Redmond-based author Daniel James Brown’s newest book, “The Boys in the Boat,”
(Viking, 404 pp., $28.95) is more than a sports saga. It’s the true story of nine University of Washington students who rowed crew in the 1930s.
The races those young men competed in put them in the international spotlight and entangled them in the ideological conflicts that fomented World War II. They raced the Nazi rowers in Berlin in the 1936 Olympics and beat them, winning the gold medal as Adolf Hitler watched in frustration.
At his Redmond home, Brown discussed his book’s moral themes, the challenges of piecing together the past and the extraordinary life of one the main characters, rower Joe Rantz.
Q: How did you get the idea for the book?
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A: The idea for the book walked into this very room, in the form of Judy [Willman], my neighbor. She was reading one of my earlier books to her father, [Joe Rantz] who was under hospice care at her house, in the last couple months of his life. He was interested in that book and he wanted to meet me.
So I went down and chatted with him. We started talking about his life growing up in the Great Depression. That morphed into a conversation about his years rowing for the University of Washington and ultimately rowing for the gold medal in Berlin.
Q: How did some of the challenges that Joe had to overcome personally tie into the greater themes in the book?
A: Joe was basically treated as disposable by his stepmother, and also his father who didn’t really stand up for him. That ties in thematically with that whole generation of people who were young men or women at that time. Many of them felt like their lives were disposable. The burdens of the Depression were so severe that they felt they had no control over their lives.
[Joe] had to survive on his own, foraging in the woods for food at times. He became very independent, very strong. And yet crew is the most cooperative sport there is. You cannot row competitively in a 24-inch-wide shell with eight guys rowing at the same time without an extraordinary amount of collaboration and sportsmanship.
Q: This is much more than a sports story. How did you take this story and frame it to appeal to a wider demographic?
A: I just went looking for the human story inside the sports story. Because I knew so much about Joe, I could use him as a protagonist to get this message across: that [the book] is about life, struggle and finding the boundary between yourself and a larger purpose.
I read Lauren Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit.” It’s a very similar book in that it talks about the social context of the Depression. It did what I wanted to do, which was to tell a social and human story using a sports story as the narrative strand holding it together.
Q: How much time did you have to spend learning the sport?
A: I got a lot of input from the current modern crop of Husky rowers. They were very interested in having this story told. The shell, the old Husky Clipper [used in the Berlin Olympics by the 1936 crew], actually hangs over the dining commons in the new shellhouse. Everyone who rows for Washington knows about the 1936 crew.
Q: Physically, the sport has changed a lot over the years but in many ways the intellectual challenges remain the same. What are those intellectual challenges, in your words?
A: It’s a very tough sport physically — it’s brutal. If you’re going to get up at five in the morning in the cold water in February and put yourself through that kind of torture day after day, which is what they have to do, there’s a mental toughness that comes in. To me, it’s as remarkable as their physical toughness.
But [crew members] also have to be amenable to fitting in with other people. I know from a crew coach’s point of view it’s hard to find people who can combine those two things: the mental strength and the social skills.
Q: It’s a very American thing, that struggle to be fiercely independent.
A: What I’ve tried to do is show the flip side of that. There’s a part of us as Americans that also has a tradition of working together and making things happen cooperatively.
Q: This is an incredible story, but it happened a very long time ago. What can today’s readers glean from this?
A: This is such a polarized time politically, and we’re having such a hard time getting along, and things done in any kind of cooperative way. My hope is that some people will see in this story that we do have a legacy of working together.
During the Depression and World War II that’s what we did, because we had to. I think it’s partly because they learned to trust one another, and not to let their insistence on individualism and individual rights become so overwhelming that nobody would listen to anybody else.
Q: The climax of the book — this huge, important race — you spend hundreds of pages getting to it. How did you decide that you wanted to spend so much time building it up?
A: It’s a great race in and of itself, but it’s much more meaningful if you know the nine guys involved on some kind of personal level, and if you knew what the German boys wearing swastikas on their chests represented, that they weren’t just another bunch of kids in a boat … It’s a clash of two very different value systems in that race.
Q: You said it was important to you to portray the German propaganda machine. A lot of people seem to focus more on Germany in the early ’40s and less on this earlier period.
A: Before I started this project, when I thought about the Nazis I began with WWII. I had never learned much about the rise of the Nazis in the early to mid ‘30s. I read an enormous about it before I started writing those parts of the book, and it was a revelation to me. The way they used propaganda to shape German opinion, it’s absolutely terrifying.
That was what the 1936 Olympics were all about from the Nazi point of view. It was an enormous propaganda show. They had very deliberate, cynical goals in mind, which were to convince the world that Germany was a civilized, peace-loving progressive nation.
Joseph Sutton-Holcomb: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @analogmelon