“What was Jacob’s father thinking?” That was the first thing the booksellers who read for our Discover Great New Writers program wanted to know as they read Devin Murphy’s The Boat Runner, an assured, ambitious, harrowing debut about personal redemption and the power of love set during World War II. Like All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, or The Book Thief, The Boat Runner, a Fall 2017 Discover pick, immerses the reader in the experience of war, in this case from the point of view of a teenager coming of age. Jacob, a privileged fourteen-year-old, enjoys a quiet life with family and friends, in a small Dutch town where much of the community’s life is centered on his father’s factory. As the book opens, no one is thinking of war, including the boy’s father, who naively sends Jacob and his brother to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for his factory. After war breaks out, The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep into the secret missions of the German navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever.
Recently Murphy spoke about his debut with Kate Quinn, whose latest novel, The Alice Network, is a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Summer Reading Pick and a USA Today bestseller, and brings together the story of a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and that of an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947 in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption. Here is their conversation.
Kate Quinn: First of all, congratulations on your release! The Boat Runner is a terrific read.
Devin Murphy: Thank you, Kate. I loved The Alice Network, so it’s an honor to talk to you.
KQ: There are so many books about both World War I and II published today. My novel The Alice Network follows a secret network of women spies working in France during World War I; I was drawn to that story because it hadn’t been told before. The Boat Runner follows Jacob Koopman, a young Dutch boy who is fourteen years old on the eve of World War II—what drew you to tell that story?
DM: I loved reading your Author’s Note about discovering the story of the Queen of Spies and how that launched you into your novel. My experience started with a set of pictures of boys at a Hitler Youth camp. These boys were exuberantly jumping over bomb fires to show their bravery, playing tug-of-war with gas masks on, and joyfully saluting the Führer. It was the gleeful look on their faces that horrified me. They were having fun. They believed in what they were told. This made me start to think about how brilliantly manipulative these camps were at indoctrinating a whole generation of boys into becoming Blitzkrieg soldiers. Then I found a picture of the German navy’s secret mission to create miniature, one-person submarines. The idea of being alone in the middle of the ocean in a vessel with orders to inflict such great violence made me zoom in on what it would be like to be one of those boys. At that moment, my novel burst to life for me.
KQ: I understand you have a family connection to this history—your mother was born in occupied Holland in 1942, and your grandfather was an electrical engineer at Phillips who was forced into hiding to avoid conscription by the Germans. Not too dissimilar from Jacob’s father in The Boat Runner, who owns a lightbulb factory in a small village in Holland just across from the mouth of the Ems River in Germany. How did your own family history end up influencing the novel?
DM: The story of my grandfather in hiding always fascinated me. There were rumors that he’d sought refuge in a monastery, gone to England, or been captured, but no one ever knew for sure. This meant my Oma, while caring for my mother and her three sisters during wartime, had to go out looking for her husband. Imagining the fear and uncertainty they all must have faced each day led me into their story, and I began to write about the deep complexities of life under occupation.
KQ: What sort of research did you do when writing The Boat Runner?
DM: I went to large museums and dozens of small veterans’ collections to feel weaponry and clothing, studied in every library within two days’ drive of me, and read philosophy, fairy tales, music, and mythology. I’ve always liked history, but during the writing of this novel for the first time I learned how to do research as a fiction writer. I stopped looking for facts and details to dress up a description, and instead sought out scenes and events that I could hold up and ask, Does this event reveal what it was like to be alive at this moment for my character?
KQ: I see that you worked at sea for three years, which brought you to more than fifty countries across all seven continents! That’s an amazing background to bring to the world of novel writing. What was your job like? How did that experience influence the writing of The Boat Runner?
DM: When I was nineteen I took a job as a deckhand on a small tourist boat in Alaska for a summer. I tied lines, painted the decks, and kept night watch. I’d never been at sea before, but loved it right away and realized that working on ships would let me see the world. I worked as a bartender, deckhand, purser, waiter, steward, assistant hotel manager, and cruise director, and eventually worked my way up to being an expedition leader on small vessels that traveled to the most exotic places on earth. Being so far from home for years left me feeling isolated from friends and family. I longed for some form of connection and found it by delving into my family’s history. Now I see that in many ways those years were a search for stories to write.
KQ: And finally, for readers who turn the last page of The Boat Runner and need something just as good to read, what are your favorite World War II novels?
DM: Years ago, my wife and I both read, and loved, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. She offhandedly said I could write something like that if I did some research. I took her words as a bit of a challenge, so that book has a special place for me. I also loved City of Thieves, by David Benioff, and classics like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.