Erik Larson: A devil of a good writer
Published: August 1, 2003
|A good writer is a good seducer, hooking the reader from the start with the promise of a rewarding adventure ahead. Writers of long narrative nonfiction, like Erik Larson, face the added challenge of captivating readers who may know little or nothing of the subject and justifiably ask, "Why should I care to read 400 pages about this?"|
How Larson makes his readers care from the outset about the elements of his superb historical bestseller, The Devil in the White City, is masterful. The book is also a primer on how a good storyteller uses a sharp eye for color and detail, fictional tools and tight writing to keep a book-length narrative moving briskly.
Many readers probably open the book with limited interest in Chicago's great fair--the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893--and no knowledge at all of Dr. Henry Holmes, the first American urban serial killer. Within a few pages, however, Larson has cast a spell as only a skilled writer can.
Consider how much Larson accomplishes before the book even officially begins, in this elegant excerpt from the author's note, which refers to Dr. Holmes and the great architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's director of works:
In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century. One was an architect, the builder of many of America's most important structures ...; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never met, at least not formally, their fates were linked by a single, magical event, one largely fallen from modern recollection but that in its time was considered to possess a transformative power nearly equal to that of the Civil War ... . Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.
By the time we finish his cinematic prologue, Larson has used well-chosen details to make us appreciate what a colossal undertaking the six-month fair was. Indomitable drive and ambition, great architecture and landscape design, and a monstrous feat of construction all came together to transform swampy wasteland into a "White City" of grandeur and beauty. The fair comprised more than 200 buildings. Entire villages were imported as displays from Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. In a nation of 65 million people, the exposition recorded more than 27 million visits. "Visitors wore their best clothes and most somber expressions, as if entering a great cathedral," Larson writes. "Some wept at its beauty." The visitors tasted new foods called Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat. Larson also uses his prologue to signal the many interesting characters we'll meet in his book, including Frederick Law Olmsted, Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Jane Addams.
The other half of Larson's story is a chilling depiction of Dr. Holmes, a con man of satanic charm who lured his victims to his World's Fair Hotel, which was designed for murder and even included a basement crematorium. To better understand Holmes, whom he calls "a textbook psychopath," Larson gained vital insights from a forensic psychiatrist who read his first draft.
The Devil in the White City is not the first time Larson has performed the literary sleight of hand of conjuring up a compelling, bestselling narrative out of a relatively obscure historical event. His previous book was Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999), a vivid depiction of a great storm that blasted Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing 6,000 to 10,000 people. The two works marked Larson's departure into historical narrative; his first two books had examined contemporary social issues: Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis (1994) and The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities (1992).
The training for Larson's approach to historical narrative came earlier, at The Wall Street Journal, where as a reporter he crafted many of the newspaper's front-page feature stories that became famous--and even anthologized--for their rich reporting and graceful writing. Another part of his approach to history writing came from being, as he puts it, a failed novelist. "The thing I learned in doing those novels," he says, "was about suspense, how to move from character to character and place to place and so forth."
Larson sees his role as being "an animator of lost stories," adding, "I'm not a historian; I'm a writer who tries to find stories and bring them to life. I love trying to capture atmosphere, landscape, events, in prose. I love sinking into the past. What I'm trying to do for my readers is allow them to just fall into another time, and ideally not emerge until the book is done, with a changed sense of the past."
Larson, 49, lives in Seattle. We spoke to him recently in Milwaukee, where his analytical comments yielded a wealth of advice for writers.
Can you talk a little about great beginnings? I'd guess they're an essential part of your book-writing strategy.
At The Wall Street Journal, one of the most important things you had to do was grab people. And something that I like in any book is that I want to be grabbed from the get-go. And so for me, it's very important to craft a beginning that will lure people into the book, get them over whatever hurdles they might be inclined to have placed in front of themselves in approaching a book. For example, a book about a world's fair? Make me want to read this. And so I was very keen to put those hooks in that opening section.
I have to say that I'm not a fan of anything called a prologue. And yet my book has a prologue, because I came to realize that for this book in particular, a prologue was necessary, a way of planting those hooks, because otherwise, why would you read something about a world's fair?
Now in Isaac's Storm, you had a bit of an intro there, right?
I had an opening scene that puts you in Galveston on the morning of the storm before it struck but just as the key character, Isaac Cline, is becoming aware that something very bad is about to happen. And then it cuts back to the past.
And there's really quite a similar structure in Devil in the White City. There's a prologue that in this case is set, oddly enough, at a point just on the verge of the main character's death, but nonetheless takes you back in time to a place where you can sort of summarize all the things that happened at the fair. It's like a classic "nut graph," but not. [A nut graph is the paragraph in a nonfiction article where the writer states what the article is about--in a nutshell.]
Your prologue is like a five-page nut graph.
Exactly. While I was at The Wall Street Journal, you could spend a month on one of those simple, funny, oblique stories. And that's where I honed a lot of things that actually went into this book. First of all, the idea of a nut graph--the idea of getting readers into the story and then stepping back and explaining why you should read this. And also the attention to little nuggets of detail.
I came to your book with at best a moderate interest in the fair, and yet you hooked me.
What may have seduced you into the book is the serial killer part. One of my deliberate schemes here was that I felt both stories [the fair and Dr. Holmes] had to be told together, because I didn't think either was worth it alone. I didn't want to do a lurid, slasher book; I wanted to do something full of mood and manner. The whole point for me was the two things happening side by side. [During my research], I started thinking, "Wow, here's this fair with a lot of fascinating stuff, here's this killer operating at the same time--how strange is that?" It was irresistible.
You're clearly fond of foreshadowing. How would you describe its storytelling value?
I think foreshadowing is a fundamental element of suspense. I think that if you can somehow hint--and the more obliquely you can hint, the better--that something bad is going to happen, no reader is going to leave you until he or she finds out what that thing was. It's like Chekhov said: If you show a revolver in the first act, you have to shoot it by the last act. People come to a work with a sense of unity in their minds, and if you tell them that something black is going to happen, they want to know what that black thing is and will stay with you to find out--provided it's not too far down the line, and provided that between the two points is not just a bland plateau of nothing. Foreshadowing is vital, I think, for any work.
You really keep Devil in the White City rolling. What advice do you have for writers about keeping a narrative engaging and moving along?
For one thing, the first piece of advice I would have is read John Irving, because he is one novelist who is very transparent in his use of technical maneuvers to keep you going. Cut-aways, foreshadowing and so forth.
One of the things that's very valuable in foreshadowing is, in a given chapter, instead of presenting the whole story to completion, [you] take it almost to completion and leave that lingering question. You withhold detail at a certain critical point, cut away to something else and then, when you come back, you have held the reader's attention, partly because you just said something's going to happen. The trick is when you cut away, you have to cut away to something good.
You know how to get the gunk out and strip down your sentences. How do you achieve such a crisp prose style?
I actually have certain concrete rules I use. One is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, first kill all the adjectives. Adjectives are a waste in most cases. In most cases, you can get by without an adjective; in most cases, you can get by without an adverb. And if you simply assign yourself to go through your prose when you're rewriting and cut out all adjectives, and then read it over first before re-inserting adjectives, I think you will find that your prose will be far, far cleaner. When you try to write without adjectives, you say things in a very different way. You don't say, "He lived in a blue house"; you say, "He lived in a house that was the color of the lake on a summer day," or something like that. It forces you to come up with something vivid.
It's also important to remember that in most cases, it's a bad thing to call attention to yourself as a writer. That the most important thing is to let the story find its own voice and speak for itself. Prose should be simple, should not shout out, "Look at me, I'm a writer." And if you keep that always in mind, you'll be much better off.
Your two histories have a way of making readers wonder how they ever missed learning about these great subjects. How do you come up with these obscure but compelling story ideas?
First of all, I came across both by accident, by luck. However, I have worked out certain techniques to put myself in the way of luck. One of those is that when I am looking for an idea, I deliberately put myself into a regimen of just reading everything I possibly can. I'm lucky to have access to the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library, and I'll go in there, maybe into the section where the new science publications arrive, and I will just impressionistically go through a dozen magazines on things I know nothing about. I'll just sit there and read through them, looking for interesting things. It rarely does anything for me, but you never know. It's putting yourself in the way of luck.
Then I will walk among the stacks and at random pull out books and take a look at them. Then in the process of that, I'm thinking about things, I'm seeing things, connections are made. It's like prospecting in a park with one of those metal detectors, because you just don't know what you're going to find.
So I allocate a lot of time to this process of finding an idea, because it cannot be rushed. Because one thing you don't want to do is get stuck with a lousy idea. I know from experience that only a small percentage of the ideas one comes across can live up to the requirements of a strong narrative line, of the kind of structure that will allow all the fictional tools to be deployed.
Always, as you go along, there are things that kind of intrigue you, and you should indulge those feelings. For example, World War II has always been an interest of mine. And when I was looking for ideas for the next book--I'm still in the process of looking--for the first time I read [William Shirer's] The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. No reason; just to read it. And there are half a dozen books that one could write based upon what you come across in that book.
And there are fascinating things in the footnotes--that's often where the best ideas lie, by the way. But professional historians are hamstrung--they have to do certain things. A professional historian doing a look at the world's fair would have to do "the deconstructionist feminist Marxist look at the fair" and put the best stuff in the footnotes. So I always troll the footnotes; I always read the author's notes at the end of the book to find out what's going on. And I came close to having a few good ideas for this next book, whatever it will be, from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Then suddenly I was thinking about U-boats, so I tapped into uboat.net on the Internet--fascinating site, everything you'd want to know about U-boats. Stumbled across something there--sort of "maybe, yeah, what about that?" So that's on the plate.
After you've got your idea for a book, what comes next?
You get your idea, you see possibilities, you get excited. Often when I get an idea, it's not something I am incredibly passionate about. It's that I can see somehow that somewhere down the line this is going to become very engaging. I don't wait for passion to happen; the passion will come later if it's a good idea.
Let's say I think Idea X has the possibility to work. The next phase is to do the broad reading, go to the library and read, read, read. Read everything you possibly can. You want to find out what else has been done; you've got to add something new to it, otherwise what's the point?
[At this point] I'm taking notes very impressionistically. What I do is I take those little yellow Post-It notes and, if I'm reading a library book, stick them in the margins and write on the Post-It notes, maybe a little arrow to something that's in the text, and then I photocopy all that, take the Post-Its off and return it to the library. [Larson sometimes returns to Seattle from research trips with as many as 800 pages of photocopies.]
And in the first phase, you want to make this as fun and easy as possible, so you don't burn yourself out by taking notes. At this point, you're being creative, trying to figure out the parameters of the story.
And then you start reading on a more focused level, find out what the nuances are. You develop an instinct for the potential for a lot of interesting paths to be followed. If an idea is too proscribed, if there aren't enough channels to go down, it's not going to work. You're going to get bored, you're going to exhaust your material, and you're going to wind up with a very small book. But if, as you go, you find things swelling and going off in a million directions, that's good. You want to be intimidated by the material, because that means that there's heft.
When you're reading, you're just constantly thinking about, what's a great scene? That's what I look for most of all at this point. And you want to collect a lot of scenes, because those are your chapters in a work of narrative nonfiction. This guy gets sick here, or this child dies at this stage of the process -- you want to keep track of those scenes. And once you've amassed a lot of scenes, you're just about ready to do a proposal, because you know just about everything. You can see in your mind a kind of structure spreading before you because you've collected these scenes. If you're thinking cinematically as you're writing scenes, you are right away creating a world, rather than just doing expository graduate-student writing.
Despite your success, do you still have to present a detailed proposal to your publisher?
Very much so. My agent, David Black, is notorious throughout New York for being what I like to call a "proposal Nazi." Because he demands, even from people who have a long track record, a very thorough, very detailed proposal. My proposal for this book was about 80 pages, took about six months to do. It included a prologue; a body that sort of went through what I planned to, why it was important, what readers would take away, how I'd do the research; then a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, showing exactly what the plan is for this book, what narrative outline it will follow. And so I give that to my agent and then he generally makes me go through about six to eight drafts. I have so much confidence in this process. It is vital, because you can so easily seduce yourself into thinking you have a great idea.
And why is your agent so insistent on the book proposal?
First, for tactical reasons. When that proposal goes to the editor, he wants to send the implicit message that if you don't offer up enough in an advance for this book, if you don't demonstrate your interest in a substantial way, tomorrow this will go elsewhere. But secondly, the most important value is to me as a writer. As he put it to me after I sold Isaac's Storm to Crown, "Now you have a book, not just an idea." And that's what it is; you know what you have to do. You have no anxiety. The publisher knows exactly what you're going to offer. And all you have to do is follow your outline.
--Posted Aug. 1, 2003