David Grann is what you might call a writer’s writer. It’s not that the longtime New Yorker staffer pens particularly elaborate sentences. Rather, he relentlessly chases the sorts of dizzying, extravagantly strange nonfiction stories that other writers wish they had the time, money and freedom from the news cycle to pursue.
These are unlikely but true, twistily manipulative stories that follow adventurers, con artists, pseudoscientists and fabulists, generally consumed by some kind of obsession The monomania of a Grann character is often contagious.
Grann’s latest book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” was released this week. It’s the writer’s most ambitious undertaking yet, an investigative history that uncovers an early 20th century conspiracy of murder, racism and greed.
And with Friday’s release of James Gray’s critically acclaimed film adaptation of “The Lost City of Z,” based on Grann’s 2009 bestseller about an early 20th century British explorer seeking the origins of a hidden civilization in the Amazon, his work has now been committed to the screen for the first time too.
The first time — and certainly not the last. An adaptation of his story “True Crime,” a postmodern mystery about a novelist who becomes the lead suspect in a murder that resembles one of his plots, has been completed as a thriller starring Jim Carrey. And “The Old Man and the Gun,” Grann’s story about an aging folk-hero stick-up man, just started production as a David Lowery film starring Casey Affleck and Robert Redford.
And last year, in a heated bidding war, the film rights to “Killers of the Flower Moon” were purchased by Imperative Entertainment for $5 million. Oscar winner Eric Roth has already drafted a script.
Speaking by phone from his Brooklyn home last week, Grann, 50, seemed pleased by the release of “Z” — a film project nearly a decade in the making. Gray did the screenplay adaptation.
“I’m not a cinephile, but I was familiar with James Gray’s work. We met in New York, and I was a pretty easy date, because I see [film and literature] as two distinct art forms. Too many people try to assume because they do one, they know the other. I really separate myself from the process, so the notion that it would at least be in the hands of people who were serious, and would treat the material seriously, gave me some comfort.”
A pure period piece, the movie removes the book’s present-day narrative thread, which follows Grann’s own visit to the Amazon in search of his protagonist’s whereabouts. “I joked there wasn’t anybody good looking enough to play me,” he said.
While “Lost City of Z” follows the contours of a swashbuckling adventure story, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a sober, staggering work of history that uncovers a monstrous string of crimes against Oklahoma’s Osage Indian nation, a tribe that became incredibly rich in the early 20th century after oil was discovered beneath its land.
“I’ve spent my life disproving conspiracies, and this is the rare case where there really is a conspiracy,” Grann said.
A historian first mentioned the story to Grann in 2011. “I was shocked that I didn’t know that the Osage had been the wealthiest people in the world, or that they had been targeted for murder. I traveled out early on to the Osage Nation, and [in a museum] saw this remarkable panoramic photo that showed white settlers and members of the Osage Nation together — it seemed like this very innocent pageant of people.
“But I noticed that there was a panel missing in the photo, and I asked the museum director why, and she pointed to it and said, ‘Because the devil is standing right there.’ She went into the basement and pulled up an image of the missing panel, and it showed one of the lead conspirators peering out creepily from the edge.”
Grann knew right then that he had to investigate the case. “There are certain stories that remind you of the moral purpose that originally drew you to become a reporter. I certainly felt that here.”
While “The Lost City of Z” began as a New Yorker article, “Flower Moon” was too sprawling and complicated a narrative to pursue in magazine form. “There were so many different murders, so many different victims, so many different investigations,” Grann said. “I created this mad poster, a cardboard box that looked like it was out of ‘Homeland,’ in an attempt to come up with a structure. I didn’t want to write a book that was a cataloging of the dead. I was committed to getting the Osage voices and what they felt and experienced, which was something that was missing from other accounts.”
The book required years of reporting, including many trips to Oklahoma, painstaking archival research and a mountain of Freedom of Information Act requests. The author even took an extended leave from magazine writing.
Grann acknowledges that he operates with a sense of freedom and an institutional support that most reporters lack. “But that freedom only came much later in my career.” As a young journalist, “I covered Congress, and everyone always wanted me to be a political reporter. But great editors recognize what drives different reporters.” He credits New Yorker editor David Remnick with letting him go chase a giant squid in New Zealand and the vestiges of a lost city in the Amazon. “He recognizes that the kind of stories I do my best work on are the ones I become incredibly passionate about and consume me.”
Is there an economic model to support future David Granns?
“Even though attention spans are really short now, including my own, we still have this hunger for in-depth reporting and storytelling…for context and depth and character and theme. The thing that these stories require more than anything else is time — and it is expensive to do that stuff. That’s the part of it that worries me.”