The writer David Grann had been reading about Wager Island for years when he finally decided to see it for himself. A boggy speck that abruptly rises out of the Pacific Ocean on the Chilean coast of Patagonia, it’s named for the British Royal Navy vessel that wrecked just offshore in 1741. One hundred forty-five men were stranded on the island, where strict military order rapidly gave way to mutiny, cannibalism, and murder. Grann had spent countless hours poring over the contradictory, self-serving accounts of the sailors, combing through archives in England and squinting at 18th-century handwriting, but he still felt like there would be something missing from his understanding until he went there. The remote island is just as desolate as it was nearly 300 years ago, but he found a Chilean captain willing to undertake the multi-day voyage in a simple boat heated by a wood stove. “It was not,” he told me, “one of the smarter things I’ve ever done.”
And he’s a smart guy, a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker (which, like GQ, is owned by Condé Nast) and a best-selling author. He specializes in gripping historical chronicles and crime stories, filled with fearless explorers and ruthless killers, with twists and double-crosses so rich in intrigue that they would strain credulity in fiction. But Grann’s stories are all true, and because they actually happened, because every detail is invariably backed up by some unearthed court testimony or a dusty file plucked from a long-neglected archive, he’s become one of our culture’s leading sources of holy shit page-turners.
His latest book,The Wager, which comes out this week, spins out the story of the shipwreck and mutiny by weaving together the rival accounts of the ship’s gentleman captain, a lower-class gunner, and a 16-year-old midshipman. The doomed ship left England as part of a squadron on a secret mission to intercept a Spanish treasure galleon loaded with silver, which meant weathering the dangerous storms below Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. It’s an adventure, guaranteed to please fans of the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian and the movie they inspired, Master and Commander—and, by extension, history-loving dads everywhere.
But where O’Brian’s books look back at the Age of Sail through an idealized haze, there’s not much to romanticize in The Wager: The expedition is crewed by old men and invalids, the boat disintegrates in the gales of the Southern Ocean, and the bodies of the scurvy-ridden sailors melt off of their bones. The expedition is revealed to be a boondoggle at best, and probably something far more sinister. Grann has managed to push the conventions of true crime and pop history into something more meaningful: The Wager is a story about a shipwreck, but it’s also about how the men who somehow made it off the island told their competing accounts, which became the sensational true-crime of their day, and watching Grann make sense of the tangle raises fascinating questions about how stories take on a life of their own.
The film rights to The Wager were sold to two of the biggest names in Hollywood long before the book was even printed—the plan is for it to be turned into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The pair have already adapted Grann’s previous book, Killers of the Flower Moon, which recounts a murderous conspiracy in 1920s Oklahoma targeting wealthy but vulnerable Osage Indians and the oil on their land. That movie, which stars Robert De Niro, Brendan Fraser, and Lily Gladstone alongside DiCaprio, will premiere at Cannes next month, before a wide release this fall. It isn’t the first story of Grann’s to be adapted. Most notably, 2006’s The Lost City of Z became a 2016 movie of the same name, and the Old Man and the Gun, Robert Redford’s final film role, was a modest hit. But none have yet been produced on close to this scale: Killers of the Flower Moon is already perhaps the most-anticipated film of the year, with awards-season buzz before anyone has even seen it. It’s the biggest kind of (non-comic book) movie that Hollywood still makes, and Grann is in some way on the precipice of becoming the culture’s foremost (non-comic book) storyteller.
But Grann is focused on his books, and on the release of The Wager. He has said in the past that when he’s deep in the grips of obsession with a story he can forget to shave or change his clothes. But when we meet up on a pier in lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, a touristy maritime historic district, he’s wearing a neat slate-gray chore coat and round tortoiseshell glasses, and gives off the owlish, excitable air of an unusually talkative librarian.
The oldest ship on display at the pier was built more than 100 years after the events of the book, but is, like the Wager, a three-masted sailing vessel built to run cargo between India and the U.K., and they share some common points. A ladder running up each mast passes through a wide platform—the “lubber’s hole,” so named because sailors disdained anyone who would climb through it. For the sailors of the era, Grann explains as he gazes up, the only dignified way to ascend the mast was to swing, monkey-like, around the side of the platform, high enough that a fall would mean drowning, or at least serious injury. The men “had these secret self-images that they had to live up to,” he says. “The biggest insult was to be a landlubber—just a pathetic, pitiful creature.”
The other people on the pier, schoolkids and European tourists, might see rigging and masts, but Grann looks up there and he sees something more human and alive: he sees insecurity and anxiety and the status consciousness of the long-gone men, the struggle for honor and money that drove these people to do the things they did. Grann is clearly drawn to extreme situations where men—and his stories are overwhelmingly about men—see virtues like determination and courage curdle into obsession and violence. But to hear him tell it, he’s more of a landlubber himself.
When he met his Chilean captain, Grann’s first thought was that the boat had looked bigger the in the pictures. For three stormy nights, the vessel was trapped in port—and Grann was stuck onboard in his tiny berth. When, after days underway, the boat crossed into the open ocean, Grann got a taste of the conditions that swamped the Wager. “It was like being a ping pong ball, just being tossed about,” he said. It was too rough to eat or even stand up, so he sat on the floor, holding on tight, with his only solace a stupefying dose of anti-nausea drugs and an audiobook of Moby-Dick.
When he finally made it to Wager Island, he found the wild celery and seaweed that the sailors lived on (and that, incidentally, cured their scurvy). He confirmed that the wet ground and dense vegetation made overland travel almost impossible. He found pieces of wood that an earlier expedition had deduced came from an 18th-century sailing ship—and what other ship could they be from? But the main discovery was how miserable the island was. “It gave me some sense of how they were suffering from hypothermia,” he said, “and so worried about freezing to death.”
The story of Grann’s own Patagonia expedition comes up only glancingly in the book itself. He’s not inclined toward self-mythology, and he isn’t leaning into the glamor of Hollywood, either. He’s not sure he’s going to mess with Cannes. He says one of the best parts about working with movie stars is that his kids think he’s a little bit cooler. But he’s grateful to have the best in the business, “people who actually know what they’re doing,” making these movies. When I ask what he means by that, I expect to hear about Scorcese’s mastery of cinematic mood, maybe, or the crazed charisma DiCaprio brought to his role. Instead, I hear about research.
While the Killers of the Flower Moon movie was filming, Grann was on call to answer questions, and “One time they called me and they wanted to know about the lighting in a house. ‘Was it electric? How is it powered?’ And I said, ‘You know, that was a question I did not have to know for the book,’” he tells me. “But then they went out and they found lamps from the 1920s!” He was particularly impressed with how the production engaged with the Osage community and made efforts to accurately use their language onscreen. Predictably enough, the way to impress Grann is not by being one of the world’s most famous movie stars, but by rolling up your sleeves and getting into the archives.
Grann’s mother was a big-shot editor and publishing executive who worked with bankable authors like Tom Clancy, but she warned her son against becoming a writer himself. He did it anyway, teaching middle school after college to support himself while trying to break into writing during the summer. He wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but he took a job as a copy editor at the nuts-and-bolts Washington chronicle The Hill, where he hunted for typos in other people’s stories. “It was kind of funny, because I have an eye disorder—I’m semi-blind,” he said. “But you take what you can get.” He quickly rose through the ranks at the newspaper, then began to branch out, but it was still difficult to branch out from Washington stories: “People pigeonholed me: David Grann covers Congress.”
His breakthrough—the first story he wrote that is recognizable as a David Grann Story as we know it now—came when crime and conspiracy happened to intersect with congressional politics. The botched assassination of an aggressive local prosecutor brought Grann to Youngstown, Ohio, then the center of what he called “one of the last truly mob-rub counties in the country,” which was represented in Congress by James Traficant. Years before Traficant arrived in Washington, the congressman had been taped negotiating with mob associates who had supported his election as sheriff. When Grann read a transcript in which the future congressman promised that any disloyal deputies would “fuckin’ come up swimming in [the] Mahoning River,” Grann told me he thought, “OK, yeah: This is the kind of journalism I want to do.”
Before much longer he was hired at the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 2003 and has had a remarkable run of stories. The world’s leading Sherlock Holmes enthusiast was found dead in a situation with eerie parallels to the stories he loved. A charming septuagenarian stick-up man couldn’t stop robbing banks. A French serial imposter claimed to be a missing 13-year-old Texas boy—and was taken in by the boy’s family for sinister reasons of their own.
If you ask Grann how to put together a juicy story like one of these, the result feels a bit like hearing from Tiger Woods about how to hit a nine-iron: Grann will happily try to answer, and it will all feel like intuitive good advice, but you don’t exactly come away with the sense that you’re going to get the same results.
But it does perhaps get at why his stories resonate like they do. It starts, Grann says, with finding the right story: not just the most sensational story, though that is important, but one with the personalities and archival material that allow it to be told as a narrative. Once you have that, he told me, you have to find the right structure to tell the story in a way that builds suspense without being manipulative. (If you’ve ever struggled through a podcast that selectively doles out information or forces you into the bumbling host’s investigative point of view, you know what he’s talking about.) Grann is committed to getting as close as possible to the individuals involved, with a precise sense of their knowledge and motivation. This brings you closer to the characters, and it also makes you acutely aware of their blind spots.
It’s in the negative space of the historical record where the real revelations of Grann’s stories tend to hide. In Killers of the Flower Moon, reading between the lines of the dry FBI records is what brings the full horror of the Osage reign of terror into focus, implicating the wider community, not just the convicted killers. A similar revelation comes late in The Wager: After escaping the island and then being marooned again by the mutineers he escaped with, a free Black seaman named John Duck reaches civilization—only to be sold into slavery and disappear from all later accounts. Because Grann gives you enough context to see from several perspectives, you’re made to wonder about what happens to the people who the archival record neglects.
But untangling these perspectives is also a big part of what makes these stories so fun to read. Reconciling the sailor’s accounts, “One person may say, ‘I proceeded to extremity on the island,’ Grann laughs, “then you cut away to the next person, who says, ‘Yeah, that guy shot the man right in the head.’”