Author and New Yorker writer David Grann and cover of his book "Killers of the Flower Moon.

By Katia Savchuk

David Grann believes that scouting an idea for a book or magazine article should be more than an intellectual exercise. The right story, he says, “gets its hooks into you.”

The tales that grip Grann, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and the bestselling author of seven books, are often those that history has deliberately buried — with a good measure of adventure thrown in.

His latest book, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder,” is a captivating account of the ill-fated voyage of an 18th-century British warship that wrecked off the coast of Patagonia. Years after it disappeared, two separate groups of survivors made it to safety, each offering a starkly different narrative about what happened in the wilderness.

Grann’s previous book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” delved into a conspiracy to murder members of the wealthy Osage Nation in Oklahoma and gain access to their oil rights. A film based on the book, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, premiered this fall. (Scorcese and DiCaprio have already signed on for an adaptation of “The Wager.”)

Below, Grann shares his method for appraising story ideas, his revision process and advice for journalists who want to follow in his footsteps. (In a companion piece , we delve into how he approached reporting and writing “The Wager.”) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve found so many stories of the kind many writers hope to come across once or twice in a lifetime. What separates the good ideas from the truly great ones?
Coming up with the right idea is the hardest part. First, you try to find a story that grips you and has subjects that are fascinating. Then, you ask: Are there underlying materials to tell that story? Once in a while, I come across a rich story, but the records are classified, or nobody’s alive, and nobody left any records behind. The third level of interrogation is: Does the story have another dimension, richer themes or trap doors that lead you places? It should tell us something larger about the human condition, the mystery of our existence, systems of injustice or power, or the nature of truth. Another factor is: Has this been done, and when? If someone once wrote about this, that doesn’t mean most readers have seen it. But there are stories that are so masterfully done and authoritative, there’s no reason to revisit them. The question to ask is: Why should I tell this story? Am I going to be adding anything — new information, a new perspective?

After that analytical process, there’s still something irrational: A story gets its hooks into you, and you can’t let go. A story is only really going to work if you are completely passionate about it, because there are going to be so many challenges and hurdles.

I spend a preliminary period ruthlessly interrogating ideas as I come across them, even though it’s time-consuming and a bit frustrating. I don’t want to wake up two years into a book project saying, “This isn’t going anywhere.”

Are there projects you thought might sustain a book that you ultimately abandoned?
When I was working on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I began to look into the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One figure who had been a private eye on the Osage murder cases had also been involved in the massacre as a corrupt police officer. I spent three months researching it and realized it was a separate book. When I finished “Killers of the Flower Moon,” several people already had written books about Tulsa and others were coming out, which I was very happy about. You have a little disappointment, but when something’s been done well and is important, you think, “Maybe these people were better to tell that story.”

When you’re actually working on something, you hate being scooped — that’s certainly happened to me as a magazine writer. There’s a reason certain stories hold fascination, and there are a lot of us out there looking to tell stories.

You’re hunting for your next book idea now. What’s this phase like for you?
It’s a privileged life to be a writer, so I don’t want to inflate or mythologize our suffering. But writing isn’t easy for me, and research is time-consuming. The first year is leisurely: “I’ll read this, I’ll read that.” At some point you wake up, and you’re like, “Oh my God, I only have a third of the manuscript, and my contract is due in a couple years.” Then you’re always behind and white knuckling it. So sometimes when I finish these books, I’m really burned out. And I’m like, “Oh God, what’s going to be next? Can I do this again? Is any story going to grab me?” I’m now at the point again where I’m hungry for something.

I’m envious of friends who finish something and know exactly what the next book or magazine story will be. That’s just not me; I’m so mono-obsessed that I lose track of other things. It’s a hard period to some degree because I’m not on a beat. I want to find a new world or subculture or place or time.

There’s no secret to it: You’re just reading newspapers, magazines, books, texts; you’re looking at endnotes; you’re searching archives with digital databases; you’re interviewing people you know or people in random fields that interest you. You have nothing, and then suddenly you have it. You never know exactly when you’re going to strike — that’s the serendipity.

You’ve said that a lot of your writing gets done in revision. What does that process look like?
I think of all writing as just rewriting. I do several rounds of revision myself. My next reader is always my wife, Kyra Darnton, who is a great journalist and reader. She’s got an eye for structure and the movement of a story. I’ll take her suggestions and do more revisions, then show that chapter to a friend or colleague I trust. If I have half or one-third of a manuscript, I might show it to my book editor or agent for another round of revisions. When the manuscript is done, I write to my friends and say, “I know you’re very busy, but could you read this?” And I have two foundational editors: Daniel Zalewski, who has been my editor at The New Yorker since 2003 and is brilliant, and Bill Thomas, who has been the editor for all my books and is a terrific reader.

You want to be open to suggestions, because it’s hard to see your work objectively — and I hate criticism.

You want to be open to suggestions, because it’s hard to see your work objectively — and I hate criticism.

How do you juggle being both a book author and a staff writer at The New Yorker?
I have very patient editors. For most of my career, I was a magazine writer. Some of my New Yorker pieces — the 20,000-word stories — probably could’ve been books. Eventually, I became a magazine writer who wrote a book, then I went back to the magazine.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” was the first thing I did that could never have been a magazine story because of the sprawling nature of the history; it just fit a different medium. In the past, I was under contract to write a certain number of pieces a year. Now, I’m more of a book author who, when I have time, does a magazine piece. I still think of The New Yorker as my work home, in part because that’s where so many of my friends and colleagues are.

You mentioned spending weeks or months looking into stories that may not pan out. Can you share how you make that work logistically? Did you reach a certain point in your career where that became possible to do full time?
Totally fair question.

Part of writing and journalism is the infrastructure that lets you do things. For most of my career, financially things could be hard, because I was always behind schedule. Spending a year on a story is not a lucrative way to make a living. It could be stressful, especially when you have kids. I was a freelancer for many years, and I’ve always gotten health insurance through my wife. That process of searching for ideas had to be done under much tighter constraints. I was up a lot of nights. The financial pressures weigh on you and, in some ways, motivate you.

The change in the last few years is that I feel fortunate enough to have had some success. The pressures never go away; I’m still under contract and have deadlines. But if I spend several weeks looking into something that doesn’t work out, I don’t have the same level of terror.

What advice do you have for journalists who want to do the kind of writing you do?
The media ecosystem I grew up in is so different from the one that exists today. I freelanced for small local newspapers, then I worked for The Hill in Washington, D.C., then I tried to get into the little magazines. My path was very circuitous, and it took forever until I got a full-time journalism job — I was 27 or 28. But there was a certain kind of path.

That is still the most important thing: Just keep trying to do it.

Now, there are a lot more publications, but some of those paths are gone. Media is a struggling business that doesn’t have resources to pay all these talented people the wages they deserve to let them do the kind of reporting they’re capable of. The path still exists, because I see a new generation of journalists doing unbelievably great work, but I don’t know as much about it.

If you want to report and write, you just have to find ways to report and write. I did it any way I could when I was young: cover a high-school graduation, write an obituary. I lived in Mexico and freelanced for an English-language magazine that paid me a dollar or two per piece. I wanted to get my clips and learn by doing. That is still the most important thing: Just keep trying to do it.

If you were a freelancer trying to break into The New Yorker today, what kind of story would you pitch?
When I was a freelancer, I was terrified to pitch The New Yorker. It took me years and years to work up the courage. I was like, “Oh, I’m not good enough.”

Try to find a story that is so damn good they can’t say no. And also a story that not everybody on staff is doing, like a presidential campaign or impeachment. The first story I pitched The New Yorker that they went for was about a bank robber who kept serially robbing banks into his seventies; his hearing aid was a police scanner. He also was arguably the greatest prison escape artist in American history: He broke out of San Quentin in a kayak on which he’d painted on the side, “Rub a dub dub.” I thought, “Well, I can’t mess up that story.” When he got arrested, everybody wanted the story, but he wouldn’t talk. I spent two years writing to him until he finally agreed. They knew I could write magazine pieces, because I’d written for other publications, so they weren’t totally rolling the dice.

Try to find a story that is so damn good they can’t say no.

Once you’re on staff, it’s easier to get stories approved.

Who are your literary heroes?
So many of my colleagues. And there are people who are kind of obvious but are touchstones: I’ll pick up a collection of Gay Talese’s stories, or I’ll reread Joan Didion for the cadence of her sentences. I’ll revisit Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” When I first decided to write historical narratives, I read Erik Larson to see how he does it. For pleasure, I read mostly fiction: Willa Cather, Cormac McCarthy. When I was working on “The Wager,” I read a lot of Melville, and when I was working on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I read Faulkner. It gets you in that world and gives you some inspiration.

Because writing is a struggle for me, I love reading writers who can transport you with their language.

Several of your books have been made into films. What involvement have you had on that side of things?
I love movies, but I don’t want to write screenplays or make movies. I prefer to do what I do. My relationship is always to be a resource and help them in any which way: information and documents and questions about the subjects. When you’re an author, you have very limited control over the development of a film project. So ideally, you want to get it into the hands of people who know what they’re doing and share your commitment to and passion for that story. I’ve been really lucky in that way. “Killers of the Flower Moon” was about a part of our history that had largely been excised from our conscience.  The idea that there is a movie that will further bring people into the story and hopefully lead them to visit the Osage Nation Museum or read about other parts of Native American history. To me that’s the best part of it all.

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Katia Savchuk is a freelance magazine journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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