“Just to have my name mentioned in the same breath as Sandburg’s is a huge thing,” says Erik Larson, who on October 26 at a dinner produced by the Chicago Public Library Foundation and the Chicago Public Library will receive the prestigious Carl Sandburg Literary Award, joining the likes of Vonnegut, Oates, Wolfe, and Rushdie. Larson has staked a claim atop bestseller lists by perfecting the art of the historical non-fiction page-turner. From the 1893 World’s Fair to Hitler’s Berlin to, most recently in Dead Wake, the sinking of the Lusitania, Larson is unrivaled in his ability to infuse the painstakingly detailed past with a thrilling pulse. With cameras set to roll on Devil in the White City’s film adaptation, we asked Larson about his project selection, and his (lack of) involvement in the cinematic process.
First, congratulations on the Carl Sandburg Literary Award. What does it mean to you to be receiving this award in the city of Chicago, which you paid such a tribute to with Devil in the White City? Truly honored. It’s like a great big hug from Chicago, a city I adore.
What attracted you to the story of the Lusitania? When and how do you decide that a historic moment or incident is the right one for you to devote time to? I’ve always been interested in maritime history, especially the great mysteries, like the Flying Dutchman, and the great disasters, like the Titanic and the Lusitania. Frankly, I’d have written a book about the Titanic by now, if James Cameron’s film hadn’t put the lid on the subject. As for the Lusitania: What drew me was the possibility of telling the story in a way that hadn’t been done before—capturing the real, live suspense of the thing, to create what I hoped would be a non-fiction maritime thriller. The depth and richness of archival materials on the sinking persuaded me to give it a try.
Generally, it takes me a very long time to find the next subject for a book. There’s no formula, at least not for me. Luck plays a big part in it—but I like to think I put myself in the path of luck, by reading widely and just generally paying attention. Because you never know what random thing will light the fuse that leads to the next idea.
What is your research process like? What does it take for you to bring these stories to life so vividly? The most important thing is to have a very rich and deep archival reservoir to draw from. To put readers on the Lusitania, and in the U-boat that sank the ship, you need a lot of fine-grained and textured material to choose from, like telegrams, intercepted wireless messages, detailed letters, and such. The more you have, the easier the task, because you get to choose only the best, most vivid stuff. I firmly believe that all you need to bring a particular scene to life is a couple of well-chosen nuggets of fact that will light the reader’s imagination.
It’s also very important to anchor the narrative squarely in the time when the action takes place—to always pay attention to POV, or Point of View. You have to discipline yourself to view the action through the eyes of the participants—the lens of the era. You can’t get all judgy. You have to take history as it comes. For example, I’d have liked it if the submarine commander were some awful Max von Sydow-like character with a scar down his face, but in fact, he was a humane, likable guy. A dog-lover, for Christ’s sake. Which in my view made the story even better. Nuance is everything.
Are you involved in the process of bringing your books for the big screen? Is it nerve-racking to give someone else license to put their creative stamp on something you wrote? I try to stay out of the film side of things as much as possible. Guys like DiCaprio and Scorsese and [screenwriter] Billy Ray, who are doing Devil in the White City, are talented and experienced film people. The only thing I could do to help the process would be to deliver coffee each morning, and even then I’d probably spill it. As to letting go—I find it very easy, not at all nerve-racking. I do hope, of course, that they do the book justice, but I’m not going to insist on approving a screenplay or otherwise shaping the film. Also, I’m a big believer in always moving forward.
For me to stop and spend six months to a year trying, say, to write a screenplay for a book I’ve already done would be very frustrating. My motto is “onward!” And finally, I don’t share well. Film is a very collaborative endeavor. Your work is never your own. Screenplays are constantly being jacked up on blocks and reworked, sometimes by multiple screenwriters and script “doctors.” I like control, which of course has its risks. It’s like tennis—if I play singles, all I have to do is worry about myself. Doubles, you’re constantly thinking about your partner. Film is like three-dimensional doubles.
October 26 at The Forum at UIC, 725 W. Roosevelt Rd.