2015 One Maryland One Book Author Tour: Q&A with Daniel James Brown

October 7, 2015
by Maryland Humanities

In the words of Notre Dame of Maryland President Dr. Marylou Yam, “we might read alone, but discussion helps us experience a book together.” We witnessed the power of literature once again this year as more than 1500 guests attended Daniel James Brown’s 2015 One Maryland One Book Author Tour. Attendees listened to Mr. Brown’s side of The Boys in the Boat and shared their own experiences and reactions to the story. At every event, attendees clamored to ask Mr. Brown questions about everything from writing tips to meeting Joe Rantz’s family. Here are a few of our favorites:

Q: Which author inspired you the most?

DJB: I’m a big fan of narrative nonfiction. Laura Hillenbrand, who you probably know for her book Unbroken, has absolutely inspired me. Honestly, don’t be afraid to have models. I studied Laura’s book Seabiscuit and I marked every page of it, even down to where she chose to end scenes and how she developed the characters. Unbroken came out halfway through when I was writing The Boys in the Boat and I completely dissected that book, too. You can learn a lot from closely dissecting the books that you think work well.

Q: How do you plan your books?

DJB: The first thing I do once I choose a subject is start making a timeline – of everything. I made a timeline of everything that happened to Joe Rantz from when he was born to 1937. I made another timeline of everything that happened in the Nazi party from 1933-1937, and another timeline for the crew, too. There’s no way I could ever use all my research, but I like knowing all that background. It helps me pull out the beginning, middle, and end of the story. I found out how they walked, I looked up photos that were taken that week, then I found the newspapers you see in the photos. For the opening scene of The Boys in the Boat I read that the World Series had ended just before the boys went out for crew. The last game ended with a dramatic home run.

Once I know what a scene is I research the heck out of it. I’m a fear-driven writer. I get to the point where I’m going to lose it if I don’t write it. I run to the computer and boom – splat it on the page. I stick it in a drawer and don’t look at it for three, maybe four weeks. When I finally revisit it I see what I like, what I don’t need, and what I want to change. There’s always a lot to change.

Q: Did you always plan to add in the German storyline?

DJB: Early on, I knew that this story was more than a boat race. But quickly I realized how much of a bigger issue it was. We all know that the Nazis were bad – extremely bad – and morally depraved. But the boys didn’t know. The Nazis were building Dachau but the boys didn’t know that. It was tempting to write too much about the Germans and overshadow the boys. I had 40 pages on propaganda and Goebbels and I actually became obsessed with that aspect of the story. But I had to cut a lot of it out.


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Did you join us at an author tour stop? Which one?

Couldn’t join us on tour? Tell us what you would have asked Mr. Brown!