Larson discusses ‘Dead Wake’ and his craft of nonfiction historical writing

When author Erik Larson began his lecture Wednesday, he had to step carefully lest he reveal the ending to his book, this year’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

The “Lusitania humor” aside, he wagered the audience didn’t know much about how the ship’s sinking came about — a predicament he found himself in before conducting research.

Larson made his second appearance on the Amphitheater stage for Wednesday’s morning lecture to continue the weeklong discussion of “Vanishing” with regards to Dead Wake and the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania. He is also the author of the best-sellers The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed the World and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which was a CLSC selection in 2011.

The title of his last book refers to the archaic maritime definition of “dead wake” which is the lingering trail left behind on the surface of the water by the passing of ship or a torpedo.

“History is one long vanishing act,” he said. “It is my job to hunt for people and events long vanished and attempt to bring them back to life — if only in the imagination.”

Larson doesn’t view himself as a historian but as an animator of history. His job is to produce the feeling of transportation to the past and to allow the reader to “sink back” into that world. He seeks out pieces of history and attempts to arrange them in a compelling narrative, he said.

His books do not come with photographs of any kind (outside of the title page) because he views them as distractions to the writing. Constructing a narrative made from the stranger-than-fiction annals of history is Larson’s passion, as is discovering the backstories of all sorts of historical characters.

The “beautiful paradox” of nonfiction writing, he said, is the ending is known to the reader before they read a page. The real magic is captured when readers willingly suspend themselves and get swept up in the narrative momentum, Larson said.

“This happens to me whenever I read A Night to Remember [by Walter Lord],” he said. “I’ve read it three or four times, and every time I find myself hoping that, this time, the Titanic will not sink.”

When looking for a book ideas in what he termed the “dark country of no ideas,” Larson said he must first be intrigued by a prospective project. Secondly, he looks for a built-in narrative arc. For example, both The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake have natural conclusions to their stories: H.H. Holmes’ capture and the sinking of the Lusitania, respectively.

He likened finding book ideas to finding a spouse.

“I think women will relate to this more than men,” he said. “But you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one kisses back in a not-creepy way.”

The idea to write a book about the doomed ocean liner first occurred to Larson in 2010. It was born out of a love of maritime history and the secrets that have vanished beneath the blue ocean waves. Disappearances are a central conceit of mysteries from D.B. Cooper to Jimmy Hoffa to the Bermuda Triangle, Larson said. Of the 1,998 passengers and crew that died on the Lusitania, 600 remained lost.

He began his research at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University. While there, he was allowed to touch a plank of a wrecked lifeboat from the fateful sinking.

“Until I get that contact, I’m really not totally convinced a thing actually happened,” he said. “Even though you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it happened, but when you touch a thing, I swear there is a little spark that runs through you and you get energized.”

He was further fueled in his quest by the lack of truly captivating writing on the sinking itself. There were myriad academic accounts of diplomatic relations before and after the sinking, but Larson found himself drawn to more vivid, personal records.

Larson, like many, believed that the Lusitania’s sinking was akin to Pearl Harbor for World War I, but he was surprised to discover that it was almost two full years after the sinking on May 7, 1915, that the U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917.

When he envisioned the sinking, Larson said he had seen a dark — and perhaps stormy — night. But it occurred 12 miles off the coast of Ireland on a “beautiful, warm day, with clear skies and still waters.”

He also found the powerful human details he felt previous books lacked. Larson discovered that, during the 18 minutes it took for the ocean liner to sink, three passengers were sucked into funnels by flooding, only to be blown back out by an explosion below deck. In another instance, a full lifeboat fell free of its rigging, collapsing on top of another full lifeboat.

When writing chronicles of tragic events, Larson divides his attention into two separate “selves.” His good self feels empathy for the suffering others endured. His bad self, he said, reacts with glee when discovering juicy details like the above anecdotes.

“There are two of me, as a trained journalist,” Larson said. “There’s the good me, who sits up here and recognizes this stuff is bad and awful. Then there’s the bad me


Q: One of the issues I’m fascinated with is what seems to be the obsession of the submarine commander. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about that.

Erik Larson: The submarine commander became a very compelling character. And, actually, from the very beginning, I think that’s really part of the reason why I decided to do this book. Specifically, it was when I came across his war log, which is the log that German submarine commanders kept during their patrols. The thing that makes this war log particularly compelling is that it’s not just a recitation of course changes and wind direction and so forth — it is actually a pretty detailed narrative of the voyage and everything that went wrong with the voyage. Which, by the way, I think, might have something to do with why people report to me via Twitter that they were rooting for him. Because everything was going wrong for him on this voyage. He was totally focused on one thing: tonnage. Not the number of ships, tonnage. Accumulating tonnage — that’s how you were evaluated as to whether you’d be a submarine ace or not, and I assume that’s the obsession you’re referring to. Now, the problem is, if you are obsessed with tonnage and set out on a voyage like this — he encountered endless bouts of fog, he encountered foul weather, he was hunted by British destroyers. Two of his attempted attacks failed because torpedoes failed. One of the facts that titillated me about this whole period was that according to the German tally, 60 percent of torpedo attacks in World War I failed; 60 percent. Which makes you realize further how fluky the sinking of the Lusitania actually was. Anyway, his obsession was tonnage, and I guess he finally got his wish.

Q: This is the question of the day: What is the answer to the question we may not ask you?

A: That is a cunningly phrased question. The question you’re not allowed to ask me is what I’m working on next. (Laughter). I know! I’m depressed too. I’m not working on anything.

Q: How do you decide what to leave out?

A: I can tell you that, in fact, my wife is my secret weapon. And I’m not just sucking up to her after that previous thing. But really, the bottom line is that you have to pack the thing so full of everything, of all the good stuff. And only then, when you have the draft, do you really begin to cull things out of the draft to make it a more coherent story. This is where my wife comes in handy. It took us a while to develop this system to make it non-confrontational. So we worked out this elaborate system — she’s my primary reader; she’s my secret weapon. I have other readers as well, but she’s my secret weapon. The way it works is that I’ll give her my manuscript, and I’m not allowed to say anything about it. I can’t say, “You’re going to love this.” I just give it to her, deadpan and flat. She is not allowed to read it when I’m in the house, because I’m fenced in and can’t be there. She’s on the couch, she starts to snore, and the book splays across…then the saliva thing. So she’s not allowed to read it when I’m around. So she’ll take it with her when she’s on a medical trip — she’s a physician — she’ll take it with her on a research conference or something or read it when I’m away on a reporting trip. When she gives it back to me, she is not allowed to emote. She has to give it back absolutely deadpan. We communicate only through symbols. And these are margin symbols she came up with. An up arrow is great: keep it, no matter what. A down arrow: it goes, cut it no matter what. A smiley face: good. We like smiley faces. Sad face with little tears: good. Very good. We keep that. Where it gets really disconcerting is this long series of receding ‘z’s. And there are long stretches where there are no notations at all. And I think, “Oh my god, my own wife skipped around.” But I always hope that that’s not the case.

Q: A process question: How long do you take to research a book? And do you have assistants?

A: I’ll answer the second question first: I don’t have any assistants. I have never used a research assistant, ever. Because frankly, the research is a whole lot of fun. I don’t share easily. I really love the research. With Dead Wake, it was just wonderful. A lot of material is in the archives in Britain and in Cambridge and in Liverpool. And my wife and I — she took a sabbatical from her job — and we spent six months living in Paris, so that I could do the research in London. I sure hope the IRS realizes that there’s a tunnel that goes from Paris to London. Anyway, really, I hate to fly, so it actually made things very convenient. And we just had the best time. So why should I share that? The first part is that it takes about two years of solid day-to-day research to get to a point where I have a point of critical mass. I would like to have everything, everything. But it doesn’t work out that way. There’s always a point where at the two-year period, you start to realize this story wants to get written. It really needs to get written. It’s like a story my wife likes to tell. She’s a neonatologist, which is critical care of newborn babies. But she’s also the mother of three daughters, and she will never, ever let me forget the pain of those three births. You might appreciate this. She said, “The only way you might appreciate this, Erik, is if you tried to pass a basketball through your penis.” But the other thing she said is that there’s always a time in the pregnancy where you realize, ‘This baby has to come out.’ And that’s how it is with me at the two-year point. I just have to start writing. But it’s about two years for each project. And the writing overlaps and it’s another two years for writing. But research continues throughout the project.

Q: Have you ever run into a dead end, where you decide you’ve just got to abandon this one?

A: Yes.

Q: I’m sorry!

A: Yeah, there’s a lot of dead ends that I have encountered. I’ve never gotten to the point where I was deeply committed to a project when I hit that dead end. And often the dead end is more of a metaphysical thing, like, I don’t know if this story has enough heart, the schmaltz, the richness. And then I’ll just abandon it.

Q: What’s your favorite library, and why?

A: My favorite library is actually the Suzzallo Library in Seattle at the University of Washington. It is extremely well-run, and it’s a beautiful place. And it’s so well-run that there’s never been a time when I’ve gone in to get a book that was supposed to be on the shelf that was then not on the shelf. So that’s very important to me. Unlike, unfortunately, some public libraries where books just disappear. But that would be my favorite library, followed very closely by the Library of Congress, may I say.

Q: We had a lecture yesterday on digital artifacts. Several people want your comment about the concern with digital artifacts and whether or not they will hinder future historians?

A: It’s interesting. As I was listening to Tim — I think about this a lot. Because what I deal in — my favorite periods essentially are the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. And those were the heyday, not just of letter writing, but really the heyday of people actually typing the letters that they wrote, which is actually no small thing. People’s handwriting — I don’t know where this cursive thing came from, where we believe that they did cursive well in the old days. Because they didn’t. I’m here to tell you. These long letters that people wrote to each other were really a tremendous resource. And I don’t know what the historians of the future will use that is the equivalent. I am not that pessimistic, though. For example, I know that the National Archives are actually archiving tweets. And frankly, you might want to mock that, I suppose, but if there’s a really significant national event, the Twitter feeds have a really powerful sense of urgency. So from a narrative perspective, if you can get those things, it can be very useful. One of my favorite things from the past were telegrams. Telegrams have this built-in urgency that is so powerful. I love telegrams. Sometimes telegrams are so powerful, so useful — I often do this in my books — they’ll stand alone as a chapter all by themselves. It’s just because they’re so powerful. Which has the further benefit that I can pop down to breakfast with my wife and say, “Hey, guess what? I just wrote a chapter!” Another thought popped into my head, though, which was much more disturbing, which was — Dr. Cerf was talking about the need to preserve all of these things, he was talking about if the Doris Kearns Goodwin in the year 2030 or year 3000, what kind of materials is she going to have to be able to write about history? And, suddenly, this thought popped into my head. It could well be in 2030 or the year 3000, people aren’t going to care about history. Right now, everything is so immediate. Maybe nobody’s going to care. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe he’s wasting his time.

Q: Hmm.

A: Is that a depressing idea? I’m here to bring the day up.

Q: The Boddy life jackets. Can you tell us what might have happened as a result of the really idiotic Boddy life jackets? Were they held responsible?

A: No. Because in fact, the life jackets were very effective, but nobody knew how to use them. That was the problem. For those of that have not read the book, these were a new style of life jackets issued because they were in fact, very effective, if you knew how to put them on. Unfortunately, a significant number of those on the Lusitania did not know how to put them on. And a certain number, according to one account, died when, in fact, instead of having their heads suspended above the water, because they had put it on incorrectly, their heads were under the water. And they were found in that very humiliating position, butt-up, by the time the rescuers came. Interestingly, the Boddy life jackets were, because they were so good and so new, were assigned to the first and second class passengers. The third class wore the old-fashioned cork kind, as did the crew. So that was kind of a fascinating element to the whole thing. But to my knowledge, the Boddy company was not taken to task.

Q: A lot of questions about Churchill. Whether or not your opinion of him changed, whether or not his problems in this were ever brought to light?

A: Churchill remains one of my most favorite historical characters. The man was a genius on so many levels, was incredibly dynamic, lived multiple lives, really. If I ever did a biography of anybody, it would be about Churchill. But I will probably never do a biography. Did my opinion of Churchill change? No. It became much more nuanced and textured. And actually what changed it was not so much the Lusitania affair, but I had, in the course of my reading, I had to read deeply about World War II and World War I, and also deeply into the whole Dardanelles fiasco. Which is captured in the Mel Brooks movie “Gallipoli.” Oh, not Mel Brooks. That was the comedy version. I think it was called, “Young Churchill.” But no, Mel Gibson. I hadn’t realized what a fiasco that was, and how much of a role Churchill played in that, and that really colored my sense of him. I mean, here’s a guy who single-handedly wins World War II — not really, of course — and here’s this whole fiasco in World War I that added a lot of texture to my sense of him. And by the way, when I’m writing, I love nuance. I love the warts as much as the glory and the glamor. As to the Lusitania thing, there is no smoking memo. There is no document, and I believe that none exists because I would have found it or found reference to it. There is no document that specifically links Churchill to any kind of a plot to deliberately set the Lusitania up for destruction that day. There is, however, a lot of circumstantial evidence that says that something, some plan might have been put in place to allow that to happen. But again, it’s not anything that you can absolutely confirm. So what I talk about in my book — I lay out the evidence and say, “OK. If you were to present this in a court of law, you could not get a jury to give you a unanimous vote, without doubt, that this was a plot that Churchill was involved in.” The flipside of the story is that if you look at the same body of evidence, you can’t really argue that there wasn’t a plot. Too many things happened, too many weird omissions or deliberate failures to communicate with the captain and the ship and deliberate failure possibly to escort the ship. Too many interesting things. And I don’t think the answer is ever going to be completely resolved. But it does leave this sort of aura of suspicion. But again, no smoking memo, no concrete thing. It’s just fascinating. One of those mysteries in the mists of time.

Q: What about the vanishing civilities of war?

A: That was another thing I found interesting. The Lusitania sinking, and other events before it, really did mark a significant change in warfare, specifically in maritime warfare. Prior to World War I, maritime warfare against civilian shipping and targets was conducted under a very strict collection of rules. Civilians and crew were to be protected at all costs. If you were to attack a civilian cargo ship, for example, and if, under the rules, you were allowed to sink it, you first had to get all the crew and passengers off onto your ship for safety. And then you could sink it. Or what more often happened was that you would put a crew from your ship onto the target ship, and they would sail it into a so-called prize port where a prize court would then evaluate whether the attack was justified and whether the ship could be sacrificed because of that. Everything went away with the advent of the submarine, because of the specific design and likely use of the submarine. If the submarine stops a civilian ship, it has no crew to spare to put on that civilian ship. It cannot take the passengers and crew of that ship aboard. So in the first phase of World War I, of maritime warfare against civilian shipping, the German commanders would stop a ship and order all the passengers and crew off into open boats in the middle of the sea. And they would be sent on their way, no matter what fate awaited them, and then the ship would be destroyed. But then, the law of unintended consequences. The Royal Navy decided to begin arming civilian ships so that they could defend themselves against submarine attacks. And suddenly, it became too dangerous for a submarine commander to attack a civilian ship under the old rules. It became too dangerous. Because submarines, as I was very intrigued to find out, were actually very fragile vessels. A single penetration by a not very large naval gun from a ship would sink that submarine with all hands in short order. So suddenly it became really risky for submarines to attack on the surface. So they began to attack by surprise underneath the sea. And that led to all manner of atrocities. And that’s where we were throughout World War I and World War II.

Q: What about technologies of war? Were there changes in technologies?

A: The submarine, I have to underscore, was brand new. It was a novel technology. And it’s really hard to appreciate the extent to which that was the case. In fact, at the start of the war, Winston Churchill believed that British submarines would actually have no effective role in warfare against the German navy. The German side felt pretty much the same way. They had no idea how submarines would fare. They deployed them initially just as coastal defense. At any one time in the first years of the war, first year of the war in particular, Germany had maybe six U-boats at sea at any one time because the rest were in the shop being overhauled for various other things having to do with trying to keep the fleet going. And that’s not a whole lot of firepower for something as vast as the Atlantic and the Irish Sea and the North Sea. So the submarine was the new technology. That was particularly compelling. But I was also intrigued — we all have a specific sense of submarine warfare from submarine films, and of course there’s always that paradigmatic ping of the sonar system. Anybody that’s seen that great movie about World War II submarines, “Das Boot,” you know, it’s fantastic. Especially the score. But in World War I, there was no sonar. And submarines traveled utterly blind, relying only on their charts. They could make as much noise as they wanted, because nobody was going to hear them. And that’s probably why Commander Schweiger was able to have at one point six dachshunds on his U-boat and also why he was able to have his little Christmas party at the bottom of the North Sea on Christmas Eve of 1914, complete with a little accordion band and Christmas carols. So that was the lack of technology — it was evolving, it was coming. The other thing that really intrigued me was the failure rate of German torpedoes. Sixty percent failure rate. And then one day, with a hail Mary shot against a gigantic ocean liner — boom. Gone. Vanished.

Q: We have a lot of questions about Elbert Hubbard and his wife, Alice. In part I think because of where we are — the Roycroft community is nearby. Did you visit the Roycroft community?

A: I did not visit the Roycroft community. Elbert Hubbard, alas, because he did not survive the sinking, is really only pretty much a cameo character in my book. Anybody who’s in my book in a significant way is somebody who left a lot of good stuff about the sinking itself. I was enthralled with his experience — I think I stuck this in the footnotes. He was actually a convicted felon because of his effort — he was convicted of sedition, I believe. He went straight to Washington, straight to the Secretary of State’s office to get that lifted so he could sail on the Lusitania. Now that’s bad judgment.

Q: What was your personal journey that led you to write historical nonfiction?

A: That’s a really good question. I set out in my writing life to write novels. And in fact, I have four complete novels in my office in Seattle. Never published — two were actually under contract. And I pulled those contracts back, because my nonfiction career began to move ahead. But I do have these four complete, unpublished novels. My God, I hope that Go Set a Watchman thing doesn’t happen to me. As soon as I get back to Seattle, I’m burning those. But I became a journalist. I worked with the Wall Street Journal writing features, which is a great training ground for someone with my interests. I did my first book, a book called The Naked Consumer, a book that nobody bought and nobody read. It probably sold 2,000 copies. The one review that I saw, actually, the guy hated the book because he was in fact a target in the book. That’s when I set my lifelong policy of not reading reviews. And I’ve stuck to that ever since. But I got the bug to write books. Then I did a book about the gun culture of America called Lethal Passage. That became more of a narrative and I became more compelled by that sort of storytelling. When I thought about doing this murder [story] because I read this great novel and then stumbled on the hurricane, I thought, wow, this is a great story. And so that’s how this sort of started.

Q: Last question and slash observation. There are a couple people out in the Twitterverse who are here who think you have created a new genre of nonfiction and wanted you to comment on that. And also to describe how you work with your narrative arc. Just a really short question to end.

A: As to the new genre, first of all: no. I really do not think that I’ve created a new genre. Because frankly, there are some really terrific works of narrative nonfiction that came long before me. Again, Night to Remember, Hersey’s book Hiroshima, Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August — fabulous book. And David McCullough. He was doing these books long before I published my first. He was a real influence on me because of his book The Johnstown Flood, which I used as a model for how I tried to structure my book, Isaac’s Storm. So I reject the idea that I started a genre, though I’m flattered that you would think that I did. So I should’ve just said yes! As a matter of fact I did. I’m going to license it. As to the second part, the narrative arc — what I’ve learned is that it’s foolish to embark on any kind of project that does not have this kind of significant internal engine. And what I mean by that — case in point, the Lusitania. If I had not found the war log of Captain Schweiger, I would not have done Dead Wake. Because what that war log did from the very beginning was that it showed me what the structure was going to be, where this narrative tension was going to come from, where the suspense was going to come from. Because we’re going to follow this ship and we’re going to follow this submarine commander, and we’re going to have all kinds of details about the nightmare of this poor guy’s patrol. That’s why people are very sympathetic to Captain Schweiger. And then we’re going to have this glorious ship with these passengers on board, and they’re going to come together. If that’s Spielberg, I’m tied up. How all of these things come together, and all the fluky things — I mean, my God, there was no conspiracy that was involved in the point of contact at what actually sank this ship. What happened was that this confluence of fog, and timing — the fact that the Lusitania left two hours late — if it hadn’t because of this thing that happens that you can read about, it would have missed the submarine in the fog. All of these little things that happened. And then there’s this fluky little torpedo that happened to hit just the perfect place. It didn’t explode the munitions, it just opened a gaping hole in a ship that was going 18 knots, created a 25-degree list, and then it sank in 18 minutes. So, anyway, that’s a great arc.