Fans of historical crime books may know the name Erik Larson. He’s the author of such amazing books as The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm. Behind the serous subjects of his books, though is a man who is good looking, intelligent, engaging and quite humorous. All Things Girl recently chatted with Erik about his life – and his upcoming book The Garden of the Beasts.
Tell our readers about your background. Where are you from, and how did you start writing for a living?
I’ve wanted to write ever since I was a kid growing up in Freeport, Long Island. I wrote a novel when I was 13. It was 75 pages long and had a sex scene, though my knowledge on that subject was zero. I’d love to find that thing again and see what I actually wrote.
I suppose you could say I started making a living with my writing the day I got my first full-time newspaper job, in my twenties, when I went to work for a suburban daily outside Philadelphia, the Bucks County Courier Times. A fantastic place for a young reporter to start.
I started writing books full time when I got the advance for my book about America’s gun culture, called Lethal Passage.
In what ways did your childhood influence you as a writer? As a person?
Hard to say—a number of things come to mind. First I lived in a home where reading was valued and encouraged. If I wanted a book, I got it. Also, I was given immense freedom to roam the wilds of Long Island, and to explore all kinds of creative things. I loved to draw, to read, to write. In high school, in addition to writing lousy (but potentially steamy) novels, I set out to become a New Yorker cartoonist. I shipped off cartoon after cartoon, all of which came back in a matter of days, some with polite notes, most with nothing whatsoever, save a form rejection. But the thing is, my parents never once said, you can’t do it. They raised me with the possibly delusional belief that I could be anything I wanted to be. And for that I will always always always be grateful.
Every one has a different path to success. Tell us about your journey to where you are with your career today. Has writing always been a passion?
I think I always knew that one day I’d be a writer. Did I expect to become a writer of narrative nonfiction? Nope. I was certain I’d be a novelist. In fact, what I most wanted was to write literate detective novels, along lines of Hammett and Chandler. Probably my biggest break was when I got passed over for a promotion at my first newspaper. I got so furious that I sent my resume to all my friends in the business. One thing led to another, and within a couple of months I’d been hired by the Wall Street Journal, where I really learned to develop an eye for detail. That particular notch in my resume also gave me credibility with agents and publishers. Even so it was a long journey. In my twenties I was so ambitious it just about made me sick. Of course, that could also have been all the drinking and carousing….
When did you give up your “day job” and become a full-time writer?
I was able to give up day jobs for good in 1995, after a brief return to the Wall Street Journal. I wrote a book called Isaac’s Storm, which struck a chord and hit the New York Times bestseller list. I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t. That book really did change my life.
Your books are amazing in the level of detail. The Devil in the White City is one of the books that has survived my move from Texas to Ohio. What led you to the subjects of the serial killer in Chicago (The Devil in the White City)? How did you research that novel?
I wanted to do a true account of a historical murder, as a way of exploring a past time. When I first came across Holmes, though, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to write crime porn. But then I started reading about the World’s Fair of 1893, and I was charmed—and I realized then the book could not be about Holmes OR the fair. It had to be about both—that juxtaposition of dark and light is what made it worth writing.
And your latest book, “The Garden of the Beasts”? What gave you the idea to research and write about William Dodd?
I was hunting for a new idea—always a hard time for me—when for no particular reason I began reading a book that had long been on my wish list, William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. What most struck me abouit the book was that Shirer had actually been there in Berlin in those days, as a correspondent. And suddenly I found myself imagining what that would have been like, to have encountered Hitler and his deputies on a daily basis, without benefit of what we all know today about how things turned out. I envisioned a kind of horror story, or better yet, a real-life Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale: A couple of innocents enter a dark wood and encounter a growing evil. At some point in my reading I stumbled across Dodd and his compellingly wild daughter Martha, and the rest, was, well…history.
What is your favorite moment in The Devil in the White City?
That’s easy. When the fair at last opens, and overnight the grounds are transformed from a dump to something wonderful. I’d like to go back in time to experience that scene, when all the machines came to life, the fountains shot into the sky, the orchestra played. Lovely.
And your newest book, “The Garden of the Beasts”?
My favorite scene is when Martha visits her love Boris’ room in the Soviet embassy, and sees the two shrines—one to Lenin, the other to her. The best moment takes place when things are getting hot and heavy between them and suddenly Boris’ young daughter walks in. I love especially how the daughter complains that Martha is too skinny, only to have Boris reassure her that nonetheless Martha is healthy. Thankfully Martha left a detailed account of that evening.
Tell us about your writing process: how do you write (paper, keyboard, voice recorder)? How do you approach a book (outline, mind-map, just write, begin at the end)? Where do you do your best writing (your office, curled up in bed, in public spaces)?
I do use a computer for most of my writing, but for the toughest passages I always return to a yellow legal pad and my favorite Ticonderoga no. 2 pencils. Something about the labor involved makes me think harder, maybe, but writing with a pencil really does help me solve tough narrative puzzles. And, may I just say, I miss my manual typewriter.
I always start with a fairly detailed outline, because that’s how I prepare the proposals in which I pitch my book ideas to my agent and to publishers. Because of that, whenever I start research, I know exactly where I’m headed. It’s like taking a long road trip. The exact path can change, but it’s always important to start out with an idea of where you’re going.
I write in my office, the former makeup room of a television anchor. It’s the teeniest office in the world, but I love it, and I love its long views over the terrain of north Seattle—some hills, lots of trees, a slash of blue lake, and in the distance the glorious North Cascades. When I begin the final editing, however, I do like to get away. For a couple of my books I escaped to this desolate, stormy place on the Washington coast called the Klaloch Lodge (Heathcliff, baby, where are you?), but now I go to a place my wife and I built on Whidbey Island. Eagles, coyotes, an occasional killer whale. Good for the soul, if not for small bunnies. A change of locale is very important for this phase, I think, because it makes you read your work with what is quite literally a different perspective.
Do first drafts go to your agent, your wife, a friend, or who? What is your editing process?
I never give my agent or publisher anything that could be considered a “first draft,” or “rough draft.” Therein lies the path to misery—believe me. If you tell an editor something is a first draft, it’s like inviting that editor to throw a hand grenade into your life. I do show my early drafts to my wife, who is my secret weapon. She’s a deft editor, and a writer as well. For her day job she’s a pediatrician—specifically a neonatologist—but she recently published a book called Almost Home about her most moving cases. If you want to read a powerful book, read it. But do keep a couple of large boxes of Kleenex handy.
Publishing has become in some ways a “spectator sport” in the digital age with blogs, websites, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Tell us about how you approach the digital world. Do you feel sometimes you are too accessible to fans?
Well put: A spectator sport. Frankly, I’m just feeling my way on this digital ground. I’ve launched a website, which, I have to say, has proven to be kind of fun. The blog I maintain gives me a certain freedom that I don’t necessarily feel when I’m researching and writing a book. It allows me to play. It’s my digital sandbox. I can say what I want, with no one to tell me I’m being silly. Except my daughters, at least one of whom has decided that I am a toddler at heart. But do I think anyone’s listening? I have no real clue. I hope so.
Am I too accessible to fans? Well, I like hearing from people who like my books—what’s not to like? And I like it when people share relevant stories, or suggest ideas for my next book. But, I have to say, there is something about the web that seems to empower certain people—a small subset, thankfully—to be complete and utter jerks. But whenever I encounter such folk, I just repeat to myself my late mother’s best advice: “Consider the source.” When people are jerks, you know they’re unhappy, so ignore and move on.
Speaking of the digital world, what are your views on all the new E-Readers? What is your opinion on how it is going to affect authors, bookstores, and the publishing world? Are writers going to be facing issues like musicians did a few years back when it comes to royalties?
I LOVE the fact that e-readers are catching on. As long as people read, I’m happy. I do worry about independent bookstores, however. There’s something about a really good bookstore that goes so far beyond the mere selling of books. I would hate to see such stores disappear forever-which is certainly a possibility. The sales of e-books do seem to pose a lethal threat to such stores.
Many of our readers are creative types, but struggle with balancing time for creative pursuits with the mundane tasks required to live life. Walk us through a typical day in your life.
Ah yes, the quotidian versus the creative! A never-ending conflict. What it comes down to is passion. If you have a passion to write, you WILL find a way. Because you will not be able to live without it. Look at J.K. Rowling—and yes, I adore the Harry Potter books, and I’ve read every one—but look at J.K. Rowling who wrote her first Potter book in a cafe, as a single parent on the brink of poverty.
When I was working for newspapers—the kind of job that really has no hourly limits—I was still able to experiment with novels and short stories, by writing in the early-early morning. It’s an often-overlooked preserve for people who have a yearning that flies above their daily lives. So you have a job that starts at 8:00. So what? Start writing at four a.m. That early morning time is so precious, when there’s so much peace in the immediate world. The babies still sleep (the spouse still sleeps!) and everything’s quiet. And really all you need is an hour or two, every day—and that’s the key. Larry McMurtry has said he writes only an hour and a half a day, but every single day.
Don’t binge write; don’t wait for “inspiration.” A little bit every day. No excuses.
Writing can be such a solitary career. How do friends and family fit in?
Friends and family are what keep me sane. I love having my family around me, and part of what keeps the family around me is, frankly, cooking. I cook most of our meals. I adore it. The best thing that happened to me in the past six months is that I bought a Le Creuset 7 quart Dutch oven. Okay, call me boring.
In our home, we all have dinner together, no cell phones or lap tops allowed. It’s a wonderful way to rejoin the world. And, I play a lot of tennis. Way too much. I’m an addict. But when you work alone, whether as a writer or whatever, you need to get out and restore perspective—even if it means getting whacked in the eye with a tennis ball.
Most writers are also avid readers. What authors did you read as a child? What authors do you read regularly? What book is currently on your nightstand?
As a kid, I read the three D’s: Dumas, Dickens and Nancy Drew. And yes, I read ALL the Nancy Drews—my favorite being the one about the secret clock (or something like that). Now I read anyone who strikes my fancy. I love literate detective stories, like the dark Scandinavian works of Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, and, my most recent “discovery,” the Irish detective writer Declan Hughes. But I’m also reading A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. (I always like to have several books in play at once.) As for Ms. Russell, lord, I am so jealous. So much talent in one so young.