Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Erik Larson Interview for Historically Speaking

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Erik Larson, whose books include The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and Isaac's Storm, for leading journal Historically Speaking. The Historical Society recently published an excerpt from the Q&A, which appears in the September issue of HS. During our conversation, Larson talked about his latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, a masterful account of American Ambassador William Dodd's time in Germany as Hitler was consolidating power. We also discussed the impact of Larson's journalism career on his books, the research tools he used and the value of going to Berlin to experience the city as Dodd would have. Here's a snippet:

White: Is it true that you were inspired to write In the Garden of Beasts after reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

Larson: The thing that caused my imagination to kick in was the fact the Shirer had been there in Berlin and had met Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, but he met them at a time when nobody knew the ending. And that’s the key thing— nobody knew the ending. What would it have been like to have met what turned out to be these awful people when nobody knew what was coming down the pike?

From there I started looking for characters. It’s a process—finding what kind of narrative energy this person could apply. I read memoirs, newspaper accounts, and letters, looking for little things that might lead to bigger things. I knew nothing about Dodd when I stumbled across him. I found him compelling but by no means someone I could hang a book on; he was a little dry, and I’m not that interested in diplomatic history. But I liked the fact that he was a plain-spoken, low-key guy who was thrust into a job for which he was anything but qualified. From a narrative perspective that made him interesting. He was an outsider, and that’s what I was looking for—an outsider who entered into the world of the Reich during its first two years. Then I discovered that Martha Dodd had written a memoir. After reading that I decided that these might be the two perfect characters, and happily both underwent transformations in their first full year in Berlin.

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