Erik Larson has a reporter’s nagging need to satisfy curiosity. But, while a reporter might be content to crank out several hundred words on a subject, if a question sinks its hooks deep enough in Larson’s mind, it typically leads to a book.
Larson took a few minutes to chat from his Seattle office ahead of his Thurber House-sponsored visit to Columbus, where he’ll attend a reception and give a reading from his latest narrative history book, “In the Garden of Beasts,” which just came out in paperback. The book illuminates life in Berlin just before the outbreak of World War II through the words and experiences of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his renegade daughter, Martha.
“In the Garden of Beasts” made the journey from piqued curiosity to bestseller the old-fashioned way: Larson delights in digging through books, diaries, letters and other positively low-tech, inconvenient methods of research. And that shows in the work.
“I find online research, especially for extended lengths of time, to be utterly mind-numbing and depressing,” Larson said. “Even though you can zoom in, there is just something missing from the process. It is sort of like a daily detective story, a daily adventure. I could spend 10 hours a day in an archive.”
Larson tells stories through the people he meets — in spirit, at least — in those archives. And he employs a journalist’s sense of place to take 21st century readers to spaces they can’t experience today. In “Garden,” readers are transported to Berlin’s legendary Tiergarten, a bucolic park that was simultaneously an escape from prying eyes and a place surrounded by government and Nazi infrastructure. In his earlier bestseller “The Devil in the White City,” readers witnessed the metamorphosis of Chicago’s Jackson Park into the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
“It really helps if you present the reader with some well-chosen details that, for yourself as a writer, have ignited something in the imagination. If you pick those and arrange them artfully, the reader brings the magic to the thing. The scene comes alive in their imagination,” he said.
Larson honed these skills first as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he relished in-depth features that took weeks to report and that led him to engrossing, entertaining details that didn’t emerge in daily deadline work.
“The more detail you had, the funnier it was. That really helped me think about the power of really letting yourself sink deep into the material and using far-flung materials. Often, that’s where the good stuff hides,” he said.
After leaving the Journal, he wrote even longer, more involved pieces for magazines.
“By the time I was done, I would have so much information, so many documents that I realized, ‘Hey, why not write a book?’” he said.