Erik Larson, the bestselling author of In the Garden of Beasts, The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm is a veritable king of narrative nonfiction. His books have collectively sold more than 5.5 million copies and have been published in seventeen countries around the world. Clearly, there’s something incredibly appealing—possibly even addictive—about Larson’s writing.
His most recent book, Dead Wake, tells the enthralling story of the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Lusitania at the hands of a German U-boat. Larson’s genius lies in his taking tons of different threads from a point in time, and intertwining them into a cohesive narrative, one that paints the true picture of the historical events more accurately than any history textbook ever has. In Dead Wake, readers not only experience the Lusitania’s ocean crossing and U-20’s voyage with building anticipation and dread, they are introduced to the passengers of the ship and begin to understand how President Woodrow Wilson’s budding romance affected his foreign policy.
The key to narrative nonfiction, of course, lies in the details, which are unearthed through careful and dedicated research. Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Erik Larson to hear more about his process (which includes Oreos) in writing Dead Wake, as well as his other national bestsellers.
Read It Forward: Erik, you are a masterful storyteller. In your opinion, what are the key ingredients for telling any story?
Erik Larson: The key ingredients for telling any story are also what I consider the key ingredients to finding the right idea for whatever project I’m doing. And so, the first thing is you gotta be interested in the story. That’s obviously crucial.
Then, and this is especially true if you’re working in this realm that people like to call “narrative nonfiction,” you have to have the material. You have to have a really rich archival base, so that you have the material that will let you deploy the techniques of fiction without actually having to make anything up.
Then probably the single most important ingredient you need is that central narrative arc. That means finding a real life story that is structured like a novel, one that has a beginning, middle, and an end. It has a rising level of suspense, something that’s going to keep the reader’s attention throughout the book, because that makes the whole process so easy. The central narrative essentially acts as the spine, then—and this is what makes the research for narrative nonfiction different from a more conventional work of nonfiction—you need to look for things that will assist you in making the story move along. You need scenes. So you can’t just collect facts, you have to look for those scenes and pull those out from the historical record. For example, if you’re lucky enough to have something that went to trial, and there’s a trial transcript involved, you can actually get real life dialogue, and it turns into a very interesting back-and-forth.
So, the central narrative essentially acts as the spine, or I even think of it as a Christmas tree, and then I get to hang all my shiny ornaments on it. And that’s what makes the book.
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RIF: Tell me about your research and your writing process. You must deal with mountains of original source documents. How do you keep everything organized?
EL: There are, in fact, mountains of these documents! A very important part of the whole research process is just strictly organizing everything, and keeping track. Because, you know, invariably, you’ll come across some little detail, and often, it is the little itty-bitty details that are things that are sort of magical for readers.
And, boy, if you can’t find it again, you really can’t use it. Because you have to, A) know that it was real, and, B) you have to be able to footnote it, especially the more bizarre, or challenging facts.
So I’ve developed this very arcane, fairly exhausting system that has to do with indexing the notes, coding them, putting everything into a detailed chronology before I start to write. The chronology then acts as a kind of de facto outline, which then ideally leads me with pretty good accuracy to everything that I’ve collected.
I don’t store these files online. I print them out. I’ve got them in stacks in my office, because, first of all, online things are very hard to work with. What if something’s on that narrow screen, and you’ve got to scroll all the way through? It’s just not very effective; whereas, if you have stacks, and stacks, and stacks of stuff, you can lay down ten different documents on your desk, and look at them all at the same time.
RIF: It must be the most frustrating moment to say, “Well, I know I read that somewhere,” but to not be able to put your hands on it, and use that gem.
EL: It is very frustrating, although, I always find the thing. I’ve never not been able to use something, but there are times when I really curse myself, because maybe I was lax at that phase of my initial research. But I always find it, so it always comes through in the end.
RIF: Right, it’s always at the bottom of the last pile you look at.
EL: It is actually. That is a truism. It is always at the end of the file, or the bottom of the pile. Similarly, and this has happened at some point with all the books that I’ve done, is that you do your research, research, and research, and research, and, then it’s the last day you’re in town and suddenly the file that you’ve been looking for, for months, and months, and months in the archives—the one that has supposedly been in the hands of somebody else who’s using it—suddenly becomes available, and it’s always the single most important file. The thing that makes the entire book work.
That was particularly the case when I was in London researching Thunderstruck. I had been looking for the entire Metropolitan Police department file on the case, which had eluded me. I mean, I still had a lot of material, but I don’t think I could have done the book, at least not the way I did it, without that file.
And because of the way the archives of the UK work, you get this report back saying, “Well, sorry, that file’s out with another reader.” I’m like, Oh, no. Somebody else is doing the same book that I’m doing. Time-and-time again, after three different trips to London, I kept getting the same result. So finally I asked the archivist, “Can you check to see who has this file, or where it is?” He said, “Oh, yeah. It’s in the Conservation Department.” And I said, “Well, can I see it?” “Sure.”
So I had to go through, I swear, it was like a strip search. I had to like, get naked in order to get into this part of the UK archives, ‘cause there’s just such security.
But then there was this thick file, sitting there on a table; I opened the top, and right on the front cover, the first thing I see is a beautiful black-and-white high silver content photograph—just like it was taken yesterday—of Inspector Dew, and the guys who helped him dig up this body, right after they’d dug it up. He’s got his sleeves rolled up, and he’s just looking at the camera with a shit-eating grin. He’s just so happy, and the guys around him, they’re all smug. And I’m like, “Oh, my God. This is what I’ve been looking for, for two years.” And there it was. But you always find it on the last day.
RIF: There’s a moment of kismet there a little bit, right?
EL: Yeah, but it’s not kismet. You know what it is? I always like to think of it as putting yourself in the way of luck. You’ve got to go the distance, because that file’s not going to fall into your lap the first day. You have to know what’s available and you have to know to look for it. So it’s part kismet. There’s a sort of dark kismet, which is that it happens on the last day. But it took a lot of hard work to get there, so I like to think of it as putting yourself in the way of luck.
RIF: How many prime sources would you say you reference in a given work? For example, in Dead Wake you reference letters, manuals from Cunard, historical findings, as well as the firsthand reports and newspaper articles.
EL: I would say thousands, especially in the case of Dead Wake. I actually tallied the number of footnotes in The Devil in the White City, and there are 850. But that’s not 850 sources because, often, a footnote will include two, three, four citations. Maybe there are more than 850 footnotes in Dead Wake, I don’t know.
RIF: Some of these original source documents must provide such a deeper understanding of the context in which these events are taking place. Letters, especially provide such a unique insight. In one part of Dead Wake, you remark about someone’s handwriting and what it says about the person.
EL: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I always do my own research. I don’t deploy any research assistants, because I’m looking for certain things in order to try and tell the story as vividly, and powerfully as I can. And so, when I look at a document, I’m looking at it not just for what the text is about and what the words are telling me. I’m very interested in what’s around it. You know, where are things crossed out? What kind of handwriting is this? In the case of President Wilson, his handwriting is just this meticulously legible penmanship, and yet, his girlfriend had the screwiest handwriting. It was so jarringly different that it spoke, I think, to their relationship. So it’s very interesting to see.
In the case of correspondence, even an envelope is important, because you never know what’s going to be on that envelope. Or on a calling card for instance. When I was researching In the Garden of Beasts, one of the first files I came across were letters and papers from Martha Dodd, the young woman who was the ambassador’s daughter. At first I just kind of passed over these cards—she had three files full of calling cards, which were literally calling cards to announce the fact that you had arrived to somebody’s house—and there were hundreds of cards in each of these files. At first, I went past them, but then thought, Wait a minute. I should go through these. So I went through them, piece-by-piece, and I got a lot of interesting stuff from those cards. One of the cards was from Nazi official Hermann Göring. So you’re holding his card, and it’s like, wait a minute. This was held by him, and also held by Martha Dodd. This card is—it’s electric.
RIF: Have you ever been denied access to any materials that would have made a book stronger?
EL: When I was researching Dead Wake, I knew that photographs existed of the impromptu morgues that were set up, so that people could identify the dead. And also, that there had been photographs of the unidentified dead that had been taken, so that people might identify their loved ones in the future.
I knew that these photographs were in the possession of the Cunard archives at the University of Liverpool. When I asked about them, they confirmed they had the photographs, but they weren’t going to let me see them. They had decided that these were going to be off limits for purposes of honoring the dead.
So I said, “Okay, well, fine.” I went back the next day, and I said, “Look, I would really love it if I could get a look at these images. Could you ask whoever runs the library if I might get an opportunity to do so?” I came in the following day, and they said, “Well, our director has decided that he’s going to let you look at these photographs. You can’t bring in your camera, but you may take notes.” So I said, “Well, that’s terrific, but what caused the change of heart?” And he said, “Well, the director loves your book, The Devil in the White City, and thought, why not?”
Seeing those photos was a real breakthrough, because it just made the loss of life very real. It was a powerful experience.
RIF: Another one of your bestselling books is The Devil in the White City. What was the most disturbing thing you learned in your research about H. H. Holmes?
EL: I didn’t find anything disturbing. I mean, this sounds a little odd, ‘cause the guy was this weird serial killer who killed people, and dissolved them in acid baths in his hotel.
But to me it was just like, seriously? This is great stuff. You know, people ask me, “Well, did you ever have any sleepless nights after working on The Devil in the White City?” And I answer, “No. It was perpetual fascination.”
But I’m a trained journalist and I see things in two ways. I see the emotional power of something, and then I also realize that some things make great material, so it doesn’t cause me any sleepless nights. The only one that started to get into my head was In the Garden of Beasts, because of Hitler, and the Nazis. You read about that enough and it really drags you down.
RIF: What really struck me about The Devil in the White City is how women’s limited socioeconomic status completely played to Holmes’ advantage. It was really the first time that some of these young women were out on their own.
EL: This was a big deal, yeah. Some people say that I’m claiming he’s the first serial killer in American history, and I’m not. What I am saying is he’s the prototype of the urban serial killer who’s taking advantage of the anonymity of the city, to do what he does.
In this case, you have a lot of young women who were traveling alone and unaccompanied for the first time from places like rural Tennessee or Kentucky to Chicago. They arrive in this big city where nobody can keep track of anything, let alone a young woman who just arrived in town. And here’s this guy offering the world’s favorite hotel and he’s a charming guy. I mean, you wouldn’t know it from looking at him, but people thought he was incredibly handsome. Apparently he had that magnetic thing that psychopaths have. So this was a big deal. And the urbanization of America, the rise of manufacturing in cities, and the fact that women were able to make this transition on their own for the first time—Holmes took advantage of all of that in order to prey on his victims.
Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie would be a classic example that captures the mood of the times. Dreiser was an expert reporter as well as a novelist, and he put a lot of really interesting detail about that era into Sister Carrie.
RIF: After Thunderstruck came out, did you follow the headlines in the news regarding the new DNA evidence that suggests Crippen’s innocence?
EL: Yeah, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it for a second. I think they used a novel DNA approach—not the same methodology that is used to identify criminals today—and there must have been a fundamental flaw somewhere in what they did. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t tell you what it was, but it’s funny, I spoke at a book group in Seattle, which consisted of a lot of attorneys, prosecutors and judges. They asked me the same question, and I said, “Okay, well, here’s how I would present the case to you all.” So I went through the evidence, and I said, “So what do you think? Do you think there’s a problem with this novel DNA technique, or do you think Crippen is innocent?” And they said, “You know, you win.”
The problem is you’re working with a sample of DNA that is very likely corrupted, and you’re using a novel approach. The bottom line is on the night that one would expect that it happened, Belle disappeared from the face of the earth, right? And there’s a body, you know, in the basement of this house discovered by Inspector Dew, and soon afterwards, Crippen flees with his girlfriend. So, hello? Hello?!
RIF: When you visit a historical place, or happen to live there, do you find you have a different appreciation for the buildings around you? That perhaps you, more so than others, can really appreciate the history of the bricks, and what they’ve held throughout the years?
EL: I don’t know that I have more, or less of an appreciation than anybody else. Although, I would say when I walk around Chicago, everywhere I go within the core area of the city, you know, essentially, up and down Michigan Avenue, and three or four blocks in either direction, I do have a view of the city that is informed by what was there and what the context was.
If you walk by the Rookery building, and you don’t know the history, you might think, “Okay, this is a very nice building, but it’s not that much.” It’s only ten stories, or something. But if you know that at the time it was built, that was one of the world’s first skyscrapers, and it was this product of incredible inventiveness on the part of John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham, you begin to think Oh, really? Wow.
I should also say, I generally try not to write about things that are based in places where I live. It’s just a thing I have. I may make an exception for New York though. I moved back to New York relatively recently, but the city is big enough, and interesting enough that I think I could. I would frankly love to do a New York-centered book.
RIF: How has your background as a journalist helped you in your career as a nonfiction writer?
EL: Well, really it was my background at the Wall Street Journal that has helped me immensely. I was lucky enough to go to the Journal at a time when you could spend weeks, and weeks on a single feature story. I found that having that luxury of time allowed me to work in a historical component to a piece when it was relevant.
I always found that the deeper you went into the history of something, the more bizarre things you found—really quirky little things. I’d think Holy Moses…did that really happen? With the help of some really good editors, and, again that sheer luxury of time, I developed at the Journal a taste for those little nuggets of detail.
I learned also how to make something, not just a news story, but a story, story. That evolved from my time at the Wall Street Journal. Then I went out to do longer magazine pieces for The Atlantic, and Harpers, and what I realized very early on was that, if you’re doing a piece for The Atlantic, by the time you’re done, you might as well have written a book because you have such vast amounts of material. One of the earliest books I wrote, Lethal Passage, was about guns, and gun culture, and the core of that book emerged from a piece I wrote for The Atlantic Monthly.
RIF: How do you feel about the Martin Scorsese-directed adaptation of The Devil in the White City with Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio playing the role of Holmes?
EL: I love it. DiCaprio had the option for a while, always with the intent of playing Holmes himself, which I think is brilliant. Then the initial studio sponsor pulled out, at which point, the project could have simply trailed off and died. But DiCaprio was so into it that he rejuvenated the whole thing and gave it new momentum by recruiting Scorsese to be the director and Billy Ray to do the screenplay. Things are moving along, but I still don’t know if it’s going to be a film. You never know until the day the film goes in the camera, and that is referred to in the trade as the “moment of principle photography.” When principle photography begins, then it’s real.
Now, whether it goes straight to video, that’s another question altogether. But I have to believe—I mean, these guys are the dream team. This is what this book has waited for, so here’s hoping.
However, I will say that I never get heavily invested in film options, because that’s the path to heartbreak and self-destruction. Hollywood is Hollywood, and the minute you start placing personal bets on the film being made; for example, buying that summer home, or buying that villa in Tuscany based on the future revenue from that film, you’re lookin’ at bankruptcy.
RIF: Does Hollywood owe anything to the authors of the books they adapt, in terms of staying really true to what the author wrote? Or is it more that once it’s in their hands, it’s in their hands?
EL: Hollywood owes them nothing. That’s my attitude. I take the Tom Wolfe approach. I’m paraphrasing badly, but I believe it was Tom Wolfe who said, “You take your book to the fence. Pass it over, then take the bag of money and run.” Otherwise, it’ll break your heart.
RIF: How do you get your history fix? Are you binge-watching anything right now?
EL: My history fix happens during the workday, when I’m working on stuff. After hours, I don’t do history. I don’t like historical fiction. I avoid it like the plague.
I love fiction. I love novels. I love crime novels, especially dark Scandinavian crime novels. I haven’t yet gotten heavily into binge-watching things; although, I do feel we are in the heyday of television. The thing that I most recently started to binge watch is this TV series Lilyhammer. I think it’s been cancelled now, after two or three seasons, but it stars Steven Van Zandt as the key central character. It’s just hilarious. I think that you have to be a little bit Scandinavian to appreciate it, but it’s just hilarious in a dark, dark way.
RIF: I hear you’re obsessed with Oreos. Is this true?
EL: I have been obsessed with Oreos—double-stuffed Oreos to be exact, although I still marvel at the fact that, in the world of marketing, ‘stuffed’ only has one ‘F.’ But yeah, double-stuffed Oreos are my thing.
Once I get back into the writing of my next project, I’m sure I will go back into the world of double-stuffed Oreos. But right now, I’m trying to resist them, because I’m trying to get down to, uh, Obama weight. The beauty of New York City for me—because I walk everywhere—is that in the year and a half since we moved here, I’ve dropped 15 pounds. So I’m not going back to those Oreos for a little bit longer. But I love them so. When I do go back, my practice is always one in the morning—unless it’s a bad writing day, and then it’s two.
My true obsession is coffee. When I was working on one project—I can’t remember if it was Thunderstruck, or In the Garden of the Beasts—I was just getting so wrapped up in it. I was drinking maybe eight cups of coffee a day. Then I started to have a rhythm problem in my heart. I went to see my doctor, and he actually gave me this halter thing to wear. Boy, did that make me feel old. When I came in to be processed, he says with this big smile on his face, “Well, you have 1500 of these arrhythmias every day.” And I say, “Okay.”
“Nothing to worry about.” He says, “Though I would cut down your coffee.” But I’m not going to stop drinking coffee though.
Image credits: author photo: © Benjamin Benschneider
Featured illustration: Kristin Logsdon