Interview with Erik Larson, March 14, 2016, on occasion of release of trade paper edition of Dead Wake
Interviewer, Rob Neufeld
Erik Larson has made the telling of history through non-fiction thrillers his specialty, as with such best-sellers as “The Devil in the White City,” about an architect and serial killer at the 1893 Columbian Exposition; “Thunderstruck,” about a wife-killer, a detective, and the invention of wireless telegraphy; and “In the Garden of Beasts,” about a professor and his daughter in 1933 Germany. His latest book, “Dead Wake,” now out in trade paper, plots the courses, in 1915, of two boats—the supreme British ocean liner, Lusitania, and the German submarine, U-20—up to the devastating torpedo hit (on page 236), through the time-slowing immediate consequences, and beyond to other kinds of political and personal upshots. The genius in the telling involves not only the application of suspense to non-fiction, but also nuanced portrayals of the principal characters, and the management of telling facts and branching stories to create setting and context.
EVENT: Erik Larson discusses “Dead Wake” with Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City,” in UNCA's Humanities Lecture Hall, 7 p.m., Wed, Mar. 23, in an event brought by Malaprop’s Bookstore and co-sponsored by UNC Asheville's Great Smokies Writing Program. Ticket cost is $17.00 (plus tax) and includes a paperback copy of Dead Wake. Call 254-6734.
R: I’d like to go way back in your life, if I may, to your playing with ships in the bathtub.
R: If you look at the Lusitania and all the strategic actions and random occurrences involved, it seems that bathtub play could be made much more interesting.
E: (laughs) Play-acting the Lusitania.
R: Or even sea battles. What kind of an imaginative kid were you?
E: I lived in my imagination. Whenever I was home sick from school, I would spend all my time drawing elaborate battle scenes. Ships in the bathtub was one of my favorite things, generating these massive tsunamis. If you did it right, unfortunately things also ended up on the floor of the bathroom. I loved concocting disasters. I had a great childhood, actually.
R: Did you have some favorite childhood books?
E: I had a lot of favorite childhood books. I read often about some of the great maritime mysteries—the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman and the Bermuda Triangle. Those things just absolutely ignited my imagination. My big reading back then were books such as “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.” I was also into some Cornelius Ryan books, such as “The Longest Day.”
R: How old were you when you were reading Dumas?
E: I was like four (laughs). No, I don’t know. Before that, my go-to writers were whoever it was who wrote Tom Swift and also I was really into the Nancy Drew books, not the Hardy Boys. Then Agatha Christie. She was my entry into real reading as was a spy writer of that era, Helen McInnes. Things led into other realms from there.
R: Is Nancy Drew superior to the Hardy Boys?
E: I thought so. I liked the set-up. I liked the girl detective, and I liked her father, and the lives that they led. And I liked the mysteries that underpinned each novel—“The Secret of the Old Clock.” “The Whispering Statue.” I read them all.
R: You were in journalism for a long time. Did that affect your style, such as looking for hooks?
E: I think writers who have journalism in their backgrounds do look for hooks. But I think writers who want to write a good story are in the same realm. One of my models for trying to adapt novelistic techniques to non-fiction is John Irving because he makes it obvious—cliff-hangers and cut-aways and withholding and foreshadowing. He’s a great model. I don’t see myself as a historian. I see myself rather as a journalist who just happens to write history...I just want to tell a story in a way that it hasn’t been told before.
R: I loved your essay at the back of the trade paperback. You talk about the four things involved in finding an idea for a story. One of those things is making sure that no one else could possibly be doing that story, that it is unique to you.
E: Right. That’s one of the criteria that I usually apply, though in the case of the Lusitania that was a trickier one. It was after all the Lusitania—and there was the anniversary. My dread was that there would be another book, and I would be doomed to the death-in-life of the dual review...Usually what I try to do is make sure that a book is complex enough so that I can be pretty assured that nobody else is going to be doing that book.
R: I have some thoughts about what makes your work distinctive. If someone showed me a book of yours without your name on it, I would like to believe I would think, “Oh, that’s an Erik Larson.”
E: Hahh, I would like to think that that’s true.
R: One thing is, I feel there's a Hitchcock connection. I know in the interview with “The Guardian,” you said something about putting on your Hitchcock hat. I’m thinking of the ambiguity of your heroes and villains, the ticking bomb element, settings and moodiness, and even the portrayal of marriages.
E: (laughs) I’m flattered with the parallels that you make between me and Hitchcock, and I am an absolutely huge Hitchcock fan, believe me, but if I had to say that there was any project that I specifically had Hitchcock in mind, it was in fact this last book, “Dead Wake,” because I had vowed early on that what I was going to bring new to the party, after discovering the richness and depth of material in the archives, was suspense, real-life suspense, nothing made up whatsoever.
R: It would be fun to point to one scene in particular that might illustrate that.
E: I knew exactly where the submarine was coming from, exactly what course it was on because of this war log, which was a tremendous narrative in itself, and exactly what was happening with the Lusitania. You have all kinds of things to make readers suspend their knowledge of what happened, that’s the beauty of all this. It’s the reader who makes this whole thing happen because there’s this beautiful paradox. No matter how much somebody knows what the ending is...when you tell the story as richly and suspensefully as possible, people suspend that knowledge. I hear this every day from people that even though they knew what was happening, they really found themselves just hoping that it wouldn’t. My favorite Hitchcockian moment is when: here’s the submarine, and the crew has had this abysmal time (fulfilling their mission), and suddenly they hear these very heavy engines passing right overhead. And the reader is going to think, “Uh-oh, that’s the Lusitania. Now it’s over.” But the submarine surfaces to find it’s not the Lusitania at all. It’s this armed cruiser, the Juno. That’s a Hitchcockian moment.
R: How important is it to make things seem as real as possible?
E: John Gardner wrote a couple of books about writing novels, and I think you can apply it to non-fiction. One of his tenets was anything that takes you out of the fictional dream, in my case, the non-fiction dream—for example, showy writing, an anti-grammatical sentence, or italics—is a bad thing. In “Dead Wake,” I don’t refer to World War II...because in the context of the book, there had not been a World War II yet. And no one was referring to World War I as World War I either. It was the Great War. Nobody referred to it as World War I because there had not been a second. You have to pay attention to things like that. You also can’t use words that are contemporary today...You can’t use, for example, computer technical terms such as “Turner (the Lusitania captain) had to restart his thinking.” You can never do something like that because right away, you’re taking people out of the era. So, everything that can possibly be done to keep people in the era is what I try to do, which is why I don’t have a lot of photographs in my books either.
R: Ah, you don’t have photographs because it breaks the narration.
E: Well, I don’t have photographs because first of all, in a trade book, be it hardcover or paperback, the reproduction is abysmal.
R: Good for you.
E: Typically they’re inserted in what’s referred to as signatures, four to six pages of glossy paper, sometimes two signatures in a book. Those signatures are like a lighthouse beacon. They draw you out of the narrative. You want to see what people look like. I am of the school of thought that every time you pull your eyes away from the page, there is a chance that your eyes will not come back to that page. I want as seamless an experience as possible. In “Dead Wake,” there is exactly one photograph, and that’s on the frontispiece. In “In the Garden of Beasts,” there are five or six photographs, but I put them each at the start of a so-called part (so that) each image casts the reader forward into what’s coming.
R: I know exactly what you mean. I expect even popular fiction to follow the rules and not have any rotten peanuts ruining it.
E: (laughs) Okay.
R: So, for instance, there was a chess scene in a Jeffrey Archer book, and two grandmasters are playing, and one of them is surprised by a checkmate that comes in two moves.
E: The thing is, a lot of readers are inattentive readers. I’m a very slow reader. I was telling my wife that maybe I have some kind of reading disability. I’m serious. I am so slow.
R: How slow is slow? How many pages an hour?
E: How many pages an hour? How many pages a night? I will only read 10 or 20 pages in a sitting, so for me to finish a book takes a long time. I think it’s because I read every word. In a way, it is a handicap because it prevents me from getting that experience that other readers have. I can’t often sink into a book in the way that I would really love to do. If I find myself falling into a book, I find myself asking, “How is this writer doing it? Why am I feeling this way?” And it’s a relatively rare book that lets me suspend that critical overlay. One of those that I remember fondly, and I just reread and it had the same effect, was Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.”
R: Oh, of course! (laughs)
E: I found myself, each time I read it, just so falling into that world that she created. It’s really quite incredible.
R: I thought of “The Shipping News” when I was reading about your career at the “Wall Street Journal.”
E: Oh yeah?
R: I said, “Oh, yeah, ‘Shipping News,’” you know, the way you had tried to get past the business stories.
E: That’s right, the character in “The Shipping News” does that.
R: So, don’t you find dry history easier to read?
E: Well, that’s an interesting point. During the day, all I read is dry history because I’m mining it for the details that will help me do what I do, and I can go through those very quickly because I’m not analyzing anything because the writing is crap. It’s not like I have to read more slowly to get a sense of the flavor of what’s happening. It’s just very dry stuff, and I’m looking for that telltale fact that sometimes the writer just throws away. There are memoirs even, where the author was central to an event, and it’s written in such a way that you just wonder why the person bothered. But there is always some fact, some element, often thrown in as a parenthetical reference, that is worth the entire effort of reading that book. But, for pleasure, all I read is fiction. After hours, that’s all I read. Unfortunately, I don’t let myself read fiction during the day. It’s the Calvinist in me. I should be able to feel like, hey, you know, this is part of my job. I can sit down and read the latest Kazuo Ishiguro novel and nobody’s allowed to criticize me. Except that I criticize me, and between the hours of whatever and whatever when I’m doing hard core research, it’s hard core research.
R: Well, damn, Erik, I would think that reading novels would be considered tax deductible.
E: (laughs) Well, it is and would be, but I do reserve that for pleasure.
R: Along with all the suspense, historical insight, and commentary in “Dead Wake,” there are amazing facts and retellable anecdotes. You don’t find that in too many books. For instance, in New York, while the ship was taking off, people had this jungle party and were eating stuffed eagle’s eggs?
E: I love it that you picked up on that because those are the little things that I absolutely adore. I vowed, when I came across that, that it was going in the book, I don’t care whether it’s relevant of not, I’m going to find a way to get this jungle party into that book.
R: Well, you know, it really conjured up a true feeling of the era. I was thinking of “King Kong.”
E: You know, thank you for that, too because I thought about “King Kong”—you know when the ship sets out from New York with Driscoll.
R: Yes. It just brings up that whole era. I also love your portrayal of the remarkably horrible living environment within the submarine.
E: I guess that gets a little bit into the Hitchcockian thing. Here I knew so much about this submarine and its journey, and I knew enough about the commander to know that this is not some scarred Max von Sydow-like character. It would have been tempting or nice, I suppose, to have had this guy who was an unalloyed villain. But the reality is, heroes have warts and villains have good sides...But this guy (the U-20 captain, Schwieger) was doing a job and his crew loved him, and they were working under horrendous conditions, so I decided, I’m going to play it straight. That’s one of the things I learned at the “Wall Street Journal” that was crucial. I specialized for a while in the stories that were referred to as A-heads, the often funny, oblique stories that ran down the center of the old design of the “Wall Street Journal.” I loved doing those. I specialized in them, trying to avoid business writing as much as possible, right? And one of the guiding rules with those center stories was: the more insignificant the story, the better. One of the things that I and a fellow writer talked about was that you had it to play it as you saw it, play it absolutely straight. If you play it straight, and the material is inherently funny, it’s even funnier. If you jump up and down and poke fun at somebody, it doesn’t work. It’s the same thing with something like the submarine. You just play it the way it is, with all the relevant nuances associated with it, and it’s a much more compelling story. It’s hard to hate those guys in that submarine. That just adds to the story.
R: Well, just about the creepiest person in “Dead Wake” is President Wilson.
E: (laughs) You say creepy, hmm, okay.
R: One of the gifts I take away from the book is this picture of Wilson mooning over Edith Galt, and writing that letter to her after he responds to Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania. I’m quoting. “I have just put the final touches on our note to Germany and now turn—with what joy!—to talk with you.”
E: There are nuances to everything, and context is very important. Historically, we think of President Wilson as this great president. He is this great president, although he’s coming under a lot of fire now for racism in the way he viewed the world, and there’s a controversy now about renaming the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton—but what I found, I felt that this experience with Edith Galt really warmed him in my perception. I always knew he was a great, in quotes, president, but this Edith Galt thing really made him, for me, into a human being.
R: Oh, my reaction doesn’t match yours.
E: Here’s this guy who was deeply lonely after the death of his wife, haunted by her memories in the White House, and really depressed. This was a depressed guy, trying to do his job at a tough time. He falls for this woman in a huge way. The temptation was on my part to try to get as many letters as I could into the book, but my God, I’ve got dozens and dozens and dozens of pages of these letters, but, you know, the rule is less is more. But they really warmed him in my perception. It also made me think the guy really was totally obsessed with her in an unhealthy way; he just needed somebody. I get that. Suddenly, he became a very human person to me.
R: I can see that. It is a little scary, though to see how much of an effect a single individual can have on history.
R: If one steps back from your book and says, so what is it that we or Erik Larson can take away from history, there’s heroism, there’s randomness, there’s politics, there’s ingenuity, but also there’s: Oh my gosh, a single individual can have that much of an effect?
E: At the same time you can also say: Would another individual in the same situation have the same effect? And there’s a body of historiography that says yes. It’s like thinking about the upcoming presidential election, there’s a lot of fear of Trump, and people are making allusions repeatedly to my book, “In the Garden of Beasts,” and saying that everybody should read it because this is a window onto what’s happening now. If Trump got elected, would anything like that happen?
R: That’s an important point you make. What do we learn from history? I like to say, the one thing we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.
E: One of things that I’ll tell you, again speaking of Wilson, is that I honor him for striving to keep America out of war because he understood something that I don’t think a lot of people understood. He understood what war really meant, and he understood that America was not ready for it.
R: Yeah, I got that. And we know how World War I proceeded, and it was horrible. In “The Garden of the Beasts,” you’re able to follow these characters from being wowed by German culture to slowly being able to realize what’s going on. I can understand why people are making references to this book now. Of course, every historical situation is different. But if we need to make an important comparison, how do we connect the dots? Is it doable in a way that’s persuasive to people?
E: The problem is that sometimes comparisons are too facile. For example, one of the things I feel, having written “In the Garden of Beasts,” and then looking at Trump, there are a lot of elements to Trump that are parallel to Hitler’s rise, one of which is that Trump offers a little of something for everyone...One might embrace any one of those things and loathe the other aspects of Trump, and still be a Trump fan. But the thing that is missing, thank God, is that Trump does not have a paramilitary arm that he can call on to enforce his views and steal the vote. He doesn’t have that. Now, he has a surrogate. In his failure to condemn violence at his rallies, he almost has, in a sense, de facto Stormtroopers, you know, people who are willing to rough up people, but they’re not part of any network. You can make parallels, you can express them as a way of expressing your own unease, but I think that any scholar of Nazi Germany would say, the parallels are not that tight.
R: Another one of the big carry-aways from “Dead Wake” is the possible conspiracy theory.
R: You handled it deftly. You put enough out there to be considered, but not necessarily believed.
R: But I can see you definitely put it there, particularly when you quote that naval historian.
E: Here’s the thing. You can’t not put it out there because there’s so much circumstantial evidence that suggests something was going on. At the same, if you were to make this argument in a court of law with a jury, there isn’t enough to send the guy to the death chamber, you know what I mean? There is no smoking memo from Churchill or anybody saying let’s let this happen. But there’s so much on the other side of the ledger. Churchill would have loved to have an event that brought America into the war. So much was known about the Lusitania’s path—nightly broadcasts by the German navy telling its captains of the comings and goings of the Lusitania and other Cunard ships, the fact that U-20s whereabouts were absolutely precisely known. Everyone with the Admiralty, in Room 40, knew exactly where this submarine was headed, and everyone knew the Lusitania was coming. So, what happened? And that British historian pretty much sums it up. First, he said it was a mistake, just a mistake, and then he changed his mind.
Q: There are so many branching stories. It doesn’t seem that a story that you touch upon in one of your books ends up being the subject of a different book. Are there temptations to do that ever?
E: No. I’m not ruling it out. If I came across something in the research for one book that was incredibly compelling and struck me right away, that made me feel that this would make a great book, I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it, but I really like venturing into fresh territory with each new book. I don’t want to be typecast; I don’t want to become the expert on World War I. I follow the story. I’m looking for the best story I can tell at a particular time.
by Benjamin Benschneider