Douglas Brunt, THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF RUDOLF DIESEL: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I

Douglas Brunt, THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF RUDOLF DIESEL: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Douglas Brunt about his fascinating new book, The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I. Douglas shares what inspired him to investigate the century-old mystery of Rudolf Diesel, the famous inventor who disappeared from a ship at sea, and the extensive research that brought him to his final theory. He also talks about his journey from burnt-out tech startup CEO to author, the challenges of switching to nonfiction for this book, and his podcast “Dedicated with Doug Brunt,” where he interviews top authors!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Doug. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I.

Douglas Brunt: Zibby, it’s an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Please, thank you. It’s so funny, after all these years at Idealab back in the day rolling around in our Aeron chairs or whatever, here we are.

Douglas: I know, with our wooden boards as our desks and that totally open — we were early with the open concept office design, I think.

Zibby: Yes, very early. No privacy at all. Lots of phone conversations. Pre-Zoom era. Anyway, you wrote about, in the beginning of this book, how you stumbled upon this topic when you were dealing with your own boat and all of that. Tell listeners about where you got the inspiration for the book and then all the research you must have done that went into it and why you feel like Rudolf Diesel is one to be remembered. I just found this to be utterly fascinating.

Douglas: Thanks. You’re right, I did stumble into it in the luckiest of ways. It’s just this incredible piece of history that’s been paved over for reasons that I discuss in the book. You’ll understand why it’s been paved over. I’m a novelist traditionally. I’ve written a few novels. Years ago, I bought this old boat. I was talking to the guy at the boat yard, which I do because it needed some work. It had these old gasoline engines in it. He said, “The first thing you ought to do is to repower this to diesel.” Like most of your listeners, seven years ago, I didn’t know anything about diesel. I thought, it’s an engine, what’s the difference between diesel and anything else? He went on this whole rant of why marine diesel in particular is the way to go. Zero percent of boat fires happen with diesel. All fires are from gasoline engines. The gasoline is fumy and very flammable. Gasoline engines start with a spark. Diesel does not. Fuel efficiency is three or four times better with diesel. I did repower with diesel.

Then I was working on ideas for the next novel. I was clicking around the internet and came across this list of mysterious disappearances at sea. On the list was Rudolf Diesel, who had disappeared in 1913 on the eve of World War I. I was like, wow, I wonder if Rudolf Diesel has any connection to these diesel engines that I just bought. Of course, I clicked, and it does. He is the inventor of the diesel engine and was this enormous global celebrity at the time in 1913. Again, he’s been kind of scrubbed from history, but when he disappeared in 1913, it was massive news around the world. The New York Times to all the papers in Europe and Russia and Asia were covering this crazy disappearance. Then I went down a rabbit hole for five years and came back out with this book.

Zibby: Five years. Where did you even start? Which archives? I know you referenced a lot of books and things that had been written. Of course, you put together your own theory, which at the end was like, oh, my gosh, wow. Of course, this makes total sense. Where did you start? What were some points in the research process where you had some light-bulb moments and you were so excited about it?

Douglas: As a novelist, I initially was thinking I’d come at this from the angle of historical fiction. There’s so little written about the guy. Particularly in the English language, there was not much to find. I thought, I’ll just fill in all the gaps. I had this idea. It’s almost like — you know those paintings that are all dots? You look at it. If you look at it for long enough, you see a unicorn or something like that. It was like that. I had read enough about this case. I became obsessed with it. The more I read about it, the more I had a theory. The theories that have been accepted, even in Encyclopedia Britannica, many people presume it was a suicide, that he jumped off this ship. The quick story is that Rudolf Diesel, on September 29, was traveling from Belgium to England on an overnight passenger ferry. In the night, he disappears. They hold the ship at sea, and they search it. They can’t find him. All they find is his hat and his coat along the promenade deck, the stern of the ship. They presume that it was suicide, that he jumped over. Two other theories were that he was killed by either Kaiser Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany, or John Rockefeller and agents of big oil. There are all these in-depth possible motives of why they might have done it. I was exploring these theories, became obsessed with the case. The more I unearthed, the more I realized this story actually needs to be told as nonfiction. It’s not been done, and I can do it.

I initially found a lot of stuff. It’s amazing, research works so much differently now than it did a few decades ago. I think you and I are roughly the same age. We would scroll through microfiche, plastic film in libraries. A lot of things have been scanned. Old newspapers have been scanned. You can do a lot with keyword search. You still have to narrow in on that. I was down at the New York Public Library in Midtown going through old newspaper articles. That two-week period after his disappearance, it was a flood of newspaper coverage. Then because World War I followed so closely on the heels of it and because there were manipulations in the media, no one’s gone back to try to reconcile all the conflicting reports in the media. That was a great starting place because I found all kinds of facts. A person couldn’t really go through these newspaper archives in an efficient way even a few decades ago. So much has been uploaded. I was able to do that level of research, which reinforced the theory. Then I got into archives throughout Europe and America. I actually reached out to my old high school, a buddy there who put me in touch with the German professor who then translated reams of diaries and letters of Diesel’s own work out of archives in Germany. It was like the geeky side of Indiana Jones, not the whips and the gun and the running from boulders, but the finding of some little piece of information that for most people would mean nothing, but in the context of this story, opens up enormous doors. It’s just little pieces of treasure. Those moments were so fun to discover.

Zibby: The letters in particular, Rudolf was so in love with his wife. It was so neat to even see how dedicated, down to the last letter, even though you have different interpretations of what he may have meant in it and everything. Just seeing how that stood the test of time was .

Douglas: He really was such a romantic. Their relationship really was a beautiful piece of the story. He also was very forward-looking in a way that he was able to see around corners from a technology perspective. He was thinking about pollution and engine efficiency and energy independence. One of his visions for the engine was that it would run on vegetable oil or peanut oil, that he could break up the fuel monopolies not really through a law, like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but through his technology. Most nations have farmers. They can grow their own fuel. We don’t need to run around fighting wars over that.

Zibby: One thing that I found really interesting was just tracing his whole family history and how he came to be, and his wife and their connections with Germany and Britain and everything, but then how his intellectual mind worked when he started digging deep into the other alternatives for all of this and how you track the developments and the setbacks and the successes. Through doing that, we learn all of this stuff about history in general and the evolution — it reminded me a little bit — except it was fiction. It’s not All the Light You Cannot See because that was a novel. There was another book around that time about the war between Edison — hold on, I’m going to think of the name in a second. I can think of the author too.

Douglas: Oh, was this made into a movie? The Power Wars or something like that?

Zibby: Yes.

Douglas: Power something or other.

Zibby: Something like that. Anyway, this sounds so foolish to say, but we run around in our day-to-day lives, and we don’t take notice or even ask who the people are whose names we throw around all the time. All of those names are in your book. They become full-on people, Edison and his relationship to alcohol and his wife. They become full-on living people, particularly the way that you write them. Then today’s world suddenly looks a little bit different as a result.

Douglas: That is one of the fun parts of the book. As I do future books, I want to stay in this period, this quarter century leading up to World War I, which I refer to jokingly as Downton Abbey: The Early Years, prior to the war when the world lived differently. There are all these royal courts throughout Europe, and these empires, gone immediately after World War I, I’m sure for the better, but there was a certain romance to it. The cast of characters is phenomenal. Adolphus Busch is another. As the engine came out, the licensing model was that people would take the rights to market and manufacture the engine by national territory. Adolphus Busch, the founder of Anheuser-Busch, headed for North America. You learn so much about him. He was a diesel pioneer, using it initially to power pumps for water in his breweries, but also built a separate business building diesel engines for the US Navy in their submarine fleet. It’s just a charming period of time, that Gilded Age time. The cast of characters really is so fascinating.

Zibby: It’s not so different, fundamentally, to what’s happening in technology today. I feel like this would be akin to Elon Musk just up and disappearing, at the time, being such a big deal. I don’t know if you saw this movie about the BlackBerry. Did you watch this movie? Nobody watched this movie.

Douglas: No, I haven’t seen that one.

Zibby: It’s really interesting. It’s all about the building of the BlackBerry company and the founders and then what happens at the end when Apple unveils the iPhone and how they didn’t see it coming and the rise and fall of BlackBerry. It’s so interesting because we see these companies and how this repeats itself through entrepreneurial history, really, of what happens when regulation, yes — of course, it happens with oil and diesel and all of that too. Who gets preferential treatment and why from different governments? Then just what you do. How do you continue to innovate? Who ends up making it through? I find it absolutely fascinating.

Douglas: As you say, there’s a lot of that in here. Standard Oil plays a key role. One of the reasons Rockefeller was such a suspect and had such a motive is Standard Oil was really on the ropes in 1913. While Rockefeller was the richest man in the world already by that time, Standard Oil had made all their money through carnosine. They were really in the illumination business. Lighting and the electric light bulb had come along and basically wiped out their prospects. Gasoline, for all those decades, had been a nuisance product that they would throw away. Then suddenly, the combustion engine comes along that can run on gasoline, and they have a lifeline, except that diesel is potentially there to say, no, we don’t need gasoline. We’re going to run on vegetable oil.

Zibby: Amazing. One of my favorite parts is when you’re going through your final conclusion and going back through different documents and how you said you found the Easter egg about thirty years. You’re like, maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s what it was. Were you just so excited finding out all this stuff and being like, oh, my gosh?

Douglas: When I was writing, of course, I was seeing Diesel everywhere. I’m like, he’s just been under the surface all along all around us. Everywhere we go, I see Diesel. It was just yet another one of those moments.

Zibby: You spent five years on it. What was the writing process like? How different was it from your fiction writing?

Douglas: It was a learning curve for me, for sure, and a daunting one. As you know, when you sell a novel, you pretty much write the full manuscript. You sell the finished product, or ninety-five percent finished. Maybe you do a bit with your editor. That’s what I was used to. Unless you’re a big name. Maybe you’re on a two- or three-book deal or something like that. With nonfiction, as I learned, you don’t sell a finished book. You sell a proposal. There’s a very standard look for a proposal. It’s roughly a thirty-page document. There might be a sample chapter. There’s a cast of characters, a discussion of the original research you’re going to do, a discussion of the competitive books in the market. I learned from my agent how a proposal for a nonfiction book looks for the first time and worked through that, which was a very helpful process for me to think about structing the book itself. I’ve done a lot of research for my novels as well. The research piece, I have some background with and genuinely love doing.

I miss working on this book. I would tell my wife and kids, “Okay, I’m going to go play with my imaginary friend Rudolf Diesel for a little while,” and disappear in my office for a few hours. I would tell enough stories to the family over the dinner table that he became this three-dimensional character in our own home. I’m feeling his absence now. Although, fun to get out and talk about him. I used to spend eight hours a day grinding away on his story and this investigation of what happened. One of the differences, too, quickly to note is that with fiction, I generally write by hand on yellow legal pads. Then I type that in. I try to stay away from the internet. I could do it anywhere. Can be on a plane or a train or whatever. With the nonfiction writing, I have to be in my spot. I have stacks of secondary research material around me. I do want to be on my laptop. I didn’t write by hand at all. Everything was keyed in. I was making little turns to the internet to look something up quickly or whatever. The mechanics of the writing were different as well.

Zibby: You write your novels by hand. That’s wild. For those listening who aren’t familiar with your novels, can you describe them all and even how you got into writing to begin with? What happened after Idealab for you to become a novelist?

Douglas: It’s so fun to talk with you about this, our professional histories that overlapped twenty-some years ago. From Idealab, where you and I worked around ’99, 2000-ish — you started in LA and then came to New York?

Zibby: Mm-hmm.

Douglas: I was in New York only. Although, I made that trip to Pasadena one time, which was fun. From there, I joined a startup that was about three people in information security tech. I became president and CEO of that and ran it for about ten years and sold it, 2011. In the last years of it, I was just so ground down and frustrated. There were some dynamics there that were very challenging. I was traveling a ton. We had just had our second child. My wife noticed, “You’re short-tempered and burnt out. Maybe we should take a look at the long-term prospects of this situation.” By that time, because I’d been traveling so much — I’ve always loved to read. I’ve always loved to tinker with writing, but I never took any formal writing training or an MFA or anything like that. I’d been tinkering with this idea for a novel. A few months later, I showed it to her, which is this very potentially awkward situation in a marriage, if other, like, so-and-so wants to be a writer, but boy, he’s bad. Fortunately, she liked it, encouraged me to get an agent. I was lucky to, fairly quickly, find one who also liked it and thought it needed a lot of work. Did that work with the agent and then was lucky to find a deal with S&S for the first book.

That one’s called Ghosts of Manhattan. It’s set on Wall Street. It’s really about a marriage, but it’s set on Wall Street. The husband in the marriage is a fixed-income trader for Bear Stearns. It talks about that bubble crash. The second one is called The Means. It’s really political fiction. It explores the intersection of politics and media and follows a presidential campaign. It’s thriller-ish, but smart politics with a twist ending. Then the third is called Trophy Son. That’s about a young tennis prodigy. It explores our achievement-obsessed culture, which is really not how you and I grew up. When you and I were coming home, our parents were like, be home by dinner. I’ll ring the bell. Now everybody’s scheduled with chess and sports and all these other things. Tennis is really at the extreme end of that. It explores a tennis prodigy going through that. On the research side, all these were much more contemporary. For the tennis book, I did interviews with John Isner and James Blake, who really helped out. I always have found that a lot of research for fiction, too, helps you get it on the page in a more compelling and forceful way. On the Diesel side, of course, no one’s really living to do a lot of primary. Although, I did find two of his descendants that I spoke with, but it was more on the secondary research, archival side.

Zibby: Have you been watching the US Open?

Douglas: I have and have been loving it. The Djokovic/Alcaraz story is great. Coco Gauff is amazing. What an athlete she is, and so composed. Pretty hot for those folks, but really fun. Love watching tennis.

Zibby: I went twice this year. Just watching it, I was drenched. I’m like, I cannot believe these players are operating on such an amazingly efficient body level in this extreme heat. It’s insane. I remember we read The Means for this book club I was in, which is how I even learned you had become an author. So funny. For your next book, what are you thinking?

Douglas: I’m not sure yet. I will say, though, that I want to stay in this same period, that quarter century leading up to World War I. It’s funny, my editor and I have this joke that one writer’s footnote could be another writer’s whole book. You can grab that and just run. I think that in this case, one of my footnotes will be my own next book. There is one story in there that is just a footnote tangent right now, but I’m really fascinated by it. It’ll probably be in the same period and have a connection to Diesel.

Zibby: So interesting. Tell me about your podcast.

Douglas: The podcast is called “Dedicated.” I do it in partnership with SiriusXM and talk to top writers. We begin each episode with the guest’s favorite cocktail. I have some bartending background, so I fix a cocktail right on set. We have a drink, and sometimes two or three. By the end of the show, we’re a little tipsy, but those sometimes make for the best episodes. It’s a lot of fun. Talk about the latest work, but also life and behind-the-scenes stuff. It’s really fun. Some of these folks are people I’ve known for a long time and are good friends. Amor Towles came on. He and I had a fun catch-up. Other people that I’ve never met before, like Jennifer Egan or someone. It’s been really fun. It’s a chance for me to do a little bit more socially. I miss the Idealab days when we’d have a team and talk. I do embrace my alone time. I love writing, but it’s fun to tap into something else once in a while too.

Zibby: I love talking to authors, as we’re doing right now. This is a meta conversation, talking about authors while talking to an author about talking to other authors. It’s almost like you prolong the fun experience of reading, but you bring it into life in a sanctioned way or something, that you couldn’t just sit around reading all day.

Douglas: That’s true. It gets me reading too, to your point and passion. When I have people on, I always do read the book. Sometimes I’ve read their books years ago. It’s upped my reading game quite a bit. I’m more two or three books a week, where I used to be at half a book a week, probably.

Zibby: Have you learned how to read really quickly? Do you read quickly?

Douglas: I think it is like a muscle. There’s only so fast I can go. I’m actually not a very fast reader, but I’m probably a little faster now than I was.

Zibby: Go back to this writing with your — why write by hand? How did that start? You’re the last person doing this. Maybe one or two .

Douglas: It’s me and Nelson DeMille, I think. Might be the last two. Although, Jennifer Egan, I think, does a little bit by hand. She’s sort of a hybrid. The reason for me, though, is purely because I’m a hunt and peck kind of guy. I type with two or three fingers per hand. It’s like a prize fighter. Your ability to propound is good. My word pace per finger is not bad, but I only type with about four or five fingers. I’m really slow. I can’t keep up. It also helps me to have it on a page where I can draw arrows and cross out. Somehow, that works better for the way that I think. Then it’s not totally wasted because I’ll take those yellow legal pads — I usually write in the morning. Then in the afternoon, I’ll type it in. That’s a chance to kind of comb the hair of it a little bit as it goes in.

Zibby: Interesting. Who is exciting coming up on your podcast? Who have you talked to lately that was really interesting?

Douglas: Let’s see. Season one wrapped. Season two starts this month in September. Scott Turow will be one of the first. He’s terrific. I learned a lot. I didn’t realize he was a practicing attorney even after Presumed Innocent. He’s this celebrity lawyer/writer. Then he walked into a courtroom and litigate. People are like, oh, my god, I’m litigating against Scott Turow. Even the judge would be like, this is weird. I’ve got to run this circus. Who else is coming on? Fiona Davis is coming.

Zibby: I love her.

Douglas: Then last season, really had some great folks on. David Duchovny came on, and Rick Springfield, who have both written novels and nonfiction stuff. Lee Child, who I love and is terrific. Nelson DeMille, Amor Towles. Jess Walter, who wrote Beautiful Ruins. Anna Quindlen came on.

Zibby: Love Anna.

Douglas: Really, really good stuff.

Zibby: Awesome. Amazing. We should team up and do a powerhouse.

Douglas: You know what? I’ll do the bartending. We’ll cohost. That would be fun. We should team up.

Zibby: That would be fun. Maybe Aperol spritzes or something afternoon-y. You probably don’t usually make those. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Douglas: The best advice I can give is — I actually got this advice from this friend years ago. I hadn’t written anything yet, but I had this idea. I had finished The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille. When I finished it, I thought, I want to make people feel the way this novel made me feel. I just loved that book. It remains one of my favorites. I had an idea for a book. I was just not getting going on it, which I think is an issue for a lot of people. I was at this event with this guy who’s a songwriter. I was telling him about it. He was sort of half listening. I’m like, “What do you think?” He goes, “Just start writing.” Then he pounds the second half of his gin and tonic and walks off and thought nothing of it. He moved on to the bar, got another gin and tonic. I was left standing there like, my god, I just have to start writing. It was advice I’d probably heard a hundred times before. Somehow in that moment, I heard it, and it got in. The next day, I did do something about it, and I started. Just started writing an outline. Sometimes that’s the easiest way to get in. Lee Child does an outline. Amor Towles, obsessive outliner. He has drafts of his outline. I think outlining is a great step for me just to get started, just to get the motors moving. I started the outline, which is far easier to start than the first sentence of page one. Then from there, I didn’t look back. The best advice is the most simple advice, which you may or may not hear this time, but maybe you’ll hear it one time. Just start writing.

Zibby: Amazing. Love it. Great. The last question I have is now that we have this new alternate theory to history, what do we do with that? Where does it go? How do you get it into the Encyclopedia Britannica? How do you rewrite history at this time?

Douglas: I am hoping that through your podcast and me getting the word out here, that Encyclopedia Britannica is listening, and they will . My hope is this will get some coverage. The deficit of appreciation for Rudolf Diesel is massive. Of course, we know the engine. One of the things is, to this day, it still powers the global economy. Imagine a tropical fruit growing in some region around the equator. All the farm equipment used to grow it, diesel powered. It gets loaded onto a truck. Anything larger than a passenger car, diesel powered. A crane, diesel powered. Loads it onto a cargo ship. All cargo ships, diesel. Goes across the ocean. Unloaded onto a train. A hundred percent of trains are diesel powered. Nothing moves without diesel more than a 120 years later. The engine is firmly established as the most important power source of the last century and remains our most important power source, but the appreciation of the man is just completely absent. There’s actually a photo on my website that has this little plaque of his home where he was born in Paris. He immigrated from Germany. He was born in Paris. There’s graffiti around it. It’s just this sad little thing. I hope that this book will put him up there with Ford and Tesla and Edison and others where he belongs.

Zibby: Amazing. Congratulations. Congrats. It was great.

Douglas: Zibby, thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks a lot.

Douglas: See you soon.

Zibby: Bye, Doug.

THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF RUDOLF DIESEL: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I by Douglas Brunt

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