Author Erik Larson spent decades as a cultural affairs and business reporter and part-time unpublished mystery writer before he turned to historical non-fiction with 1999's Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time, And The Deadliest Hurricane In History, a gripping account of how one meteorologist failed to predict the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Larson followed that book with the bestseller The Devil And The White City: Murder, Magic, And Madness At The Fair That Changed America, another turn-of-the-century saga, intertwining the improbable tale of how the 1893 Chicago World's Fair came to be with the mystery of a prolific serial killer who used the fair to scout his victims. Larson spoke with The A.V. Club about his latest book, Thunderstruck—no subtitle—which links up one of the most notorious murders of the early 20th century with the rapidly shifting fortunes of wireless telegraphy inventor Guglielmo Marconi.
The A.V. Club: Why doesn't Thunderstruck have a subtitle?
Erik Larson: [Laughs.] Thank you for noticing. My family will be in hysterics that you asked me that, and I'll tell you why. On Sunday mornings, I go through the bestseller lists, and I always check the New York Times book-review index to see what's coming down the pike. You have the little fiction list at the top, which may have six books, and it's like six lines. Then you have the non-fiction part, and it has six books and 20 lines. And some of these subtitles are hysterical. I'll read them out loud to my kids. "This isn't a subtitle, it's the first paragraph." I said to my editor, "We're going to zig while everyone else is zagging." No subtitle. It took a little effort to get everyone to agree, but they did, God bless them.
AVC: How do you stumble across the bizarrely connected historical stories you keep writing about?
EL: Trying to find ideas is the hardest part of my job. You'd think it would be the most fun. Just sitting around reading whatever I want, going to cafés and libraries. But I always feel so unproductive. I think I was raised too well by my parents.
For Thunderstruck, I discarded about a dozen ideas. And then one afternoon, I was thinking about wireless. I don't know why. I guess because it's become so ubiquitous. I was thinking that maybe there's something I could do about the origin of wireless, so I did what any self-respecting person does these days: I Googled "wireless." I came up with about six million websites before I hit one called Marconi Calling, which was put up by Marconi PLC, the last vestige of Marconi's company in Britain. I was going through the directory on this website, and came to the name Hawley Harvey Crippen. I was really startled, because I had absolutely no idea what connection this guy could have with wireless.
I knew the name Crippen because back in the '60s, when I was a kid, I'd been told about him by my mother, who was a real mystery junkie and sometime mystery writer. I can even tell you where in my house I was when I heard about it. She didn't tell me too many details about what he'd done, but there was this aura of grisly romance that I held onto all these years. Periodically, I'd hear or read something about Crippen, and that same aura would flare back up. And here it was on this website about wireless. So I started reading about the connection, reading about this transatlantic chase with two ocean liners. That by itself was enough for me to think that maybe there was something to putting both these stories in one book.
AVC: There's a lot of digression and period detail in your books, but none of it seems extraneous. Do you pick and choose the historical items that fit into your larger theme?
EL: Digression is my passion. I'm not kidding. I love telling the main stories, but in some ways, what I love most is using those narratives as a way of stringing together the interesting stories that people have kind of forgotten, and that are kind of surprising. The problem is, how do you pare stories away so that the book doesn't become a distracting jumble of material, and readers lose focus? In my experience, there's really only one way to do that. I pack it all in with the rough draft, then count on myself and my trusted readers to tell me what's good and what's not good.
My secret weapon is my wife. She's the best judge. She's a scientist, and a natural reader. We've developed a detailed code for how she marks a manuscript, and I think it's what saves me from wild digressions. She'll have in the margins an up arrow, which means "really good." I know from experience that stays no matter what. Then she'll have a down arrow someplace, and I've learned from experience, I have to cut that, because there's no point in even trying to rehabilitate it. It's just lousy. Unfortunately, there's a lot of those down arrows when the manuscript is in the rough-draft phase. Then she gets more into the subtleties, which I value the most of all. She'll have a smiley face, which means something is funny or made her smile. Then she'll have a sad face, which means something moved her enough to make her feel sad, which is very important. When you're spending several years doing the research on a book, you forget the emotional power of the thing you're writing about, and you need to be reminded. Seeing a sad face in the margin is really good for me, because it restores the faith that I had when I first encountered whatever story I'm writing about. Then come the receding series of Zs in the margins, and that's where I'm somewhat appalled, but I know from experience, I just have to accept it.
AVC: Given how much your books rely on little cliffhangers and an overall sense of mystery, how much of the structure has to be in place in that first draft?
EL: The rough draft is a broad outline of where one narrative should stop and where the other narrative should pick up. The final structure can't be done until that complete rough draft is done. Then comes the part that's a love/hate thing. I think I really love it, but it's hard. I know my wife hates it. To me, writing is a very physical process. I lay out the entire book with the two narratives side by side on my bedroom floor, and just get down on my hands and knees and start looking at it in that physical space. "Does this really follow from this? Should this be here or elsewhere?" I will literally cut the paper into paragraphs. I'll cut it into segments and move the segments around from one narrative to the other until I feel that I've found the natural structure. At that point, I'm ready for the final write-through. That's the part I adore above all, because at that point, you're confident. You've got the book. You know exactly what you've got to do each day. To me, that's pure fun.
AVC: You're really good at capturing mood, which wouldn't seem that difficult, except you're dealing with scenes that are more than 100 years old. How do you research the feel of a city street in 1890?
EL: One of the biggest challenges for me was dealing with Edwardian London, because as an American, I have an intuitive sense of American history and American cities, so in my previous book, when I had to deal with trying to conjure Chicago, I began with a certain set of constructs that made sense to me about American cities. Not the case going over to London. I was kind of concerned about getting up to speed on London. One way, obviously, is just to read everything you conceivably can. And one real benefit to London is that a lot of things I talk about in the book are still there. You can walk by and see them and touch them. You see an address and see buildings that existed at the time and so forth, and that's a real powerful thing.
But I also tried to pull in a lot of far-flung bits and pieces from all kinds of sources to make things come alive. I'm usually not big on web sources, but there were a couple of websites I found just amazing for exactly this purpose of trying to get a sense of what London was like. One of them is called The Bolles Collection. It's put up by Tufts University and it's an amazing site. What they did was, they scanned or entered into their database a lot of books that were published in the 1890s, and a couple from the 1900s, that were walking guides to the city. Not walking guides like you come across today, like Fodor's. These were literate, essay-ish walks through London, full of real deep history. Somebody would talk about a street in Bloomsbury and its Elizabethan origins. You can type an address into the search engine at the website and come up with all these citations telling you about that street. Not just the history, but what it looked like at the time. That was amazingly powerful. It's as if you're sitting there talking to this guy as he's walking through that area in London. Sort of like a time machine.
Even more powerful was The Charles Booth Online Archive. He was a reformer back in the 1890s who didn't really believe that London could possibly be as impoverished as the socialists were saying. So he set out on his own to do a street-by-street survey to find out just how poor London was, and he found, much to his amazement, that it was much poorer. He'd accompany policemen on their beats, and accompany school bureau agents who were required to keep tabs on people within specific blocks in London, and wherever he and his investigators went, they took detailed notes, some of which were actually photographed and placed in this website. Among those places, for example, was Hilldrop Crescent, where Crippen and Belle lived during the climactic moments of the book.
So there's a marvelous window. I have this guy walking through the neighborhood, taking notes about what he's seeing, and what he's seeing in the neighboring areas, and the history of the cattle market, and the lore and so forth. When you bring all that together, you can really capture through sheer detail a sense of the time. You can't make anything up, but the more detail you have, and the more you juxtapose one detail against another, I think you can really conjure something.
AVC: What's your fascination with this era in particular? You've written three books in a row set around the turn of the last century.
EL: Isaac's Storm was the first book, and it wasn't the era that drew me, it was the hurricane. It wasn't the era that drew me The Devil In The White City, it just happened to be the era where the events took place. It's not like I'm so drawn to this era that it's the only place I want to do books. It's just happenstance.
But I think there is a common thread. That particular era, the late Victorian/early Edwardian, is just very compelling in itself. It's a time when people didn't sense limits. The modern world was still very brand-new, and they believed they could do anything. There's this almost childlike sense of charm and humor. Look at the World's Fair of 1893. There's no reason those guys should have taken that on. No reason. It was insane to think they could possibly do it, but they did. It's the same way with Marconi. There was no reason for him to think, truly, in terms of physical law, that he could actually send telegraphic signals long distance, let alone over the horizon. Nothing. The leading physicists of the age doubted completely that anything like that was possible. But he had this conception, and believed in his heart of hearts that he could do it, and he went ahead and did it. That's one of the remarkable things about that period. Just that sense that you can do anything you set your mind to. Panama Canal. The New York subway system. Whatever.
AVC: When you watch movies that are set in that time period, since you've done so much research, are you mentally correcting the filmmakers?
EL: I think there's a tendency to conceive of the era in kind of stereotypical ways that are easier to sell to an audience. You have all the clothes, and people sort of talk funny and so forth. But the more I read about the period, the more I find interesting parallels with ours. There's this widespread belief that in the Victorian era, there was no sex, but what I find repeatedly in my research is that sex was going on everywhere. The only difference was, they didn't talk about it. Especially in the Edwardian period. You have these country houses where the mistress of the house would place a guy in the bedroom next to a particular woman because she knew they had an affinity for each other, and knew that sparks would fly and doors would open and things would happen. This was commonplace. The sense of illicit sex.
Another element is marriage. Thunderstruck to a significant degree is a portrait of middle-class marriage and its decay. Right down to the details of the elephant's-feet tables and pink décor. All these little details of real life that no one is going to put into a movie about the era, because it just doesn't seem like it fits. Whenever I see a period film, I'm always taken aback at how stereotypical the action seems. The décor. The characters. But you know, Tesla used the word "television" in 1900. The real world back in the 1890s through 1910 was a lot weirder, funkier, more sophisticated, and contemporary in outlook and action than we typically give credit.
AVC: Back when you first started as a reporter, did you have an eye toward writing non-fiction books?
EL: Never. No, I'm a failed novelist. When I first started in journalism, it was because I wanted to have a day job that paid, so I could make a living writing. I always had a novel I was working on. In fact, I've written four complete mystery novels. Five if you include the one I wrote when I was 13. Seventy-five pages long, one sex scene. I didn't know what sex was, but it was great. Four complete novels, two of which were under contract. But what happened was, my non-fiction career sort of sped past my fiction career. The determination was made by me and through guidance from my editor, who said, "You know, the non-fiction is so much better. Why do you want to put out a mediocre novel?" And after I got into writing about history as an interesting way of telling true stories, I found it infinitely satisfying. I have absolutely no interest in writing novels any more.
AVC: Since being a writer is such a solitary career, do you enjoy doing book tours and meeting your readers?
EL: I like some parts of the tour. I love the old hotels, the new hotels, the great hotels. You want to know my least favorite thing? Going into a bookstore and finding like four people there. My most favorite thing is going into a bookstore and finding like a hundred people there. I love meeting my public if there is a public. It's when there isn't a public that I feel like, "Oh my God, nobody likes my book." If there's like four people in the bookstore, I somehow feel less worthy.