Interviews

Thin-Slice History: Erik Larson and the Art of Storytelling

You know the big names. George Washington, Cleopatra, etc. Important writers have written important books about them that have sold millions of copies and won major awards.

In five best-selling books — Isaac’s Storm (1999), The Devil in the White City (2003), Thunderstruck (2006), In the Garden of Beasts (2011) and Dead Wake (2015) — Erik Larson has eschewed history’s A-list of the famous and the powerful for that next tier. Instead of retelling the exploits of gods and kings, he finds stories that can still surprise you.

Larson’s heroes aren’t obscure — they’re important; they did stuff; they have Wikipedia pages — but they’re unfamiliar enough to surprise you and unburdened enough with Very Important Things You Must Know to be characters who are historical figures instead of the other way around.

His books have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have foreshadowing and character development. They have humor and suspense. There are costumes and set pieces. They are, in every practical sense, literary historical novels. They aren’t novels insofar as they are researched retellings of actual historical events, but Larson chose the topics because of their novelistic qualities.

For academic historians who look to shape our thinking about history or readers who seek out history to organize and understand it, that may sound like a dodge or a missed opportunity. Larson knows that. He knows that and he’s not disparaging of academic historians or the work they do or the importance of it or the motivations of the people who read it.

But that’s not what he’s doing.

Larson’s histories are yarns. They’re good stories. They’re novels — with endnotes.

Dead Wake isn’t a definitive history of the sinking of the Lusitania,” Larson says. “My intent was to create a rich, visceral sense of what it would have been been like to be aboard that ship — to put people there — and not to tabulate how many passengers were aboard from England vs. America vs. France.”

In an hour-long interview at The Brice hotel in Savannah in February before speaking to a capacity crowd at the Savannah Book Festival, Larson talked to Signature about his five books, how he found those stories, his approach to writing history, and one of the books he didn’t write.

SIGNATURE: I don’t want to fasten a throughline on these five books if there isn’t one there, but is there an idea running through these books that you see?

ERIK LARSON: I think hubris is a big part of it. In Isaac’s Storm, Isaac thought he knew everything there was to know about hurricanes, and he didn’t.

SIG: It was certainly an element of The Devil in the White City.

EL: Right, because of Burnham.

SIG: I was going to say Dr. Holmes.

EL: Right, both really. In Thunderstruck, there was definitely Hubris on the part of Marconi. For In the Garden of Beasts, it was Hitler. And with Dead Wake, it was Captain Turner and everyone feeling like nothing bad could happen to a big ship in that era and that a submarine was an inconsequential enemy. It’s all hubris, but it’s hubris broadly construed.

SIG: Is that something you only see looking back, or is that something you saw in each book?

EL: I see that looking back. When I’m considering an idea and there is an element of hubris involved, I generally feel comfortable that it’s going to be a good story. Pride goeth before a fall. It’s an element of a lot of big stories.

SIG: You’ve gone to novelistic, closed-ended stories rather than something more expansive like a biography of George Washington. Is that because you like a beginning and a middle and an end, like a novel or film?

EL: The reason I choose the stories I choose — and it’s why it takes me so long to find ideas — is that I’m looking for that very thing. I want an idea that begins, I want a middle that is compelling and will bring readers along, and I definitely want an ending. You could call it thin-slice history. It’s not my intent to write definitive history. Dead Wake isn’t a definitive history of the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s my account.

SIG: What would it be short of a definitive account?

EL: I think it comes down to intent. My intent was to create a rich, visceral sense of what it would have been like to be aboard that ship — to put people there — and not to tabulate how many passengers were aboard from England vs. America vs. France. Nor was it my intention to detail the long diplomatic saga that followed the sinking of the Lusitania, which was long and tedious. That would be the definitive history of the Lusitania.

SIG: You’ve written two kinds of books — the alternating, A-B-A-B book and the overarching book. Do you think in terms of where to put the camera? The story is on this person’s shoulder or these three people’s shoulders?

EL: You’re always aware of the metaphorical camera. Anytime you look at someone in detail, you’re putting the camera on that person. What I typically look for is one or two or three really strong characters who will hold the narrative throughout the work. In the case of Dead Wake, it was Captain Turner and Walther Schwieger, the submarine captain. There are some other characters who are in the book mainly because they left detailed account of the sinking, so the camera goes to them for that period.

SIG: How far do you get before you say the story is there?

EL: It varies. In the case of Dead Wake, I had to do a lot of advance research. It’s such a heavily done thing that I had to make very sure I could provide something new to the story. There’s always a point where a story starts to resonate — where it becomes like a tuning fork and you’re in sync with it.

SIG: Have you bailed on something that you thought was a book?

EL: I just bailed on one. I spent six months on the book proposal. As soon as I hit “send” to my agent, I thought, I don’t like it. I don’t want to do this book. I killed it and I have no regrets.

It’s still too fresh, and I’d rather not talk about it. There was an earlier book I wound up not writing that I can tell you about. In the midst of the worst of the California drought a few years ago, I thought I would do a book about William Mulholland, the head of the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

SIG: I think there’s a fairly recent book about that, right?

EL: I’m coming up to that. [Laughs.] I was not going to rehash the water story. I was going to write a book about the failure of the St. Francis Dam. Mulholland was at the peak of his career and was the most powerful man in the West. He built this dam, and it was deeply flawed. One night in 1928, the dam broke. It killed 500 people. There’s a glancing reference to it in the movie Chinatown. There were a lot of great elements. The D.A. tried to put Mulholland on trial for murder. The D.A. was corrupt and hated Mulholland.

I wrote the proposal. And I don’t know what it was, but it just lacked heart. I spent months on the project and it had all the right elements, but it just wasn’t doing it for me. I was sure somebody else could write a great book about it. And I was glad I didn’t write it. About six months later, I saw that Les Standiford’s Water to the Angels about the L.A. water system was about to come out. I felt like I had dodged a bullet.

SIG: The records weren’t there? You just lost interest?

EL: The records were there — trial transcripts, everything. To this day, I can’t tell you what it was. It didn’t keep getting better the more research I did. I just didn’t stay interested.

***

SIG: What was the first kernel of The Devil in the White City?

EL: In 1994, there was a great book by Caleb Carr called The Alienist, which I loved. It was a fictional account of a serial killer in New York in the 1800s. When I finished reading the book, I had this powerful sense of old New York and just wanted to stay there. I thought it would be interesting to write a nonfiction book about a murder and try to evoke the past through that.

Erik Larson - Devil in the White City

SIG: And true crime wasn’t something you had done to that point, right?

EL: Right, and I don’t even consider The Devil in the White City true crime. I was trying to do something like the book equivalent of the movie “Gosford Park,” something full of manner and custom and characters. I found the murder of William Marsh Rice, who was the founder of Rice University. He was killed in New York by his valet and an unscrupulous lawyer. They were going to poison him using bananas laced with arsenic over a long period of time so it could never be traced back to them.

Then there was a hurricane in Texas. William Morris Rice wanted to liquidate his fortune and send it to Galveston to help rebuild the city. The plotters found out he was going to spend all of his money, and they killed him. It was the first murder in history with a hurricane as the proximate cause. I stumbled across this headline in the New York World that said there were 3,000 people dead on the coast of Texas, and I thought, Really? That can’t be true. I had never heard of anything like that. It was actually more than 3,000 people, and that became Isaac’s Storm. After I finished that, I started thinking again about a murder book. I got a book called The Encyclopedia of Murder.

SIG: You were going through the encyclopedia looking for a murderer?

EL: [Laughs.] Exactly. I came across H.H. Holmes at some point, and I was not interested. I didn’t want to do crime porn. I wanted to do “Gosford Park.” There was a reference in the Holmes section about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which I knew nothing about. So I started reading about the Chicago World’s Fair, and that was the trigger. I was reading this really boring historical monograph. It was like a Marxist, feminist deconstruction of the Manufacturer’s Building at the World’s Fair. Boring, right.

SIG: It sounds boring.

EL: The nice thing about academic historians is that even they know when something is sexy. They put it in the footnotes. They’re trying to get tenure, so they put that stuff in the footnotes. As soon as I started reading the footnotes, there was a single fact that really made me take notice: Juicy Fruit gum was introduced at the World’s Fair of 1893. This fair was really something. It was the juxtaposition of this act of civil goodwill — the fair — versus a murder. It was the darkest of the dark vs. the lightest of the light.

The title The Devil in the White City came to me within the first twenty-four hours and stuck with me. That’s not to say that I had a lot of confidence in the book. On the eve of publication, I was pretty sure that my career was over.

SIG: Why?

EL: The dual narratives never touched, which broke all the rules.

SIG: Did American Horror Story consult you on the H.H. Holmes character?

EL: No.

SIG: The murderer is pretty clearly based on Holmes. Have you seen it?

EL: No. Some people have talked about it. Was it Holmes?

SIG: I don’t think they called him that, but he built a hotel, there were secret passageways, he killed people, etc.

EL: You know, it’s fair game. Fact is fact, and fact can’t be copyrighted. I’d be curious to hear what Leonardo DiCaprio thought of it since he has the option on The Devil in the White City.

SIG: That’s been pending for a while. What’s the status of that?

EL: He’s had the option for a long time. He has kept renewing it. There was one screenplay that didn’t pan out, and last year he recruited Martin Scorsese to direct and Billy Ray to write a new screenplay.

SIG: Did the first screenplay keep the dual story?

EL: I don’t know. I never saw it. I try to stay out of cinematic things as much as possible.

SIG: The Stephen King philosophy?

EL: I understood that as a Tom Wolfe philosophy. Maybe Stephen King borrowed it. You bring your book to the fence, you take the bag of money, and you run.

***

SIG: Thunderstruck was your next book, and it was also a dual story. How purposeful was that?

EL: It was not at all intentional. One of the things I weighed was the fact that people would think I was trying to leverage the shtick of The Devil in the White City for another book.

Erik Larson - Thunderstruck

SIG: It’s a fair guess.

EL: It’s definitely a fair guess. Weirdly, that had nothing to do with it. I was driving across a drawbridge in Seattle and got cut off by a driver who was on his cell phone. I was pissed and saw a big cell phone tower across the bridge, and I wondered if there was a story there. I went home and started googling wireless and found Guglielmo Marconi. I found a timeline of facts, and there was a reference to Harvey Crippen, the killer. What? Why is he in this wireless timeline?

I recognized the name. I remember vividly my mother being a big mystery fan, and I vividly remembered her telling me the Crippen story when I was thirteen. That was the year the captain of the ship that had chased Crippen across the ocean had died.

SIG: She saw it in the newspaper?

EL: Yeah, the obituary was in the paper. I remember her telling me about the Crippen story in our kitchen, which was three steps down from the living room. I remember it because I was standing on the steps. It’s one of those visceral things you just remember. I looked into it and found this transoceanic shape, and I knew the last hundred pages would have a reason to read. So that’s how how Thunderstruck came about.

SIG: How close did you come to just doing one story or the other?

EL: It was the same thing as The Devil in the White City. I had zero interest in doing one of the stories alone.

SIG: Did you come away with any singular pathology of your two murderers? That you felt like they were affected by similar motivations.

EL: No, not at all. Holmes was a pure psychopath, and it’s pointless to think about motive. Crippen was a different sort of character. He was an oppressed man who came up with what he thought was a solution, and he went with it. A lot of readers have found him sympathetic.

SIG: In The Devil in the White City, what was your material for Holmes? Nobody knew about that stuff while it was happening. Was he keeping records?

EL: There was so much. Once Holmes was arrested and tried for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel, his partner, there was newspaper coverage for days on end. It was unlike anything we have today. It was more than the O.J. Simpson coverage. The entire front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune would be about the trial, and there would be pages of coverage inside. Newspapers were different then, so there would be letters from victim’s parents and other kinds of original material.

Holmes also left three confessions and a detailed autobiography. That was deeply problematic because he was a psychopath, but there were interesting things there. He referred to bodies after they were dead as “the material.” The best thing I found was a terrific book [The Holmes-Pitezel Case] by Frank Geyer, who was the detective who was searching for some missing children who eventually tracked down Holmes.

***

SIG: Do you separate reading to find an idea from reading in general?

EL: I’m always looking for ideas. In the course of my research, I’m always seeing interesting, unrelated things. After hours, I read mostly fiction.

SIG: What are you reading?

EL: At the moment, I’m reading a Scottish detective novel by Peter May called The Blackhouse, and I’m about to start reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

SIG: Do you know what you’re going to write next?

EL: I don’t. I’m doing a lot of reading on something that may yield my next book, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

SIG: Historical? I know you wrote a couple of current-events books before you started writing history.

EL: Yeah, I don’t intend to do contemporary books again.

SIG: Why not?

EL: For several reasons. Contemporary books have short shelf lives, and I would much prefer dealing with dead people. They don’t sue you or bitch at you after the book comes out. They don’t come and shoot at your house, which happened to me after Lethal Passage came out. Someone shot at my house with a paintball gun late at night.

SIG: That book was about guns, right?

EL: Right. There were police cars, helicopters — and they never found who did it.

SIG: That’s pretty scary.

EL: I spent a lot of time as a mainstream journalist. I worked for the Wall Street Journal and after that Time magazine and wrote some freelance pieces. I got burned out on cold-calling people.

SIG: Did you read much history before you started writing about history?

EL: No, not at all. I don’t really think of myself as a historian. I see myself simply as a writer who writes history where I use my training as a journalist and my narrative training from reading and learning about stories. There are historians who are interested in taking a new view on World War II, which is not what I do. I want to write about how it would have been — in the case of In the Garden of Beasts — to live in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. What did people do? What would I have done? It’s not a definitive history of World War II.

Erik Larson - In the Garden of Beasts

SIG: Do you ever catch hell from academic historians?

EL: One young historian from a college in Virginia came up after a talk at the Virginia Historical Society, and it became clear to me that he didn’t think very much of this kind of narrative history because it didn’t add to the historiography. It didn’t break new ground. He didn’t understand why anyone would be writing books like this.

SIG: He was coming from a bias of academic history as the definitive history? Or that you didn’t have his training?

EL: He was coming from a bias that you should write history in a way that advances the world’s knowledge, that adds to the reservoir of knowledge, that breaks new ground. That’s a valid viewpoint, but that’s a different thing. That’s why I don’t see myself as a historian.

SIG: Have you had conversations with editors and agents about “the argument” of a book? That academic historian’s idea that you’re supposed to be advancing a particular idea or theory?

EL: Not really. I was doing a talk at Beloit College, and a young man stood up and took me to task for not including the African-American experience in The Devil in the White City. I said, “That’s not this story. That’s not the story I’m trying to tell.” Another student stood up and took me to task for not including enough women, and I said the same thing. It’s not the definitive account of the World’s Fair. It is the story I chose to tell. That’s why I’m separated from historians and biographers and why I’ll never write a biography. In a biography, there are too many things that you have to do.

SIG: You have to tell the greatest hits.

EL: Or even the not-greatest hits. I’m not interested in that. I’m just there for the story.

SIG: Do you think your books should have a big idea — the nature of a murderer or whatever — or are you just telling that contained story?

EL: I’m telling a contained story as a way of getting on a soapbox to talk about the depravity of mankind. It’s self-evident if you tell the story well. I’m not going to tell people you should be horrified by this. That’s when you lose what I’m doing and become a historian.