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 from experience that it is often interesting and useful to start from the edges and work inward — another flaw of mine. I seldom approach things directly. I would have made a great moth.
Library of Congress Madison Building which houses the Dodds' records
I knew from an online search that the Wisconsin State Historical Society, on the vast University of Wisconsin campus, held the papers of Sigrid Schultz, a spunky correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who became one of Martha Dodd's friends in Berlin. So, mainly because if I read one more history of the Third Reich I would go nuts, I booked a flight to sunny Madison. Sunny, yes, but I traveled there in deepest winter, and it was snot-freezingly cold. And beautiful, but vividly so, in the manner of the last thing a polar explorer sees before freezing to death.
The first file I opened was packed full of calling cards left for Schultz by her friends, including the Dodds, and by the likes of Hermann Göring, Josef Goebbels, and other senior Nazis. There they were — the very cards handled by the very people whose names appeared on each. Some had little notes scrawled on back; one invited Martha to a certain room in a certain hotel. Oh my, but this was a lovely moment, one of those instants that I live for, when the past comes alive for me in a particularly vivid way. So it was real; it all really happened.
A calling card, given to Martha, with invitation
And thus was my inertia irrevocably broken, my tendency toward procrastination subdued. Next, I knew, I needed to go to Berlin.
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Erik Larson is the bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award-winning The Devil in the White City. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and a dog named Molly.
Books mentioned in this post
Erik Larson is the author of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin