- A Conversation with Erik Larson
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Erik Larson began his career as a journalist—the Wall Street Journal, Time, Harper’s, you name it. His first two books were in cultural studies. One was a critique of consumer marketing techniques, the other the tale—a prescient one—of a 1988 Virginia high school shooting.
With his third book, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999), he found the genre we now know him for: narrative history. Since then, he has turned out four more best sellers. When you read an Erik Larson book, it doesn’t matter that the events are mostly forgotten and the characters have been dead for decades. You feel as if the story is happening right now.
Perhaps Larson’s best-known book is The Devil in the White City (2003), the double-helix account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and H. H. Holmes, who has been called “America’s first serial killer.” The book won an Edgar Award, was a National Book Award finalist, and spent over five years on various New York Times bestseller lists. [End Page 53] Anthony Aycock conducted this interview in Raleigh, North Carolina, in March 2016.
You’re known for long, ambitious books on historical subjects, but the blog entries on your website are wonderful little essays, or “casuals,” to use the New Yorker term. What role does your blog play for you?
I’ve actually let that go for a couple of months, for no particular reason. I’ve just been involved with other things. But they’ve been a good way for me to blow off writing steam. You want to write something every day, and they’re just fun. It’s nice to write something that is meaningless and different.
They’re also very funny.
That’s what I like.
It’s a side of you that doesn’t necessarily come through in your historical narratives. How do you balance those two styles?
In my books, my narrative nonfiction, any chance I get, there are moments of humor. I try to get things in there with just a little spin. But you can’t do that very well with the rise of Hitler or the sinking of a ship. My attitude is always, with the blogs, the more ridiculous the subject matter, the straighter you play it, and the funnier it is. You can’t jump up and down and say, “Ah, this is funny” because then you’re making fun of people.
Yeah, you have to tread carefully.
That’s one thing I learned while working at the Wall Street Journal. My specialty when I was there were the stories—in the old design—down the center of the front page, whose subject matter I once heard described as “the less significant, the better.” I wrote all these bizarre things, and there was a fine line between poking fun at someone [End Page 54] and just accepting what they were saying and composing a piece that did capture what they were like but was also hilarious.
I teach freshman English, and my students write a review of a book of their choosing. Last year, one student reviewed The Devil in the White City. He wrote, “When people hear of a book being nonfiction, it is typical for them to assume the book will be boring.” Of course, he insisted that your book was not boring! How does a nonfiction writer make factual details compelling?
Well, that’s the thing. I don’t have the obligations that an academic historian would have. I don’t have an institutional agenda. I don’t have to fulfill any particular criteria to get tenure. My interest is solely in the story at hand and telling it in as compelling a way as possible. In The Devil in the White City, for example, I never felt it was my job to tell the definitive story of the World’s Fair of 1893. I had a very specific story...