Liminal Spaces: A Profile of Erik Larson

WD gives a peek at the daily routine of Erik Larson and the writing process behind his bestselling narrative nonfiction in this Nov/Dec 2020 profile by Zachary Petit.
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This profile previously appeared in the November/December 2020, 100th Anniversary issue of Writer's Digest. On April 19, 2021, it was named the winner in the profile category of the American Society of Journalists and Authors Annual Writing Awards.

How does he do it?

To read Erik Larson is to let the past wash over you like a wave. History, from the micro to the macro, thrums with life: You can smell Chicago’s gaslights as the 19th century barrels to a close; you can taste the salt in the air as the Great Storm of 1900 intensifies and fixes its gaze on Texas; you can hear Winston Churchill gnawing away at his omnipresent cigar, a dark column of smoke rising toward the German bombers that roar in the skies above.

In Larson’s narrative nonfiction, black and white gives way to Technicolor. In fact, the writing is so vivid that in all of his books, the author includes a note in his foreword similar to this one from his latest work, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz:

Although at times it may appear to be otherwise, this is a work of nonfiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from some form of historical document, be it a diary, letter, memoir, or other artifact; any reference to a gesture, gaze, or smile, or any other facial reaction, comes from an account by one who witnessed it. If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.

To read Erik Larson is to rethink how the past is captured on the page. Writers of history tend to be either impeccable storytellers with questionable facts, or questionable storytellers with impeccable facts. Larson does not sacrifice accuracy for readability, nor readability for accuracy; his books are lauded by both the casual reader who picks one up in an airport and the suspicious academic who has spent her life studying the subject at hand. A single paragraph can be buttressed by dozens upon dozens of sources, and the thousands upon thousands that comprise a book boggle the mind.

How does he make sense of it? How does he distill it all and make it so utterly readable?

Manhattan. February 2020—a world away, a world tipping.

I’m here to find out: How does he do it?

Erik Larson

Erik Larson

The day begins, as it always does for Larson, with a cookie—preferably, a single Double Stuf Oreo. (In times of duress—such as when he was finishing his latest book—he allows himself a second.)

We shake hands.

It’s the eve of the publication of The Splendid and the Vile, and he has just finished signing 8,500 books over the course of two days—“probably about the number of the initial print run for my very first book,” he says—and is prepping for a book tour that is about to be significantly altered.

Fans of Larson’s work might be surprised to learn that his office overlooking Central Park looks, well, like an office. Aside from his monkey lamps, there are no trappings of the eccentric or the macabre, no amassing of Victorian ephemera. Just bookcases—The Memoirs of Lord Ismay, The Secret Conferences of Dr. Goebbels, Death From the Skies!—some photos, a couple cards from his wife (“Freak Out and Throw Stuff,” in the style of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” variety, another proclaiming “I’ve Had About Enough of This Keep Calm and Carry On Bullshit”), a Mac laptop, and a mountain of research and drafts stacked on the floor.

Born in Brooklyn, Larson didn’t come from money, “but my father and my mother were absolutely adamant that any book we wanted, we could have.” A love of Charles Addams cartoons prompted Larson to declare in late middle school that he would be a cartoonist when he grew up. He thus went about dutifully shipping his work off to The New Yorker. (He recalls a piece he drew when pollution in the city was reaching all-new heights: It depicted one of The New York Public Library lions donning a gas mask. “I thought that was killer,” he says.)

Next, he decided he wanted to be a writer. So he did what writers do: He wrote a novel. At 13 or so. Sure, it aped the structure of a Nancy Drew book—he always favored Drew over The Hardy Boys—but still. He wrote a novel.

“It even had a sex scene. And seriously, I knew nothing about sex. I may have just said, ‘and then they had sex.’”

His humor, like the gin he favors when it comes to spirits, tends to be dry.

After entertaining notions of becoming a lawyer and a police officer, “I thought about being a history professor, and I went along with that for a while until I realized that I don’t want to be some stuffy old fart with a pipe and a tweed jacket.”

He ended up studying Russian at the University of Pennsylvania after connecting with a brilliant professor of the subject. And that’s where he first read War and Peace. He has since read it three times—and every time he does, he feels as if he has lived another life. And that strikes at the heart of his work: With every book, he wants to give the reader the same, if only for a moment.

“That’s what I’m in this for,” he says. “It’s not to inform, although, hopefully, ideally, people learn things they didn’t know. But I’m totally in this for the story.

“I really don’t consider myself a historian. I consider myself a writer who writes historical stories, true stories, but my interest is in the story. That’s why my subjects are all over the place. I don’t stick to any one field because I go where the story is, and my goal is that people will so sink into the action of the book that afterward they will have a sense of maybe having lived in that time and, if not, they will at least have experienced the action in almost a visceral way. So that’s the goal.”

The question remains: How does he do it?

Erik Larson

Erik Larson

Chance plays a key role in Larson’s work (and his life; after all, he met his wife on a blind date).

To write the types of books that he does, “You’ve got to be able to drench yourself in archives,” he says. “Recognize that you’re going to be in these archives all day long for weeks on end.”

He loves it. He heads to an archive and digs. He doesn’t use research assistants, and he doesn’t know what he is looking for. But he knows when he finds it, and when he does, he’s a prodigious photographer of documents that he later prints out and pores over.

“I have an instinct,” he says. “I don’t know why. I’m not blowing my own horn here, but I have an instinct for those little details that are going to make or break a story.”

Again, they range from the micro to the macro. To this reader, they take the form of, say, the (insane) dinner menus that appear throughout The Devil in the White City, featuring voluminous courses and such items as romaine fantaisie (an alcoholic sorbet) and cigarettes. In The Splendid and the Vile, they might be the facts that Churchill despised whistling or that he named his pocket watch “The Turnip”—facts that another writer might toss away. But piece by piece, they build a living mosaic of the past.

Larson’s instinct perhaps has its roots in his earliest years as a professional writer. After attending grad school for journalism at Columbia University and spending time as a reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times, he jumped to The Wall Street Journal. He knew he could not be funny as the author of his prose and had to play it straight—but the details could be funny. The headlines of his pieces alone hint at his delightful formative writing at the Journal:

“Why the Cockroach May Thrive Another 350 Million Years—Scientists Eviscerate Them, Radiate Them, Zap Them, Yet They Still Multiply”

“Did Psychic Powers Give Firm a Killing in the Silver Market?—And Did Greed Ruin It All?”

“Working at Home: Is It Freedom or a Life of Flabby Loneliness?”

“A Tip for Travelers: If in Mexico, Avoid Deep, Dark Lagoons—One Intrepid Reporter Didn’t, Learned Painful Lesson; Doctor in Designer Jeans”

Time passed. Before work, he banked pages on a detective novel in progress. The paper started to move toward a more hard news bent. He began watching the clock. Ultimately, at Windows on the World he turned down a promotion to become the Journal’s Atlanta Bureau Chief, and left the outlet entirely. He started freelancing and got the book bug after his essay collection The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities was released. His biggest Atlantic piece subsequently became the book Lethal Passage, in which he flirted with a narrative approach.

Then, he read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and—

“I started looking for a murder.”

He decided his next book would be about a historical murder. It would thrive on narrative, and it would all be true. He picked up a tome called The Encyclopedia of Murder. And in it, he discovered the entry for the Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes (real name Herman Mudgett). He was titillated. But—

“I did not want to write crime porn. I wanted something more along the lines of the old film Gosford Park.”

He moved on.

As he continued his research, he came across the tale of the devastating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, the deadliest in U.S. history. He decided he wanted to write a book about the hurricane—but what was the story?

Chance intervened as he was doing research in a Maryland library.

“I happened to see a binder sticking out from a shelf of books—and this is actually true, by the way—and I pulled out this binder because it was old, just curious. And inside was a single clipping, and it was a clipping by Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman in Texas, in which he talked about the fact that no storm could ever do serious damage to Galveston.”

He dubs finding ideas for his books as the hardest part of it all—and the single most important part of it all. With his subjects in hand, he worked with his agent, David Black, on multiple (emphasis multiple) rounds of a book proposal … to such a degree that he nearly walked away. But when Black submitted it, he landed a contract. The result was his breakout: The New York Times bestselling Isaac’s Storm. Sure, chance played a part. But.

“I am a huge believer in luck, but more than that, that you can put yourself in the way of luck. It’s like, if you’re waiting for a bus, it sure as hell helps to be waiting at a bus stop. When people ask me about my writing schedule, I’m like, you’ve just got to do it every day. You can’t wait for inspiration.”

As for the sudden reality that he was a bestseller, he dubs it “transcendent.”

“Now, maybe I shouldn’t be so needy as to need that affirmation, but I was,” he says with a laugh. “I was, and any writer who tells you otherwise is—”

“Full of shit.”

“Your words and mine.”

He rises to get another cup of coffee, of which he is a prodigious drinker.

How does he do it?

The Splendid and the Vile

Order your copy of The Splendid and the Vile.

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Larson heads to Penguin Random House to film promo videos for The Splendid and the Vile (a book that, when read during the pandemic, will begin to feel familiar). As he waits in a conference room to be called up, I take out the review copy of the book and open it to the first paragraph of the first chapter:

The cars sped along the mall, the broad boulevard that runs between Whitehall, seat of Britain’s government ministries, and Buckingham Palace, the 775-room home of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, its stone facade visible now at the far end of the roadway, dark with shadow. It was early evening, Friday, May 10. Everywhere bluebells and primroses bloomed. Delicate spring leaves misted the tops of trees. The pelicans in St. James’s Park basked in the warmth and the adoration of visitors, as their less exotic cousins, the swans, drifted with their usual stern lack of interest. The beauty of the day made a shocking contrast to all that had happened since dawn, when German forces stormed into Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, using armor, dive-bombers, and parachute troops with overwhelming effect.

How?

Larson, without a pause, begins breaking it down. “Well, we know this from the bodyguard,” he says. Since we know what time of day it happened, we know what would have been in shadow (he went there to see). The bluebells and primroses are mentioned in the diary of Harold Nicolson. Two diarists he sourced reflected on the juxtaposition of the day’s beauty with the global news. And on the whole, Larson loves weather—which is meticulously historically documented. “All these things are details that are knowable, and when you put them together in the sentence, you get this image of him driving alone. We also know by the way, that Churchill loved to drive fast. That was his passion.”

Being immersed in a location as he’s writing about it is crucial. The result is particularly powerful in the case of The Devil in the White City—in which he returned to serial killer H.H. Holmes and wrote another bestseller (though he thought it would be the end of his career because the narrative breaks so many rules). In the book, Lake Michigan is a character in its own right; Larson made a point to visit the city during each season to see how it changed.

While his latest book departs from his favored turn-of-the-century time period, The Devil in the White City perfectly embodies it. He loves the era—and what it gives him as a writer.

“In this country there was the sense that anything is possible. Absolutely anything—well, in the world, too, anything was possible. And when you have that sense that anything is possible, you have great stories—you have a lot of hubris, and hubris can lead to amazing accomplishments and also deep tragedy.”

Moreover: That period was the age of the typewriter, and the sources are all there (and legible). Diaries were kept. For The Devil in the White City, Larson also read every issue of the Chicago Tribune from 1890–1894. For him, it’s all about context, because events do not happen in a vacuum. (And, well, “Part of it is insecurity.”)

[Read more: Erik Larson's Top 10 Essentials to a Writer's Life.]

As he researches, he amasses a chronology for his internal reference. It’s tedious. It’s indexed. But it’s essential. (The chronology for Splendid and the Vile clocked in around 185 single-spaced pages.)

As he writes, he spreads all of the documents around him in an arc on the floor, keeping quotes and precise dates at hand. He aims to produce one page a day, and writes seven days a week, every day except Christmas.

“It’s kind of like I’m the phantom of the opera—this is my organ. And so as I’m working, I can pick up something readily, look at the quote, put it back down, look over here, look over here, jump up to check that quote. It’s a very physical process. It can be fluid. It can be line-by-line torture. But then, once you’ve written it, then comes the fun part—which is the rewriting, because you’ve got all the facts. You’ve got all the nuts and bolts.”

His wife is his secret weapon and his first editor. She appends smiley faces, sad faces, pluses, minuses, and Zzzzzzs to the margins of his work. He rewrites relentlessly, with each draft shrinking in size to the last. He estimates that he rewrote each sentence in his latest book 20 times.

And then, as he’s working, he stops mid-sentence and walks away.

“I am here to tell you that the single-hardest part about writing is getting up the next morning and doing it again. And this gets rid of all of that, because you sit down and you know where you’re going to go. Even if it just means finishing that sentence, you’re going to be able to do that. However, there’s a lot more magic involved in that, thanks to the human brain. Our brains like to complete anything that’s unfinished, and so if you go to bed that night with a sentence that is half-finished or paragraph that’s half-done, overnight through the magic of the human mind, you’re going to be thinking about that, processing it. So not only will you finish that sentence the next day, you will probably have another two or three pages that you could write. But you still have to stop before you burn out. Always stop when you’re ahead.”

Book promos complete and 75 bookplates signed, to the victor go the spoils: Ravioli alla Salvia, a spinach and ricotta dish served with butter and sage, paired with a St. Francis Cabernet at Serafina, across the street from Penguin Random House.

Larson takes a sip of his wine and reflects on the mountain of details that populate his work—and, crucially, the ones that don’t.

“I believe firmly that if you provide the right little details to light the reader’s imagination, they bring to the text, to the narrative, a contiguity—a flow that in reality it doesn’t have,” he says.

Erik Larson Quote

In the white space, something has happened. It’s not him at that point. The work has come alive.

“It becomes much more ideally than what’s on the page—but it’s hard to strive for it because I don’t really know the process. I don’t know why it works.”

The restaurant fills and people talk and laugh. Forks chime plates. A child cries. Waiters hustle by.

He shakes his head.

“I don’t know why it works.”

Manhattan. February 2020—a world away, a world tipping.

How does Erik Larson do it?

It doesn’t matter. What’s important, especially now, is that he does. WD

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