By Katia SavchukSeven years ago, David Grann found himself staring at a faded journal in a digital archive. It belonged to John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, and documented his journey as a midshipman on The Wager, a British warship that set sail in 1740 on a secret mission to capture a Spanish galleon.
The archaic syntax was hard to decipher, and Grann started to get bored. Then he came across passages that caught his attention: vivid descriptions of scurvy and typhoons, cannibalism and mutiny. This was the inspiration for Grann’s latest book, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder” (2023), which chronicles the disastrous voyage from the perspectives of Byron; the ship’s captain, David Cheap; and its gunner, John Bulkeley. After the vessel sinks off the coast of Patagonia, a group of survivors stranded on a remote island descend into what Grann has called a “real-life ‘Lord of the Flies.’” When some men make it back to England against the odds, they bear profoundly different accounts of what transpired.
Grann has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2003 and is the bestselling author of seven books, including “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” and “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.”
“The Wager” is not only an enthralling tale of survival, but also an exploration of how certain narratives prevail while competing versions of the truth are suppressed. Grann spoke with Nieman Storyboard about organizing his research, deciding where to begin and end, and recreating historical events. (EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part 2 of our interview, Grann offers general craft and career advice.) Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Is perusing archives a common pastime for you? Were you searching for something in particular?
I always find there’s a kind of serendipity to research. I’m a generalist, so one of the things that compels me to a story is addressing my own ignorance. The subject of mutinies in literature and film had always caught my interest. I started to get some books on mutinies and do online searches. You go from one article to another, then maybe there’s a link or reference. Suddenly, I found myself linked to a digital scan of John Byron’s account. That was just the spark, and many more months went by before I decided this was going to be my next book.
You’ve noted that you knew very little about British naval history when you started this project. Where do you start in a situation like that, and how does your research progress?
I didn’t know anything! I embark on two paths of research simultaneously: A survey, so that you become more familiar with the subject, and primary materials specific to your story.
In this case, I first found some general histories of the British Navy and of that period. I’m an obsessive reader of endnotes, which hold clues to archives and other books and manuscripts. Each document leads to another. If I’m reading a very good book on a certain subject, I track the author down, and hopefully they’re patient enough to chat with me. It took a year until I felt I had facility in the maritime world I was writing about. These were floating civilizations with different mores and customs and their own coded language. You’re not going to be able to write with fluidity or recreate a world unless you understand it.
Documents can speak in unexpected and startling ways.
I also needed that background just to read the documents. For example, I pulled muster books, which recorded your name, rank and the date you boarded a ship. First, I thought these documents didn’t tell me much. But there was a column filled with abbreviations, and I kept seeing “DD.” I learned that “DD” stood for “Discharged Dead,” so these documents told a really important story about the horrific toll this expedition took. Documents can speak in unexpected and startling ways.
How do you organize these voluminous materials and your notes on them?
My office looks like a shipwreck! I read through all written materials — whether a history book, diary or “Moby Dick” — and highlight passages of interest. Then I undertake the long, cumbersome process of typing all that up in a Word document to create a kind of central database. That allows me to make the information more searchable and to extract information when I need it.
Typing up the material forces you to become steeped in it, which gives me a general sense of an outline.
Typing up the material forces you to become steeped in it, which gives me a general sense of an outline. Then for each chapter, I create a detailed outline by extracting relevant material from that larger database and moving it into a new file with a citation. It’s tedious, but then I have everything I need in front of me and don’t have to interrupt moments of flow in the writing process. This also makes me aware of any holes in my research.
You open the prologue and first chapter of “The Wager” with these sentences:
The only impartial witness was the sun.
Each man in the squadron carried, along with a sea chest, his own burdensome story.
I found these beautiful the first time I read them and later realized they also perfectly capture the main theme of the book. How conscious a move was that on your part, and when did you shape those sentences?
I always find the prologue of a book the hardest to write, because it’s teasing so much. Some people write the book and then do the prologue, but I’m a person who never writes the end before I write the beginning. When I sketched out the prologue, I had the idea of ships arriving, but I didn’t have that first sentence. At the end, I revisited it and realized I wanted a beginning that did justice to all the themes of the book. I remember struggling to come up with that image. I think I had the metaphor in different ways and eventually settled on that construct.
In the first chapter, I did have that line early on in some form. I decided to structure the book in a way that underscored the central themes of the nature of storytelling and truth. Because it was going to be told from the warring perspectives of three people on the ship, the idea that they’re carrying their own burdens and ambitions and stories felt right to me.
When you described the sun as a witness, how did you know that it was sunny and not cloudy? I’m always curious about that when you’re writing a historical piece.
I always go back to interrogate something I’ve written and make sure it withstands scrutiny. If you said, “It was a brilliantly sunny day,” you’d be like, “I don’t know, was it?” In this case, you had log books, which often describe the weather. And the passage is covering a larger span of time — days upon days — not saying, “It was 3 o’clock.”
Sometimes the interrogation can lead you to a humorous place. For “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I had a report describing that two detectives interviewed somebody at their house. When I first wrote the sentence, I said they showed up on the stoop and went inside. When I went back, I was like, “Did the house have a stoop?” I looked up the definition of “stoop” and called the local historical society to ask if they had photographs of the area. I wasted a good couple of weeks trying to figure out whether this house had a stoop. Finally, I just rewrote it without “stoop.” Often, you just have to change a word or cut an adjective.
In the prologue, you write the following:
While stranded on the island the Wager’s officers and crew…tried to re-create naval order. But as their situation deteriorated…[they] descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity. There were warring factions and marauders and abandonments and murders. A few of the men succumbed to cannibalism.
Can you tell me about the choice to give so much away up front?
It was tricky — I went back and forth. I felt like it was going to be such a long journey I take you on, and the first couple of chapters do a fair amount of setup. I thought it was important to hook the reader the same way the story hooked me, so I had to give you enough of the tantalizing elements.
But there are key things I leave out: You don’t know who survived, so you have enough, hopefully, to wonder about. I also thought it was important to tease some of the themes of the story. It’s inherently gripping, but part of the reason I decided to tell it was because it has these other themes about the nature of truth and storytelling.
A lot of your chapters end on a suspenseful note:
There seemed to be no escape.
They were themselves being hunted.
The Wager was alone at sea, left to its own destiny.
How do you think about where to begin and end chapters?
I don’t always know the ends of the chapters until I’m writing them, and I don’t even often know the beginning. I have a basic structure in mind. In this case, the voyage has a certain momentum and motion, and I knew I was going to be telling the story from these three perspectives. So for Chapter One, it’s going to be David Cheap’s story, but they also have to get the ships off. And since this is a story about the disintegration of a floating civilization, first I needed to establish what that world was like before it collapsed. For the second chapter, I needed to establish what life was like on the ship, and I knew I was going to be telling that from John Byron’s point of view, because he’s just a boy learning this bewildering world.
Because I’m trying to tell these stories as vivid scenes, I’m looking for underlying material that offers a scene.
Because I’m trying to tell these stories as vivid scenes, I’m looking for underlying material that offers a scene. And each chapter is part of a larger story but also has its own story: Cheap is desperate to get to sea and finally goes off to sea. Cheap finally becomes captain of a ship. The chapter has its own arc and completeness.
You have many beautiful descriptions in the book. Just one example:
Snow began to fall, swirling with the winds and piling in great drifts on Mount Misery and across the shore. Everything seemed whited out, as if being erased.
It can be hard to make descriptions poetic without overwriting. Do you have any tips?
To be honest, good editors. Writing is a solitary practice, and I’m not the most natural writer — it’s a real struggle for me. Sometimes I have a tendency to overwrite, so I’m conscious of that. I have readers I really trust who will take out an adverb or push me back where needed.
I used to write in a very similar style, but now more and more I try to find a voice and style that is appropriate to the material. In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I wanted to be restrained, spare and very factual — I didn’t want my own ornateness taking away from what was happening. “The Wager” also deals with serious themes, but large sections are a swashbuckling sea tale, so I felt I could have a little more indulgence. But I still wanted to be precise and certainly not overwrought.
Usually, you write it the first time and inevitably go too far. Then you go through the process of paring it back, interrogating it, making sure the image is original.
The last line of the book comes from your own visit to Wager Island, where the men were marooned:
Nothing else remains of the ferocious struggle that once took place there, or of the ravaging dreams of empires.
Can you tell me about writing that?
The whole time I was writing this book, I had a last line in mind: “All that remained was the eternal hush of the sea.” But when I got to the end, I felt that it was poetry over meaning. The line I ended with was a little less lovely but has more meaning. I had to sacrifice the gem that I had basically been chasing for five years.
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Katia Savchuk is a freelance magazine journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.