Joe Rantz was dying. He was north of 90 years old, completely dependent on oxygen, and living in hospice care at his daughter Judy Willman’s house near Seattle when he met award-winning author Daniel James Brown. Brown, a neighbor of Willman’s, wasn’t looking for a book topic when he stopped by to visit her in 2007. But after listening to her father’s story about growing up in Depression-era Washington, working his way through college, and rowing for gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler and the highest ranking members of his Gestapo, the author told the AJP that he was “mesmerized immediately” by Rantz’ tale.
“That same day that I met Joe,” says Brown of the encounter, “at the end of the conversation, I found myself asking (him), ‘Can I write a book about your life?’” Though it was unusual for the twice-published author to pounce so quickly on a topic for a work of book-length nonfiction, Brown knew that this was a special case. He says that the rise of the 1936 American Olympic rowing team from a group of working class boys to a team of sports legends had “all of the technical elements of a great story.” But as Rantz relayed the details of his glory days three-quarters of a century past, Brown could also see that this topic had “a huge amount of heart in it.”
To his dismay, however, Rantz said he wasn’t interested in helping someone to write a book about his life. “But then he looked up,” Brown says, “and I’ll never forget this because he had tears in his eyes — and he said, “But you could write a book about the boat.’” He meant that the book had to be about the whole crew — all nine of them — and the way they had achieved a feat of near perfection that year rowing as a single unit. Brown spent the next six years researching and writing what would become “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics.” It was subsequently selected by the American Booksellers Association as the Adult Non-Fiction Book of the Year for 2014. If you were hoping to pick up a copy and possibly have it signed by Brown himself, you’ll get your opportunity come March 11-12.
Brown will be one of four award-winning authors meeting up in Tucson this month as part of the 19th Annual Book & Author events presented by the Tucson Chapter of the Brandeis National Committee. The event is held each spring at Skyline Country Club and features an “Evening Soirée” dinner at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 and a “Book & Author Day” from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on March 12. Sheila Rothenberg, BNC’s volunteer coordinator for the event, says that the Book & Author program serves as a fundraiser for Brandeis University’s “Sustaining the Mind” scientific research and scholarship fund, which goes toward studying the underlying causes of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
For local author Jillian Cantor, who lost a grandparent to Alzheimer’s disease just a few years ago, it’s a cause close to her heart. Cantor is the author of several award-winning young adult novels and two works of adult fiction, most notably, the critically acclaimed “Margot: a Novel.”
“Margot” starts with the premise that Anne Frank’s older sister — who wrote her own diary in the famous Amsterdam annex, which was never recovered — survived her time at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and lived out the rest of her life anonymously in Philadelphia.
Cantor explains that after reading “The Diary of a Young Girl” as an adult, she no longer related as much to the younger Frank as she had when she was a child. Rather, as an older sister herself, she was intrigued by what Margot, the “forgotten” sister, might have written in the journal that was never found. Cantor’s sixth book, scheduled for publication this fall, will be another piece of speculative historical fiction called “The Hours Count,” which will follow a fictionalized neighbor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during their infamous trial and execution for treason in the early 1950s.
Rounding out the category of honorees at the Brandeis event are multiple-award winning suspense author Laura Lippman, and three-time Bram Stoker Award- and Master Thriller Award-winner David Morrell, whose 1972 debut novel “First Blood” introduced the world to a character named Rambo, later famously portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in four blockbuster films.
All four authors will be speaking, answering audience questions, selling books and signing autographs at the “Book & Author Day” event on Thursday, March 12. Seating at the Wednesday “Evening Soirée” is limited. Tickets for the Wednesday “soiree” start at $75 for members and $85 for nonmembers.
Tickets for the Thursday luncheon start at $70 for members and $80 for non-members. Combination and special seating tickets are available. To RSVP, contact Rothenberg at 232-9559.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.