by Erik Larson, May 13, 2011 11:08 AM
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. Each page looks the way it will look in the finished book. There are page numbers and clean margins ? and scores of errors, some subtle, some major, some ridiculous, all fully to be expected but now all to be hunted down and corrected. In one sentence an "r" had been dropped so that the phrase "Jewish friends" became "Jewish fiends."
It is a strange thing: What once read so well in the double-spaced New Times Roman font of a computer print-out suddenly doesn't read well at all. Errors of fact and thought suddenly appear, sprouting like toadstools afer a rainstorm. The writer marks the changes he wants to make, while a proofreader also goes through the galley, checking it page-by-page against the manuscript. Once all these changes are identified, a second-pass proof is made and this too gets sent to the author and the proofreader, and the process begins anew.
You would think that surely these "second-pass" proofs would be clean and ready to publish. But no. Never. It's amazing, in fact, how things you missed while reading the first pass suddenly become apparent in the second. It is as though poltergeists climb in at night and make little changes of their own just to confound you.
And so, the writer, proofreader, and editor all go through the book again, word by word, line by line.
At this point, everyone wants to scream.
And yet, for In the Garden of Beasts, my new book, my publisher took the step of producing yet another galley, the third-pass proof. Even here we found things we needed to correct.
That, in part, is why books take so long, even today. Because we all want to get it right, and, lord help us, we almost never do. But we get it right enough, and everybody cares, and it's so lovely to see that first hardcover book arrive in the mail.
Nothing quite like it, actually.
by Erik Larson, May 12, 2011 11:55 AM
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, correctly, that Berlin in February was not a destination coveted by tourists. I found good airfares on Lufthansa, an airline I quite like, and got a great rate at a brand new Ritz-Carlton, which clearly hoped to seduce visitors into forsaking Hawaii for Potsdammer Platz. I must say, I got one of the best hotel rooms I'd ever had, and one of the most curious dining experiences. The Ritz promotes the fact that the restaurant on its first floor is a true French brasserie transplanted piece by piece to Berlin. But it serves German food. There is a message there, I'm sure, but at the moment I can't think what it might be.
One of my goals was to locate various places important to the story, including the old Hotel Esplanade, where my two main human characters, William E. Dodd and his daughter, Martha, and their family spent their first weeks in Berlin, and the house at Tiergartenstrasse 27a that they eventually leased and where they stayed for the next four years.
On my first morning in the city I set out for a walk, mainly to try to make myself at least feel productive, despite a crushing case of jet lag. I exited the hotel into a frigid morning flecked with horizontal snow, and turned right, then right again, and headed for the park. Immediately I found myself walking past an unusual architectural display. To my left was the bullet-pocked facade of an old building behind a tall wall of glass. Above this wall, built atop a bridge-like deck, were several floors of apparently swanky apartments.
Helplessly intrigued (interesting architecture is as powerful an attractant for me as a shapely woman's leg emerging from an open taxi door), I walked to a nearby information plaque and felt my heart skip a beat. Possibly this was the first indication that I was freezing to death, but I prefer to think it was caused by yet another of those moments when, through some strange serendipitous event, the past suddenly seems present and alive. Because that pockmarked facade, as I now read, had once constituted the front wall of the Hotel Esplanade.
There, in the not-too-distant past, my protagonists had dined and danced as the world outside grew steadily darker. There Sigrid Schultz (who appeared in yesterday's post) and Martha met for the first time, and Sigrid tried to cue her in to the dark realities of life under Hitler ? only to have Martha reject her warnings. From the front door each morning her father strode forth in his plain business suits and walked to the offices of the U.S. embassy half a mile away, stopping from time to time to chat with a pair of fat and happy horses. And Martha raced off for a tryst with the young first chief of the brand-new Gestapo, the surprisingly complex Rudolf Diels ? later to be replaced by the thoroughly evil duo, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Here, too, Dodd's consul general, George Messersmith, claimed to have narrowly avoided an attempt on his life.
Martha, looking tres chaud
The mysterious and charming Rudolf Diels
For the briefest instant I could see these people as they moved through their days. I loved it.
But enough was enough. I reattached my frozen fingers and walked stiff-kneed back to my hotel, where I ordered some very hot
by Erik Larson, May 11, 2011 11:16 AM
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.
by Erik Larson, May 10, 2011 10:52 AM
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 the word love to a book about the Nazis and World War II. What most fascinated me was the fact that the author, Shirer, had actually been there in Berlin as events unfolded and had actually met many of Nazi Germany's leading men face to face, at parties and press conferences and for formal interviews.
Suddenly, my imagination caught fire. I found myself wondering what it would have been like to live in Berlin early in Hitler's rule and to watch the world rapidly grow dark, without the knowledge we all possess today as to how things turned out. What was it like to have coffee in one of Berlin's famous cafes and to see members of Hitler's SS seated at the next table? Or to have a drink at the bar of the Hotel Adlon and know that it was a prime listening post for agents of the newly created Gestapo? Or, for that matter, to be sitting at a table in the dining room of the Kaiserhof hotel when Hitler himself arrived for lunch, accompanied by his middle-brow entourage of body guards and chauffeurs?
These led to more fundamental questions. If I'd been living in Berlin in 1933-34, could I possibly have foreseen the Holocaust and all the corollary horrors of World War II? And if I had, would I have done anything about it? I also started to wonder, how does a culture slip its moorings? How did Germany come to jettison the anything-goes liberty of the Weimar era and embrace the murderous tyranny that followed, with no one stepping in to stop it?
What I wanted to do was capture an intimate view of those early, creepily sinister days in Hitler's Berlin. To do so, I needed to find real-life characters whom readers could accompany through the gathering dark. At some point I stumbled across my two main protagonists: William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered professor of history picked by Roosevelt to be America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany, and Dodd's comely and rather wild daughter, Martha, who at first was enthralled with the so-called Nazi revolution. I liked the fact that both were transformed by their first full year in Germany, especially by the murderous weekend that brought that year to a close. But I can't say more, because I don't want to spoil it.
The Dodds arrive at Hamburg
As my wife would say, my book is what it is: the story of two innocents abroad, who find themselves confronting a world stranger and more sinister than anything they could have imagined. Their experiences offer fresh insight into why the world failed to recognize the true danger of Hitler until far too late.
Having settled on this idea and on these characters, I then had to begin the hunt for details to help bring their world alive. I love that phase — once I begin it. First, however, I inevitably find myself confronting a daunting opponent: me.
I'll explain tomorrow.
by Erik Larson, May 9, 2011 10:37 AM
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 point something shiny catches my attention at the far corners of my peripheral vision. Eventually, I end up with a number of potentially viable possibilities.
Now, the agonizing begins. As my friends will tell you, I am a superior agonizer. Believe me, you do not want me in the cockpit of an airliner. But in my defense, choosing an idea is also a high-stakes affair. A book of the kind I like to do can take several years to research and write, and represents an investment not just of significant amounts of money but also of great hillocks of time and emotional energy. Frankly, choosing an idea is a little like choosing a spouse. You can change your mind down the road, but it's costly.
In weighing ideas, I employ a complex intuitive algorithm that subjects each to an array of tests. How much research material is available? Will the research journey be fun or a source of misery? Does a particular story embody a compelling narrative arc? Will it be satisfying to write, or an endless nightmare of pain and self-doubt? Does the story reveal something new about the past? How likely is someone else to stumble across the same idea? Is it something readers will want to read? And, finally, will my publisher go for it?
At some point, I consult my panel of primary judges: my wife and my three daughters. I can't of course let others determine what I write, but it is always helpful to hear what my judges say, if only because their views and comments help me get closer to my true feelings about the ideas before me.
This phase is a little like visiting a shrink who helps you claw away myriad delusions. It also evokes a trait of mine that, while unpleasant for those who have to live with me, has proven to be an excellent tool for guiding my career: perversity. If someone tells me to do something, I am immediately inclined to do the opposite. Suppose for example one of my judges tells me she hates an idea and I react by becoming deeply resentful, defensive, and pouty and hide the car keys. This is a good sign. It means I like the idea and feel it's worth defending. If, however, even my tendency to be perverse gets overwhelmed and I agree with my judge's appraisal, then I know for sure the idea is a dog, and in saying so, I mean no offense to doggies anywhere.
This may sound like a strange way to approach things, but any writer who is honest will tell you that he or she writes for one or more constituencies. Some write for prizes, some for other writers. Some pray that Hollywood will anoint their work and that they'll get to rub elbows with Matt Damon or Cate Blanchett or Buzz Lightyear. Some writers, typically the unpublished variety, claim they write just to write, and that if their work gets published, it's merely a dividend. These people are liars.
I write to be read. I love telling stories, the juicier or spookier the better. My 21-year-old daughter reminded me the other day of an evening when she was in elementary school when, during a school function, I took her and a group of her friends outside into the dark and told a story so scary that two of them burst into tears, and one went running back into the gym. I was delighted; my wife was appalled. I try to write about what moves and fascinates me, on the theory that others will find it moving and fascinating as well.
At some point in the idea process I simply wear myself down and force myself to choose. But here's the thing: Once I do choose, suddenly all the other possibilities wither and die, and thus I never have a backlog of well-formed ideas waiting for me when my latest book gets finished. I may retain a vague residual yearning to do something set in a particular time or locale, but once I choose an idea, there's no going back to the old list.
So how did I end up writing a book set in Berlin in the first year of Hitler's rule? A good question, which I'll attempt to answer