Photo: Ben Benschneider
Seattleite Erik Larson has written four New York Times bestsellers, including “The Devil in the White City” and most recently “In the Garden of the Beasts.” His work spans centuries and continents, with themes from serial murder to the invention of the radio. I tracked Larson down in Paris, where he’s living for six months researching his next book.
Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?
Erik Larson: Three detective novels by Andrea Camilleri, whose police detective, Montalbano, has a deep passion for excellent food. I read my first Camilleri last week, "The Snack Thief," and loved it. I haven’t felt this much affection for a protagonist in a long time, although these books do make me extremely hungry.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
An excellent question that cuts to the heart of what one reads and why, but yes, I absolutely loved Gillian Flynn’s "Gone Girl," and have recommended it probably dozens of times.
What makes “Gone Girl” so recommendable?
The prose. The plot is nice as well, and certainly keeps a reader caught up, wondering first what the hell is going on, and second, how everyone’s going to come out of it. But it’s really the prose. She’s a sharp, talented writer, with a great eye for detail and an excellent ear for dialogue. She’s the John Updike of thriller writers.
What are you researching in Paris? Six months there sounds like a dream…is it working out that way?
Here’s the mystery: I’m in Paris, but my book has nothing to do with Paris or France. Paris is merely a convenient, and totally engaging, base that lets me do the research I have to do without having to fly. I hate flying.
But, I’m not going to tell you what I’m working on. I’ve learned from experience, and from reading Hemingway, that once one embarks on a project, one shuts up. As to the Paris ‘dream’: We love Paris, we love being able to walk everywhere, we love our pet cafés and bistros, and we’ve been treated very well, but we’ve also tried to dig in and live like ordinary denizens of the city, so we have our little dark clouds — street noise outside, the winter gloom (frankly, about the same as in Seattle), the insane toddler who lives in the apartment above ours, bus drivers whose sole aspiration in life is to kill you, and all the little quotidian hassles that people deal with no matter where they live. But I hasten to add, if you have to endure quotidian hassles, the best place to do it is Paris.
What about language? Are you researching in English or French?
No language problem, at least not yet, because so far most of my research has been in British archives, a quick Chunnel ride away. Also, I brought a ton of material with me, to read and process — I index all my files and stick every bit of useful detail into a massive chronology — which takes time, and can be tedious, and might as well be done in Paris. I’ve also started writing the segments for which I’ve got enough material. Complicated, but, so far so good.
Your book subjects are intriguing … from 19th century true crime to a Galveston hurricane, from Nazi Germany to Marconi’s world-changing invention. ... Where do your ideas come from?
I wish I knew. Truly. It takes me a long time to find ideas that lend themselves to my approach to writing history, typically about a year. I have to kiss a lot of frogs, believe me. Sometimes I’ll wander for months along a seemingly productive path, only to have the path peter out and leave me standing in the dust. I just try and be patient and put myself in the way of luck. I read widely and promiscuously, I visit obscure museums, and I’ve been known to wander the stacks at the Suzzallo Library, just pulling books at random and reading a few pages, trying to ignite a few brain cells. Roaming the stacks, by the way, has never yielded a viable idea, but it does at least make me feel productive.
Can you talk a bit about how your reading informs your writing? Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?
As a matter of fact, yes — "Beasts." I was sitting around my office one day, in the midst of the search for an idea, and I was feeling particularly frustrated and useless. So I decided to go to a bookstore and just wander the history section to see what was new, and see what kinds of books and book jackets got me interested, what bored me to tears. And there, face out on a shelf, was William Shirer’s "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," which I’d never read. Purely on a whim, I bought it and took it home. I loved it. I was a third of the way through when I had a miniature epiphany. I realized that Shirer had actually been there in Germany during Hitler’s rise and had met all those awful people face to face — but at a time when no one knew how things would turn out. And suddenly I found myself trying to imagine what that would have been like, to have lived in Berlin as Hitler consolidated his power, but without knowing that another World War and the Holocaust were just over the horizon. What would I have thought, felt, seen? So, I started looking for characters through whose lives I could experience that time. Totally by chance I found Ambassador William E. Dodd, and, soon afterward I came across a memoir by his wild daughter, Martha. I realized very quickly that they were going to be my guides to Hitler’s Germany.
Which of the books you’ve written is your favorite?
Which of my children is my favorite?
You’ve mostly talked about novels ... have you written one? Any fictive ambitions?
I’ve written several complete but unpublished novels, and all now reside on a shelf in my closet, which is the best place for them, believe me. Two were under contract to be published, but I ended up pulling both back. With the nonfiction career ticking along, I just couldn’t bear publishing a mediocre novel. There are enough of those out there as it is. I gained a lot by writing them, however. In the process I learned a lot about the tactics of fiction, like foreshadowing and withholding, which are equally useful whether you’re writing fact or fiction. I have to emphasize here that I’m not talking about making things up, but rather about the tools that fiction writers use to move their stories along. Will I ever try a novel again? Possibly. But right now I’m finding what I do very satisfying, in a way that writing fiction never was.
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