Dispatches From The Gulf Of Pain, With David Grann
3:06 PM EDT on May 18, 2023
The general consensus is that you should not meet your heroes, but that consensus feels entirely too general to me. The world is huge, for one thing, and full of dopes and marks and weirdos; it is big enough that there is probably more than one person who sees like Jeff Probst or Rep. George Santos as their hero. There are people whose heroes are wormy YouTube creepers who say mass-shooter shit into their webcams all day. Should these people not meet their heroes? They should not. This is not just because one of those heroes will certainly steal that admirer's identity and use it to write a bunch of bad checks. But if your heroes are people who are good at doing something that you admire and want to do yourself, you should meet them. It's just important to be careful about the things you admire, and want to do.
Anyway, I myself have not been very careful about that, or anyway not very practical about it; a lot of my heroes are writers, and one of them came on the podcast this week. And yet I was not that worried about meeting David Grann, the author of Killers Of The Flower Moon and The Lost City Of Z and The White Darkness and the new bestseller The Wager, and not just because I knew Drew would do most of the heavy lifting. I wasn't worried even though Grann is one of the writers whose work I revere the most. I've read Grann's work, and I know he can tell a story. The idea was to get out of his way and let him do that, and see what I might pick up along the way.
As "doing things that are generally advised against" goes, this one went pretty great. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to get my identity thieved, here. If anyone wanted to steal anyone else's identity on this call, it was me. This was true even after Grann revealed, in the back third of the episode, that he is hopelessly afflicted with Knicks Fan Brain Disorder, a malady that has followed him through his life and nearly reduced him to tears when Drew selected Charles Smith as this week's Guy To Remember.
That brief detour into the Bing Bong Mindset aside, and notwithstanding a Funbag question on the devastating feeling (unknown by me) of mispronouncing a word in front of friends, most of the episode was about Grann's writing. We talked about The Wager, which is about an 18th-century shipwreck off Cape Horn and the recriminations and counter-recriminations that followed in the way that all of Grann's books are both about some specific, previously little-known story, and about the broader forces that create and explain them. In that sense, The Wager is about empire and the brutal and world-warping power of greed, just as Killers Of The Flower Moon is about both a previously buried instance of corruption and murder in Oklahoma and about American racism, what stories do and don't make it into the historical narrative, and ... well, the brutal and world-warping power of greed, again. We talked about Killers Of The Flower Moon, too—the story it tells, how Grann told it, and also his experience working with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio to bring that story to life in an upcoming film adaptation.
Drew and I went back and forth about how much Writer Stuff should be in this episode. Grann really is a titan of the form, but there's always the risk, especially on my end, of dipping into The Chris Farley Show style of questioning. And while I'm pleased that I was mostly able to get through our conversation without asking either "Do you remember when you went to the Amazon? Because that was cool" or "Where do you get your ideas?"—we did kind of talk about both those things—the work that goes into Grann's books both in terms of learning enough to write and then shaping that writing into a book, and also in terms of ascertaining what stories to tell and how to tell them most thoughtfully and truthfully. I'm too close to all of it to be objective; these are the things that interest me most, and Grann is one of the people who does it the best. But I think the conversation has plenty of good stuff in it even for people less fixated on the use and misuse of the stories that shape daily life. You don't have to write or read for a living, or be daft enough to have writers for heroes, to understand why this matters. People understand the world, or misunderstand it, through stories.
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