Erik Larson has a history of turning the history we think we know into compelling stories that keep us on the edge of our reading seats. In The Devil in the White City, he found a serial killer at the heart of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. In Thunderstruck, he turned the invention of the radio by Marconi into a trans-Atlantic chase thriller. With In the Garden of Beasts, his readers witnessed, through the eyes of the American Ambassador and his family, the transformation of Germany into a Nazi state shortly before World War II.
Larson's gift for turning historical events into works of non-fiction that read as novels reaches a new level with his latest, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. He's always managed to craft nail-biting suspense from the so-called lessons of the past, but this time around, he finds not just tension, but romance in the ruins. It adds even more depth to his already complex canvas. By using the literary toolkit of novel-length fiction, Larson is able to evoke not just the facts, but the emotional truth of the past.
I caught up with Larson before his upcoming appearances to get a preview of the book and the means by which he crafted it.
Your historical works of narrative non-fiction often turn on the impacts, both intended and unintended, of new technologies. Were there technological innovations at work in the story of the Lusitania?
Very much so. The submarine was a wholly new weapon at the start of the first World War, one that neither the British nor the Germans at first understood. One unintended consequence was that it led Germany to discard century-old rules governing naval warfare against civilian ships, in particular a long-honored, outright prohibition on attacking passenger liners. In the end, this proved a fatal consequence for Germany, not because of the Lusitania attack itself, but because of a series of submarine attacks against American flag vessels (the Lusitania was British) during the two years after the sinking, as well as the so-called Zimmerman Telegram, which together drove President Wilson to at last realize that America could no longer sit on the sidelines.
In a story like the sinking of the Lusitania, you have a huge cast of potential characters. How -- and how soon into your writing and research -- do you find the main characters who will tell the most effective and compelling story?
A simple rule governed my selection of characters: Whoever left behind the most detailed accounts of the voyage and sinking got into the book. Because in writing narrative nonfiction, detail is everything. Without a lot of fine-grained detail it's impossible to produce the kind of rich historical experience that allows readers to sink into the past (no pun intended).
Was there an image that you found most compelling, that had an emotional impact that was more powerful than mere words?
Yes. A series of images, actually. I was given an opportunity to view photographs of dead passengers, unidentified, taken soon after the sinking as they lay in three makeshift morgues in Queenstown, Ireland, before being buried in a mass grave. The photos were shot in hopes that next of kin might one day identify the victims. The images were very good quality, and showed people wearing exactly what they'd worn to lunch just before the sinking -- men, women and children. The children were the hardest to view. But seeing these images was very important, because it reinforced for me that that was what the story was all about. This was not just some dusty geo-political node on the timeline toward war, but a human tragedy of vast dimension. (Note: I was not permitted to photograph any of those images.)
Your narrative makes it clear how monumental the sinking of the Lusitania was. How has it managed to run under our cultural radar for so long?
It hasn't really run under our cultural radar -- everyone knows something about the Lusitania. But its true nature has been distorted. It was not the proximal cause of America's entry into World War I, though if you asked 10 people on the street they likely would tell you it was. We all first learn about the ship in broad survey courses that tend to give it short shrift in the rush to get to the war itself. As a consequence there's a persistent belief that the Lusitania was to World War I what Pearl Harbor was to WWII. It wasn't. But, there's simply no time in such courses to delve deep into the true character of the disaster and the various forces that converged on that lovely day in May 1915 to cause it.
Erik Larson appears at 7pm on Tuesday, April 14, at Dominican University as presented by Book Passage. For more details, see Book Passage's site.