Brooklyn-born Erik Larson started life hoping to be a cartoonist for the New Yorker. That didn’t happen. So, after college, he accepted a position as an editorial assistant for a New York publishing house, a position he grew to enjoy.
The movie All the President’s Men inspired him to take a new road. He applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and subsequently accepted his first newspaper job in Bucks County, Pennsylvania - a wealthy suburban enclave east of Philadelphia. His next position with the Wall Street Journal “changed my life and shaped my future,” says Larson - but not enough to make him a lifelong newspaperman. After turning down a job as bureau chief, he and his wife moved to Baltimore where he wrote his first book, The Naked Consumer. “I loved that book,” Larson says. “No one else did.”
Today, Larson is known as the writer who weaves history and suspense into best-sellers. The Devil in the White City, about sadistic killer H. H. Holmes, spent years on the bestseller lists. Larson’s latest work, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania, was released March 10, 2015 and immediately reached number one on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction and e-book best-seller lists.
Prose ‘n Cons asked Erik Larson about his writing life, his real life, and his favorite movie. Here are his answers:
PnC: Publishers Weekly has described your work as "gripping historical suspense." Amazon places Dead Wake in the "history/World War I" category. More generally, your books are described as either "creative non-fiction" or "narrative non-fiction." Do you put a label on your writing - and, if so, what is it?
E.L.: I loathe labels, and try very hard not to apply them to my work or to the work of others. One of the most offensive labels is “chick-lit.” But, of all the labels I’ve heard applied to my style of doing history, I’d say the least annoying, and most accurate, is “narrative non-fiction.”
Pnc: The Devil in the White City was unbelievably successful, to the point of spending more than five years on the best-seller list. Will this - regardless of anything else you write - always be the book that is mentioned in your introductions at live appearances and in press coverage?
E.L.: Certainly it’s the book that even I mention if someone on a plane asks me what I do and then asks what kinds of things I write. I do find, however, that In the Garden of Beasts has achieved a certain name recognition as well—much to my delight—and now competes with Devil as a crutch for introductions.
PnC: Your specialty seems to be "intersection." You find topics for which there is a convergence of two simultaneous events, and create one large story. (Holmes and the World's Fair, Crippen and Marconi, WWI and America's Progressive Era, etc.) Is this your goal when searching for book topics?
E.L.: As hard as this may be to believe, it’s really not something I strive for. In the case of Devil in the White City, the juxtaposition of the killer and the fair just made sense. I would not have wanted to write about Holmes alone. Nor would I have wanted to write only about the fair. What I was after was that juxtaposition of light and dark, good and evil—monumental evil occurring in the same place and at the same time as Chicago’s monumental act of civic goodwill. The same holds for Thunderstruck, in which the career of Britain’s second-most famous murderer, Crippen, collides with that of Marconi during a wonderful transatlantic chase. Was this an effort to flog a certain schtick? Not at all. It was the chase that caught my eye: Crippen fleeing England by ship, pursued by Scotland yard, while the whole world “listened” in via wireless—with Crippen utterly unaware.
PnC: Do you always know what your next book will be, or do you surprise yourself by stumbling upon a great idea?
E.L.: Whenever I start looking for my next book idea, I start with a blank slate. I wish I had a standing list of ideas, but I don’t. So I rely on a kind of forced serendipity. I read everything. I visit museums and libraries. I sometimes wander the stacks of my favorite library and pull out books at random, hoping something will jump start my thinking. It’s generally a miserable time, but something always rises to the fore, and off I go. Or at least that’s been the case so far.
PnC: How much leeway do you give yourself with regards to historical research? Are you a stickler for absolute accuracy - or do you give yourself a bit of artistic license?
E.L.: I’m a stickler. The key is to go the distance, immerse yourself in archives and libraries. It’s the little details that bring a story to life, but you have to look long and hard for the best nuggets. Unfortunately, some writers try to take shortcuts by inventing conversation and creating composite characters—at which point they leave the world of nonfiction. It’s funny—I’ve had people point to things in my books that are in quotes and say, “Well, you must have made this up. This is dialogue.” But, as I note at the start of all my books, anything between quotes is from an actual historical document, be it a letter, interview, court transcript, or whatever. Only rarely is it even dialogue. It’s the reader’s imagination that takes what I write and turns it into something lively and real. I just provide the raw material in a coherent, chronological structure.
PnC: You seem to average about four years between books. How is this time spent?
E.L.: I spend the first few months writing the book proposal that my agent will use to sell the book to my publisher. Then I’ll spend about two years doing research—doing it day in, day out, even on weekends. Then, I’ll spend a year or two writing the book. There’s considerable overlap between the two stages, however. At some point as I’m doing my research I get antsy. I accumulate a critical mass of material, and it just starts begging to be used. And, so, I start writing. At first I’ll write just a page a day, very early in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day doing additional research. But gradually one page becomes two, which becomes five, and so forth.
PnC: Do you write for a specific audience, or more to meet your own expectations?
E.L.: I write the kind of thing that I’d like to read, on the assumption that if I’m interested, someone else will be as well. I think if you try to anticipate the likes and dislikes of a particular audience, you’ll soon find yourself on the path to destruction. That’s why I never go back to the well, in terms of book ideas. For example, I did one hurricane book—Isaac’s Storm—and I’ll never do another.
PnC: You were born in NY, went to school and worked in PA, lived in MD, and now divide your time between Seattle and Manhattan. Have you found your favorite place to live yet?
E.L.: I haven’t found my perfect place, but then, I’m not sure a perfect place exists. There are places that are perfect for a particular time—like when you’re single, or starting out in a career, or raising kids. Right now, we’re in just about the ideal situation. We live most of the year in Manhattan, which I adore, and always have. I love the energy, the sense that anything can happen at any time. But we also spend summers in Seattle, one of the more beautiful places in America. We spent six months in Paris while I did research on my new book, Dead Wake, and fell absolutely in love with the city and the routines of everyday Parisian life. So much so, that we made the move to New York to try to achieve something similar, a walking lifestyle. And we found it. In English.
Pnc: Describe your office/work space and typical work day.
E.L.: In Seattle I work in a tiny space that was once the makeup room of a TV news anchor woman. In New York, paradoxically, I have a much larger office with the kind of desk I’ve always wanted—a great big table. And just recently, thanks to my wife, I added two monkey lamps. My day begins with coffee and an Oreo cookie. I sit down at my desk with both, and begin writing. Even if I’m not in the writing phase of a book, I try to write. Something. Anything. Right now I’m working on a collection of essays, just for fun. A few years ago I wrote a ghost novella, because no one was writing the kind of ghost story I wanted to read. I’ve published none of these. But writing every day is important. It’s like exercise. If you don’t do it, you get out of shape.
PnC: Do you still draw. If so, what?
E.L.: I do draw. I started doing so again in Paris, and lately have begun carrying a set of drawing pencils in my briefcase. I don’t do it every day or in any disciplined way, though I’ve been tempted from time to time get serious about it again, and I’ve even contemplated enrolling in an MFA program so I don’t wimp out. I draw in my journals. My physical journals have evolved. I’ve gone from lined notebooks to artists’ sketchbooks, in which I make notes but also draw and sometimes paint. I also paste things into my journal, like business cards and artifacts of my travels, so that it becomes not just an intellectual and visual thing, but also a tactile thing.
PnC: When will we finally see the movie adaptation of one of your books?
E.L.: Good question, but I’m the wrong person to ask. I can tell you that two have been optioned—Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts—and that both are chugging along. But things are moving very slowly. Which is fine. If these films happen, I’ll be delighted. If not, I won’t be heartbroken. Film is an art unto itself. It has its own mores, it’s legions of smart, talented folk, it’s processes and procedures. I’m a writer. I write books. I leave film to the filmmakers.
PnC: How many appearances/signings do you do per year? How vital are these to your book sales, in your opinion?
E.L.: In past years I’d only do about six public events annually, unless of course I happened to be on a book tour. This year, though, I’ll be doing maybe a dozen, many of which will be integrated into my tour for Dead Wake. I don’t know that they’re vital for sales, but they certainly help, and, more importantly, they’re a great way to keep in touch with the people who read my books.
PnC: Do you read your reviews? If so, which ones: those by professional reviewers, or the ones readers post on sites like Amazon or Goodreads?
E.L.: I don’t read my reviews—not even the good ones. Because the last thing I need when I sit down to write my next book is someone’s opinion rattling around in my brain.
PnC: All the President's Men had a huge impact on so many young writers of that generation. Were you one of them?
E.L.: The film had a direct impact on me. I was working in publishing as a glorified gopher, with a vague plan to make enough money to go to Europe for six months. Then I saw the movie, and thought, hey, that looks compelling, and because of that I applied to journalism school—just one school, Columbia’s graduate j-school. I resolved to let fate take command. If I got in, I’d go. If I didn’t, I’d wallow in red wine in the hills and dales of France. I got in. My life changed forever.
PnC: It may surprise your readers to learn that you are a huge fan of the movie Airplane. How often do you torture your wife by quoting lines like "have you ever seen a grown man naked?" and "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley"?
E.L.: I’d say we quote Airplane on an almost daily basis—all of us. My wife, my kids. If one of my daughters has some big event coming up, one of us, and sometimes all, will invariably text with the line, “I just wanted to say, good luck, we’re all counting on you.” Same holds, though, for Young Frankenstein (“what knockers!”) and High Anxiety (“Gosh you’re fickle.”) And of course there’s The Princess Bride and Robinhood: Men in Tights. And did I mention Dracula: Dead and Loving It?
PnC: Can you share with Prose 'n Cons readers any hints as to what your next project might be? E.L.: Ha! Thanks for rubbing it in. I don’t HAVE a next project.
To view Erik Larson’s complete schedule of upcoming personal appearances and book signings, visit: http://eriklarsonbooks.com/events/ PnC