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The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder

By Katia Savchuk

In 2023, David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and bestselling author, released his latest book, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder.” The book chronicles the disastrous voyage of The Wager, a British warship that set sail in 1740 on a secret mission to capture a Spanish galleon, from the perspectives of three individuals: John Byron, the ship’s midshipman; David Cheap, the ship’s captain; and John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner. After the vessel sinks off the coast of Patagonia, a group of survivors stranded on a remote island descend into chaos and depravity. When some men make it back to England, they bear profoundly different accounts of what transpired.

Interview with David Grann

In an interview with Nieman Storyboard, Grann discussed his research process, the challenges of writing a historical narrative, and the themes of truth and storytelling that are explored in the book.

Research Process

Grann’s research process for “The Wager” involved a combination of archival research, reading secondary sources, and conducting interviews with experts. He began by reading general histories of the British Navy and the period in which the story is set. He then delved into primary sources, such as muster books, logbooks, and personal diaries. Grann also tracked down descendants of the survivors and interviewed them about their family’s history.

Writing a Historical Narrative

Grann faced several challenges in writing a historical narrative, including the need to make the story accessible to a modern audience while remaining faithful to the historical record. He also had to grapple with the fact that there were multiple, often conflicting accounts of the events that took place. Grann addressed these challenges by using vivid language and imagery to bring the story to life, and by carefully weighing the evidence to present a balanced and accurate account of events.

Themes of Truth and Storytelling

One of the central themes of “The Wager” is the nature of truth and storytelling. The book explores how different people can experience the same events in different ways, and how these different perspectives can lead to conflicting narratives. Grann also examines the role that storytelling plays in shaping our understanding of history.


“The Wager” is a gripping tale of survival, mutiny, and murder that also explores the complex themes of truth and storytelling. Grann’s extensive research and skillful storytelling make this book a must-read for anyone interested in history, adventure, or the human condition.

Full Article

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder

By Katia Savchuk

Seven 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 Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.” (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.

David Grann

David 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”

“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.

Interview with David Grann

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. And … 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 week trying to figure out if this house had a stoop!

“The Wager” explores the complex relationship between truth and narrative, with different characters offering conflicting accounts of the same events. How did you approach this aspect of the story, and what challenges did you face in balancing the perspectives of your three main characters?

I’ve always been haunted by the idea that there are multiple truths, that two people can have vastly different experiences of the same event. I’ve been drawn to stories that play with this tension. In “The Wager,” I wanted to explore how these competing narratives can shape our understanding of history.

One of the challenges was deciding how to structure the book. I didn’t want to simply tell the story from one character’s perspective, as that would have given the reader a biased view of events. Instead, I chose to tell the story from the perspectives of three characters who had very different experiences of the voyage. This allowed me to present a more nuanced and complex picture of what happened.

Another challenge was ensuring that each character’s voice was distinct and believable. I wanted the reader to feel like they were getting to know each character intimately. To achieve this, I spent a lot of time researching the historical record and trying to understand the characters’ motivations and backgrounds.

Ultimately, I hope that “The Wager” will challenge readers to think about the nature of truth and the role that storytelling plays in our lives.

You’ve written extensively about true stories, both in your books and in your journalism. What draws you to this genre, and what challenges do you face in adapting real-life events for a narrative audience?

I’ve always been drawn to true stories because they offer a unique window into the human experience. True stories can teach us about history, about different cultures, and about ourselves. They can also be incredibly inspiring.

One of the challenges of writing true stories is that you have to be faithful to the facts. You can’t make things up or change the events to fit your narrative. This can be a constraint, but it can also be a source of creativity. When you’re limited by the facts, you have to find ways to tell the story in a compelling and engaging way.

Another challenge is that true stories can be very complex. They often involve multiple characters and plot lines, and it can be difficult to know where to start and where to end. I find that it’s helpful to break the story down into smaller pieces and then focus on one piece at a time. This helps me to stay focused and to avoid getting overwhelmed.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to tell the story in a way that is both accurate and engaging. I want my readers to learn something from my stories, but I also want them to be entertained.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are interested in writing true stories?

My advice to aspiring writers who are interested in writing true stories is to start by reading a lot of true stories. Pay attention to how other writers tell their stories, and try to learn from their techniques. You can also learn a lot by reading books about writing true stories.

Once you have a good understanding of the genre, start by writing short stories. This will help you to develop your skills and to learn how to tell a story in a concise and engaging way. Once you’re comfortable writing short stories, you can start to work on longer projects.

The most important thing is to be patient and persistent. Writing true stories takes time and effort, but it’s a rewarding experience. If you have a story that you’re passionate about, don’t give up on it. Keep writing and keep learning, and eventually you’ll be able to tell your story in a way that will captivate your readers.