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Book City: How Erik Larson picks his subjects

When the need for inspiration hits, the Seattle-based author sometimes just heads to Suzallo Library and pulls books from the stacks. Something works: He has already had four books on the NY Times' bestseller list.
Erik Larson

Erik Larson 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. 


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 9:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article! Love his books and planning to dig into some of his favorites. Currently reading Beast.... Thanks for writing this!

lacquer

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Val, a sparkling interview. As usual, reading another story in your Book City series, I'm scribbling titles to buy and read or give away. Thank you!

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 6:36 p.m. Inappropriate

The Larson book nobody seems to mention is Issac's storm. It is a masterpiece. And a book I have often recommended to others who found they were as entranced as I. Unfortunately, for your readers, Issac's Storm is usually located under meteorology or some other equally obscure section of bookstore and library shelves. You have to look for it, but the book is worth search.

To Mr. Larson, who may or not read these postings, the dramatic balance you find in combining pieces of history, and eclectic science with natural or man-made disasters absolutely amazes me. Thanks to Issac, I fully experienced the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and have learned enough to speak intelligently about the history of meteorology.

If I had one wish, it would be to spend an hour or two inside your head so I could actually witness the thought processes necessary for turning that boring stuff we learned in high school into riveting, "edge of your seat" reading. Thanks for proving to the disbelievers that history does have a respected place in great literature.

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