Behind Erik Larson’s narrative genius
If this historical nonfiction thing doesn’t work out for him, Erik Larson might have a career in film marketing.
For example, his latest book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” is an account of the Blitz — Nazi Germany’s relentless 1941 bombing of London — through the prism of Winston Churchill and his family’s personal experiences during that time.
As with most of Larson’s works, which include “The Devil in the White City,” “Isaac’s Storm” and “Dead Wake,” “The Splendid and the Vile” was an incredibly complex and multifaceted book to write, and the danger it might spin out of control was something the author was constantly worried about.
Reflecting on the task at hand, Larson thought about a poster printed by the British Ministry of Information to help reflect Churchill’s persona – one which simultaneously calmed the British citizenry and strengthened their resolve.
“Keep Calm and Carry On,” the now-famous slogan read.
In an email interview last week, Larson says he was trying to distill his thoughts and the massive amounts of research material he’d gathered for “The Splendid and the Vile.” “To help guide me, I came up with a personal movie poster cutline: ‘It is one thing to SAY, “Carry on,” but quite another to do it.’”
The obvious news in all this is that Larson’s nonfiction works are hugely successful; no side gig in film marketing will be required. It’s worth noting, though, that many of Larson’s books are in various stages of television and movie development.
“The Devil in the White City,” about a serial killer at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, is set to be a limited Hulu series starring, it’s just been announced, Keanu Reeves. “In the Garden of Beasts,” an account of America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, is under option by Tom Hanks for a feature film. And “No One Goes Alone,” Larson’s first attempt at fiction, via an original audio ghost story, has been optioned by Chernin Entertainment in association with Netflix.
His enormous publishing success and the late-breaking film and TV developments all reflect Larson’s ability to select a topic, find a new way to explore it and then write it with stylistic eloquence and thriller-style readability..
“The Splendid and the Vile” is possibly his most impressive work for a variety of reasons — some of which he’ll discuss Saturday as the literary guest at the 2022 Annual Fundraiser for the Mystic & Noank Library Saturday on the grounds of the Snediker Yacht Restoration in Old Mystic.
In anticipation of Larson’s appearance, here are a few of his interview comments about the book, as well as contextual speculations. Answers have been edited for space and clarity.
On why “The Splendid and the Vile” might not have been written if Larson hadn’t become a New Yorker:
I conceived this book after moving to Manhattan in 2015 and undergoing a kind of epiphany about how differently — more vividly, more viscerally — New Yorkers experienced 9/11 than the rest of us. At the peak of what we call the Blitz, Londoners experienced 57 consecutive nights of bombing — or, if you will, 57 consecutive 9/11s, with many more, and more severe, raids in the months that followed.
In the light of New York’s experience of 9/11 and its long-lasting effects, I wondered how anyone in London could have endured those 57 nights and all the rest. So I set out to find a typical London family and write about its experience, but then decided, why not write about the quintessential Londoner, Churchill, and his family?
Despite the uselessness of otherwise amusing speculation, on whether Churchill could have helped unify our country today:
Could he have motivated people to rise to the occasion, instead of driving a wedge deeper between red and blue? Yes. Absolutely.
Take masks. I have no doubt that Churchill, who understood the power of symbolic action, would have been among the first to wear a mask, and roll up his sleeves for a vaccine — and to be seen at all times and as often as possible to be doing so, doubtless with a cigar in his mouth.
He’d have given speeches in which he laid out the harsh truth, but then offered grounds for optimism. Real reasons, not happy talk. He’d have made everyone feel they were all on the same side and all part of the grand history of the British empire, or, in this case, America. Needless to say, we got something very different from the former president.
In the spirit of Churchillian leadership during wartime, and based on Larson’s research and writing on “The Splendid and the Vile,” how does he think Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is doing in the war with Russia?
He’s definitely channeling Churchill’s defiance of Hitler. Defiance is intoxicating. Thrilling. In a country with few resources it’s one of the only ways of motivating a populace to resist an enemy with seemingly overwhelming power. Defiance is so unexpected in such a circumstance.
It becomes emboldening, in part because everyone knows it’s going to be so infuriating for Putin.
So how’s Zelensky doing? Unexpectedly great. He’s got Putin in a tricky position. Putin, I’m sure, would love to simply kill him, the way he has secretly and not-so-secretly eliminated opponents around the world with poison and mysterious falls off balconies. At the same time, the situation has evolved to the point where if he did kill Zelensky, the reaction both globally and locally would be incendiary. Danger, Vladimir Putin. Danger!
(Reporter’s note: the above “Danger” admonition shows Larson could also have written the famous “Lost in Space” tagline utilized frequently by the Robot in warnings to Will Robinson.)
On whether it was daunting to contribute another book about World War II/Churchill:
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, as they say. I wanted to tell a very particular story, one that, oddly enough, turned out not to have been told before, at least not in the way I tell it. Yes, the Blitz has been heavily written about; likewise, about Churchill and his leadership; but what hadn’t been done was this close look into the daily lives of the Churchills and their closest advisors to see how they actually coped with the German air campaign …
And as I’ve found time and time again, when you look at even the most heavily trod material through a new window, you find new things and see old things differently. In the end, it’s all about the telling.
Speaking of “the telling,” on whether reading fiction might influence his fluid narrative style:
I almost never read nonfiction after my workday concludes. I read so much awful nonfiction in my research, in the hunt for the best nuggets of buried detail. So, after hours, I just read fiction.
Any fiction. Contemporary. Vintage. I love a literate crime novel, especially something dark and Scandinavian.
And right now I’m re-reading “The Human Factor” by Graham Greene (one of my favorite authors).
While my own books are wholly nonfiction, I do deploy fictional techniques and tactics to write them, to keep readers engaged and immersed in the action. From reading John Irving I learned a lot about cliffhangers, and from Hemingway, about the power of lean prose and the value of eliminating all but the most necessary commas and adjectives.
On the (just-breaking) news that Keanu Reeves will play Daniel Burnham, the protagonist in “The Devil in the White City,” in Hulu’s upcoming series of the book.
I couldn’t be more pleased. Keanu Reeves seems like a perfect choice for Daniel Burnham. I’ve always been a fan, from the original “Speed” to “Matrix” to "Something’s Gotta Give.” Now of course the question is, who will play the serial killer?
IF YOU GO
Who: Author Erik Larson in conversation with The Day’s Rick Koster
What: The 2022 Annual Fundraiser for the Mystic & Noank Library
When: Drinks and hors d’oeuvres reception 5-6 p.m., conversation 6-7 p.m.
Where: Snediker Yacht Restoration, 35 Campground Road, Old Mystic
How Much: $100 includes refreshments
For more information and to buy tickets: www.mysticnoanklibrary.org/