“Not a day goes by that I don’t knock wood and think, I don’t know why this has happened but I’m really glad it did,” confessed author Erik Larson when telling me about his success. Larson, who began his career as a journalist, reporting for the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, has made a living writing about odd bits of history, bringing to life characters who have slipped into the annals of the past mostly unnoticed.
Larson already had three critically acclaimed books under his belt—The Naked Consumer (1992), Lethal Passage (1995), and Isaac’s Storm (1999)—before writing the 2003 bestseller The Devil in the White City. A sinister true tale of a turn-of-the-century serial killer who committed his grisly murders against the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Devil became a runaway hit and launched Larson’s career as one of the best nonfiction writers going. In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011), is the latest page-turner and another bestseller.
On a recent morning, I spoke via phone to Larson from his Seattle home about the creep factor of writing about Nazis, gun laws, and his fear of career-ending failure.
Was In the Garden of the Beasts the hardest book to write emotionally? Well, serial killers are a drag, too.
It depends on your perspective [laughs]. If you are being stalked by a serial killer, it is a real drag. If you are writing about him, as a journalist you wear two hats—one hat is, yes you’re emotionally moved. Put on the other hat and it’s “This is great stuff.” So I can’t really say that any one of my books was emotionally harder to write than the next. This one was probably one of the creepiest. In one sense it was because there was a certain amount of bleed-over from the material to my daily life. I have to say that reading about the pathology of the Third Reich day after day really does take its toll. And in that sense, by the time I was done writing the book, I was, as my wife noted, sort of in the midst of a low-grade depression. But then when the book was done, I have to say, that was over. Instantly.
Even though you don’t write about the war much, I was creeped out because of the knowledge of the end game.
From a narrative perspective what I wanted to capture was the creeping darkness of the first year of Hitler’s rule. But what readers brought to it, I quickly discovered after the book eventually came out, was what people bring to horror movies. Like you know what’s going to happen, and you know that the babysitter should not go down into the basement to investigate that growling noise, but then she goes down anyway. So that’s kind of the effect the book had on people as I discovered after the fact. I didn’t really count on that or work that into my planning for narrative suspense, but people brought that idea that this is all going to have a really bad end and so here’s what’s coming and so why are you sleeping with the chief of the Gestapo?
I also found it interesting—and frightening—to see how fairly easily people can get swept up in something malevolent. One can be in the midst of it and not realize what’s going on, or even that you are helping to move it along.
Not only could you be in the midst of it and not realize it, but you could be in the midst of it and having the time of your life, which was the case with Martha [Dodd] early on before she opened her eyes. That’s why I focused on that first year in particular because that’s when things had their most clear upward arc toward badness, after that first year things got steadily worse but almost in a repetitive way.
I love history and read about it on my own, but a lot of people don’t get into it because much of it is written very academically. You’ve brought such a service to the public because the stories that history has to tell are endless and you bring them to life.
I also know from doing the research that there are a lot of really, really—I mean really—death-dealing dry history books. And that’s all one ends up reading doing research for something [like this]. I’m glad though, because that means there is a fresh opportunity to breath life into something that even maybe has been written often before. So I thank those historians.
Coming from a journalist background, you know how to tell a story. I’m all for history becoming more fashionable. Speaking of stories, I read Lethal Passage, which was written back in the 1990s, but it’s still sadly so relevant.
It is. The strange thing is that when the book came out…it never did incredibly well in terms of the bestseller list, but critically it did really well. It had a direct impact; I kept getting calls from police departments around the country, officers calling and saying, “I really want to thank you for writing this book because you have helped us figure out what to do about the gun problem we’ve got and why we have it.” Even the justice department, well actually it was somebody in the Attorney General’s office that became sort of my Deep Throat, was asking my advice on federal policy. This was heady stuff. This was during the Clinton era, of course. And that was when things almost seemed to be progressing. There was the assault weapon ban, which was terrific and had a lot of impact, even thought the NRA puts up a lot of smoke about it. Then of course everything has gone back to the way it was at the time I wrote the book.
Do think it’s the administrations’ doing, really. Obviously they have some role, when it was Bush…
Well, there are things, for example, that Obama could do in terms of rule changes at ATF to reverse what Bush and Ashcroft did during the G.W. Bush administration. One of the curious things—you have to fact check this—but incredibly within 24 hours of 9/11 Ashcroft signed off on a record change, [creating] a clause for the ATF that made it infinitely harder to keep track of gun sales. Hello, why are you doing this? What I wonder, is what do Republicans think, because frankly, it doesn’t matter what your politics are, the people who are stopping this is the Republicans. If you look at the vote, it’s not my opinion, that’s the way it is. And then when you look at that and say all right boys what is it you think? Terrorist are not at some point in the future going to use conventional weapons?
But it’s not widely known that Ashcroft changed that law
In fact it’s so widely unknown and was so ignored at the time, it makes me worried that I’m remembering the thing incorrectly. It was a record change that had to do with the tracking and keeping of information. …That’s the path. It’s not about banning weapons and it’s not even necessarily about background checks and so forth, it’s about more efficiently tracking the evidence of weapons and being able to do something about it. Because ATF knows which gun stores sell to criminals and so do the police chiefs in big cities around the country.
Lethal Passage has been apropos since its writing, but it seem particularly pertinent now.
I made a prediction at the end of the book that things would keep on the same way until there was some atrocity that would finally tip the balance. Frankly I thought the Connecticut thing would do it, but no. I think the reason not is because of the unique political divisiveness of this era that it’s not about working together, it’s about trying to make Obama look bad.
How long did it take you to write each of these books?
Well, it depends on when you start the clock, but I would say from conception to conclusion it takes about four years. But it’s not like I’m lying under the roof of the Sistine Chapel for all of those years. There are phases; you are living your life. There’s the proposal phase when you are trying to get the idea fleshed out, then there’s the initial reading phase, while you are promoting your previous book…It’s very slow for me, I’m a very slow producer. I’m sure it drives my agent and my publisher crazy.
Four years doesn’t sound slow, because of all the research required.
Nobody has ever complained. But, you know, you get Robert Woodward and he does like a book a year, 700 or 800 pages long. Or Michael Lewis, he does a book every two years…
Yea, sons of bitches [laughs]. They are making me look bad. At least I’m producing faster that [historian] Taylor Branch. I think it took him 16 years to write Parting the Waters. [laughs]
Do you still have to pitch your books or do you have an ongoing contract?
Crown is my publisher, it’s a subset of Random House, and I’ve been really happy at Crown….This is the second of a two book contract, and I have a new two book contract coming up. Even though I have this contract, I still pitch a detailed proposal. They run anywhere from 85-100 pages with a chapter outline and a sample chapter. It’s incredibly helpful for me on so many levels.
It’s long been a maxim in the publishing industry that the shorter the pitch the bigger the advance. But for me it would so ramp up the tension if I sold a book on the strength of just a single letter. The beauty of doing this detailed proposal is that I know there is a book there and I know that they know there is a book there….There is a legal aspect to this whole thing—when it comes time to turn in the manuscript they essentially have to pay you unless they determine that in their view the book is not what you proposed. So if you have a very detailed proposal and you follow that roadmap then there’s nothing they can do. I’ve never felt there’s anything confrontational with my publisher, not at all, but in those days when you get the heebee geebees and you think “Where am I going next?”, you’ll look at your proposal, you’ll look at the outline and go, oh yeah that was great, that works [laughs]
You get the heebee geebees still after all the books you have written?
You have to; if you don’t then there is something wrong. If you don’t go through phases where you think “Oh my god my career is over” and then [there are] days you are flying high, I do believe there is a problem. If you do just go smugly through I think you’re going to get slapped in the face.
So you’re flying high and agree to two more books and then you think “My careers over?”
When my book The Devil in the White City was about to come out I came out of this trance and told myself—this is absolutely true, I swear to god—I was telling my wife this is it this is over, this is just going to bomb and I really did feel my career was over. Because [the book] broke all the rules; it was two complete stories that never met and oh my god, who gives a shit about the Worlds Fair of 1893 [laughs].
My first inkling that maybe I was wrong was when I had to do a book tour. I was at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and after my talk these two attractive young women stood up. I had a terrifying thought that they were both corporate lawyers and I thought, “Boy I’m screwed now.” But they got up and they were direct descendants of the killer. And they said, “We just want to thank you for at last capturing the true character of our black sheep relative.” And then they said, by the way we are having this family reunion this weekend in the Hudson Valley, you know, Sleepy Hallow…and they invited me to attend. I didn’t go…It was great that they loved Devil because that resolved one set of worries. And then later in Chicago, I realized that maybe my career wasn’t over because the place was packed—Chicagoans love their history—and in the audience, independent of each other were six homicide cops had come to hear me speak. From then on there were always cops throughout the book tour. I could always tell who they were.
You put your writing out there and you never know who or what you are going to attract.
You never know. But the message of that whole thing is that you’ve got to do the book that you really want to do and that you think you can do well. And then hopefully the audience will come with you.
Did you feel that even if your career had been over you were proud of Devil, even if nobody reads it.?
I might have felt that after a few years of therapy [laughs], but it’s hard to have something come out and be a resounding dud, especially after a previous success. I was really concerned about In the Garden of the Beasts, because it’s not about WWII it’s about something very focused—trying to capture this sense of creeping darkness of Germany….It wasn’t a Holocaust book, it wasn’t a war book…Then I started hearing from people who loved it because it filled a gap for them. A lot of older Jewish people who were children of people in concentration camps said it filled in a missing component of their knowledge of what had happened.
I really liked Thunderstruck. Did people take to that book?
Yeah, although that’s kind of my black sheep. I love that book, but it had a rocky start because a particular reviewer—who we won’t name—took a real bizarre pot shot at it and really colored perceptions of it, not just among the readers of that review but more importantly among marketing people and even my editors and agent. Meanwhile by any standards it was a raging bestseller. But because of the context, coming after The Devil in the White City, there was even more [pressure]…And then even more importance for In the Garden of the Beasts, which frankly has sold as well or even better than The Devil in the White City. But I loved Thunderstruck…Guys really liked the book. I don’t really understand why. But now In the Garden seems to have brought a whole new readership who are now going back to the older books.
Are any movies being made of your books?
My books have been endlessly optioned but none have been made into movies yet. However, The Devil in the White City has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio. And that’s a signed sealed and delivered deal. And the screenplay apparently was just finished.
You’re not involved in the screenplay?
No. I don’t want to be. That’s not what I do. I do books. I don’t do Hollywood. They are two very different art forms. A lot of writer’s get seduced “I can write a novel, or I can write a nonfiction book, sure I can write a screenplay.” You are going to end up hating yourself, I swear. I made a point ahead of time to try and stay out of it. In fact I told that to the screenwriter, who was sending me emails asking my opinion—I think he was trying to be good to me. Finally we had drinks in San Francisco and I said, “Look, I don’t care. I mean I do care, but I don’t want to know. I want you to just do it your way. I don’t need any input.” Then when we were done talking, after a number of drinks, I put my arm around his shoulder and said, “Just one thing. Don’t fuck it up.” [Laughs] Anyway, that one is under contract and progressing and happily I’ve heard nothing about whether the screenplay has been well received by DiCaprio or not and of course that is a key ingredient.
Well, he makes great films.
He’s not going to pick it unless it’s good…And then In the Garden of the Beasts has been optioned; we have an oral agreement with Tom Hanks. But we are still getting the wording right in the contract. Which is no small thing. These contracts are like street-to-street fighting, it really is, and hopefully it will have a good outcome.
I’ll bet you are learning a lot about maneuvering contracts in Hollywood.
Yeah, I had to hire lawyers, and I’ve never had to do that. Lawyers charge a lot of money.
You write a bestseller and things become exciting and more complicated.
But that’s life.
Are you excited that you get to write books for a living, even if its not what you intended in the beginning—or maybe it was.
I don’t know what I intended at the beginning. I’m terrified, because I have to do my first commencement speech at Seattle University and I’m talking about how no matter how hard or what you plan, life delivers things that you didn’t expect and often they are better than what you are planning.
Getting to write about what you want and then people reading it—that’s pretty cool.
Believe me not a day goes by that I don’t knock wood and say I don’t know why this has happened, but I’m really glad it did.
I know why it’s happened, it’s because you are an excellent writer and storyteller.
Well thank you, but I see so many books by excellent writers and storytellers and I don’t know….
Fair enough, some things went your way. I can’t wait to read the next one. I hope it comes out sooner than four years.
[Laughs] It’s going to come out in early 2015.
Monday, May 6, 8 p.m., UCSB’s Campbell Hall. $20 general; $10 students. For more info and tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.