Sunday, April 5, 2015

The King of Historical Mysteries: The Instruments, the Ideas, the Product

Erik Larson has been described as a writer “gripped by historical mysteries.” This prize-winning author is my better twin. He also writes on yellow legal pads, only he uses a Ticonderoga Number Two pencil—soft. I use a Pilot G-Knock or PaperMate Flair pen.

“Using a computer is great,” says Larson. “You can spew and rewrite a paragraph ten times. But there are passages that are too important, too complex, to do that. When you write longhand, you've got to think about it before you write, because the manual effort is significant. It matters. That really helps.”

I'm often as interested in a writer’s personal writing routine/schedule as the products of his/her pen.

Larson, Brooklyn-born, grew up in Freeport, L.I., graduated from the U. of Penn in Russian history, then the Columbia School of Journalism. Had news jobs in Bucks County, PA, then the Wall Street Journal and Time.

He has written several non-fiction books, including In the Garden of Beasts, about the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. His latest is Dead Wake, about the last voyage of the Lusitania.

In the Garden of Beasts, an enthralling work of novelistic history, has all the pleasures of a political thriller. And reads like a thriller—utterly compelling. Larson is a master at writing true tales as riveting as fiction. This book with much suspense has the feel of a John le Carre novel.

Larson's book The Devil in the White City won an Edgar for nonfiction crime writing and stayed on the NYT bestseller lists for over three years!

He admits he was influenced by the brilliant crime novelist P.D. James, as well as Truman Capote’s masterpieces of true crime.

In the bestselling Thunderstruck he mapped Marconi’s invention of the wireless with the exploits of the notorious British murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen.

As a boy Larson read the Tom Swift series, Nancy Drew, Dumas and Dickens.

He learned to be a great “detail writer” and at the WSJ found that “little details make a scene come to life… sometimes just one sentence can really do it.”

But what he really wanted to do was “write narrative nonfiction in order to tell true stories from the past.” He was heavily influenced by The Alienist by Caleb Carr—about a serial killer in New York in the 1890s.

Larson says, “I don't necessarily hunt for dark subjects. It just happens that the darker events of history are often the most compelling.”

At one point, Larson intended to work on novels. “I don't think I have the sensibility to be a novelist. To be a novelist, you've got to do really rotten things to your character; you've got to give them cancer—all these awful things. I don't have it in me. But it’s not to say I won't do it sometime in the future.”

“People will always want a good story. As long as there are people around who will produce them, there will be a market for them.”

On his work days… “My day starts very early. I make some coffee, half decaf, half black, and I have one Oreo cookie. A bad day is two Oreo cookies.”

Larson loves The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett's noir classic. “It is the ultimate detective novel, and frankly not just detective novel… Here's this writer, here's Hammett, who in 217 pages creates this world with four of the absolutely most vivid characters that literature, I think, has ever come up with. He created a genre—the whole school of hard-boiled detective novels. And that in turn led to cinema noir. It's a tremendous accomplishment.

“I have been influenced by Hammett, but mostly, though, by Hemingway and Chandler. But they all share the same sense of what’s important in actually constructing a sentence—very spare, very clear, almost devoid of commas and adjectives. That’s what I try to do when I write… Hammett is expert in conjuring suspense and he does it so many clever ways.

“First, there’s the overarching suspenseful theme, which is the bird… What is the Maltese Falcon? Where is it? Who's got it? Which by itself would be enough to drive a narrative… Then you have all these people with their secret agendas… Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who is obviously lying at every turn, and suddenly this guy Joel Cairo appears, and where the hell did this guy come from? And what does he want?

“And then we have Casper Gutman. And he is such a compelling character. All if that adds up. You've got to finish this book because you've got to find out what's up with this bird!”

More by Erik Larson:

“I start with a blank slate and never have ideas lined up.”

“I'm very perverse. If someone tells me I have to read a book, I’m constantly disinclined to do so.”

“I don't listen to music when I write, but I do turn on appropriate music when I read portions of my manuscripts back to myself—kind of like adding a soundtrack to help shape the mood.”

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

1 comment:

  1. P.S. What discipline! I never met anyone who could stop at ONE Oreo!!! tjs