Few writers of fact can spin a narrative as well as David Grann, whether it be the quest for a fabled place (The Lost City of Z) or unearthing gross injustices against oil-rich Native Americans in the 1920s (Killers of the Flower Moon). His gift for detail, drama, and insight is unmatched, and never once does he indulge in invented dialogue or imagined scenes. His new book, The Wager, takes place in the 1700s, and melds an adventure tale with a courtroom saga that is nothing less than riveting.
JIM KELLY: In your latest book, you tell the thrilling tale of the Wager, a merchant vessel that had been turned into a warship by the Royal Navy and was under the command of its wonderfully named captain, Dandy Kidd. Its mission was to help capture a treasure-laden Spanish galleon, but what happened to the Wager and its crew of roughly 250 once it left Portsmouth in September 1740 beggars belief. How did you come across this story, and what was its attraction?
DAVID GRANN: I’ve always had a fascination with mutinies, and one day while I was looking into the subject, I came upon an 18th-century account by John Byron, who had been a 16-year-old midshipman on the Wager at the outset of the voyage. I found myself mesmerized reading it. Byron described how he and his companions on the Wager had battled scurvy and typhoons, then, shipwrecked on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia, descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, with warring factions, murders, mutiny, and cannibalism.
If this wasn’t fascinating enough, several of the survivors eventually made it back to England, where they were summoned to face a court-martial for their alleged crimes; after everything they’d been through, they could be hanged. Many of the defendants, hoping to sway public opinion, published wildly conflicting accounts of what had happened, which provoked a furious war over the truth. There were competing narratives and disinformation and even allegations of “fake” news. And as a fight ensued over who had the right to tell the history, those in power attempted to cover up the sinful parts of a nation’s past. So even though the story took place in the 18th century, it felt like a parable for our own turbulent times.
J.K.: You wisely allow the participants in this saga to tell their own sides of the story, which can be wildly conflicting. Is there one character that you came to especially admire? And one character who seemed especially reprehensible?
D.G.: The island where the castaways were stranded became a perfect laboratory to test the human condition under extreme circumstances; inevitably, it would reveal the nature of each man—the good and the bad. Indeed, one moment I could admire a castaway’s enormous bravery, and then the next recoil at his brutality.
One participant I found extraordinarily compelling was Byron. Just a teenager when the voyage began, he must have come of age amid the horrors unleashed not only by the natural elements but by his own shipmates. In a surprising twist of history, he would also become the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he referred to as “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”
J.K.: Thanks to reading your terrific book, I now have added another item to my Never in a Million Years Bucket List: Do not travel around Cape Horn in March, especially if you do not have modern navigational devices. You capture that kind of trip vividly, and you also took your own three-week trip to Wager Island, off the coast of Chile and named after the ship that ran aground there. What did you learn there?
The Wager’s shipmen battled scurvy and typhoons, then, shipwrecked on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia, descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity.
D.G.: It helped me to better understand what the castaways had experienced while stranded on the island for months. Just as they had described, the temperature was freezing, and it was constantly raining or sleeting. And there was virtually no food. By the area where the castaways had built their encampment, I saw some sprouts of wild celery, like they had eaten. But that was about all, and I suddenly grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where “the soul of man dies in him.”
J.K.: You also did a fair bit of traveling for The Lost City of Z (2009), another wonderful tale that, like your latest book, required a tremendous amount of archival research. For both books, of course, there are no people to interview, so which do you prefer, the travel or the library part of your research?
D.G.: I’m half blind and hate camping, and I always begin a project thinking I will do all the research in the safe confines of archives. But inevitably there comes a point when I feel some gnawing gaps in my knowledge, some need to learn more about a story, and before long I find myself doing something foolish, like trekking through the Amazon or traveling through the Gulf of Pain to Wager Island. Each time I return from such a trip, I swear that will be the last. But then another story grabs me. And so maybe I need to admit that a part of me relishes these adventures.
In a surprising twist of history, one of the Wager’s shipmen would become the grandfather of Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he referred to as “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”
J.K.: Killers of the Flower Moon (2017) also required a great deal of archival research, but, without creating any spoilers here, in the final part of the book, you do actually meet folks relevant to what you have discovered. It is a riveting finale, and I wonder how you felt during that encounter?
D.G.: While visiting the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, I was able to speak to many descendants of the victims of the Reign of Terror—a period during the early part of the 20th century when the Osage were being systematically murdered for their oil money. In all my research, nothing was more powerful than these interviews. The descendants provided testimony of the breadth and horror of these crimes—and also how they still reverberate into the present. An Osage elder named Mary Jo Webb, who has since passed away, said something I’ll never forget: “The blood cries out from the ground.”
J.K.: The film rights for The Wager have been bought by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who have also just completed their adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon, which will premiere in the fall. And, of course, The Lost City of Z was also made into a film, in 2016. How involved are you in these productions, and how do you ensure their fidelity to the facts as you have presented them in your books? Or do you view the movies as the visions of others who can treat your subjects as they think best?
D.G.: I don’t know anything about making a movie, and so my main goal is to get the project into the most capable hands. I don’t expect a film to be an exact replica of a book—it’s a very different medium—but it is critical to me that the people adapting a project share the same fierce commitment and fidelity to the story. And so far, I’ve been very fortunate on that front.
J.K.: You seem attracted to mayhem, fraud, suffering, murder, and obsession. This is a compliment, by the way! So what do you do to relax? I hope it is not sitting down at night and watching Mutiny on the Bounty for the 30th time.
D.G.: During the pandemic, I took up kayaking, and it’s become my great escape—floating on the sea, albeit in waters much calmer than those in the Gulf of Pain.
J.K.: Finally, does being the son of Phyllis Grann, the storied publisher who had an unerring instinct for good stories that became best-sellers, influence you in any way, either in the books you read as a youngster or in your instincts for what would make a good story to tell?
D.G.: Growing up, I certainly read a lot of the books my mom published, and I’m sure they had some influence, whether conscious or not, on the kind of stories I’m drawn to. But the funny thing is, she always gave me one piece of advice: Whatever you do, don’t become a writer. I think she feared that it would be too hard a life. Like any good son, I ignored her.
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, by David Grann, will be published on April 18 by Doubleday
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL