One of the beautiful things about being an independent journalist is that often you get to work on projects where you are left with tons of unused material, particularly from interviews.
I found myself in this boat – no pun intended – with interview material I have from New York Times bestselling author Erik Larson, whose new title, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania was released on March 10 and is already #2 on Amazon’s overall list (#1 of several of its sublists), #2 on USA Today’s list, and #1 of the New York Time’s hardcover non-fiction list.
Here is the complete interview below. You won’t see it anywhere else. (With big-time thanks to Penny Simon and Emma Shafer at Penguin Random House/ Crown Publishing for making this happen, and to Erik Larson for taking the time from his jam-packed schedule to indulge my curiosity.)
- Telly Halkias: Let’s address the most important question up front: Your readers want to know: Has your family gotten another dog post-Molly, (who was a jewel)?
Erik Larson: Nope—though I personally am conspiring to get a new dog, possibly another golden, or maybe a brace of terriers, since we live now mostly in New York City. No dog of course can replace Molly in our hearts, but, dogs are great and we need one—even though my wife might not know it yet.
- Telly Halkias: You partially address this in “Mining Suspense”, but: Why the Lusitania sinking? Describe the one thing that stood out to you that made you think, “Yes! This is my next book!”
Erik Larson: There wasn’t any one Eureka moment—rather a sort of creeping realization that there was a whole lot more to the story of the Lusitania than I’d appreciated. I didn’t go into it intending to break some new and incredible revelation—though bits of this book are in fact new and help round out the story—but rather because I realized there was a vast trove of archival materials available on the subject that, in my view, had not yet been fully taken advantage of. My goal was to put readers back on deck with all those poor passengers in as vivid a fashion as possible, and so much great material seemed to offer a unique opportunity to do so. The fact the 100th anniversary was approaching was only important in that it kept me from dilly-dallying.
- Telly Halkias: As you proceeded in your research and writing, describe the single greatest thing you discovered that you were unprepared to learn. Explain how it affected the course of how you proceeded from that point on, if at all.
Erik Larson: The single greatest moment, and the most moving, came at the University of Liverpool which houses the Cunard archives. I was given the opportunity to examine photographs of some of those passengers whose bodies had been recovered soon after the sinking. The photos, which were taken in the three temporary morgues set up in Queenstown, Ireland, were very powerful images, especially those of children. They brought home to me the fact that this was not some desiccated political episode, as it is sometimes portrayed, but a deeply human tragedy of horrific dimension. Some of the dead looked as if they were merely sleeping and would get up momentarily to resume their lives. They were still neatly dressed in the clothes they had worn to lunch just before the torpedo struck. A few, recovered from beaches, still bore a dusting of sand.
- Telly Halkias: Of the Lusitania passengers/crew that you mention and delve into, identify which one you personally found the most compelling, either as personality or backstory, and explain why. If more than one, or a few equally, add as you see fit.
Erik Larson: One of my favorite characters was Dwight Harris. He’s not a particularly major actor here, but he left behind a charming account of the disaster in a letter he wrote to his mother. I say charming because the guy is so delighted to have survived and so thrilled to have been part of a historical event of this scale. Almost every sentence ends in one or more exclamation points. Plus, he provides a lot of fine-grained detail about the voyage and the attack, and in writing history the way I like to write it, detail is everything.
- Telly Halkias: In your capacity as journalist/historian/storyteller, identify the single most crucial human error your research pointed to that led directly to the Lusitania sinking. Assess if it could have been avoided or not, and explain why or why not – all with the benefit of the writer’s hindsight, of course.
Erik Larson: I’m not interested in judgment by hindsight. What I try to do in writing history is always always always maintain the point of view of whatever era I’m writing about. POV, as screenwriters call it. It’s pointless and unfair to look for errors and should-a’s now at this remove—especially when the sinking occurred because of a convergence of a multitude of disparate forces. The delayed departure. The fog. The ship’s construction. The submarine commander’s decision to abandon his patrol and begin the return voyage to Germany. His error in calculating the Lusitania’s speed. So many factors.
- Telly Halkias: From the technical aspect of writing such a book, the public is always interested in knowing logistical details. Describe how long it takes you from getting an idea to the book hitting the market – on average? How many drafts/proofs did you have to produce for this book?
Erik Larson: It’s always hard to pinpoint just how long a book takes. Where do you start the clock? At conception? At the moment the publisher agrees it’ll make a great book and gives you a contract? Typically my books take about three years, or more, with roughly two years of research and two years of writing. At first glance that doesn’t add up—but that’s because in the middle there’s a period where the writing and the research overlap for about six months. As to drafts—I’m a compulsive rewriter and reviser. I wrote at least eight full drafts, and that does not include the endless revision and rewriting of individual chapters and passages. I go through reams and reams of paper. Forests fear me.
- Telly Halkias: From the larger backdrop of the The (global) Great War and a world immersed in a never-before seen chaos of human conflict, describe greater message(s) can current readers take away from the story you tell in Dead Wake past the excellent research and storytelling into this one incident?
Erik Larson: I didn’t set out to send a message to modern-day readers, only to build for them as rich a historical experience as possible. But if there’s any message here it is that hubris is a dangerous thing. It’s when we’re over confident about what can and cannot happen that we need to be on our guard—and what I have in mind here is the problem of nuclear weapons. We’re all so confident they’ll never be used, and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it—even though a single detonation, whether deliberate or on purpose, likely would change the world forever. There’s also something to be learned from President Wilson’s restraint after the sinking. He understood what war meant, and he understood that America wasn’t ready for it. And, contrary to popular belief, Americans for the most part shared his view.
- Telly Halkias: While not an academic historian by training, you are often described as a historian by some in the media, and by readers. Explain how your background in journalism enhances historical non-fiction narrative, given that academic historical accounts can be awfully dry at times.
Erik Larson: It’s funny. I don’t really think of myself as a historian. Rather, I like to think of myself as an animator of history. My books are accurate and detailed, and you can quote them in your Phd thesis, but it’s not my intent to inform, per se. My goal is to produce a work of nonfiction that invites readers to sink into the past (no pun intended, by the way) as deeply and seamlessly as possible, and to linger there awhile, ideally to emerge with a sense of having spent some time in the shoes of those who lived through the episode.
- Telly Halkias: Finally: anything you want to add not covered.
Erik Larson: Well, I’m curious as to how readers will react to the submarine captain. I found him actually to be a rather sympathetic character—despite the fact he killed upwards of a thousand people. But he was a nuanced character. I love nuance.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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