Ask the Author: Erik Larson
“Looking forward to hearing your questions. I'll be dropping in now and then to provide some answers. ” Erik Larson
Answered Questions (124)
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Erik Larson The research continues pretty much through the whole process, though the most crucial and intense phase lasts about two years, minimum. As to how I know when I'm done with the research: By now it's an instinctive thing. Documents start to repeat themselves. Revelations begin tapering off. But one thing is crucial: I need to accumulate about 100 percent more material than will ever actually make it into a book. Only the best stuff makes the cut.
Erik Larson Well I can't say it's surprising, but what I've learned is that writing is all about hard work. You might think it's not a typical job, but in many ways it is. You need to check in each day, seven days a week, and do it. Be there. You don't have to write for eight hours a day, necessarily. Larry McMurtry wrote for an hour and a half each day. But you have to be there, at your desk, every day. If you wait for inspiration, you'll be waiting a very long time.
I read your response to the question about structuring your narrative and I have slightly different question. From reading THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY and THUNDERSTRUCK, I take it that you leave it up to the reader to make sort out the juxtaposition of good and evil and, more significantly, the implications. My question is which motivates you most in putting the narrative together, the evil or the good?
As a mother of two babies, I can't help but be drawn to the parent-child bonds you describe in books like Isaac's Storm and Garden of Beasts. Reading about Isaac awakening to a strange feeling and listening for sounds from his sleeping children prompted me to get up and check on my own! Do you find yourself drawn (intentionally or subliminally) to topics that highlight the love of parent for child?
Erik Larson A perceptive question: I'm a father of three daughters, and that relationship tints every book I do, in some way. With Dead Wake, for example, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be aboard the Lusitania, with my wife and daughters. What would I have done? One family, the Cromptons of Philadelphia, included father, daughter, and six children. At the time the torpedo struck the ship, all of them were in different places aboard. What do you do, as a parent? What do you do, when the ship sinks in 18 minutes? The entire Crompton family perished. A chilling thing to contemplate.
Erik Larson In writing narrative nonfiction, research is crucial. Because you can't fake it. You need a lot of really fine-grained archival material, and if you don't have it, you can't tell the story. Part of what persuaded me to write Dead Wake, about the Lusitania, was that the archival base was richer and deeper than for any other book I've written. It gave me the material to infuse the book with maximum suspense. Real-life suspense.
Erik Larson Ha! My favorite failure. An oxymoron? Actually, I like it when ideas fail to become books. I often say that hunting for a book idea is a lot like looking for a spouse. You need to kiss a lot of frogs before one becomes a prince or princess. Having said that, as to failed ideas, I don't kiss and tell.
I will be going to Berlin in May and my companion is reading In the Garden of Beasts right now (at my insistence!) In your view, what are the must see locations that will make this story even more tangible and terrifying? (I have told many that your book is the "Boiling the Frog" experience of the Third Reich as my encouragement for them to read it.)
Mr. Larsen, I became an instant fan after _Devil_In_The_White_City_, and have read several of your other works. I have noticed that real historical events don't always cooperate by fitting into a novel-like plot. How much effort do you spend looking for just the right set of characters in a situation, so the story can to build to a satisfying finish?
Erik Larson Here's where things stand: Leonard DiCaprio holds the option to turn the book into a film. Recently he recruited Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Billy Ray to join him. A dream team for sure. Whether a movie ultimately gets made is entirely up to them, and to the cinematic fates.
Just read your vibrant PowellsBooks.com interview with book buyer Rhianna Walton. I loved "Devil in the White City", and can't wait to read "Dead Wake". As a youngish female, I don't have many friends who have discovered your awesome writing. How do you generally relate to your readers like me, and can we expect a can't-miss book topic from you in the future? Not that WWI is unrelatable...
I enjoyed "In the Garden of Beasts" immensely, as I too, love American history, and intend to read all the rest of your books in the near future. My question is this: Is there any chance you may write a book about the USS Liberty and how it was attacked in 1967? I'd love to read a well researched book about that subject.
Erik Larson No. Never. In fact, my secret weapon is to stop early in the day, while I'm ahead--sometimes in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. By doing so, I guarantee that the next morning, when I sit down to write, I am almost immediately productive. It helps keep the terrors at bay. Binge writing, as I call it--or pulling all-nighters--can all too easily exhaust whatever that inner engine is that we writers rely on.
Isaac's Storm and In the Garden of Beasts each told "one" story. While your other two books each told two - Devil in the White City had Dr Holmes and the engineering marvel that was the White City and Thunderstruck told of Crippen and Marconi's invention. How do you decide whether to follow only one plot vs including two story-lines that converge?
Erik Larson Each book has a structure that is organic to the underlying concept. I don't seek out parallel stories. In the case of Devil, I would not have wanted to write a book just about Holmes; nor would I have wanted to write only about the fair. It was the juxtaposition of good and evil, light and darkness, that made me want to proceed.