David Grann’s Books Are Real-Life Stories With a Novel’s Texture

From a Wall Street Journal story by Caryn James headlined “Why David Grann, Bestselling Adventure Writer, Isn’t One for the Outdoors”:

Although David Grann is quick to admit he’s not exactly cut out to be an adventurer, his nonfiction books follow the most daring explorers through the Amazon, Antarctica and now, with The Wager, published today, the high seas. The Wager centers on an 18th-century British shipwreck and mutiny, featuring castaways and murder on an uninhabitable island off the coast of Chile. “I get lost. I don’t hunt. I hate to camp. I hate bugs,” Grann, 56, says. “I have this eye disorder that makes it hard for me to see. I’m incredibly ill-suited for all these things.”

Despite his sedentary work life, which he calls “dull,” the results—real-life stories with a novelistic texture—are successful critically and commercially. The Amazon-set The Lost City of Z (2009) and Killers of the Flower Moon (2017), about serial murders of Osage people in the 1920s, were both bestsellers. Martin Scorsese’s film based on Flower Moon, with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, opens later this year. Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s production companies bought the film rights to The Wager, and The White Darkness (2018), about a polar explorer’s journeys across Antarctica, is being developed as an Apple TV+ limited series to star Tom Hiddleston.

Grann leaves the moviemaking to others and spends most of his time poring over archives and working at home in Westchester County, where he lives with his wife, the journalist Kyra Darnton, and their two teenage children. But sometimes a fact-finding adventure creeps up on him. In 2018 he made a treacherous two-week voyage to what is now called Wager Island, where some castaways landed, a trip he did not have in mind when he started the book two years before. “While I research these stories, they eventually somehow get under my skin,” he says. “I’m like, ‘How am I going to describe the island?’ Before I know it I’m trying to find a captain to take me there.”

Some of your other books are set in the early 20th century, but with The Wager you’ve moved to the 18th century.

After Killers of the Flower Moon, I swore the next thing I do, it’s going to be contemporary, in the last 20 years; everyone’s going to be alive. And then I came across this journal written by John Byron [a midshipman on the Wager]. It was scurvy, shipwreck, cannibalism. And he is also the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. Suddenly I found myself in the 18th century.

How different was that?

The biggest challenge was not just understanding the 18th century but figuring out these hermetic civilizations on the ships, which have their own language. I’d see DD written in a document; what does DD mean? Well, that means discharged dead. You see DD, DD, DD, and you look at their names and each one of these people was a life with a story, that perished on this expedition. You begin to have a sense of the real horrific toll of these voyages.

What was your trip to Wager Island like?

The boat was maybe 50 feet, heated by a wood stove. When we set out into the open ocean, it gave me my first taste of these terrifying seas. In front of us was a mountain of water, behind us was a mountain of water. And all you could do was sit on the floor, because if you stood you could get chucked and could break a limb. I sat for eight to 10 hours on the floor. I put on a book tape of Moby-Dick, which in retrospect was not the most soothing thing to do.

What did you learn when you got there?

It just breathed life into the accounts I was reading. You can suddenly feel how cold it must have been. Their clothing deteriorated. They were constantly wet and suffering from hypothermia. The foliage is so thick in places it just wraps around you, so it’s like trying to walk through a hedge.

All your books have been turned into or are being developed as films. Why do you think they’re so adaptable?

The stories I tell tend to be things that may once have been a huge deal, but have been kind of erased from history. But I think those parts of history still tell us a lot about ourselves. For The Wager, I thought this is an unbelievably fascinating story of survival and leadership. But what really drew me to it, ultimately, was we’re living at a time when whenever I would read the news there would be stories about fake news and competing narratives and battles over who tells history. And here was this weird story taking place in the 1740s where all these elements were playing out, because the castaways, when several of them made it back to England, were summoned to a court martial where if they didn’t tell a convincing story, they were going to get hanged.

Early in your career you wanted to write fiction. What prompted your turn to narrative nonfiction?

I wrote some of the worst poetry probably ever written. Then of course I tried to write a novel. I did study creative writing at the same time that I started to write journalism. You kind of find the way you’re best suited for writing. I envy novelists for their imagination. I don’t have to imagine what people do. If I find extraordinary stories or revealing stories, I just have to excavate. You’re much more like a miner: You’re just digging and digging, hoping to find the gems that tell the story.

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