Q&A: Bestselling author Erik Larson discusses ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ ahead of Lancaster appearance | Entertainment

Winston Churchill is among the most written about historical figures of the 20th century, but that didn’t stop bestselling nonfiction author Erik Larson from discovering new and compelling angles to tell Churchill’s story.

The author of eight nonfiction books and a fictional audiobook will make an appearance at Lancaster Country Day School’s Gardner Theater in Lancaster on Feb. 19 during a sold-out event, “An Evening with Erik Larson: The Splendid and the Vile,” which includes a conversation with Scott LaMar, host of WITF’s “Smart Talk.”

Larson began his writing career as a reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pennsylvania. He combines an investigative journalist’s intuitive knack for following interesting threads and uncovering facts through dogged research with a novelist’s sense of tried-and-true narrative storytelling techniques. These strengths are on display in his 2020 nonfiction work “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.” The book provides a nearly day-to-day account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister.

It was New York City, the city where Larson currently lives, that inspired Larson to tackle the subject of Churchill’s London during the Germans’ blitz attack which lasted from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1941.

“It was inspired by the fact that we experienced 9/11 and we’re still screwed up in a lot of ways because of 9/11,” says Larson. “And here was Britain during the German air campaign and, at the peak, it was 57 consecutive nights of bombing. If you will, 57 consecutive 9/11’s – and how did anyone get through that?”

The book, which was published three weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak forced nationwide lockdowns, became something of a pandemic comfort read.

“(Readers) came to the book as a way to figure out how to get through COVID. It was definitely a thing with that book,” says Larson. “I heard that all the time, people coming to me and saying, ‘This really helped me get through it.’ It gave them some reassurance that Britain went through a traumatic event and endured and came out the other side, thanks to brilliant leadership.”

During a recent phone interview, Larson took some time to answer some questions about researching and writing the “Splendid and the Vile,” his approach to crafting thrilling nonfiction narratives, Churchill’s relationship with alcohol and other subjects.

So much has been written about Churchill. Did you learn anything new?

One brand new thing was Mary Churchill’s diary. She, as far as I’m concerned, made the book. I was so lucky to get access to that diary. Prior to my seeing it, there had only been one other researcher who had been given that opportunity. I’m not sure who that person was or what the context was, but I’m sure they didn’t use it the way I used it. I wanted Mary Churchill to be a free-standing, flesh and blood character…. She was 17 when the action starts in the book. She was a smart young woman, really articulate, a great observer of big events, but also a girl who liked to have fun. And she tells us about having fun. How often do you find a diary that you use and quote for a book where someone talks about ‘snogging in the hayloft,’ you know? I died and went to heaven.

The Mass Observation Project (a UK social research project utilizing volunteer diarists) also seemed like an invaluable resource.

Scholars have used it before, but again they used it in different ways. For me, it was particularly valuable because it provided intimate details about ordinary people’s lives during the blitz. I teased out yet another character with Olivia Cockett. I loved her story of her. … Her experience of the blitz was very much a metaphor for how Britain, how London in particular, how they coped.

Diaries have seemed to be invaluable historical records for your work. Have you ever kept a diary?

I’m a fairly compulsive journaler in terms of ideas for books and passages for books. I don’t spend so much time talking about routine events in my life, but I’ve kept journals for years. I hope to God nobody ever publishes any of them. I’d be kind of ashamed because they’re nowhere near as articulate as Mary Churchill’s.

How do you feel about Churchill’s relationship with alcohol?

Well, Churchill had a very interesting relationship with alcohol. People who didn’t know a lot about him would dismiss him as being sort of a lush or being alcoholic, but my take, after doing some research, is that he was very judicious about his intake of alcohol. My pet theory is that he was sort of sedating himself. Maybe it helped him get through the day as the bombs were flying and so forth. He would start the day with a whiskey and water, but just a little teeny bit of whiskey – almost just a flavoring. And nobody, apparently, has a record of seeing him drunk.

Do alarms go off in your head telling you to follow a certain thread in your research?

At this point it’s instinct. I kind of think of it as my super power. I get this little instinctive, maybe call it a bell, or a signal that says, ‘Yeah this could be really worthwhile, I’m going to look at this.’ Often I’m rewarded, but sometimes I’m not. I do feel strongly that no matter what you do, nothing is lost. It’s all there somewhere in your mind. There’s this big stew of facts and thoughts and you can’t predict when suddenly two of these obscure details are going to connect in your brain in some incredible surprise. So it’s all good. Just keep shoveling that stuff into your brain and something good will happen.

How many books do you think it takes for you to read to write one?

Complete books and fragments? Hundreds. In “The Splendid and the Vile,” let’s say I learned something about construction of one of the government buildings that got destroyed, and then you sort of have to read about London and the architecture of Westminster and so forth. It’s a constant Tarzan-like process from rope to rope to rope and from book to book to book. Hundreds of books.

Did you grow up with certain favorite novels that you wanted to use as models to tell nonfiction stories?

Well, first of all, I’m glad you made a distinction, because everything is absolutely nonfiction. I apply the techniques and tactics of fiction. I’ve been influenced by a number of writers, but one in particular is John Irving. He uses very obvious techniques that work. For example, his use of cliffhangers. He is an ace at cliffhangers. I learned a lot from reading his novels from him about how to move something along.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews, a nonfiction book that readers from Pennsylvania might enjoy – David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood.”

I had read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough and I really loved that book. I loved the way I structured it. I loved the narrative. …I literally diagrammed all the chapters. I outlined the entire book, diagrammed the chapters and made note of where the cliffhangers were. So it was really kind of a formative thing.

I noticed “Devil in the White City” is back on the bestseller list. Congratulations on that. What’s happening with the Hulu series?

That book has been under option since it came out. The problem people have had is it’s a complicated narrative. It’s basically two stories that run side by side and actually never touch except in one very small place. So it’s been hard for producers to come up with a way to tell the story as a feature film. … You’re stuck with either a period “Silence of the Lambs” or you do the World’s Fair thing alone.

So, because it’s so hard to do it as a feature film, cooler, wiser heads prevailed and they decided it could be better done as a Hulu limited series. The idea being that you’d have more time to explore both narratives.

I don’t think that DiCaprio, who holds the option, intends anymore to be a character in the series, but he’s still attached, so is Martin Scorsese. But lately, this has been all this news burbling up that Keanu Reeves is in so-called ‘talks’ to be in the Hulu series. And he’s having kind of a moment right now, so that’s been a very positive thing for the book.


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