Book City: Where ordinary people meet cataclysmic history

Author David Laskin reflects on his writing influences, current reads and his upcoming book.
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David Laskin

Author David Laskin reflects on his writing influences, current reads and his upcoming book.

David Laskin has been an avid reader for as long as he can remember. After a brief stint in book publishing, he turned to freelance writing and has since been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Laskin’s books are narrative non-fiction about the lives of people caught up in events beyond their control. “The Children’s Blizzard” was a national bestseller, won the Washington State Book Award and was nominated for a Quill Award.

Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

“History a Novel” by Elsa Morante. I’m reading it in Italian for my language class, I’ve already read it in English. It’s a sprawling novel set in Rome during WWII. it’s heartbreaking, devastating. Even though I write non-fiction, the way Morante filters history through fictional characters influences my approach to writing.

I have a galley of Ivan Doig’s new book “Sweet Thunder” due out in September. And “The Force of Things” by journalist Alexander Stille, which is a memoir, a portrait of his parents’ tempestuous marriage.

Have you read a truly great book lately?

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn are incredibly funny, astute and psychologically acute. Painful, but delicious. Think Downton Abbey two to three generations later, into the 1970s.

You have a new book coming out…

It’s a history of the three branches of my mother’s family, due out this October. The title is “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the 20th Century.” When my mother’s relatives emigrated from Russia, one branch became pioneer farmers in Palestine. Another went to New York, where my great aunt started the Maidenform bra company. She was a frosty and successful tycoon. The third branch was killed off in the Holocaust. I traveled to Israel twice, and went to Poland and Belarus to research the book.

Your book subjects are intriguingly varied, including history, gardens, weather and literary biography. Where do your ideas and inspirations come from?

The weather and garden angles go well together. Most gardeners are weather nuts. Mostly I write about what happens in the encounter between ordinary people and cataclysmic history, which includes blizzards, war and the Holocaust.

Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?

“The Children’s Blizzard.” I remembered Laura Ingalls Wilder’s portrait of suffering through a prairie winter in her book “The Long Winter.” I’ve been influenced by my friend Ivan Doig’s book “The House of Sky,” which is about family set against an historic backdrop.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost” convinced me not to write a similar book. It’s his family’s Holocaust story, but he injects himself so much, padding the book with his own story, that I lost interest and didn’t finish it.

You’re from the East Coast. How has living in the Northwest influenced your writing?

Living here has given me a sense of being a professional; I love the Northwest writing community. Authors know and help each other, and we have Elliott Bay bookstore. I couldn’t do my work without the libraries. I kickstarted my genealogical research with help from the librarians at Seattle Public Library. Suzzallo (on the UW campus) is one of the world’s best libraries. They always have the book I want, even “Famous Women of New Jersey.”

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

I loved “Lad a Dog” by Albert Payson Terhune; “Gone-Away Lake” by Elizabeth Enright; “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. My mother belonged to the Book of the Month Club and she used to pass bestsellers on to me. Much to my elementary school librarian’s horror, I loved “Hawaii” by James Michener and “Exodus” by Leon Uris — so sexy (at least for a budding reader). Oddly those books may have influenced me more than any other in writing fast-paced historic narratives. 

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

“A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway made writing (in Paris, of course) seem too damned sexy and glamorous and important.

Is there a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

I think I’d have to say the beginning of “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James. Three men are sitting outdoors taking tea on a velvet green lawn by the Thames at an English country estate called Gardencourt. (I was hooked already.) I think there is a terrier trotting around. It’s the height of summer. Then a beautiful young American woman — Isabel Archer — appears on the terrace, surveys the scene and senses in a flash that her life is about to change forever. What a way to start. How could you resist? I always wanted to be sitting on that lawn, just listening.

Have you read a popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

I tried reading “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo — the highly praised book about the slums of Mumbai — but I just could not get into it. Too dark I guess. 

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?

“Moby Dick.” (Maybe once more before I die.) “Pride and Prejudice.” When (if) I retire, I will reread “War and Peace” and “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth. 

Do you have any favorite mystery titles, or favorites in another genre?

I’m not interested in any particular genre. If a book is well written, I’m there. Years ago I did struggle through “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer, and of course I think “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote is great.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

My family history touches on the Holocaust and so I immersed myself in Holocaust books while researching. I read a number of books by Primo Levi — “If This Is a Man,” “The Periodic Table,” “The Drowned and the Saved” — that totally opened my eyes in a new way to the reality of the camps.  If I could pull out one sentence from Levi that changed how I look at the world, it would be this: “It is naïve, absurd and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims. On the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.” 


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.