Q&A: Christopher Drew on Bob Ballard Memoir

Christopher Drew is the co-writer of “Into the Deep: A Memoir From the Man Who Found Titanic,” with legendary deep-sea explorer Robert D. Ballard. The book was published earlier this year. Drew, a former New York Times reporter, is also the co-author of “Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.” He took some time to discuss his new book with Ballard and his take on one of the pioneers of ocean discovery.

How did you meet Ballard?

I’d been fascinated by Titanic and all of Bob’s discoveries, and when we were researching ‘Blind Man’s Bluff,’ I’d heard that he had worked with the Navy on sensitive undersea projects. It turns out that he was amazed by how much we were able to reveal about submarine spying in our book. So while we didn’t meet then, we were aware of each other’s work.

What was the catalyst for you to co-write this book with him?

When Bob was looking for a co-author for his memoirs, he told his editors that he’d love to have me join him since I knew the undersea world. But given how many books and TV shows he’d done, I wanted to make sure that there were fresh and revealing stories to tell. We met over lunch, and Bob was his usual spellbinding self. But about halfway through, I got up and took two of his books out of my briefcase and placed them on the table.

‘Everything you’ve been telling me is fascinating, but a lot of it is in these books,’ I said. ‘What else do you have that’s new and interesting?’

That was the acid test, and when he responded with several great stories I hadn’t seen anywhere, I was hooked.

Can you describe the process of co-writing the book? Did you interview him over a period of time to sort out the narrative, or did he write a section that you would then edit, etc.?

Bob had drafted random scenes and stories, and after we read them, my wife, Annette, and I got on the phone with him for two marathon sessions. Then I went up to his house in Connecticut for four days of talks.

My goal was to go through every important mission and event and learn the backstories that he’d never talked about—the relationships involved, how he’d felt as things were unfolding, and what it was about his background and personality that enabled him to find things others couldn’t.

We wanted the book to be a memoir, something more personal than Bob had written before. He got into that, saying over time that we’d put him on the couch and got him to reflect on his life in ways he’d never had time to do. We did 200 hours of interviews with him, transcribed the tapes and tried to capture his voice in how we phrased everything.

Ballard is a legendary figure in ocean exploration. What characteristics and life events do you think drove him to be a pioneer?

Bob was a much slower learner as a child than his older brother, who became a physicist, and despite all his bravado, Bob had an inferiority complex that motivated him to push himself harder. Combine that with his fascination as a boy with the sea and the Disney version of ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ and it was inevitable that he would push to make his mark as a modern-day Captain Nemo.

The book is full of colorful tales. Which are the most memorable to you?

One disclosure in the book is that President Reagan personally approved Bob’s search for Titanic as part of Reagan’s psych ops war aimed at making the U.S.S.R. fear U.S. capabilities. Bob tells how he persuaded the Navy to fund his robotic camera systems to survey two sunken nuclear subs, Thresher and Scorpion.

A submarine admiral initially said ‘that’s crazy’ when Bob asked if he could use any extra time to look for Titanic. But John Lehman, the Navy secretary, conjured up for Reagan how freaked out the Soviets would be if Bob could release photos of Titanic’s grand staircase 12,500 ft. deep, and Reagan responded: ‘Absolutely, let’s do it.’

Ballard is most known for discovering the Titanic. What are some of his other discoveries that are lesser known but significant?

Bob was involved in several major scientific discoveries, and the book recounts how he found the wrecks of Bismarck, PT-109, Yorktown, ancient Roman and Phoenician ships, and even a Turkish jet that was shot down by a Syrian missile.

How does Ballard’s dyslexia come into play in his career? Was it a hindrance, or was it something he learned to deal with early on, and how?

How do you deal with not being able to read quickly? You read twice as long. That’s how Bob reacted as a kid trying to keep up with his brother.

He also reminded himself of how boxers get back up after they’re knocked down as he pushed through early failures.

He came to see that his visually oriented mind was an asset, helping him picture the undersea terrain in 3D.

He didn’t actually realize that he was dyslexic until he read a book, “The Dyslexic Advantage,” at age 72, with tears streaming down his face as it ‘explained me to me.’

Ballard’s lifelong work has blended human exploration with technology. What do you think the future of ocean exploration will look like with regard to the human element and the technological aspect?

Bob has helped bring about the transition from manned submersibles to remote-controlled vehicles that can keep the cameras on station so much longer. He likes to say that this lets scientists ‘move their spirits’ to the spots they are exploring and collaborate more easily with others who are also watching remotely.

Now, like others, he is moving toward autonomous vehicles.

Ballard is almost 80, but he’s still exploring. He’s on the hunt for Amelia Earhart’s missing plane. What are his plans for that search?

Bob didn’t find Amelia’s plane off one island in 2019, and he’s working with others to develop a pack of deep-diving autonomous vehicles that could scour other possible locations. He plans to resume the search once the vehicles are ready.

Anything you want to add or emphasize?

The joys of exploring can be summed up, Bob says, in this quotation from J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’

See this interview in the July 2021 issue.

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