Q&A WITH LARRY KIRSHBAUM
The chairman of Time Warner Books when its Little Brown imprint published the original edition of The Proving Ground, Larry is now a publisher at Amazon.com.
Larry Kirshbaum: Why did you choose The Proving Ground as the title of your book?
G. Bruce Knecht: Although the people who participated in the race did so for lots of reasons, there was a common theme for many of them. They viewed the race as a way of proving themselves. Several talked about how they were part of a generation that had never faced the ultimate kind of challenges. They’d done battle in their business lives, but most of them had not been involved in life and death struggles. For them, the Sydney to Hobart Race was an opportunity to see how they measure up.
LK: When you were reporting on the publishing industry for The Wall Street Journal, you told me you didn’t want to write a book. What happened?
GBK: I did say that. I had seen too many writers work incredibly hard on books that almost no reads. And frankly, I had seen too many books published in an almost haphazard way, as if their publishers had lost interest in them. But the real truth is that I have always wanted to write a book, and I knew exactly what kind of book it would have to be—a dramatic story that could be organized into a compelling narrative.
LK: What convinced you that this was that story?
GBK: My first interview was with John Stanley, who described how he spent almost 30 hours on a life raft. He told me told me how what felt like a tidal wave lifted the rafted and carried it in the middle of the night after his boat sank. He said most of the ride was underwater but that he ultimately felt as if he had fallen off a cliff. There were five people on the raft, all of them struggling to hold on, but when the wave had passed, he saw two heads bobbing about 100 feet from the raft. The gap grew rapidly and Stanley never saw his friends again. When I heard that story, I knew I had to write the book.
LK: When we commissioned you to write the book, we knew that a couple of quickie books would be published long before The Proving Ground. Why is yours different?
GBK: The quickie books all tried to do the same thing—be the first to describe every exciting incident that happened on a large number of boats. They ended up with jumbled, confusing accounts that didn’t have any real sense for the people who were involved. I focused on just three boats and tried to present rich portraits of a relatively small number of competitors. In particular, I tried to get at what causes extremely successful people to spend their free time doing dangerous things.
GBK: Larry Ellison is the most prominent. The other books don’t have any real detail about Ellison’s experience because none of the other authors interviewed him. I’ve spent a lot of time with Ellison, and I’ve learned that he views life as an endless series of contests—all with the same purpose: finding out how good he can be.
LK: What went wrong in this race?
GBK: The easy answer is that the boats ran into a terrible storm. When you look deeper, it becomes clear that, as with many disasters, it was caused by a combination of events that came together in a way that afterwards looks like a conspiracy of misfortune.
LK: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
GBK: This is a story about people and challenges—adventure and heroism. It’s a story of how very different kinds of people responded to something bigger than they were—and how it changed them. I think most readers will find themselves imagining how they would have reacted in similar circumstances. In doing so, I’d like to think readers will learn something about themselves.