Erik Larson on Why the World Needs Another Churchill Biography

Posted by Cybil on February 1, 2020
Erik Larson
When bestselling author Erik Larson moved to New York City in 2014, he experienced what he now describes as an eerie, “almost epiphanic moment.” During his first few days in the city, he found himself imagining what 9/11 must have been like for those who lived through it. He’d watched the terrible events unfold on CNN from his home in Seattle, but he was struck by how different the experience had surely been like for New Yorkers.

For Larson, who has a gift for turning historical events into thrilling page-turners—including Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City—his thoughts naturally turned to the past. He began to think about London during the Blitz, a series of bomb attacks by German forces from September 1940 to May 1941. During one deadly stretch, London was bombed 57 nights in a row, killing thousands of civilians. 

What was it like, he wondered, to experience “essentially 57 9/11s in a row?” How did Winston Churchill cope? And how did he inspire a nation to follow his lead? Those questions were the starting point for his latest work, and eighth book, The Splendid and the Vile, which tells the story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister.
 
Larson spoke to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw by phone to discuss his writing process, his inspiration, and why the world needs another book about Churchill, now more than ever. Their conversation has been edited. 


Goodreads: I thought your book was incredible, and I could not put it down. I didn't know I could be so engaged with a 500-page historical book. 
 
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Erik Larson: That's great to hear. But it's a little disconcerting because that's actually the second time in 24 hours I've heard somebody say exactly the same thing. I'm glad that people are overcoming their aversion to 500-page tomes of history! 

GR: The book has it all. Sex, drama, celebrities, and, of course, war.  

EL: Yeah, what else could you ask for—violence, sex, and gossip? 

GR: You’ve said the idea for this book was born when you moved to New York and imagined what 9/11 must have been like for those who lived through it. Can you say more about that? 

EL: I found myself wondering, What must that have been like? What was it like where there were 57 straight nights of bombing, then intensifying, but more sporadic raids? How could anybody endure it? And then I started thinking, Well, how did Churchill do it? He had a family…how did he and his family do it? 

I'm an anxious parent, I'll be the first to admit it. I worry about my three daughters. And the things I worry about are stupid things: boyfriends, smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, stuff like that. But if you're Churchill and you've got a 17-year-old daughter and the rest of your family are grown, your son is newly married, and your daughter-in-law’s pregnant…how scary is that? 

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GR: Right. I had not grasped the relentlessness of the Blitz until reading your book. 

EL: Me, too. Even though I was fascinated by the Blitz, I’d shied from it as a subject because it seemed such common knowledge. Like, everybody's heard of the Blitz. And I never had a sense of how one might go about doing a fresh take on it. But then, delving into it, I realized, wow, I didn't know anything about this. 

GR: Is there a message for today in your book?

EL: Unfortunately, there is. [Laughs] When I set out to do the book, there was no conception that we would have a president named Trump—nothing. And now, suddenly, we do. As I was working on the book, it kept hitting me, day after day, how different Churchill was—how much of a leader, how much of a unifier, how much he raised the national level of courage and enthusiasm to fight the war. The juxtaposition between that and what we've got now—regardless of anybody's politics—is shocking. But that was not my intention whatsoever because this wasn't even an issue when I started. 

People have been asking me if the world really needs another book about Churchill. And my reply is: Yes, now, more than ever. Because we need to be reminded of what real leadership and courage were like. 

GR: I was impressed by the scenes of Churchill walking through London during bomb raids. You have that great line in the book, “it is one thing to say ‘Carry on,’ quite another to do it.” 

EL: And that's the motivating energy in the book. That’s why I felt like I could say something new. I don't want to blow my own horn, but I'm going to: Nobody has done this kind of thing on Churchill before. The tendency with Churchill is to engage in hagiography, making him up to be a saint or a hero, like he won the war all by himself. And it's very clear that he did not. He needed support from the people around him, and he needed them to do a lot of the lifting. And nobody has looked at the interplay of those relationships in that time of crisis. And just this idea of how do you function—but you have to function! And how do you do that when there were 57 nights in a row of deliberate bombing of your city? I'm not going to say that this is the perfect book on that subject, but it gives a glimpse of that. 

GR: Can you say in a nutshell what it was about Churchill that inspired people to stick with him when the country was getting destroyed day after day?

EL: I think it was a combination of his sheer courage and confidence, and this wonderful gift of rhetoric that allowed him to articulate and model courage in a very compelling way. He never wavered. In his speeches, there was just absolute confidence that Britain would be victorious. But confidence alone would have been foolish. He leavened that with sober appraisals of what the realities were. He didn't try to sugarcoat things. 

But somewhere in there—this is going to sound stupid—there's also a little bit of magic…I don’t know, even having spent all this time with him. I can attribute it to concrete, identifiable markers, like the guy was a hell of a speaker and he was confident. He also modeled courage on a daily basis, walking through raids or going to the rooftops when the bombs were coming and dragging people along with him. 

One of the things I found most astonishing, frankly—I'm known worldwide to be a nervous flier—and here's Churchill, taking off in a two-engine Flamingo passenger plane with half his government as the Luftwaffe is dominating the skies over the Channel, cities are on fire—and he flies to France! To me, that was one of the most amazing moments. It's just like, wow, what a nut! 

His daughter Mary—who I adore, she's my favorite character in the book—talks about how she was afraid for him because he was flying. That’s something you never hear in books. Most say: He flew to France. Well, OK. But his family was terrified that he was flying to France! I like those little details.

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GR: Did you always know you were going to focus on his first year as prime minister? 

EL: I didn't think of it in those terms. A big part of what draws me to a subject is the shape of the narrative. I'm in this for the story. I don't care if people learn—I like it if they do—but I'm in it for the real, true, nonfiction story, but story. And after the first couple of months of research, I knew that certain threads miraculously came together on May 10, 1941, one year exactly since he became prime minister. That astounded me. First of all, the last big raid. Mary's personal conundrum comes to an end. Rudolf Hess parachutes into Scotland. And then, three days before, in the House of Commons, there's a challenge to Churchill because things aren't going so well. 

You know how if you’re reading a really good novel—I also hasten to add, always remember this is not a novel—but in a really good novel, often a lot of things come together right at the end? One of the things that absolutely thrilled me, thinking about this, was this confluence of threads on the same day. 

GR: I've read that you described yourself as a compulsive rewriter. Was that true for this book?

EL: Oh my God! I tell my wife I'm still suffering from posttraumatic Churchill-book-writing. I have a very strict personal ethos, which is that I only turn in something that I would be very pleased to see in a book the next day. And honest to God, by the time I finished the first draft, which my editor would never see, I think it was 200,000 words. Like a Bible! 

And so I started trimming and realized, Oh, God, I don't want to cut this. I gotta cut this, I gotta wrestle this narrative into shape or nobody's going to read this. 
I'm a compulsive rewriter, but I am definitely a compulsive cutter. I'm very happy if I have a hundred percent more stuff than I actually need, I feel confident that the result is going to be pretty good. If you end up with less than you actually think you need, you're screwed. You're filling up with whatever. By the time I got through that first round of cuts and rewrites, I’d cut about 40,000 words. 

GR: You cut a book from the book!

EL: Absolutely. And I was going nuts. All I could do was take the book and lay out the chapters all through my house—in this case, my apartment in Manhattan—so that I could see everything and get a sense of the layout and shape. And I would go along watching it, almost like reviewing my troops, trying to eliminate chapters where I could. It's painful. Then my editor, who did a tremendous job with this book, cut another 40,000 words. 

GR: What are you reading now?

EL: Emma Straub's upcoming book, All Adults Here. She was the moderator of a panel I was on, and I felt that I should read her book. It’s great. I’m really enjoying it. Prior to that, I was reading A Man Called Ove. It’s a novel about a crusty old fart. It's very good, very moving. 

Also, I've been weirdly in a rereading mood. I don't know why, maybe it's just the contemplative reading of January? Among the books I’ve been rereading are Michael Connelly's Angels Flight, one of my favorites. And a couple of Henning Mankell’s Swedish noir books. And I really loved The Woman in the Window. You know, the thriller written by that guy who is sort of crazy. There was a big New Yorker profile

GR: Oh, I remember that profile! Though I never read the book. 

EL: Well, the problem with the profile is that people who read the profile were like, “I'm not going to read that book, the guy's nuts.” I didn't read the profile, but I read the book and loved it.

GR: You have such an incredible track record. What are your hopes for this book?

EL: I try to not have any particular hope for quote unquote “success” for a book. I want people to like it. I want people to be moved. I want them to read to the end—that's the important thing. And I want it to be right. But you can't help but also periodically think, “Oh, God, what if this is the one that falls off the rails, and everybody’s out there muttering, 'Oh, that guy's lost it.' [Laughs] I just try not to think about it. Do the best you can and get that book out and hope the reception is good. 

GR: Having been immersed in British history for the past several years, I have to ask: Do you have a take on Harry and Meghan?

EL: I know nothing about Harry and Meghan. I have read nothing. I've seen photographs. I know there's some big brouhaha. I am not interested. [Laughs] So there you go. 


 

Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile will be available in the U.S. on February 25. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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message 1: by Donna (new)

Donna Reeves "Black Out" and "All Clear" by Connie Willis are superb novels set mainly in the Blitz. Why Mainly? Both these books are about time travel.The detailed knowledge the author uses brings the Blitz to life. Great characters too.


message 2: by Marc (new)

Marc G. Sigh. We could do without the Trump commentary by the author. I read history books so I don't have to read about the modern day postings of objections to the current President. One day, there will be history books written about Mr. Trump, but I don't like evaluating historical events whlle living in their midsts. And no, I didn't vote for Mr. Trump. This looks like a great book!


message 3: by Colleen (new)

Colleen Absolutely relevant to mention the contrast with Trump when looking at Mr Churchill! The former is a divider, the latter was an amazing unifier - an inspiring writer and orator who brought various factions together to fight the vicious, fascist Nazis. People in the British colonies (like my father) volunteered to serve as a result of hearing him on their radios, even though they did not live in Europe. I am looking forward to reading this new Larson book!


message 4: by Linda (last edited Feb 18, 2020 07:45AM) (new)

Linda Richwine Marc wrote: "Sigh. We could do without the Trump commentary by the author. I read history books so I don't have to read about the modern day postings of objections to the current President. One day, there will ..."

I agree with you about the author's Trump comment. Totally unnecessary.


message 5: by Steve (new)

Steve Hunt I as well


message 6: by Susan (new)

Susan On my gosh what is happening here again. This is an interview here and we should not pick at the author. He answered questions put to him. If you do not like the answer, move on.


message 7: by B. (last edited Feb 18, 2020 08:21AM) (new)

B. re: Marc's comment:
YOU may not like evaluating current events (that's what historical events that are happening now are called, fiy) but since they affect humanity NOW--the actual planet, actual people's lives, and the lives of those to come--many people do realize the importance of considering them, even when that comes with the realization that a (so called) leader is an unmitigated disaster that no amount of hindsight is going to perceptively improve, and the realization that people must speak against him however they can.

History books are history books, but the reality we live in is not simply some foregone set of events that exist solely for future academics to discuss.


message 8: by Ardys (new)

Ardys Otterbacher Donna wrote: ""Black Out" and "All Clear" by Connie Willis are superb novels set mainly in the Blitz. Why Mainly? Both these books are about time travel.The detailed knowledge the author uses brings the Blitz to..."

I absolutely agree! I felt like I was there in a way I haven't through other books - poignant and immediate. Why don't more people celebrate Connie Willis??


message 9: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Dobson Churchill had his warts—as we all do, but he certainly was dynamic and unifying. He was also cruel and merciless when it came to his political career. He and 'Bomber' Harris took revenge for the Nazi's killing of 32,000 people in the blitz of Britain's cities with a body count in the German cities of between 350,000 and 500,000 civilians, depending upon the source. No justification was ever given other than revenge; General Harris made that clear when he said, "...and they shall reap the whirlwind," referring to RAF revenge for the Luftwaffe attacks as the reciprocal reason behind the fire-bombing of German cities. Churchill, like Goebbels and Hitler, was a master at rallying people with guns.


message 10: by Graham (new)

Graham I am a Brit, and old enough to have lived through the blitz in London (I can remember being put to bed under the stairs because it was thought to be the safest place, before shelters in homes were available - but don't get me started on my wartime memories!), so I was interested to read this interview. The point about Trump was appropriate when he had been asked about the "message for today" and comparing political leadership. What WAS irrelevant was the question about Harry and Meghan, but he gave a good answer to that too.
As a child at the time, one accepted that that was what life was like, you didn't question it. When the sirens went during lunchtime at school you went down the shelter with the other children and waited for the all clear. At home you played with the children next door and still played 'Cowboys and Indians' rather than re-enacting the war. But I recently came across a drawing I had done at the time which showed fighter planes and bombs - goodness knows what a psychiatrist would make of it nowadays but it was our normality.
And I do remember being taken to hear Churchill speak at the end of the war on Kew Green (in West London), being hoiked up on to my father's shoulders because there were so many people there and I was still only small! Sadly I have no recollection of his speech, but I was only about five.
For readers there is an interesting book about the novelists who stayed behind in London during the blitz, and the effect it had on their writing (and their personal lives!), - Laura Feigel's 'The Love Charm of Bombs'; writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote in her novel 'The Heat of the Day', which re-tells in fiction a wartime love affair of her own, "the wicked had stayed and the good had gone"; and Graham Greene whose 'The End of the Affair' covers similar ground.
It is not only in the United States that we are missing leadership of Churchill's calibre - it's absence here is sorely felt too - but of course Churchill was voted out immediately after the war and Atlee voted in. History is complicated!


message 11: by Daria (new)

Daria I'm excited for the release of your new book. I just pre-ordered it on Kindle. It sounds intriguing. I've listened to your "Dead Wake," and read "The Devil in the White City" as well as "In the Garden of Beasts," enjoyed them all. I'm confident that your style of writing will ensure that the upcoming 500 pages fly by!


message 12: by Mary (last edited Feb 18, 2020 10:54AM) (new)

Mary My mother was an air raid warden in London during "The Blitz", the stories she told us were unnerving and proved her strength. The back wall of her mothers house was blown off with no family injuries, but she had the job of attending to what was left of a neighbours house where their entire family had perished.`She told us many times about how her tin hat had sustained a large dent. When in her 90`s she admitted it had fallen off a peg in the wardens office! Totally ruined her story!!


message 13: by Kendall (new)

Kendall McCurdy Donna wrote: ""Black Out" and "All Clear" by Connie Willis are superb novels set mainly in the Blitz. Why Mainly? Both these books are about time travel.The detailed knowledge the author uses brings the Blitz to..."

I listened to both of those and loved them!


message 14: by Pat (new)

Pat Re: Susan’s comment. “On my gosh what is happening here again. This is an interview here and we should not pick at the author. He answered questions put to him. If you do not like the answer, move on.”

Totally agree!


message 15: by June (new)

June Eicker I lived thru the London Blitz in Rotherhithe, by the London docks. Suffered “night terrors” for a long time. Diagnosed with PTSD in middle age, safe in America. Still, at 84, occasionally have them - fortunately not often. Besides Churchill we admired the King (George VI) and the Queen. They could have gone anywhere but stayed in London and visited the bomb sites, talking to people after a raid. Great morale booster. My #1 hero is my mother. Single (Dad was away in the Army ‘39-45) with 3 children 6 and under, and pregnant. She made everything seem normal, kept us housed, fed, and entertained. During daylight raids she put us down in the shelter and went food shopping! She could get served fast! There should be a monument on the Mall to the wartime women of London. Will read the book.


message 16: by Dottie (new)

Dottie Coltrane I can hardly wait to read this book, although I must confess to avoiding many 500 pagers! The interview is thorough and the author’s answers thoughtful and honest. Having a total of 80,000 words cut from his original manuscript must have been painful. Reading about the Blitz of 57 straight nights in London reminded me that Julie Andrews’ lovely memoir, “Home” devotes early chapters to her experience there during WW II. To me, Winston Churchill’s leadership and courage were key to the Allies’ victory and the British pilots who flew in combat are true heroes.
I agree that the question about Harry and Meghan was tacky, but the rest of the interview was almost perfect.


message 17: by Mark Cheviron (new)

Mark Cheviron Susan wrote: "On my gosh what is happening here again. This is an interview here and we should not pick at the author. He answered questions put to him. If you do not like the answer, move on."


message 18: by Mark Cheviron (new)

Mark Cheviron If he doesn’t like our President, maybe he should move on. Like back to England


message 19: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Mark Cheviron wrote: "If he doesn’t like our President, maybe he should move on. Like back to England"

What an immature answer. Grow up. And move on if you don't like it. Trump lovers are so aggressive. Wonder where they get that.


message 20: by Nevil (new)

Nevil Shute We recently had a controversy here in Canada because a certain group of people objected to wearing the poppy in remembrance of our war dead. We hosted a dinner with REMEMBRANCE as its theme, and I dug up the statistics of the victims of WWII (soldiers only, not civilians) and in doing so discovered much more. I was rather shocked what I found below. 3.7 million German prisoners of war killed and ‘’missing’’---a good many of them in the infamous Eisenhower camps? Wasn't killing prisoners a war crime? I had never even heard of these camps, although their existence is not exactly hidden. I had never even heard of Bomber Harris (a.k.a. Butcher Harris), who was largely responsible for the leveling of Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, etc. His bombing efforts make the London Blitz almost a tea party. Children exuberantly stepping out of the bomb shelters and being instantly incinerated when they stepped on the pavement in Dresden. Germans having their legs and arms attached to four horses, made to gallop and pull them apart. They erected a monument to Bomber Harris who lived in a town called Goring (of all names!)! It had to be guarded for a long time because Brits kept vandalizing it. His title died with him. I didn’t even know he exited. The largest maritime disaster ever was when the Allies (Russians) torpedoed and sank the German refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff at the end of the war with over 9,400 victims, mostly women and children. I had never heard of it. The Titanic maritime disaster pales by comparison. I didn’t even know that it was England and France that declared war on Germany twice, not the other way around as I had assumed. I also did not know that Hess, the German commander, flew his aeroplane to England to sue for peace in the early 1940’s and was imprisoned there and in Germany, instead, for the rest of his entire life, mostly in solitary confinement, and not allowed to speak to anyone without supervision. It was a war between 60 million Allied soldiers against 30 million of the Axis, and it took six years to end it. I had always assumed our side was lily-white. Yet the Germans never complained and never explained, and even paid war reparations through the nose, when they could ill afford them…and even now suffer anti-German hatemongering in the disguise of patriotism and victimhood. ---Whatever happened, all our boys (and many of the girls, too) went through hell over there and well deserve our wearing the poppy to remember it. Only I’ll wear mine for all of the victims now of two wars, including the Germans, who arguable suffered a great deal more in these two major conflicts that really changed very little in Europe, except that it propelled America to the hegemony of the free world. So, let it lead and unite the West---and that should include the approximately 1.3 billion people of Russia, Europe, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, facing 1.3 billion arguably peace-loving Chinese. Now, all this would make a book to remember. Here are the statistics:


NUMBER KILLED/ WOUNDED POW's POW's
SERVED MISSING (millions) KILL/MIS
GR 18,200,000 5,318,000 6,035,000 11,1 3,700,000
BR&
CW 17,834,000 580,497 475,000 0.318 107,000
USA 15,353,639 407,316 671,846 0.130 3,204
SOV 34,476,700 10,725,345 14,915,517 5.750 1,910,000
JAP 8,400,000 2,121,955 94,500 0.040 10,300
ITA 3,430,000 341,000 320,000 1,300 129,300
JEWS: 1933 Population in Europe (incl. Soviet Union): 9,067,000
LOW ESTIMATE DEATH: 4,869,860
HIGH ESTIMATE DEATH: 5,894,716
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_W...

NON-WHITE SOLDIERS: 1.45% in all Allied Services

Here is a quote from Bomber Harris: "The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive ... should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany ... the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."


message 21: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Daszynski Marc wrote: "Sigh. We could do without the Trump commentary by the author. I read history books so I don't have to read about the modern day postings of objections to the current President. One day, there will ..."

There needs to be commentary about Trump! I understand how we get sick of hearing about this horrible man.... BUT... Evil only happens when good people do nothing! Comment away, PLEASE, Mr, Larson.


message 22: by Cassie (new)

Cassie Linda wrote: "Marc wrote: "Sigh. We could do without the Trump commentary by the author. I read history books so I don't have to read about the modern day postings of objections to the current President. One day..."

I agree


message 23: by Angus (new)

Angus Behr as a B rit I would not presume to comment on USA politics and their leaders except the amount of $ being expended seem to us to be obscene! We have our own problems here and could really do with another Churchill to inspire rather than what seems to be happening a maniac control freak running the government with policies that do nothing to improve standards of living. The latest immigration policy suggestions will deprive hospitals, nursing and care homes as well as farming enterprises of most of their staff and this is said to be good for the economy!


message 24: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Engle Donna wrote: ""Black Out" and "All Clear" by Connie Willis are superb novels set mainly in the Blitz. Why Mainly? Both these books are about time travel.The detailed knowledge the author uses brings the Blitz to..."
Amen! Those are two incredible books about the period ... even tho they are fiction, they truly give a feel for that time and place.


message 25: by Lmv100 (new)

Lmv100 Marc wrote: "Sigh. We could do without the Trump commentary by the author. I read history books so I don't have to read about the modern day postings of objections to the current President. One day, there will ..."

I agree with you 100%. It is dissuading me from reading the book.


message 26: by Greg (last edited Feb 20, 2020 01:49PM) (new)

Greg I'm not a supporter of the current president, and at the risk of perpetuating a tiresome theme (in this thread and elsewhere), I'm also one of those people who could've done without the Trump commentary. However, I do think the question posed by the interviewer was perfectly appropriate, especially given the subject of the book, and the author's answer was on point. The present occupant of the White House aside, there are certainly plenty of political leaders both past and present who pale in comparison with the likes of Churchill, FDR, Lincoln, et al., when it comes to leadership and setting an example. This author is one of my favorites, and I'm really looking forward to the release of the book.


message 27: by Lori (new)

Lori Hughes Colleen wrote: "Absolutely relevant to mention the contrast with Trump when looking at Mr Churchill! The former is a divider, the latter was an amazing unifier - an inspiring writer and orator who brought various ..."

I'm not totally of the mindset that Churchill was a unifier. Yes, we hear about how he rallied Britain during very dark times, but (like Trump), he had plenty of enemies (even within his own party). He wasn't always popular (also not unlike Trump). Hopefully the book will not contain a lot of Trump bashing as that will disappoint me greatly. I'm looking forward to this book!


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