“Courage is infectious. He taught people the art of being fearless.”
This is how Erik Larson summed up the subject of his latest work, Winston Churchill, two weeks ago in Wichita. I was lucky enough to get to see him live in Wichita, on what was probably one of his last stops for a while on his tour to promote his new book, The Splendid and the Vile (which focuses on Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister). It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to go see an author, and I bought my ticket as soon as they went on sale last December (birthday present!). Thank goodness we were still able to get to see him.
Larson is the author of several works, including probably his most famous, Devil in the White City, and Dead Wake. It may surprise you – it did me – to learn that Larson isn’t a historian. He’s a reporter by trade, who started out working at small papers, got hired by the Wall Street Journal, and then one day, “hit on something I absolutely love – which is writing about history.” He refers to himself as an ‘animator of history’ – “My job is to produce a historical experience.”
Larson was interviewed by Ed O’Malley, local politician turned nonprofit starter, and the interview was charming and affable. So was Larson. 🙂 He spoke for a while about his first breakout book, Devil in the White City, a dual-narrative book about the building of the White City for the Chicago World’s Fair, and the work of serial killer H. H. Holmes. Because of the subject matter and the dissonance between those main subjects, Larson said he was sure the book wouldn’t sell. In fact, he admitted that on the eve of the book’s publication, “I was convinced my career was over.” No one, he was convinced, would even like the book, let alone read it.
Of course, we all know differently. But it surprised me to learn that Devil in the White City was a story that took a while for Larson to warm up to. The idea started when he first read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, and fell in love with how evocatively Carr wrote about New York City in the 1890s. He also liked the serial killer aspect of it, and decided that he might like to write about a well-known murder, so he started to research (literally went to the library and got a copy of an encyclopedia of murder) and came across Holmes. But, he says, he didn’t want to do what he calls “crime porn,” and so he set the idea aside, wrote another book.
But the idea hadn’t left completely. One day, he realized that when he’d read about Holmes, he’d also read about the World’s Fair. In fact, he’d read a book about the World’s Fair that he described as dry and boring. “But sometimes the most boring history can yield the best stuff – if you read the footnotes.” In this case, the footnote he read was about Juicy Fruit gum. Yeah, that Juicy Fruit. It was first introduced to the public at the World’s Fair of 1892. And since he knew Holmes was working in Chicago at that time, the two narratives began to work together in his mind for the first time. Dark and light, he called it.
The inspiration for The Splendid and the Vile came when Larson and his wife moved to New York, specifically, Manhattan. After moving there, he realized that New York had experienced 9/11 in a much different way than the rest of the nation. Of course, that seems obvious – but to the rest of us, watching the wall-to-wall coverage on TV, it was more that our nation had been attacked. For New Yorkers, though, the reality was this: their city had been attacked. They had been attacked. They had lived it. Breathed the ash. Walked the empty streets. Felt the rumble as the towers collapsed – and the piercing heartbreak of knowing that hundreds of their own were still trapped inside. They were the ones walking home at midday, and the ones who saw the Missing posters for days and weeks on end, until winter finally took the last of them. (Okay, Larson didn’t actually say all that; I did, sorry. New York is my city, too.)
But New York – and more specifically, Manhattan – had lived through the worst. And it made him think: what would it have been like to live in London during the Blitz – those terrifying nights when the Luftwaffe seemed unstoppable, dropping incendiaries and regular bombs not only on London itself, but across the major cities of Britain? How would you deal with what were essentially fifty-seven September 11’s in a row?
So he began to think about how to frame it. He wanted to do it differently – through the lens of a family living in London at the time, perhaps. And the most famous family living in London at the time, aside from the royal family, was the Churchills.
Of course, there are hundreds of biographies of Churchill, and more about World War II itself. Where do you even start a project like that?! Larson realized that “if I set out to read them all, it’d be a fool’s errand. I had to address that early on.” So he decided to approach the research strategically – his word, not mine – and to read just enough about Churchill and the war to ‘get it.’ Then, he’d “jump into the Archives and get my own personal Churchill.”
I’m reading the book now – nearly done with it, in fact – and what I love is that he does indeed focus on the family. While Larson does, of course, tell us what life was like in London during the Blitz, he does so mainly through the eyes of Winston, Clementine, and Mary Churchill; Pamela Churchill is there too, along with Churchill’s other family, his ‘military’ or ‘political’ family. And by doing this, he also makes us feel how Churchill managed to walk an icy razor’s edge of military and political danger. One wrong step, and the world today would be a much different place.
Towards those ends, Larson was lucky enough to be able to use the diary of Mary Churchill; he petitioned for permission to read and use it. Luckily, Mary’s daughter had read Dead Wake and had liked it, so permission was granted. Mary was seventeen when the war started; she turned eighteen during that first year. “Fatherhood informs this book in so many ways,” Larson said; Churchill not only had to worry about the day-to-day running of the war, but also his family. “Mary Churchill kind of makes the book for me,” Larson said. “She’s smart . . . she adored her father, and (she’s) in a situation that is dissonant – she wanted to be part of the war, but they (her family) wanted her in the country.”
Another major source of information for Larson was the diary of John Colville, one of Churchill’s secretaries during that crucial first year. Colville’s diary is published – but while he was at Cambridge doing other research, Larson decided, almost on a whim, to compare the published and original versions of the diary. What he found were massive omissions, and “these were not trivialities.” First, Colville wrote about things in his diary that were top-secret; he worried about what would happen if it ever fell into the wrong hands, but he didn’t stop. Second, Colville was desperately in love, “and the object of his desire,” Larson said, “was not interested!” So this became another theme of the book. Other authors, using his published diary as a resource, have kept Colville in the background, Larson said, but “I felt he wanted to step forward.”
Obviously, even for a seasoned writer like Larson, taking on a challenge like the Churchills was daunting. “Along the way, I found myself . . . I could stand before a mirror and ask myself, ‘If not you, then who?'” Asked how good he is at murdering his darlings, Larson laughed. “I am not good at killing my darlings,” he said “I rely on my wife to kill them for me.” And for those of us who drone on and on and on in that first draft, take heart! Larson’s first draft of this book was 800 single-spaced pages. After revisions, it’s 500 pages. “I feel comfortable if i have 100% more than I need,” he said.
One of the best things about going to see published authors is the sense of camaraderie they instantly give us. Even if we’re not yet published, or if our books sold four copies, it doesn’t matter. They know. They understand the process, and the difficulties and doubts, and knowing that they got through them to the other side is comforting to the rest of us. So thank you to Watermark Books, and to Erik Larson, for making this evening possible.