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Daniel James Brown: The Powells.com Interview

The Boys in the Boat is one of those stories that I can't believe hasn't been told before. At the 1936 Olympics, nine college students from Seattle — working-class sons of farmers, loggers, and longshoremen — rowed against the best in the world. To compete at this highest level, they had to first beat their rivals at the University of California - Berkeley and then crews from the elite Ivy League schools. At the Olympics in Berlin, they went up against a British boat filled with the best from Oxford and Cambridge and a powerful German team rowing under the watchful eye of Hitler. The guts and determination of these underdogs captivated millions of Americans during the depths of the Great Depression.

Daniel James Brown has crafted a wonderful piece of narrative nonfiction that is filled with both drama and passion. In a starred review, Booklist calls The Boys in the Boat, "a book that informs as it inspires." David Laskin raves, "History, sports, human interest, weather, suspense, design, physics, oppression and inspiration — The Boys in the Boat has it all and Brown does full justice to this terrific material. This is Chariots of Fire with oars."

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Shawn Donley: Most Americans are familiar with Jesse Owens's triumph at the '36 Olympics, but few, I would imagine, know about this rowing team from Seattle. How did you first become aware of this story?

Daniel Brown: This story literally walked into my living room one day, about six years ago, in the person of my neighbor, a lady named Judy Roman. She had been reading one of my earlier books to her father. Her father was in the last few weeks of his life and living under hospice care. She wanted to know if I would come down and meet him.

His name was Joe Rantz. I knew that he had once rowed in an Olympic race and that he had built this enormous cedar fence around my property, but I knew little else. He started talking about his childhood, growing up during the Depression. That was really poignant because he had a very, very tough time, a particularly tough time as a child growing up.

That morphed into a conversation about how he came to row crew at the University of Washington and, ultimately, how that crew wound up rowing for an Olympic gold medal in Berlin in the summer of 1936 against a German crew in front of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring and other top Nazis.

By the time he finished telling me this story, I was absolutely mesmerized. After this conversation with Joe, I asked him, "Can I write a book about your life?" He shook his head and said, "No, you can't write a book about my life, but you can write a book about all the boys in the boat." That's what I set off to do.

Shawn: The book was about all of the boys, but he's still the main focus.

Brown: Necessarily, he was the main focus. I had access to huge amounts of material about his life and his back story. He was actually abandoned by his parents during the Depression. That had a lot to do with why crew and this experience was so important to him. His story is sort of the central narrative that holds the book together.

Shawn: With all the challenges he faced growing up, I felt like he could've been a character out of The Grapes of Wrath. Do you think that competing in the Olympics was a real turning point in his life?

Brown: Yeah, I think the whole experience, not so much competing in the Olympics as finding a sense of self and a sense of family in this crew. He'd been cast aside, treated as disposable by his own family, and the crew gave him a sense that he belonged someplaceHe'd been cast aside, treated as disposable by his own family, and the crew gave him a sense that he belonged someplace, and that what he was doing was important. In that sense, it certainly transformed his life.

Shawn: Before you started writing this book, how familiar were you with the sport of rowing?

Brown: I didn't know anything about rowing at all.

Shawn: Really?

Brown: Virtually nothing. My dad went to UC Berkeley, and he was a fan of the Cal Crew when I was a kid, and they were very good. This was the same time period, actually, as my story. I personally didn't know anything about it until I got involved in this story. I spent a great deal of time down at the University of Washington Shellhouse. The coaches and oarsmen and oarswomen down there have been really good about teaching me about rowing. They've also done me a great favor by reviewing draft after draft of the book.

Shawn: It's a really unique subculture.

Brown: It is. Rowers are very passionate about their sport. They tend to feel as if it's been ignored to some extent in the mass media. It doesn't get the attention, obviously, that a lot of sports do. The rowers that I've been talking to at book talks have been very excited about it.

Shawn: What was surprising to me was how popular rowing was in the 1930s. There was daily coverage in the newspapers. There were tens of thousands of spectators turning out for meets.

Brown: Even hundreds of thousands, sometimes. Outstanding oarsmen would line up on the cover of Saturday Evening Post or Time magazine. They became almost minor celebrities in the '30s.

Shawn: Why do you think it's declined in popularity?

Brown: Watching a crew race from the shore, it is not always the most exciting thing in the world, unless you happen to be at the finish line or right where something dramatic happens. A lot of the drama in crew takes place in the boat. One of the things I tried to do in the book is take the reader inside the boat during some of these great races. Because it actually was pretty compelling, what they went through.

Shawn: Some reviewers have compared The Boys in the Boat to Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken and David Halberstam's The Amateurs. Did you read these books or others like it while doing research?

Brown: After I signed up to do this project, the first two books I sat down to read were Seabiscuit and The Amateurs. Both of them in very different ways were, to some extent, models for me. I admire those books very much. I learned a lot by thinking about my own story while reading theirs.

Shawn: You begin each chapter in the book with a quote from George Yeoman Pocock, the master boat builder for the Washington team. He's like a philosopher king of rowing.

Brown: Exactly. He was an English-born boat builder who came to Seattle around 1912. He began building these beautiful handcrafted cedar shells, these exquisite looking things, which eventually became so popular everybody in the country was rowing them. Pocock valued the search for perfection, whether it was in building a shell or in rowing. He was also a very good oarsman. He taught these boys to strive for something higher than just winning races. Sure, you're supposed to win a race, but you're rowing to try to come as close as you can to the ideal. He felt that there was a spiritual reward in doing that.

Shawn: Where did you find these great inspirational quotes of his?

Brown: It came from various places. One of those quotes came from a note he wrapped around an oar that he sent to the University of Washington crew in a later Olympics. I don't remember if it was the '40s or '50s, but he wrote this inspirational note and wrapped it around an oar. He shipped the oar off to wherever the crew was, and somebody saved the note. One of the quotes is from that note.

Shawn: Can you explain to some of our readers who may not be familiar with rowing the unique role of the coxswain?

Brown: The coxswain, first of all, is the only person that can see where the boat's going. He or she is facing forward and steering the boat. But more importantly, the coxswain is commanding the boat, deciding when to row harder or back off a little bit. Usually, there's an element of timing involved in holding your energy back until just the precise moment. There's a great deal of strategy. Coxswains tend to be very smart and pugnacious because they have to boss around people who are three times their height, or at least seem like three times their height.

Shawn: Yeah, there's such a big size difference between a typical rower and a typical coxswain.

Brown: Absolutely. A coxswain is 5 foot 5 inches, 5 foot 6 inches, something like that.

Shawn: Wow. They're almost the height of a jockey.

Brown: Yeah, exactly. In fact, coxswains do the same kinds of things that jockeys do. They purge themselves and starve themselves to try to stay as light as they can, because every pound that goes in the boat tends to slow the boat down. They're not pulling an oar. They need to be as light as possible. If they could just be a brain with a mouth, they'd be perfect. [Laughter]

Shawn: Why do you think the coxswain for the Washington team, Bobby Moch, exceled in this position?

Brown: First of all, he was very, very bright. He went on to become a lawyer who argued cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was very smart and very tenacious. He actually went out for basketball in high school. He was only 5 foot 7 but wound up lettering in basketball. He was just the kind of kid that, if he saw an obstacle, wanted to climb right over it. I never met him. He had passed away by the time I started to work on the book, but I met his daughter, Marilyn, who is said to be his spitting image. I learned a lot about what Bobby was like by talking for many hours to Marilyn.

Shawn: It's interesting that the one person who isn't rowing actually may be the one person who has the greatest effect on whether they win or not.

Brown: Absolutely. Usually, the coach has a game plan that he tells the coxswain to follow, but as in any sport, game plans tend to break down as other boats do things that weren't expected. It comes down to how swift-witted and decisive the coxswain is, and how he or she deploys the resources in the boat. There's a lot of quick thinking involved.

Shawn: I love the rivalry between the coaches of Washington and California. It was interesting how they would downplay expectations before each important competition. Do you think that was more indicative of their style or of the times?

Brown: I don't know if they did that in other sports or not, but both the California coach and Al Ulbrickson, the Washington coach, were constantly saying that the boys were no good and that they didn't have a chance. There was a lot of psychological gamesmanship between crew coaches. Not just between these two schools, but across the board with crew. The boys in this boat were basically farm kids and millpond kids from the Northwest. They went up against the greatest rowers in the world. The coaches also had to outwit the coaches of very established Ivy League schools, Oxford and Cambridge. There was a lot of psychology involved.

Shawn: The rivalries were not just between Washington and California, but between these elite East Coast schools and the blue-collar West Coast schools.

Brown: Yeah, these kids grew up, as I said, on dairy farms and millponds and fishing camps in the Northwest. A lot of them had grown strong wielding axes and pitchforks. The kids they were rowing against were the sons of bankers and senators and lawyers. They had learned to row in prep schools on the East Coast. The boys in this boat didn't know one end of the oar from another until they showed up at Washington.

Shawn: Do you think their working-class background prepared them for the extreme physical demands of rowing?

Brown: Yeah, I think it did. Those prep-school kids from the East didn't row all winter. The rivers in the East were all frozen. They couldn't row. If they rowed at all, they rowed indoors in these bathtub-like arrangements. The kids from Washington rowed all winter long, but they rowed out in the sleet and the snow and the hail and the cutting wind on Lake Washington. They got very tough and very good at rowing in bad conditions. In that sense, I think it did help them.

Shawn: Rowing is not just physically demanding but psychologically demanding as well. Do you feel there are certain cognitive skills that are required to row well on a crew?

Brown: Yeah, there is, particularly on the part of the coxswain. What's required cognitively of the average oarsman is an ability to endure pain. You just have to be mentally tough. You have to be the kind of person that's willing to subject yourself to this team, going out at five in the morning day after day to do this. You have to have a very strong sense of self. But, on the other hand, you have to do exactly the opposite. Crew, more than any other sport in the world, I think, requires mutual cooperation and trust. While you have to be very strong willed, you also have to be willing to throw your ego overboard and fit in.While you have to be very strong willed, you also have to be willing to throw your ego overboard and fit in.

What's most fascinating to me is how these boys came together. They had that magic combination of being tough and strong willed, and yet being able to accommodate one another and subsume their individuality in order to make the boat go faster.

Shawn: Maybe it was their similar background that really helped them bond as well.

Brown: Yeah, that probably did help. They came from different occupations, but they all came from the same area and had basically the same economic background. Everybody was in a hard time together, and that gave them a sense of fellowship and comradeship.

Shawn: In an essay you wrote for a website a few years ago, you describe how you traveled the same path as the Donner Party to research your previous book, The Indifferent Stars Above. Did you travel to Berlin, Princeton, and Poughkeepsie to get a feel for what the team experienced at these important meets?

Brown: I did, and actually the trip to Berlin was particularly interesting because, as part of their propaganda effort surrounding the '36 Olympics, the Nazis built a spectacular rowing course at a place called Grünau, which is east of Berlin, including a massive stone boathouse. It survived the war more or less intact and has been reconstructed. I went there, and I was able to stand on the same balcony where Hitler and Göring stood to watch the race. I got to look at the racecourse from their vantage point, and it was kind of a creepy feeling, actually, to stand where Hitler had stood. But it did give me insights. I also went to the little village where these nine boys lived while they were in the Olympics and saw their quarters there and walked around the streets that they walked around. That kind of thing is helpful when you sit down to actually write the scenes that are set there. There are just a thousand little details of the place that you wouldn't know if you hadn't been there.

Shawn: I don't think I ever fully realized that the Berlin Olympics was such a huge propaganda machine for Hitler and for the Nazis. Do you think, in hindsight, it would've been better if we had boycotted the Olympics?

Brown: I personally think it would have, but it would've ruined my story. There was a very active boycott movement in the United States that summer, and it was shut down pretty ruthlessly by Avery Brundage, the commissioner of the American Athletic Committee. The reality is that while these boys were there, they were shown a fairy-tale version of Germany, as were the thousands of Americans who went that summer. They were shown, basically, a Berlin that had been turned into a giant movie set, a Disneyland-like movie set that carefully concealed what was really happening in Germany.

The Americans who went there that summer came back convinced that Germany was a pretty cool place. The Nazis were very successful in covering up what was actually happening.

Shawn: The purpose of the Olympics is to transcend politics. It would've been a shame to have those athletes miss out on that opportunity.

Brown: That's always the problem with boycotting the Olympics, of course, that the whole spirit of the Olympics is a positive one, and you don't want politics to come in the form of a boycott. If the world had known what was going on in Germany, even in '33, '34, '35, and '36, I'm pretty convinced there wouldn't have been an Olympics there.

Shawn: This story has such a cinematic appeal. Is it true that there's already a movie in the works?

Brown: There is a movie in the works, yeah. The Weinstein Company, which is the company that made The King's Speech and other Oscar-worthy films, bought the movie rights to this book. I don't know a great deal more than that because it's gone behind a curtain since then, but I know that they have a script in hand that they're very happy with, and I understand that they are moving forward, so I'm excited about that.

Shawn: It's one of those stories that I can't believe more people don't know about.

Brown: I think part of it's because, for one thing, the Jesse Owens story, which is an absolutely tremendous story, captivated the nation that summer and got huge headlines. There were probably many great stories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These boys came home in dribs and drabs. There was no ticker-tape parade when they came home. They just went back to try to find jobs and get through another year of staying well-fed and staying in school.

The story pretty much went underground. There are people of a certain age in Seattle who know about it; they still remember. But younger people have never heard about it at all, nor have most other countries. It's great fun, bringing the story to life.

Shawn: Was it a life-altering experience for these boys?

Brown: Absolutely. It really was. I think when you read the book, you'll see that particularly for Joe, because he came from such desperate circumstances and it gave him such a sense of renewed faith and hope. It was an absolutely transforming experience. They all survived the war. They all lived good, prosperous, happy, contented lives, so it's very much a story with a happy ending.

Shawn: Now that you've written books about the 1936 Olympics and the Donner Party and the Great Hinckley Forest Fire in Minnesota, what's next for you?

Brown: I don't know. I'm considering all kinds of possibilities. A book like this takes me about five years to research and write, so I don't want to act too hastily. I want to find a story that I really love, that I want to spend another five years with, before I commit to it.

Shawn: It's like a relationship. [Laughter]

Brown: It is like a relationship, yeah. I get very consumed by these things when I write about them, so I want to get it right.

Shawn: You share a name with a certain bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code. Has this been a blessing or a curse for your writing?

Brown: I go by Dan Brown in my ordinary life, but one of the things I did before publishing my first book was put my full name, Daniel James Brown, on the cover.

Shawn: It sounds more literary.

Brown: But more importantly, if you Google "Dan Brown," you will not find me [laughter]. But if you Google "Daniel James Brown," you probably will, so it was a very practical reason of avoiding that name.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans...
    New Hardcover $28.95
  2. Under a Flaming Sky: The Great... Used Trade Paper $9.95
  3. The Indifferent Stars Above: The... Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. Seabiscuit: An American Legend
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  5. The Amateurs: The Story of Four... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of...
    Sale Hardcover $12.98
  7. The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $8.50



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