Interview with David Grann

Posted by Goodreads on April 1, 2017
The Osage were being killed off, one by one. Members of the Native American tribe had become wealthy thanks to oil being discovered on their Oklahoma land. That obviously didn't sit well with people in the area. Some Osage were shot. Others were poisoned. Even friends of the tribe weren't safe; one white man, who traveled to Washington to ask for federal help, was found stabbed and beaten in a Maryland culvert.

The case eventually attracted the attention of the then-young Federal Bureau of Investigation and its head, J. Edgar Hoover. In one of its first major cases, the FBI solved the crime—partly. But its mysteries never quite receded, especially in Osage County.

Author David Grann (The Lost City of Z) heard the mostly forgotten story and decided to look into it. He discovered more than he bargained for and recounted it in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As an Osage told him, "The blood cries out from the ground." Grann spoke to Todd Leopold from his home in Westchester County, New York.

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Goodreads: Tell me how you found out about this case.

David Grann: A historian mentioned it to me, [then] I visited the Osage Nation museum. The museum director, a woman named Kathryn Red Corn, showed me this huge picture of the Osage with white settlers in 1924. A piece had been cut out, and I'd asked her about that missing piece. And she pointed to the photograph and said, "The devil was standing right there."

Then she showed me the missing panel, and it revealed one of the leaders of the conspiracy to kill the Osage. And I think it was at that point that [I thought], The Osage cut that piece out because they can't forget, and the rest of the world has forgotten.

GR: This book is not really about a narrow conspiracy but about a much larger issue.

DG: People would sometimes ask [me] who is behind the murders. I'd say, It's not so much who did do it but who didn't do it.

This was a culture of complicity. Many of the most powerful people were crooked or on the take or were participants. What I discovered in researching this story, what's so disturbing, is often it isn't a singular figure. It's very seemingly ordinary people who can be complicit in a crime. I think that's one of the things the book shows and tries to reckon with.

GR: How did this case establish the FBI?

DG: It was one of the first major homicide cases of the Bureau, and it shows how they were trying to evolve, and it shows how Hoover, who is quite a character, handled the case—how he was afraid of scandal, what motivated him. It shows some of the good that can come from national law enforcement because there was enormous local corruption at the time.

One of the things that's interesting is the evolution of modern law enforcement. Tom White [a key FBI agent] is a transitional figure in many ways. He was a guy who grew up in basically a log cabin on the frontier, riding on horseback when justice was meted out by the end of a gun. By the end of his life he's wearing a suit and filing paperwork and learning how to do fingerprints and study blood patterns.

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GR: Here's a reader question from John: David, what is the most difficult part for you, the research or the writing?

DG: I would say they're equally difficult but very different. The research is difficult from more of a physical level, the time-consuming processes of actually trying to find the materials. Writing is more emotionally difficult. That's the one you really struggle psychically. I would say both have great pleasures and rewards, too. Reporting has such wonderful rewards—being able to meet some of the Osage, meet their descendants. That's a rich experience I'm so grateful for. And every once in a while you have a really good day writing.

GR: One from Beau, who says he's a writer starting in creative nonfiction/investigative journalism: How do you find material?

DG: It's really hard. There was the question about [the difficulty of] writing and research, but I think the hardest thing is finding the right idea, especially if you're going to spend a lot of time on it. You have to find something that hasn't been done, or hasn't been done completely, and you have to find something that's rich and has layers and themes.

I read a lot of local newspapers. I often look for the one-inch brief in a newspaper that I find kind of alluring and hints at something, and I think that maybe there's a deeper story in that, and I begin to look into it. I also try to talk to people. I often cold-call people who I think are smart and interesting in different fields.

I think the biggest thing is to always be on the lookout and not be passive. The story isn't going to come to you if you're just sitting around. It's an active process in looking for a good story.

GR: From Trent: Much of your writing tackles issues about obsession. What are your own obsessions, how do they appear in your writing, and do you find them all negative?

DG: The people I write about tend to have obsessions because they tend to be interesting people, breaking norms or pushing themselves to the limits or chasing something.

I would say I live a very boring, conventional life and tend not to do very adventurous things. So it's in writing about these subjects that I tend to do things that are more adventurous and tend to get outside myself a little bit. That's one of the pleasures of writing and reporting.

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I do have a tendency to be very obsessive about the subjects I research because I want so hard to try to find out everything I can. That's often an elusive quest because you can't know everything about everything, but that process of trying to find that next beat, that next fact, that next detail, that is what consumes me.

GR: There are a lot of questions about the film version of (The Lost City of Z), which comes out this month. Huckleberry asks: What are your feelings about the film, and have you seen it?

DG: I've seen the movie, and I was very happy with it. It's different from the book in that the book is about half of my journey and half about the biography of Percy Harrison Fawcett, and the movie just focuses on Percy Fawcett. So it's a nice complement to the book. I'm hoping people who enjoy the movie will be drawn to the book and people who read the book will be drawn to the movie.

GR: How long did Flower Moon take you?

DG: Four years. My wife would probably debate the length of time, but I'll say four years. It's a nice round number.

GR: How do you go about your research? The details you put in there are so effortless and make the book breathe novelistically.

DG: For a story like this you really need to re-create a world. What was it like in the 1920s on the Oklahoma prairie when there's a crazy oil boom and people like J.P. Getty are making their fortunes and the Osage are the wealthiest people in the world and there's this kind of sinister conspiracy going on?

One of the things I look for is the language of the time period, trying to be attuned with the way people at the time saw the world. The great challenge, once you've done all that research, is being utterly ruthless in cutting it out, so you don't get bogged down in digression. I usually write much longer and then probably show it to my wife, who says, "David, cut." My wife is my best editor.

GR: What are you reading now, and what are some of your favorite books?

DG: I read a lot of fiction. I read so much nonfiction for work and research, so if I spend my days reading history books about the FBI or the frontier or about oil, there's nothing more I like to do at night [than] curl up with a novel.

The best book I read of late was The North Water by Ian McGuire. I also love books about the sea, and this one is set at sea. It's also a struggle between good and evil, so it has certain resonances with me. I devoured it in two days.

I read a lot of detective fiction—Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Kate Atkinson mysteries, Megan Abbott. Right at this moment I'm rereading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I'm working on a story for The New Yorker. It's something totally different, but there's something about that novel, the language and the starkness of it, [and] I often pick up books to try to hear a voice or find inspiration of what I'm working on.

GR: Why are you fascinated by murder and justice—or lack of justice?

DG: I think being a writer or reporter, hopefully, when you have a moral purpose to what you're working on—when you're trying to expose something or wrestle with something—it drives you more. I think that's ultimately why you get into the business. You're trying to do the story justice and do the victims justice. And when you write with that in mind, I think you do your best work.

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Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Iftekhar (new)

Iftekhar Ahmed Often the culprits have gone away, yet can be guessed who are the main beneficiary of oil exploration, you can name him, the David Rockefeller! The killer, the WTC 3000 people assassin and King Faisal murderer to hold on the oil world!

message 2: by Shamus (new)

Shamus we should have a national day of mourning to recognized what has been done to those Americans who have suffered for profit and power at the hands of other Americans

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Enjoyed the interview. I hadn't heard this story but now want to look into it. I also liked your points on not being passive in pursuit of story inspiration, and also obsession with characters. Will check out the book.

message 4: by Sloppy (new)

Sloppy Great interview. This sounds like a book that both my dad and I would enjoy. Definitely adding it to my list and will pick a copy up for father's day.

message 5: by Chrisanto (new)

Chrisanto Omari I really enjoyed the dialogue. Nice, informing and well researched. Seems like a book that can act as a bedtime company. Kudos to the writer.

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