An Evening With Erik Larson

“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.

A Magical Evening with Neil Gaiman

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. I don’t care about concerts, but I love going to lectures by authors. Hearing them talk about their lives and work and doubts and successes and any little bits of advice and wisdom they care to throw our way.

This Tuesday, I was among the privileged to see Neil Gaiman at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

First, you have to understand that I was channeling my inner Jeremy Clarkson to get there on time (GET OUT OF THE WAY, PEOPLE, YOU CAN GO NINETY ON THE TURNPIKE AND NOT GET CAUGHT!) and we had to park two blocks away and make a mad dash for the venue. I’d never been there before, so we got in, the ushers got us to our seats (Row K, ground floor). As I caught my breath, I started to look around.

Then I looked up.

And I couldn’t breathe again.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center is, at heart, an opera house. You have the ground floor. Then you have two mezzanine balconies. My eyes swept to the back of the ground floor . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up.

Both balconies were full.

Neil Gaiman himself didn’t notice at first, either. He walked out on stage and quickly won us over as his charming, humble self. And then, about five minutes in, he glanced up, blinked, and said, “Look at you guys up there! I’ve just discovered you! Hello!”

The most amazing thing was that he didn’t read his own work – not at first. Instead, he came out and stunned us all by saying, “I’m delighted to be in Tulsa. Because my favorite author is from Tulsa – R.A. Lafferty. Would you mind if I read one of his stories to you first?”

No. Of course we didn’t mind. Not at all. Neil chose Lafferty’s hilarious short story, “The Seven-Day Horror,” and I don’t know if it was the moment, or the story, or the way Neil read it, or if Spaghetti Warehouse spiked my iced tea by accident, but I haven’t laughed so hard at a story in my life. Get it. I beg you. It’s one thing to hear an author read his own work, but to be able to see an author talk about their influences, and the stories that inspired them to write, is amazing.

Neil also talked about the early influence of the library, and how his parents would leave him there to read on his own and explore. When asked about the importance of arts in a world where budget cuts threaten them every single day, he said, “Quality of life is big and huge and important. And if you take away the arts . . . Churchill was told during the war that the art museums should be closed, because they cost money and well, there was a war on. And he said, ‘What the hell do you think we’re fighting for?’ The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.”

The arts are the bits that make everything worthwhile.

Neil read two of his own wonderful short stories from his new book, Trigger Warning, which started as a Twitter contest. Every month, he posted a new question to his followers such as “What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever found in February?” and chose his favorite responses, and used those as the basis for short stories. “I wanted to prove that writing is a craft, and you could do it as simply as that.” That you could take a very simple prompt, the glimmer of an idea, and from there, let the story evolve.

He took questions from the audience (in the form of pre-written note cards), but no matter how silly (“Who cuts your hair?”), he responded with thought and insight. Most questions were about his writing, and the craft of writing. When asked why he writes, he said, “There’s nothing else I’m any good at! You do not want me driving your taxi . . . What I’m good at doing is writing, stringing words together in ways that hang in people’s heads. When I wasn’t good at it, I had all the confidence in the world. Then I realized I wasn’t brilliant – but it was too late then.”

Then he said, “Pretty much halfway through anything, I remember I’m not very good, that it’s been a fantastic accident. That’s the point where I call my agent . . . and she says ‘Oh, you’re at that point in the book.'” For those of us who doubt our writing every day, to hear one of the greatest authors of today say this was very much a morale booster. My own little Battle of Trenton. 🙂

When asked why he writes, Neil said, “I write books because I want to read them and they don’t exist. Sometimes, I’ll write a book because I want someone else to read it.” His novel Coraline is an example. His daughter would come home from school and tell him stories she’d made up, about a little girl who comes home from school to find that her mum is missing, and a witch has taken her place. He thought, if that’s what she likes, I’ll see what I can find for her. “So I went to the bookstore and asked what they had in the way of horror for a kindergartner. And . . . they quickly asked me to leave.” 🙂

Someone else asked what he thought about breaking the rules of writing. “Before you break the rules, know what they are. Then, throw all of that out the window and do it your way.” But, he emphasized, you have to know the rules first. You need to know why you’re breaking them before you can do it.

I think my favorite answer came to this question, which he read aloud:  “How do you feel when an editor changes your work? And then there’s a little frowny face at the end of it – and that’s the correct answer!”

If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman, you know his stories deal with the fantastic, with magic and fantasy and other wonderful things. Someone – who hopefully is hanging their head in shame still – asked something along the lines of “How do you justify writing things that aren’t real?” You could tell the question threw him; it threw all of us. You could hear the collective gasp from the audience, see people looking around for the culprit. But Neil thought for a moment, and then said, in part, “Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened. People can read Neverwhere and they know there is no secret underground to London where lost people go, but they can go to London for the first time, take the Tube, see all the place names . . . and remember. And maybe it makes them more real, because they’re familiar.”

“Fiction is a wonderful, tough thing . . . We understand something can be true – absolutely true – without actually having happened.

As my friend’s daughter Sophie said later, it felt like Stephen King was there to promote his book; it felt like Neil Gaiman was there because he wanted to be there. He was utterly charming, self-effacing, and wonderful, and if you ever get the chance to see him in person, I urge you to take it. And don’t hesitate. Not even for one second.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/13/ra-lafferty-secret-sci-fi-genius-poised-for-comeback – a story about R.A. Lafferty’s books from The Guardian.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/trigger-warning-neil-gaiman/1120056945?ean=9780062330260 – link to Trigger Warning

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning – a link to the Diane Rehm Show, and her interview with Neil Gaiman in February 2015.