Book City: How Erik Larson picks his subjects
Erik Larson Credit: 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.
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?
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.
Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?
Happens all the time. But then, I’m a perverse guy. Tell me I’m going to love something, and most likely I’ll hate it. The best example for me is the Stieg Larsson “Girl Who” series. I read all three, but I have to say, I just don’t get why those books became so incredibly popular. If you want to read some really good Scandinavian detective fiction, try Henning Mankell and Joe Nesbo. And speaking of dark Scandinavian prose, definitely read "Let the Right One In," by John Lindqvist. It’s terrifying, but also very moving.
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?
Oh yes, many. Hemingway’s short stories — especially “Up in Michigan,” and “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is possibly the best single example of writing as the art of not saying. I’ve read Hammett’s "The Maltese Falcon" probably a dozen times. I’ve read Barbara Tuchman’s "The Guns of August" maybe five times — and, here’s the thing, thanks to the magic of excellent writing, each time I read that book I find myself hoping World War I will not occur. Then there’s Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" series. Walter Lord’s "A Night to Remember."
But probably the book that had the greatest effect on me each time I read it was "War and Peace." I know that sounds like the kind of thing a beauty pageant contestant would say, but it’s true. I’ve read it three times, at markedly different points in my life, and each time I felt as if I’d lived another life. Very satisfying. I’m about due for my fourth read. I only wish I could read it in Russian.
Do you have any favorite true crime titles, or favorites in another genre?
My absolute favorite is Capote’s "In Cold Blood." That’s another example of a book I’ve read over and over. There’s just something about his voice that is so alluring and seductive. The book begins like a travelogue about some charming town in the Midwest, and continues that way, very matter of fact, in the process amplifying the horror of the underlying crime. Another book — though it’s a novel based on a true crime — is James Ellroy’s "The Black Dahlia." Brilliant. Dark. Complex.
When and where do you settle down to read? To write?
My favorite spot is the living room, preferably with a fire in the fireplace, and rain and wind outside. Seattle really is one of the best reading towns, in winter, because there’s really nothing else you want to do, except maybe ski. But I’m not much of a skier. I’ve tried. Truly. But — and this is doubtless heresy —I feel about skiing the way I feel about Stieg Larsson’s books: I don’t get it.
Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
I’d have to say Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast." That’s another book I’ve read over and over. And now, here in Paris, I am absolutely savoring it. Now that I’m here in Hemingway’s habitat, it’s almost a different book. Now I can feel it. I only let myself read a few pages at a time, and I use Post-Its to mark the pages that have the names and addresses of bars and such where Hemingway used to hang out. His era was just such a charismatic one — every writer’s fantasy. I mean, a guy could make a good living writing short stories, and hang out in bars with Joyce and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. I totally get the premise for Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Reading "A Moveable Feast," you just want to hop aboard an ancient Peugeot and head for the Brassserie Lipp or the Closerie de Lilas. Which, in fact, my wife and a visiting daughter and I are going to do tonight. Here I am, living two blocks from Hemingway’s haunt, and a block from his beloved Jardin du Luxembourg. I’m walking where he walked. Which amazes me no end. On the other hand, I had a drink the other night at the Hotel Lutetia, which during World War II and the occupation of Paris served as headquarters for the Gestapo. I’m just saying.
What book do you plan to read next?
Andrea Camilleri’s "The Terracotta Dog." Though for research I’m reading some pretty interesting things as well. But of course, I won’t tell you what they are.
What Val’s Reading This Week: "News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story" by Joan Wickersham is the kind of book you read in one sitting, partly because the writing is so good, but mostly for how the stories so cleverly and elusively intertwine and echo each other.