Author Dan Brown focuses on narrative non-fiction to vividly highlight historical events Credit: Photo: Robin V. Brown
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.
Your book subjects are intriguing…from a firestorm to the Donner Party and University sports… ….where do your ideas come from?
So far they have all come from a personal connection of some kind. My grandfather survived the firestorm in Minnesota by escaping on a train that was in flames from one end to the other. If he hadn’t made it out, I wouldn’t be here today, and that connection led to "Under a Flaming Sky." The Donner Party book — "The Indifferent Stars Above" — resulted from the fact that my great-great uncle was, as a very young man, a member of the first rescue expedition to reach the starving emigrants in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And, of course, "The Boys in the Boat" resulted from that conversation I had with my neighbor Judy.
Can you talk a bit about how your reading informs your writing? Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?
I don’t think any of my books have been sparked directly by other books I have read; however, certainly a lifetime of reading has informed my writing on many levels. I was an English major both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, so of course I was immersed in English and American literature for many years, and I’ve continued to read widely ever since. So certainly all that reading creates a stockpile in your mind of the various things good writers do, the tricks of the trade and the various forms that good writing takes.
How does living near Seattle, or maybe just in the Northwest, influence your writing, do you think? Would you write the same kind of books if you’d stayed in California?
I honestly think there’s something in the air up here in the Northwest that works to the advantage of writers. Maybe it’s the long dark winters, maybe all the coffee. Writers of narrative nonfiction in particular — Erik Larson, David Laskin and Tim Egan come to mind — seem to thrive here. I suppose I might have been able to write the first two books in California, but "The Boys in the Boat" is so steeped in the Northwest — in the history, the lore, the weather, the culture — that no, I absolutely could not have written it if I hadn’t lived here for the last twenty-five years.
What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?
My first love affair with a book was with "Danny and the Dinosaur." I suppose it was a combination of my name and my then (at age five or six) fascination with dinos. I remember specifically that one day, after my mother had read the book to me for the umpteenth time, I sat down with a set of crayons and some paper and began to write a story — something to do with a family of dinosaurs on a camping trip. That literary masterpiece is lost to time, but I vividly recall it as the moment that it first occurred to me that I might someday write a book myself.
Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?
Not a book, per se, but a poem — W.B. Yeats’ “The Fisherman.” In it, Yeats imagines his ideal audience, an old man fly-fishing in a mountain stream:
“A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
… ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’”
“As cold and passionate as the dawn,” you see that’s it right there, to write something that is as perfect as a sunrise. Something simultaneously cold and hard and real and yet passionate. Every writer aspires to that, no matter what his or her genre.
Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?
I haven’t. But that may only be because I’ve never actually read any of Dan Brown’s books.
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?
There are many. For one thing, I tend to re-read books that I think are great examples of the genre I write in, so I will probably read "Seabiscuit" yet again. Maybe Tim Egan’s "The Worst Hard Time." Maybe Sebastian Junger’s "The Perfect Storm." In contemporary fiction, I adore Charles Frazier’s "Cold Mountain" and will read it again simply to enjoy the craftsmanship. And then there’s all that literature I grew up on. In addition to "On the Road", I’m sure I will come back to "Wuthering Heights" at least one or two more times. It’s a much more complex and interesting book than the gothic romance it is often portrayed as. All of Shakespeare. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Do you have any favorite true crime titles, or favorites in another genre?
Not really true crime but I’m a huge fan of the late James Crumley — "The Last Good Kiss," "Dancing Bear," "One to Count Cadence." I also enjoy Tim O’Brien, especially "The Things They Carried."
Are you researching a new book?
I’m looking for a great story to dig into. It takes me four or five years to write a book, so I really have to love a topic if I’m going to live with it for that long. So far I’ve got some intriguing leads but nothing solid enough to begin research.
What book do you plan to read next?
I think I will give Barbara Kingsolver’s "Flight Behavior" a go. She’s never disappointed me yet.
What Val’s Reading This Week: “An Object of Beauty” by Steve Martin is a stylish New York art scene novel with a lively, amoral, savvy heroine. The reader is given what feels like an insider’s peek at galleries, auction houses and the inexplicableness of modern art. Interestingly, it shares a plot twist involving the intrigue of the unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist with another recent novel “The Art Forger”.