Dan Brown’s new book “The Boys in the Boat” has already hit the New York Times bestseller list and been optioned for a movie. Brown writes narrative non-fiction to bring compelling historical events to life as vividly and accurately as he can. Brown grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, taught writing at Stanford and became a technical writer at Microsoft. He now writes full time and lives in the country outside of Seattle with his wife, two daughters, and an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens, and honeybees.
Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?
Dan Brown: A couple, actually. I’m just finishing my third or fourth ride with Jack Kerouac in “On the Road.” The older I get, the more drawn I seem to be to the beat generation. I’m not sure why, but I suppose it has something to do with hankering for the expansive optimism of youth. I’m also just starting John McPhee’s “The Founding Fish”, which my daughter gave me for Father’s Day. I wasn’t sure at first that I would want to read an entire book about shad, but as usual McPhee’s wonderful prose is pulling me right into the subject.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
I recently read Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” and regularly recommend it to friends and family. I regard Hillenbrand as one of the great masters of the genre in which I write — narrative nonfiction — and I think “Unbroken “is right up there with “Seabiscuit” as a sterling example of what one can do when telling a true story in a novelistic style.
Congratulations on your new book getting such great reviews and making the New York Times bestseller list. What was the inspiration for “The Boys In the Boat”?
Inspiration walked into my living room one day about six years ago in the person of my neighbor, Judy Willman. Judy had been reading one of my earlier books — “Under a Flaming Sky” — to her father, who was living under hospice care at her home. Judy asked if I would come down and meet him and, after we’d talked about that earlier book for a few minutes, he began to tell me about his own life. He had a particularly poignant story to tell about growing up alone during the Great Depression.
Then he began to talk about how his life changed when he began to row for the University of Washington’s crew. By the end of the tale — as he was describing how he rowed for an Olympic gold medal against a German boat in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — tears were in his eyes and I was absolutely mesmerized.
I asked Joe right then and there if I could write a book about his life. He said, “no.” I could write a book, but it couldn’t be about him, it had to be about “the boat.” By “the boat” I came to understand that he meant not just the other boys who had rowed with him, but the nearly perfect thing that they had all become together that long ago summer in Berlin.
Did you attend the University of Washington? Row on a crew team?
No to both. Actually I graduated from Cal, which has always been Washington’s primary rival in crew. In order to write this book I very much had to put my personal loyalties on a shelf and forget about them for the next six years. It’s a great Washington story, told from a Washington point of view, so that wasn’t really very hard. And I am not a rower myself.
I knew from the outset that it would be a challenge to write accurately and convincingly about a sport in which I’ve never participated. Fortunately I’ve been aided enormously by any number of people who do row. The coaches and oarsmen and oarswomen at the U.W. shell house have been particularly helpful, teaching me the essentials. reviewing drafts of the manuscript and making critical changes. Many other rowers — both men and women — have done the same thing, and I’m very pleased at the response I’m getting from the rowing community now that the book is out. I get emails every day from rowers who have read the book and who tell me that I’ve got it “right.” That’s enormously gratifying.
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