you found out about this?

And how did that happen?

Well, actually, I found out pretty early because– so I knew, as I say, I knew it was a good story when I met Joe.

And I continued to believe it was a good story as I dug deeper into it and I kept finding all these nice interesting new things to explore in it.

So by the time I had seven chapters in a proposal, I was convinced it was going to be very good.

But I gave it to my agent to go out to try to sell.

And my wife and I went down to Tucson to have a vacation and play some tennis.

And the morning after we got there, we got up and we were getting ready to play tennis.

And my agent called.

And she said, don’t go anywhere.

Stay in the room.

And people started calling.

I mean, really high level people at all the big publishers in New York started calling.

And so every time– the first one called, and I was like pitching the book and telling them, oh, great.

And about five minutes in that conversation, I realized that she was pitching to me.

And it dawned on me that we were in a situation where there were all these major publishers vying, waiting for me to decide which of them could publish my book, which is not an experience I had ever had as a writer.

So I mean, I knew at that moment, certainly, that the publishing world at least thought it was going to be a very successful book.

But in terms of the movie thing, MGM wound up acquiring the rights.

And so that’s who made the movie.

You know, from your writing the book, The Boys and the Boat, I know revived a story that needed to be told.

But it’s also carrying a legacy because of your book.

Now they’re remodeling the Boat House at UW.

Indeed they are.

I’m very involved with that and very excited about it.

So the old ASUW shell house was the facility out of which The Boys and the Boat and generations of Husky crews rode out of that building.

But for decades now, it was just been used to store canoes and old boats.

And the building’s gotten quite derelict and needs a lot of attention just to stabilize it.

So because of the success of The Boys and the Boat, the university launched a campaign to not only restore it, but to make it into something bigger than just storage for canoes.

So we have a quite ambitious plan to turn it into sort of a combination event venue.

Museum to all the different ways in which that piece of land and that building have been used, starting with the indigenous people’s use of that land.

It was then used as an aircraft hangar and then as a shell house.

And then it was also housed George Pocock’s boat building shop.

So we want to have part of it be sort of a museum to that piece of Seattle history.

So we’ve been working for years to raise funds.

And we are finally getting very, very close to our goal.

So it looks like we’re going to make it.

Then permits will have to be issued and the design process will have to be finalized.

But I think we’re going to get there.

And I think the old building is going to come back to life.

Wonderful.

I know Nicole Klein, the director there, is a good friend of mine.

And she’s very excited about it.

So thank you for that.

It’s been a lot of fun.

And Nicole has done an absolutely wonderful job.

As I say, it’s been a long process.

It was very discouraging for a long time, particularly when the pandemic hit.

It looked pretty bleak in terms of raising the– our budget that we needed to raise was $18 million.

And it looked impossible for quite a while.

But as I say, we’re almost there now.

And that’s entirely due to Nicole’s perseverance.

So it’s been a lot of fun working with her.

If you could interview anybody dead or alive, who would that be?

Oh my gosh.

[LAUGHS] Probably Abraham Lincoln.

That may not be the most exciting answer.

But when I think about– I’m really interested in American history.

That’s sort of my thing.

And when I think about American history, I don’t think there’s ever been a more crucial or critical time, obviously, than the Civil War.

And I think the way Lincoln rose from fairly humble roots as a country lawyer to the president that saw the country through its most dire circumstances, I still think that’s incredible.

And also, he was a wonderful joke teller, a wonderful storyteller.

So I think you’ve got him in a good mood.

It would be a pretty interesting and fun conversation.

Daniel, thank you for being here.

What’s next for you?

Well, we shall see.

I am going off in a little bit of a different direction in that I am trying to write a novel, trying to write fiction for the first time.

And I’ve been working on it for about a year.

I have about half of the manuscript I envision.

And I have no idea if it’s gold or tin.

I have no idea if it’s remotely publishable.

I’ve not shown it to anybody except my wife who likes it, which is good.

Usually you’re harsh as critics.

Actually, often she is.

I mean, she’s always my first reader.

And so that’s a good sign.

But I also have to finish it.

It’s a very different thing for somebody like me writing nonfiction, doing all this research, having the framework of facts to build the story on, having to spin the stuff out of your imagination entirely or almost entirely is a very different sort of thing.

And so it’s been fun.

But I wouldn’t want to stake my future on its success.

We’ll just have to see what comes out at the end of the process.

I see.

Any insights or little hints as to what it’s about thematically?

It’s set in the 1930s.

There are two principal characters, one a young man, who might remind a lot of people of Joe Ramps, actually, though of different circumstances.

And another is a young woman about the same age.

And that’s about all I can tell you right now.

Fair enough.

Fair enough.

So I want to thank you for being here, Daniel.

You’ve been an absolute pleasure to talk with.

Thank you for listening to the Seattle Magazine podcast.

You can always find us on seattlemag.com.

Please join us again on the next episode of the Seattle podcast, where we will be talking with former Seattle Seahawk Doug Baldwin, Jr.

A special thank you to the entire Seattle Magazine staff and to podcast producer Nick Patrie.

Contact Lisa Lee at lisa@seattlemag.com for partnership opportunities.

Until next time, let’s keep celebrating Seattle.

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