An Interview with Erik Larson, by Celia Johnson

When Erik Larson researched late nineteenth century Chicago for The Devil in the White City, one of his most useful tools was a magnifying glass. Through its lens he pored over old photographs, picking up details that would enrich his portrait of the city. Those observations became a series of verbal pixels that do more than simply describe; they transport. That kind of focus might be called obsession, a trait that permeates Larson’s life, whether he is perfecting a tennis serve or digging through library archives.

Larson has written four nonfiction books. His most recent is In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. It’s no surprise that each one of Larson’s books hit the New York Times bestseller list. Under his pen, real events become more compelling and surprising than the most inventive fiction. I spoke with Larson about a variety of obsessions, breaking the rules of nonfiction, and his childhood in Brooklyn.

The theme for this issue is Obsession. We thought of you immediately, because reading your work is an entirely addictive process. It is impossible not to obsess over what might happen next. Are there any books that you’ve found particularly addictive? Any that you’ve read over and over again?

Ah, addictive books! For me, tops on the list is The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. I think I’ve probably read it a dozen times. Next come the collected short stories of Ernest Hemingway—“Hills Like White Elephants” being one of my favorites, a model for the art of “not saying,” so central to good writing. I’ve also reread Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August several times; ditto for Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

What is one of your biggest obsessions?

Ha! Tennis, hands down. I’m an addict. I play five times a week, sometimes more. If I play badly, it ruins my day. I get very moody.

You were born in Brooklyn, which is the location of Slice’s headquarters. Do you have any memories of your childhood years here?

Yes. One very distinct memory: I was playing on the stairs of my apartment building with a friend. I was only a toddler. But I remember I was playing with a small metal airplane, a favorite toy of mine—a cast-iron airplane, which hindsight tells me was modeled on the twin-engine Cessna aircraft used in Sky King. My so-called friend wanted to play with it too, and when I denied him that delight, he bit me on the leg. Hard. What I see in my mind’s eye is the stairwell, blurred by tears.

What were your favorite books as a child?

 I read all the Nancy Drew books and had a huge crush on Ms. Drew (Nancy Sinatra, too, but that’s a different story). I did not read the Hardy Boys books. I read a lot of the Tom Swift sci-fi series and devoured the mysteries of Agatha Christie and the spy stories of Helen MacInnes, like Message from Malaga and The Salzburg Connection. I also loved The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I found terrifying. I adored the various Alfred Hitchcock collections of short stories, including the story “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier, which of course was the basis for the Hitchcock movie.

Do you have any plans to capture historic Brooklyn on the page? Are there any events in the borough that have piqued your interest from a writer’s perspective?

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll write a book about a crazed young Park Slope mother who begins a murder spree in order to assure her own child a space in preschool. Sadly, the Brooklyn Bridge has already been done—by God himself, David McCullough.

You’ve written several bestselling books. Have you encountered many surprises during the publishing process?

Frankly, I’m always a little surprised when my books find an audience. For example, on the eve of publication of The Devil in the White City, I was convinced my career was over because the book seemed to break every rule of nonfiction architecture—two stories that never really intersected. (Well, they do touch, but only near the end, in one teensy place.) Same thing with my newest book, In the Garden of Beasts. Here, too, I had a bleak epiphany just before the book came out. I awoke as if from a trance, thinking, who on earth wants to read yet another book about the Third Reich? Happily, I was wrong, in both cases.

Another surprise: half the sales of Beasts to date have been e-books. Which is remarkable, considering the Kindle and Nook and iPad didn’t exist when I first conceived the idea.

In each one of your books, the setting is much more than a backdrop. It becomes a major character, sparked to life with sounds, sights, and smells specific to the time and place. Which setting from your work has captivated you most?

Definitely Chicago. I found many terrific sources full of bits and pieces of information about the social and physical landscape of the old city that helped light my imagination. For example, I discovered that back in the late nineteenth century there had been a formal, photographic survey of the city’s streets, so that you could hunt for an intersection and find a photograph, annotated as to the direction the photographer was facing when he (and probably it was a he) shot it. If you examine those photographs closely, with a magnifying glass, you get all kinds of interesting insights into the era and bits of concrete detail that conjure a vivid sense of the city.

This is an excerpt from an interview in Slice: Issue 12. To subscribe and read the full interview, click here.

Author photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

Celia Blue Johnson is a writer and the Creative Director of Slice Literary. Her most recent book, Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, features stories about the inspiration behind great works of literature. Her next book, Odd Type Writers, is due out from Penguin this June.