The Storyteller: David Grann

The writer’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a finalist for the National Book Award, is now a blockbuster movie directed by Martin Scorsese

In the years since he graduated from The Fletcher School, David Grann has become one of the world’s most revered writers. His magazine articles are lauded for their technique and depth of reporting, while his books set off frantic bidding wars for their movie rights.

Now his book, Killers of the Flower Moon is the basis for Martin Scorsese’s latest film of the same name. It was called “a cathedral of a movie, cavernously huge in ambition and scale, yet oddly intimate in its effect on the viewer” by Dana Stevens in Slate.

“What I care about is trying to get the story into the hands of people who share the same fierce commitment to the story as I do,” Grann said. “I visited the set when they were filming, and I was just so impressed by the level of care and detail of recreating this world and bringing to life this really important history.”

In 2003, The New Yorker hired David Grann, F92, as a staff writer. It was a smart move: Grann soon began producing complex and engrossingly written investigative reports for the magazine that were immediately recognized as classics of the genre. In his first two years alone, he wrote stories about a 79-year-old bank robber’s final heist; the maze of antiquated water tunnels that feeds New York City; the alarming rise of white-supremacist gangs in American prisons; one man’s Ahab-like quest to find a giant sea squid; and the strange death of a Sherlock Holmes fanatic.

Not a bad start—and it got even better. In reporting his Holmes story, Grann came across references to the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who became the subject of Grann’s first book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. The book became a bestseller in 2009 and a major movie in 2016.

By 2012, Grann had developed something of a cult following, not only because of his New Yorker stories but also because of his eclectic Twitter feed, which had attracted thousands of followers. But that spring he went completely dark—for five years. His byline didn’t appear again in The New Yorker until 2017. What happened? He had begun work on a new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, which was released in spring 2017 and was a finalist in the nonfiction category for the 2017 National Book Award.

movie poster for Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon tells a profoundly unsettling story about the Osage Indians of Oklahoma. Before the arrival of white settlers, the Osage dominated extensive portions of present-day Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, but by the end of the nineteenth century they were living a diminished existence on a reservation in north-central Oklahoma.

That changed early in the twentieth century, when oil was discovered under their land. The discovery soon made the Osage the richest people per capita in the world, until the 1920s, when, in what Grann calls “one of the most sinister crimes in American history,” white settlers living among the Osage launched a campaign of manipulation and murder to swindle their millions from them. Grann focuses on a particularly horrific series of murders that targeted the family of an Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart, whose heartbreaking and forgotten story sheds light on the problematic ways in which modern America came into being.

I talked to Grann about his book, his career, and his practice as a writer.

How did you start out as a writer?

As an undergraduate, at Connecticut College, I studied international relations, and after that I spent a year in Mexico on a Thomas Watson fellowship, studying the Mexican political system just before the collapse of one-party rule. It was during that time that I did my first reporting, for a little English-language magazine that doesn’t exist anymore.

What was that experience like?

I lived in Puebla, Mexico, and about once a month I would type up some kind of cultural or political dispatch. This was before faxes and the Internet, so then I would ride a bus a couple of hours to Mexico City to turn in my copy. If my editors liked what I wrote, they’d publish it, and I’d earn just enough to cover my bus ride home.

Classic. But at least it gave you a taste of what it was like to do the work?

My time in Mexico made me realize that I loved to report and research. But I didn’t know how I was going to make a living doing that. After I came back from Mexico, I taught seventh and eighth grade in Rhode Island for a year while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do, and then I applied to Fletcher, because I thought it would give me a broader understanding of the world.

Did it? And did it affect how you do your work as a reporter?

You know, it did. I loved the breadth of what Fletcher offered—deep intellectual and political history, not just theories of economics or business. We focused on analytical thinking, on understanding causes at their root, and on exploring the forces that deeply underlie cultures and conflicts and political situations. That way of thinking—trying to trace back causes and locate underlying forces—has guided me in the reporting I’ve done ever since.

But you didn’t become a reporter for some time after leaving Tufts.

When I graduated from Fletcher, I wanted to become a foreign correspondent. But not many foreign-correspondent jobs existed even back then. I was also still trying to learn about the craft of writing, so I did a master’s in creative writing at Boston University, where I had a teaching fellowship. But then I was back to the age-old problem of how you support yourself as a writer, and that’s when I heard about a new newspaper in Washington, D.C., called The Hill. I applied, and they hired me—as a copy editor. The good news was that it was a startup, which meant that there was a great deal of chaos, and I was able to soon become an editor and a columnist. But in many ways, I wasn’t very suited for newspaper writing.

What do you mean by that?

I was always telling stories, from beginning to end, in a narrative style. Plus, I’m really slow at writing! So I started to look for magazine work. I was eventually hired by The New Republic, and then, in 2003, I became a staff writer at The New Yorker, which has been the perfect home for me to do the kind of deep narrative reporting I love.

[The museum director] pointed to the missing panel and said, ‘The devil was standing right there.’”

David Grann, author of Flowers of the Killer Moon

Which brings us to Killers of the Flower Moon. Did the idea for the book grow out of something you had written for The New Yorker?

Book cover of David Grann book

No, I found it by happenstance. Often when I’m looking for ideas, I call people out of the blue, if I think they might be interesting, and I just talk to them. I saw a mention somewhere that the FBI had an internal historian, and I thought, That’s curious. His name was John Fox. I called him, and we started chatting about old Bureau cases. We talked a lot about the 1970s, but at the very end he mentioned that there was a case from the 1920s, concerning the Osage Indians of Oklahoma, that hadn’t been written about much. I was amazed to learn that the Osage had been the richest people in the world, and that they had been systematically murdered because of that.

So you knew right then that you had your book?

I wasn’t sure that I would write about the case until several months later, when I visited the Osage reservation in Oklahoma. I stopped at the Osage Nation Museum, and while I was there, I noticed a great panoramic photograph on the wall, taken in 1924, that shows many Osage along with white settlers. The picture looked very innocent, but a whole panel had been cut out. I asked the museum director why, and she said that section of the picture had contained a figure so frightening that she’d decided to remove it. She then pointed to the missing panel and said, “The devil was standing right there.” She went down into the basement and brought up an image of the missing panel, and peering out from the edge of the panel, wearing a suit and spectacles, was a prominent white settler named William Hale, the mastermind of many of the Osage murders.

It was the galvanizing moment. I realized that the museum director had removed that panel not so that the Osage can forget what happened, but because they can’t forget. And yet so many Americans, including me, had forgotten or had no knowledge of this history. That’s why I decided to write this book.

It’s an awful history.

Yes, there were poisonings, shootings, even a bombing. Several of those who tried to catch the killers were themselves killed, including an attorney who was thrown off a speeding train. By the time the FBI took up the case, in 1923, the official Osage death toll had reached more than two dozen.

The prejudices that fueled the crimes were insidious. Congress, for example, passed legislation concerning the Osage that was not abstractly but literally racist. If you were a full-blooded Osage, you were deemed “incompetent” and were appointed a white guardian, whose job it was to oversee your fortune. Even if you were a great chief who led a nation, you’d have some local white person assigned to you, and that person would decide if you could buy a car, or even toothpaste at the corner store. This arrangement eventually led to the creation of a vast criminal enterprise in which the state and the federal government sanctioned the theft of millions of dollars from the Osage.

I remember how you described this in the book: “Virtually every member of society was complicit in the murderous system.”

That’s right. When I began this story, I thought the central question worth exploring was, Who did it? But by the end I realized that the question really was, Who didn’t do it? So many people were complicit. Guardians were abusing their power, lawmen were on the take, morticians and reporters were covering up murders, politicians were involved. And so many other white people were complicit—in their silence.

When I began this story, I thought the central question worth exploring was, Who did it? But by the end I realized that the question really was, Who didn’t do it?

David Grann

How did you decide to focus on Mollie Burkhart?

It was clear to me that she was at the center of the story—indeed, even its conscience. She realized her family members were being killed, one after the other, and despite the risks to her own life she valiantly crusaded for justice. Yet in the official accounts, which were written by Bureau agents, her perspective is almost completely ignored. You didn’t learn about her or her family. I thought that was an injustice unto itself.

You like digging deep into the past, don’t you?

You know, it’s funny: I began my reporting dealing with contemporary issues and living sources, but of late I find myself increasingly drawn to history. In the case of my first book, The Lost City of Z, about Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1920s, I tracked down his granddaughter, in Wales. I told her that I was trying to understand what had happened to her grandfather. She invited me in, we chatted for a while, and then—I remember this very vividly—she led me into this back room where she kept an old chest. She opened it up, and inside there were these old books, covered in dust, held together with ribbons, their bindings breaking apart. I asked, “What are those?” and she said, “My grandfather’s secret diaries and logbooks.” It was a reporter’s dream. She let me go through everything, and I found enormous clues to the mysteries of Fawcett’s life and death.

This new book involves so many overlapping stories that it must have been very hard to organize. How do you think about structuring what you write?

I spend a lot of time thinking about structure. In The Lost City of Z, I eventually decided to alternate between the past and the present—between Fawcett’s journey to the Amazon and my own journey in search of him. It took me a while to figure that structure out, but once I had it, the challenge just became how to move from one period to the other naturally. It became almost a technical challenge. I think there’s almost always one best way in which a story should be told, and one’s job as a writer is to try to locate it.

With Killers of the Flower Moon, I did a lot of my thinking in my office at The New Yorker. I didn’t have a white board, so I flattened a box out and scribbled all over it, writing down the people, the connections, the different FBI agents, the different Osage who had been targeted. It was a mess! I wanted to tell a personal story, but I couldn’t find a single individual who spanned the whole period I wanted to write about. I remember looking at that box for ages, thinking, I have no idea how to tell this story.

So what got you over the hump?

Serendipity. I read a story in the New York Times Magazine about Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner’s novel. That got me interested in the novel, which turns out to have three narrators. And suddenly it occurred to me that I could tell my story from three separate perspectives. I could tell one part from the point of view of Mollie Burkhart.

For the second part of the story, I realized I could tell it from the point of view of one of the FBI agents involved in investigating the murders—a guy named Tom White, who came from a family of early frontier lawmen.

Finally, I settled on a third point of view, which was my own as a reporter. This would allow me to fill in the gaps in the narrative, to reveal the things that Mollie and Tom White couldn’t have known in their own time. One of the things I try to show in the book, based on a wealth of new information, is that the breadth of the killings was far greater than the FBI ever managed to expose. The real death toll was in the scores, if not hundreds.

You seem to use a similar approach in a lot of your writing—you make your stories unfold for readers much as they did for the people involved.

I have a fundamental belief in trying to tell stories as they unfold. Too often, in doing our work as historians and reporters, we wield our godlike power of hindsight and forget to convey what it was like for the people who actually lived through these moments—the murkiness, the uncertainty about what was going to happen next. I try to put readers into that uncertain state.

By telling stories this way, which really just means letting them unspool over time, you can maintain a sense of mystery.

I also think it makes you more sensitive, as a writer, to understanding people’s frailties and missteps. But, most importantly, I think it gets closer to the truth. It’s the way these things really happened, after all.

It certainly worked in Killers of the Flower Moon.

I hope so. One of things that became apparent in researching and writing the book is the elusiveness of history. I’d always thought that when there’s a social injustice, history can at least identify the perpetrators and record the voices of the victims. But in the case of the Osage, because of the number of unsolved killings, and because of the efforts of so many perpetrators to cover them up, it’s not completely possible. The perpetrators not only murdered their victims but also deprived them and their families of their history, and when you interview and spend time with the Osage today you realize how anguishing that is. By the time I finished the book I realized that the greatest horrors of history may be not those we know but those we don’t know.

This article was first posted on September 1, 2017.

Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic and Pacific Standard, is the author of The Fourth Part of the World (2009) and Da Vinci’s Ghost (2012).

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