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David Grann ’89 seeks truth in a tale of shipwreck, mutiny and murder in the 18th century.
By Melissa Babcock Johnson
he only impartial witness was the sun,” begins the latest book by New York Times bestselling author David Grann ’89. Released in April, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is the culmination of years of research transmuted into Grann’s brand of gripping, polished storytelling that makes reality sound like fantasy.
The Wager was a British Royal Navy warship that set off in September 1740 from England as part of a squadron of five warships with a secret mission to capture a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. The Wager was believed to have been lost in May 1741 after the ships became separated during a battery of severe storms near Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.
In reality, the Wager had wrecked on a desolate island off the southern coast of Chile, and the 145 survivors among the crew’s original 250 men had spent several months in chaos. Grann says, “The British naval officers and crew descended into a real-life Lord of the Flies. There were warring factions, mutiny, murders, and, for good measure, cannibalism.”
Then in January 1742, something resembling a boat—built partly from scraps of the Wager—washed up on the coast of Brazil nearly 3,000 miles from where the Wager wrecked. Thirty crew members had traveled for more than three months and were barely alive.
They were received as heroes until, six months after that, an even scrappier ship washed up on the coast of Chile with three additional Wager crew members, including Captain David Cheap, who said the 30 who preceded them to shore were mutineers.
The first group countered with their own accusations, and the Admiralty, a department of the U.K. government responsible for the command of the Royal Navy, brought key players to a court martial to try to untangle the truth six years after the Wager had first set sail.
Grann ultimately structured the book’s narrative around the accounts of three individuals—Captain Cheap, gunner John Bulkeley and John Byron, who would become the grandfather of poet Lord Byron.
“They had very competing perspectives, came from different elements of society with different churning ambitions and dreams, and each one of them was shaping the story,” Grann explains. “In many ways, they’re not always inventing things, but in their own accounts they shade certain facts or leave out certain things.”
This tendency is not unique to these men, Grann points out. Rather, it points to a larger facet of human nature. “You start to see the way we all tend to tell stories. We shape them, we edit them, we revise them, hoping to emerge as the hero of them, to live with what we have done or haven’t done.”
‘We Tell Ourselves Stories’
Several factors piqued Grann’s interest in the story after he stumbled upon a written account by John Byron, who joined the Wager as a midshipman at just 16 years old and was 22 by the time he and several other survivors made it back to England and faced judgment.
“I’ve always been fascinated by mutinies,” Grann explains. “What causes members of a military organization, whose mission is to impose order, to suddenly disorder? Are they extreme outlaws or were there circumstances that justify their rebellion and make it even noble?”
Grann also notes parallels between themes of almost 300 years ago and today. “I always liked Joan Didion’s line ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’” he says. “But if these crew members failed to tell a convincing tale, they could be literally hanged. A war ensued over the truth, with disinformation and allegations of so-called ‘fake news.’ And, just like today, there was also a great battle over who would tell the history, and efforts by those in power to erase the scandalous truth.”
Robert Evans, CEO from 1967 to 1974 of Paramount Studios, which happens to be a distributor of an upcoming film based on one of Grann’s books (more on that later), is credited with the saying, “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”
While Grann says the basic facts of what happened after the Wager shipwrecked are generally agreed upon, he opens the book with the explanation that he tried to gather all the facts and present all sides of the story to let the reader “render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.”
Grann is no armchair author. He spent three weeks on the island where the crew wrecked, which is now known as Wager Island. He explored the Amazon rainforest while writing The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. He made several trips to Oklahoma while researching Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. But much of his work is spent combing through written firsthand accounts and original sources.
During a recent video interview, he gestured behind him to indicate stacks of books and notebooks filling his office floor like miniature skyscrapers—a veritable landscape of his life’s work. “You can have a glimpse of all the research,” he says with a chuckle. “The office gets taken over and kind of turned into an archive, but I spend several years working on these books—Killers of the Flower Moon and The Wager both took about half a decade.”
New London to The New Yorker
Today, Grann is a widely praised journalist who has published six books. Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z were No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. The former book “has proven [Grann] is simply the best narrative nonfiction writer working today,” according to San Diego Magazine. The latter was made into a movie starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson. Grann has also been a staff writer for The New Yorker for 20 years.
But in 1985, Grann—who was born in Manhattan and grew up in Connecticut with a father who was a doctor and a mother who was the first woman CEO of a major publishing firm, Penguin Putnam—was 18 and had just started at Conn. He majored in government and international relations with a concentration in Latin America.
In recalling his four years on campus, Grann says, “I loved it. We’re living in an age where people sometimes question the value of humanities or a liberal arts education, and it’s something I still really value. You forget a lot of things you learn and the specificity of them, but what you come away with is a way to look at the world, a kind of civic education, a way to hopefully discern the truth, to be judicious.”
While a Conn student, Grann studied abroad in Costa Rica and won a highly competitive Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States. It allowed him to do research on Mexico’s transition away from a single-party political system. He also began his journalism career there, freelancing for an English magazine published by the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada.
Grann honed his narrative nonfiction storytelling techniques under the tutelage of Blanche Boyd, who taught at Conn from 1982 until her retirement in 2022. “I took a wonderful writing class with her, and she really had a profound impact on me,” he says. “She taught so many aspiring writers how to use techniques to tell nonfiction in a compelling way.”
Many topics have grabbed Grann throughout his career, prompting him to dig deeper.
“My story ideas can begin in so many different ways,” he says, “but when I look back, many of them often derive from a letter or even a photograph or some document in an archive or a museum or sometimes in somebody’s home that they share with me, and it will hold a clue to some kind of extraordinary saga.”
He further forayed into the world of journalism after graduating from Conn, reporting for The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C. His initial beat of political reporting—which, he admits, didn’t do much to feed his soul—morphed into more fantastical, but true, fare.
“Gradually, I began to tell these stories about mobsters and hit men and giant squid hunters and the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes scholar, who was found mysteriously garroted in his apartment,” Grann recalls. “These were the stories that I found gripping and that I was drawn to and I felt showed something about the human condition. And then around 2003, The New Yorker hired me and it went from there.”
Handled with Care
Killers of the Flower Moon, in which Grann details the largely covered-up story of the suspicious murders of members of the Osage nation in the 1920s after oil was discovered beneath their land, has been adapted into a film that will be released in October. Leonardo DiCaprio, who has reportedly called the film “a masterpiece,” and Robert De Niro star with Lily Gladstone under the direction of Martin Scorsese.
DiCaprio and Scorsese worked closely with the Osage nation to faithfully reflect the era’s history, ensured actors learned the Osage language and cast a number of Osage actors.
Grann says of the pair, “They spent many years working on it and shaping it, and I’ve been happy with the level of care they have taken.”
Because of how well DiCaprio and Scorsese handled Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann was thrilled when they recently decided to give The Wager the same treatment. Apple Original Films has picked up the rights to the film, which will be DiCaprio and Scorsese’s seventh project together.
“Obviously, when they then expressed interest in teaming up for The Wager, I was like, ‘Yes!’” Grann recalls.
“I really care about these stories, so while I know a book will help share it with so many people, a movie with people of their caliber will share the story with an ever broader audience.