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.

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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I’ve written several complete but unpublished novels, and all now reside on a shelf in my closet, which is the best place for them, believe me.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. 

What were your most cherished childhood books?

I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and a lot of Tom Swift, but pretty early on I also started venturing into things like "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo," and the detective novels of Agatha Christie and Ross McDonald. I also loved the spy novels of Helen MacInnes, and of course, all of Sherlock Holmes, especially "The Hound of the Baskervilles." And I adored scary short stories, like the kind that appeared in annual collections ostensibly picked and edited by Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling. One particularly memorable story was Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” which of course was the inspiration for the Hitchcock movie.

Can you recall a specific book or author that inspired you to become an author?

No. 

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to? 

Absolutely. "The Maltese Falcon": Sam Spade’s closing monologue to Brigid O’Shaugnessy, just before he turns her over to the police. 


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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!

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