The GOAT of Astonishing Tales
David Grann tha Story God on murderous castaways, building with Scorsese and DiCaprio on Killers of the Flower Moon, bringing laptops to jungles and more
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David Grann — he’s one of the master nonfiction storytellers. Long before “true crime” became the byword for a flood of mids (and sub-mids!) podcasts & streaming series, he’s been crafting propulsive, profound stories about arson, con jobs, art forgery, deceit and 💀MURDER💀…
David’s a veteran New Yorker staff writer — The Devil & Sherlock Holmes collects some of his greatest magazine pieces — and his books include 2017’s phenomenal Killers of the Flower Moon, the movie version of which premieres at Cannes next month, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser, and Robert De Niro. Scorsese and DiCaprio have already signed on to adapt David’s fantastic new book, The Wager — and it just came out today!! That’s simply the kind of thing that happens when you’re the G.O.A.T.:
The Wager is about an 18th century British naval mission that, after a shipwreck off the coast of Patagonia, devolves into thievery, violence, death, cannibalism and — after some of the sailors somehow manage to get back home — multiple cover-up attempts. The Wall Street Journal calls The Wager “a tour de force of narrative nonfiction,” but even more impressively, Blackbird Spyplane calls it “another certified slapper from The ‘GOAT of Astonishing Tales’ which I read in 2 days because the s**t rips.’”
The other day I (Jonah) hopped on the Spyphone with David to talk about The Wager, linking & building with Scorsese, telling stories about stories, lugging a heavy-a** old laptop through the Amazon foolishly, and more…
Blackbird Spyplane: When did you first hear the story of the Wager, and what made you say, This is my next book?
David Grann: “I’ve always been interested in the idea of mutinies, so I was looking into mutiny stories, and I came across an 18th century account by John Byron, who’d been the 16-year-old midshipman on the Wager — and who went on to be the grandfather of Lord Byron, the poet. The prose was very stilted, but you’d hit these arresting descriptions of scurvy and typhoons and shipwreck, and then violence on the island, as the shipmates turned on each other. It had the seeds of one of the most extraordinary sagas I’d come across.
“That was the hook, but as I went deeper, I realized I was as interested in what happened on the island as in what happened when several of the castaways made it back to England. They were summoned to face a court martial, where they could have been hanged. Many of them, hoping to save their lives and influence public opinion, released their own accounts of what happened, waging a war over the truth. This was a time when we were having our own battles about the truth, so-called ‘fake news’ and so on, so the story was gripping, but there were also all these rich themes and modern resonances. That’s when I decided to commit more than 5 years of my life to it.”
Blackbird Spyplane: All your books tell different stories of western exploration and adventure, which tend to reveal themselves as stories of conquest, plunder and brutality.
David Grann: “Yeah, I wouldn’t quite put The White Darkness in that column, but absolutely in The Lost City of Z: Not only were Europeans seeking to conquer and plunder the Amazon, but you also had archeologists and anthropologists who assumed the Amazon couldn’t have ever sustained large, complex societies, because they were often blinded by prejudice — and they didn’t realize that conquistadors had brought in disease and wiped out large complex societies in the Amazon! It shattered our notion of what the Americas looked like before Christopher Columbus.
“And with Killers of the Flower Moon, too, absolutely. These white settlers were marrying into wealthy Osage families with diabolical schemes of killing them, in order to inherit the oil money they had because of the oil under their land. And what’s so unsettling about that story is, it’s the 20th century. Relatively modern times. And yet so many Americans, me included, were ignorant about it. We’ve never been taught this history. We’d excised it from our consciousness.
“I was haunted by that, so when I came across the story of the Wager, part of what interested me was how it showed the way empires and nations shape their stories, to preserve their power and to serve their self interest.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Right, the book tells this crazy story out on the high seas, then tells a different story about storytelling, lies & myth-making …
David Grann: “And about which stories are left out. That’s something that began to hit home for me with Killers of the Flower Moon — many of those murders can not be solved, because the people involved are deceased, and because so much evidence was covered up at the time. The killers didn’t just erase their victims, they also erased their victims’ stories. With The Wager, again, you see which stories prevail and which stories are left out — one is the story of John Duck, a free Black seaman on the ship who somehow managed to survive the violence, the scurvy, the typhoons, and the shipwreck, but he can never tell his story because after all that he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. And I can’t find any record of what happened to him.
“More and more, as I tell these stories, I’m haunted as much by the stories like that — the ones I can’t tell, those silences and gaps in the narrative.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s one moment in The Wager that really struck me. The sailors are marooned on this barren island. They’re starving and turning on each other, stockpiling weapons and stealing rations. And one day some indigenous Patagonians arrive as if out of nowhere with a goat, which they offer as a gift. They know how to fish and find food, and they’re open and generous with the castaways — who quickly start to plot against them. You see the barbarism and the self-sabotage laid bare in that imperial “domination mindset.”
David Grann: “I went to Wager Island, and look, it’s an inhospitable place — it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s windy. And yet the Kawésqar people, who’d lived in this region for hundreds of years, had adapted. They lived in canoes, going up and down the coastline, they kept warm by keeping fires going in their canoes, and most importantly they knew how to find food.
“So they provide food to the castaways. But the attitudes of the many of the seamen had been so corroded by racism — looking upon indigenous people as ‘savages,’ which is the term they’d use in their accounts — that they ended up mistreating them. We don’t have a written account, but the Kawésqar look at these Europeans, see the spiraling violence among them, and they’re driven away. So it’s a case where imperialistic attitudes don’t just destroy others but the sailors themselves, because after the Kawésqar leave, the castaways lose their lifeline, and they succumb to greater depravity. Some of them succumb to cannibalism.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Martin Scorsese’s movie adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon is due out this year. Give us some Scorsese flavor, king — what’s it like to collab with tha god?
David Grann: “You know, my role in these projects is pretty limited, I write the books and try to get them into the hands of people who really care about them. I was struck by how energetic and committed Scorsese was — he spent years on this project, just like I had. They shot on location, and they worked with the Osage Nation — Marty and his team began to meet with the community really early on. And when I visited the set it was surreal, because they had meticulously constructed exactly what these towns looked like.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So Scorsese’s not calling you at 11 p.m., like, “David, it’s Marty — one more question.”
David Grann: “Ha, no, I might get that from the production team, or some of the actors trying to get into their roles: ‘How did this person dress, how did they speak, what can you tell me?’ My job was just to give them information. They cared about the story, that’s the most important thing to me.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I asked you to talk about some cherished possessions, and you chose a model of the Wager and a laptop. The boat’s a beauty, what’s the deal?
David Grann: “My wife found it at a maritime auction and gave it to me as a gift. I’d never found a model of the Wager, not even in Britain, and this is a very detailed replica, about three-feet long. You can see the 28 cannons coming out of the side, and you can see the little transport boats in the center, which play a big role in the story. It’s also amazing that it was all made of wood — even the bottoms, because they didn’t have copper hulls yet. These ships were engineering marvels of they day, and they were also homes — about 250 seamen were crammed into this boat.
“It’s funny, the Wager was seen as the ugly duckling of the mission, because it wasn’t born a warship — it was remade into one from a merchant ship — but it still has an elegance to it.”
Blackbird Spyplane: And finally, what’s up with the chunky old Sony laptop — you lugged this beast to the Amazon??
David Grann: “The first thing to know is that it weighs so much. It’s so f**king heavy, it’s ridiculous. And in my complete foolhardiness, when I was planning my trip to the Amazon for The Lost City of Z, I said, ‘I’ll bring my laptop into the jungle.’ I’d always brought it on reporting trips, so I brought it. And of course when I get there, there’s no power in the Amazon, so there’s no purpose of having it, but it’s my most expensive object and it’s got my files on it, so it becomes this albatross I have to lug through the jungle, day after f**king day, for weeks.
“At one point I got lost, by myself, and I’m wading through bogs, waist-deep in water, trying to save my stupid laptop. And I do. I get out of the jungle, and when I get home, I go to plug it in — and of course it never turned on again. I don’t know if it was the heat or the moisture but it didn’t survive the Amazon. So I keep this in my office as a constant, humbling reminder of my own incompetence. It will always hold my ego in check. You can ask me about Martin Scorsese, and I’ll just look at my laptop — it tells me everything I need to know.”
The Wager is out today and it’s fantastic. Killers of the Flower Moon is probably our favorite of David’s books, and The Devil & Sherlock Holmes is a phenomenal collection of his magazine pieces — including the devastating, masterful “Trial By Fire.” David Grann’s site is here.
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