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The Boy in the Library Who Wrote The Boys in the Boat

Q&A with author Daniel James Brown

December 21, 2023
by Scott Ball
members of a crew team holding their oars

One of the most anticipated movies of the Holiday Season is due to hit cinemas on Christmas Day. The Boys in the Boat, directed by George Clooney, finally brings to the big screen Cal alum Daniel James Brown’s mega-bestselling book about the American crew team that triumphed in the so-called Nazi Olympics of 1936. 

Brown graduated from Cal in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, after transferring to Berkeley from Diablo Valley College. He then went on to earn his master’s degree in English from UCLA. After stints teaching college writing courses, he became a technical writer and editor before devoting himself to writing narrative nonfiction. 

Daniel James Brown
Courtesy of Daniel James Brown

Brown has since published four well-received books, including The Indifferent Stars Above (2009) about the Donner Party, and Facing the Mountain (2021), about Japanese American heroes of WWII. None have been as successful as 2013’s The Boys in the Boat, which spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list and recently regained the #1 spot for paperback nonfiction. 

It’s a level of success Brown could scarcely have imagined as a child. Born in Berkeley in 1951, he suffered from severe anxiety as a youth and was bullied by his peers, eventually dropping out of high school. He completed his degree via correspondence courses, often studying by himself at Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library, where he found solace among the bookshelves and a deep love of reading. 

The Boys in the Boat is a story about Joe Rantz and the University of Washington eight-oar rowing team that competed in the 1936 Berlin Games. But Cal is very much a part of this narrative as the Golden Bears and the Huskies are both perennial powerhouses and longtime rivals in crew, their programs the epitome of West Coast rowing. In the days when the nation’s top collegiate rowing team would represent the United States at the Olympics, Cal represented Stars and Stripes three times, beginning in 1928. Each time, they brought back gold. 

The following is a Q&A with Daniel James Brown. 

How did you first find out about the story of Joe Rantz and the Washington crew team of the early 30s?

The story literally walked into my life one day about fifteen years ago when my neighbor came to my house and asked me to come over and meet her father. He turned out to be Joe Rantz, the principal character in the book. I sat down with Joe, who turned out to be in the last couple months of his life, and he slowly unveiled an amazing story. He talked about growing up during the Great Depression, rowing for the University of Washington’s crew program, and ultimately going to Berlin in 1936 to compete against a German boat for Olympic gold in front of Hitler.

In what way did Rantz’s story resonate with you?

In many ways, Joe reminded me of my father, who was born the same year as Joe. He, too, lost his father at the beginning of the Depression. He and his mother and siblings struggled mightily just to put food on the table, and yet he managed to put himself through Cal, working part-time jobs and graduating in 1938. He never rowed but he had a character that was forged by those hard times—resilient, perseverant, and humble—and that’s very much what I found in Joe and the eight boys who rowed with him back in 1936.

Did you know much about the Golden Bears crew program when you were a Cal undergraduate?

I was aware of it but not really following crew at the time. I remember that as I was growing up my father had often talked about coach Ky Ebright and how great Cal’s crew program was, but it mostly went right by me. I went to a lot of Cal football games but I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go down to the water to watch a race.

Penguin Books

When were you first approached about a movie adaptation of The Boys in the Boat?

We actually sold the film rights to the book the day after we sold the book to Viking Press, my publisher. That was way back in 2011, and I was, of course, tremendously excited. But it took a long time for the film to actually get made. The rights bounced around among different Hollywood players before it finally landed at MGM with George Clooney set to direct it.

When did you first meet with George Clooney, and what sort of collaboration did you have with the film?

George called me shortly after he signed on to direct the film, and we had a really nice conversation. He talked quite a bit about how he grew up relatively poor in Kentucky, cutting tobacco and doing other odd jobs to stitch together a meager living. That experience helped him empathize with Joe Rantz and the other boys in the boat and I think that comes across in the film. We didn’t really collaborate on the script. That was produced by a professional screenwriter, Mark L. Smith. Since the film has come out, though, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with George and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, doing publicity events, and I’ve very much enjoyed working with them. Both are remarkably empathetic gentlemen. 

James at a book signing
Brown signing his book / Courtesy of Daniel James Brown

Your books seem to have related themes of individuals who thrive despite adversity. Is this something that harks back to your childhood and your time at Doe Library?

Well, I am definitely drawn to stories of ordinary people overcoming daunting challenges. I certainly never experienced any adversity that compares even remotely to that experienced by most of the subjects I’ve written about (I mean the Donner Party, for heaven’s sake!) But I did have my challenges, mostly with an extreme anxiety disorder as an adolescent, so I know what utter despair feels like. I suppose that makes me interested in people who have found themselves in dark places and need to find a way out. If anything is a throughline in the stories I’ve told it’s a recurring desire to find a way back to a safe place, a place one can call home.    

You must have a tremendous amount of pride in seeing The Boys in the Boat made into a feature film. Did you think of the book as something that would someday be shown in the theater?

Once Viking Press acquired the book, I actually did think it might make it to the big screen, simply because the film rights were picked up so quickly. That said, I’m acutely aware that there are many great writers whose works deserve to be adapted for the screen and never get that chance. So I’m very grateful for that.

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