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Author Archive: "Erik Larson"

The Pudding Is in the Proof

One question that often comes up is why, in this age of blogs and tweets and instant digital communication of all kinds, it still takes so long to publish a book. I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but mainly it's for a very refreshing reason: Publishers, editors, and writers want to make the book as perfect as possible, despite their recognition that in a work than spans hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words and hundreds of thousands of bits of punctuation, perfection is next to impossible to achieve no matter how hard one tries. But one has to try.

The most painstaking phase comes when the manuscript is set in "type" for the first time and the first proofs of the book are printed. These initial copies are called first-pass proofs or galleys.

For a writer, this is a very exciting, and slightly terrifying, moment, because for the first time this thing that he has spent years working on suddenly looks like an actual book. A designer has chosen type styles and heading configurations and how to indicate text breaks and a host of other teensy details. ...


Berlin in February

There is something about the name Berlin that evokes an image of men in hats and long coats standing under streetlamps on rainy nights. I knew Berlin would have to become a kind of character in my new book, In the Garden of Beasts. I had felt likewise about Chicago when I wrote The Devil in the White City and Galveston with Isaac's Storm. In that respect, Berlin posed a challenge. Much of the action in the book takes place in and around the Tiergarten, Berlin's showcase park, whose name, in literal translation, means "garden of beasts." The park and surrounding neighborhoods were essentially obliterated by the final Russian assault on the city. How, then, could I hope to get a feel for the area as it existed before the bombs fell?

Being a fool for cold weather, as I perhaps indicated in my previous entry, I traveled to Berlin in February. Mainly, this was a strategic decision. I figured, ...


Inertia and Procrastination

Once I've got an idea in hand, I then confront my biggest personal flaw (well, my wife would say it is but one of many such flaws) and that is my tendency to procrastinate. Inertia is my greatest enemy. And believe me, the subject of Nazi Germany is a procrastinator's playground. A writer could spend years reading already-published books just to gain a grasp of the historical terrain.

At some point, however, one has to simply strap on a parachute and free-fall into an archive somewhere. (Close your eyes a moment and picture a bearded author of a certain age screaming helplessly as he falls through the sky.) Only then does the past become a real, tactile thing.

My first stop, oddly enough, was Madison, Wisconsin, even though I knew from my reading that my most important sources of information would be in Washington at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, whose Manuscript Division holds the personal papers of my two main protagonists, William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha. I wanted to kick-start things and see what else existed. I have found ...


Beastly Origins

In hunting ideas for books, I look for stories about long-past events that once commanded the world's attention but that for one reason or another faded from contemporary awareness. So, you ask, why then did I write In the Garden of Beasts, which is set in the seemingly well-trod terrain of Hitler's Germany? The key word there is seemingly.

One summer day maybe six years ago, in the midst of one of my agonizing searches for book ideas, I decided for no particular reason to read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It had long been on my list of books to read, but it always seemed a little intimidating. At 1,200 pages, including endnotes, it is a very large book. You could throw it at a burglar and end up jailed for manslaughter.

I happened to be in a bookstore browsing the history section when I saw it and on impulse bought it. I loved it, if one can ever truly apply ...


What’s the Big Idea?

Ideas come hard for me. I envy other writers who claim to have a backlog of books they'd like to write. Every time I finish writing a book, I start with what amounts to a blank sheet of paper and an overwhelming sense that I'm drifting aimlessly through the world. For someone who likes to be productive, this is hard.

There is no secret orchard where ideas grow. Oh my, do I wish there were. How nice if I could sneak through a hidden gate into a walled garden (cue the music from the lovely 1993 Agnieszka Holland movie, The Secret Garden, especially the haunting closer sung by, yes, Linda Ronstadt, long-ago girlfriend of governor-redux Gerry Brown of California) — but yes, how nice if I could sneak through a hidden gate and just pluck something fabulous whenever the need arose.

For me, sadly, the place where ideas come from is rather more like a coal mine, into which I plunge with only a child's sandbox shovel. I spend a lot of time scraping around for ideas, until at some ...


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