Captivating and powerful, The Boat Runner takes the reader to the perilous world of WWII, where young Jacob Koopman’s life wildly shifts from the prosperity of his family’s lightbulb business to the darkness of Nazi Germany as his father naively sends him to a Hitler Youth Camp and the outbreak of war shatters the peace. It’s a thought-provoking read that will have the readers feverishly turning pages and thinking about the story long after finishing the last page.
Devin kindly agreed to an interview on my blog. Welcome, Devin!
What was your inspiration for The Boat Runner?
One of the first sparks of this book came while reading a book about the Nazi navy written in 1945 by a German naval officer called, Defeat At Sea. Passages in the book referred to the sinking of ships only by their tonnage and supplies kept from being delivered to the Allies. The language was so cold toward the living people onboard that it haunted me. What mindset could be so void of empathy? That was the question I wanted to dig into, and led me down a long, fascinating road of research.
Did you get to visit any of the settings for your book? If not, where would you most want to go?
This novel travels across Europe but also takes place aboard ships at sea. As for Europe, my mother is from the Netherlands, and I have been there several times, but not during the writing of this book. Much of the land based scenes had to be drawn from memory, research, and talking to people who know about each place. The scenes based at sea were different. I spent 10 years travelling around the world working in the tourism industry. Along the way I realized that working aboard ships was the best option for me and I traveled to over fifty countries on all seven continents. I grew to know ships and the sea quite well – this pulses at the heart of my novel. Now, if I could go anywhere, I’d board a ship and sail the North Sea into the Ems Estuary which borders The Netherland and Germany. That fraught border that captured my imagination and led me into this novel.
Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on the novel?
I always liked history, but during the writing of this novel I really learned how to do research as a fiction writer. I stopped looking for just facts and details, but for scenes and events that I could hold up and ask, does this event reveal the complexity of what it was like to be alive at this moment for my character? That is fun! I love finding something that leads me in a whole new direction and source of information to pour over.
What was your favourite scene to write?
There is a scene that one of my character’s inner conviction emerges from the shadows in such an epic, life-altering way that I get the chills every time it happens. I guess I’ll try not to spoil it, but watch out!
What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?
I’m a professor so have to be pretty efficient about slotting my creative time or it tends to get swallowed up by other responsibilities. This means I try to write or edit at least four days a week and read every day. I do best when I am in a quiet place, but I have three small kids, a dog that loves to bark, and a cat that walks back and forth over my keyboard, so working outside of the house has become a necessity.
How can we stay updated on your book news?
From the book jacket:
In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.
Beginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem.
On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.
When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within 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.
Epic in scope and featuring a thrilling narrative with precise, elegant language, The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad. Through one boy’s harrowing tale of personal redemption, here is a novel about the power of people’s stories and voices to shine light through our darkest days, until only love prevails.
Devin Murphy grew up near Buffalo, NY in a family with Dutch roots. He holds a BA/MA from St. Bonaventure University, an MFA from Colorado State University, a PhD from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. He has worked various jobs in national parks around the country and once had a three-year stint at sea that led him to over fifty countries on all seven continents. His fiction has appeared in over 60 literary journals and anthologies, including The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.