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A Great Get: A Chat With Noted Author Erik Larson

I do realize this is a sports blog, but as a blog the medium allows a certain latitude. So bear with me - this arena allowed me the chance to talk to one of my favorite new authors of the day: ERIK LARSON.

If you don't know his work, read Devil in the White City. Or Isaac's Storm.

In the Garden of Beasts Larson has a new book out In the Garden of Beasts. The story focuses on the American ambassador to Germany living in Berlin in 1933 just before Hitler turned the world into his personal toilet. 

If you can, and you're OK with missing part of the Mavs Game 2 win over the Thunder, Larson will be in town on Thursday.

Erik Larson personal appearance info.: 

May 19, 2011, 7:30 PM
Arts and Letters Live at the Dallas First Presbyterian Church of Dallas
408 Park Avenue
Dallas, Texas 75201
For tickets click here.

Here is my Q&A with Erik Larson:

Mac Engel: What prompted you to delve into the Second World War?
Erik Larson: This may not seem like my usual thing. My last three books were historical narratives set around the 1900s. This is 1993 and '34, the first years of Hitler's rule. So at first glance this isn't my thing but this is exactly my thing.
This is a period that people think they know a lot about, but we tend to think about it in some homogeneous block of horror: the war and the holocaust. The reality is there were all kinds of phases leading to this nightmare. 1933 and '34 turned out to be crucial years in Hitler's rise in a number of ways, and how foreign governments viewed him.

ME: I've asked myself when reading your books, especially Devil in the White City - how do you find this stuff? So how did you find this story about the American ambassador to Germany?
091707Larson7 EL: It was accident. When I look to start another book I start with a blank slate. When I'm done with a book I have no ideas left. It's not a great deal for me and I don't feel productive and I don't know what to do to start the creative process.
Five or six years ago - and I want to be clear I didn't start this book five or six years ago - I was in a bookstore looking in the history section. And you know how certain book jackets jump at you and you react? I saw this book, "The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer. It's a huge book and it was on "my list" but I never thought I would actually read it. But I decided I was going to read it. Turns out, Shirer had been living there when this was going on -he knew Hitler, and Herman Goring, Joseph Goebbels and so on. He met them before we realized who and what they were.
And I thought, 'What would it be like to have been there before we realized what was happening?'  We know Goring would launch The Battle of Britain. We know Reinhard Heydrich was a monster. Goebbels was a horror. And I thought, 'What would it be like to be an outsider to be there?' 

ME: So that's what you found in William E. Dodd?
EL: Yes. Here is this guy who is ambassador by default. He wasn't even No. 1 on Roosevelt's list. He wasn't even on the list. I liked that. Here was this guy thrown into the cauldron, and I really liked the story when I came across his daughter who fell in love with the Nazis. She really believed in the Nazis.

ME: Your work is research intensive, how do you piece together the chronology?
EL: You hit on the most powerful weapon in story telling - adhering to chronology. That is the fundamental backbone of any good story, fiction or non-fiction, unless you're talking about the movie Memento. One of the first things I do when I get all of my research is I produce a chronology of events. It has something to do with the cops when they investigate a homicide - detail it by the minute. Mine is in larger increments.

Hitler goering ME: How do you decide what makes the cut?
EL: The devil is in the details, and I try to find the details that somebody else may ignore. That's why I don't use researchers because I know what I'm looking for. You have this story in your mind and you have this raw chronology that has every conceivable detail. Then you pair all of the extraneous details down. That's where the work comes in. I'll put down the first draft for a few days then come back to it and start pairing it down. And I'm lucky; my wife will read it and she is very good at making highlights where places are boring and stuff that doesn't need to be there.

ME: Did you actually go to Berlin to research this book?
EL: Yes, but my main goal was not to research the German archives. To do that you really have to know German, and I don't. I wanted to get a sense of what it's like, to walk where these people walked. I didn't have a lot of expectations. Berlin was wiped out by the Russian assault in 1945.
What struck me is how close everything was. Dodd lived a short walk from all of these people. If you had a strong arm, you could throw a rock from Dodd's house and hit Hitler's chancellery.

ME: Where did you get most of your research from?
EL: Library of Congress. The National Archives. Harvard. And there were wonderful records in Madison, Wisconsin.

ME: You've said this is not a 'World War II" book, then how to define it?
EL: The reality is that there were phases to this entire period. What I had not realized is how important the first year and a half were to Hitler's rule. I think people think that Hitler's rise was a foregone conclusion and there was no effort to stop him or get in the way. That's not true at all.

ME: Did you find in your research that a lot of events had to 'break right', in a perverse sense, for Hitler to do what he did?
EL: That is absolutely true. First of all, the Depression took all of Roosevelt's energy in the U.S. That worked for Hitler. There were a lot of other things, too.

Devil-in-the-White-City ME: You surprised none of your work has been optioned by Hollywood?
EL: Devil in the White City has been optioned, and Leonardo DiCaprio has the rights. Tom Cruise had it for a while. So did Katheryn Bigelow. Now it's DiCaprio.

ME: There are some books you read and think, 'They can't make that into a movie'; do you think they can make 'Devil in the White City' into a movie that is true to your book?
EL: Here is the deal you have to make when you sell the screen rights - the reality is you have no control. I think it was Tom Wolfe who once said, 'When you deal with Hollywood you go to the fence, take the money, and throw the book over the fence.' You have to acknowledge that I have no control. Even screen writers in Hollywood will have their hearts broken.
So my hope is that they don't turn (Devil in the White City) into a 19th century Silence of the Lambs. Ideally, I'd like to think you can incorporate both stories (of murder H.H. Holmes and the World's Fair in Chicago). I think you can do it. Like Julie and Julia combined both.

ME: I think I know the answer to this, but any idea what your next work will be?
EL: I do think you understand me now: No. I'm in what my publicist calls that 'Dark Country of No Ideas'. That's where I am now. I've been here for about six months. I have to say I have a glimmer of a few things, but nothing has grabbed me yet.




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