Crime Magazine is about true crime: organized crime, celebrity crime, serial killers, corruption, sex crimes, capital punishment, prisons, assassinations, justice issues, crime books, crime films and crime studies.
Oct. 17, 2013
An interview with writer Erik Larson conducted by Donna Seaman and published in the recently released book True Crime: Real-Life Stories of Abduction, Addiction, Obsession, Murder, Grave-Robbing and More. Among other books, Larson is the author of The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and In the Garden of Beasts.
What sort of writer devotes himself to portraying scrupulously the vilest of criminals in works of intensely researched creative nonfiction? You might expect a brooding sort, with an aura of menace and obsession. How about a tall, fit, impeccably attired, articulate and bemused man as quick to spar as he is to joke? Enter Erik Larson.
A journalist turned narrative historian influenced by the brilliant crime novelist P.D. James and Truman Capote’s true-crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Larson has specialized in paradoxical true-life tales in which great leaps of technological innovation intersect with murder most gruesome. In his first big hit, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, Larson chronicled the Galveston hurricane of 1900, portrayed the pioneering Texas weatherman Isaac Cline, and charted the murder of businessman William Marsh Rice, founder of Rice University in Houston, Texas.
In The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Larson entwined the many-faceted story of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with the macabre tale of serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes. A National Book Award finalist, this indelible work won the Edgar Award for “fact crime” writing and stayed on The New York Times bestseller lists for more than three years. Leonardo DiCaprio optioned the film rights with an eye to playing Holmes himself. In the bestselling Thunderstruck, Larsonmapped the congruence of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the wireless with the exploits of the notorious British murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen, vividly recreating one of the strangest and most public criminal chases the world has ever followed.
Larson’s latest book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, led the author into the darkest chamber of the heart of the 20th century when he discovered the forgotten yet invaluable experiences and perspectives of two witnesses to the rise of the Third Reich: William E. Dodd, the professorial American ambassador to Germany in 1933, and his romantically intrepid (not to say reckless) 24-year-old daughter, Martha. A wildfire international bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts was optioned by Universal Studios and Tom Hanks’ Playtone. The paperback release on May 1, 2012, brought Larson back to Chicago, a city the Long Islander and longtime resident of Seattle has come to love.
We met in a quiet, not-yet-open hotel restaurant, which all too soon turned clamorous with preparatory work for the impending lunch crowd. Poised, animated and precise, Larson remained unfazed, taking great pleasure in explicating his modus operandi while candidly revealing what he perceives as his shortcomings. As we talked amid the rising cacophony, the scene seemed emblematic of the writer’s perpetual effort to stay focused in spite of the constant tumult, unpredictability and absurdity of life. Larson’s conversational concentration affirmed his gift for navigating the din and distractions of the abundance of facts, issues and possibilities his in-depth inquiries yield, and for staying the narrative course essential to the power of his richly complex, revelatory and thrillingly provocative books. —DS
DS: What did you love to read as a boy?
LARSON: It depends on the phase. I loved the Tom Swift series, and I actually loved Nancy Drew books. I think I read them all. And then I graduated pretty quickly to the Dumas books. I loved The Three Musketeers. I loved The Count of Monte Cristo. And when I was quite young, I got into reading Dickens. I’m not sure I really understood Bleak House, but I thought it was great. I was not a voracious reader, though. I was more interested in drawing.
DS: Do you think your passion for drawing helped you develop your observational skills?
LARSON: You know, my glib answer is “no.” But possibly. I mean, I’ve sworn to get back into drawing and painting. If you think about it, once you’ve spent a lot of time drawing, if you look at a building or a house, for example—and this is going to sound stupid—but you look closely at the interior framing of a window, and you see that window very differently than somebody else sees it. I’m looking at that window––I often find myself doing this—and I see the many lines that comprise the window frame. I actually count them sometimes. It’s amazing how complex windows are. So that’s a tiny example of how it could be the case. It can’t hurt. It’s got to go in the mix.
But in terms of detail, the thing that helped me more was that I got really lucky with my newspaper jobs, ending up pretty quickly at The Wall Street Journal in the days when you could spend a lot of time writing short pieces. I always tried to do the funny pieces. You can’t be funny; you have to let the details be funny for you. So you have to collect the details. That gave me a really good eye for what details worked and what details didn’t work. Because what it comes down to with the sort of historical writing I do is finding those little details that make a scene come to life, that make a scene tighter. It doesn’t take a lot. I think sometimes just one sentence can really do it.
DS: It seems you lost patience with newspaper journalism.
LARSON: Yeah, well, first of all, I got into it totally by accident and for the worst motives. I studied history at the University of Pennsylvania, but that’s because the history professors were some of the best. I got lured into Russian history, in particular, by a fantastic professor. I got so drawn into Russian history by this guy that it changed my whole college plan. Suddenly I was Russian history, Russian language, Russian literature. I had intended to go to law school; then I took a business law course, just to see what it was like, and I realized: no way. I couldn’t get through the reading. I hated it. I hated it with every ounce of my body. So I worked in publishing for a while, like a year. I was an editorial assistant, which meant on my lunch hour I would clean my boss’s office and desk. I had to make her telephone calls because she did not know how to operate a punch phone; she couldn’t deal with long-distance calls.
Then I saw the movie All the President’s Men, and I just loved it. I thought to myself, that’s what I’ve got to do. So I went to journalism school at Columbia University, and I got my first newspaper job as a reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pa. It was a good first job. I covered the cops on Saturday nights, and then I wrote features the rest of the time—long features, Sunday specials. So that was good for getting me started in long-form journalistic writing. And I got really lucky there because I was passed over for a promotion. I got so pissed off that I sent my resume to all my friends in the business. One was at The Wall Street Journal, and I was hired.
I loved The Wall Street Journal for the time I was there. I loved the writing, and I enjoyed the community of writers. Writing was “it.” Anybody could do business, but if you could write, they wanted you. Then the emphasis began to change markedly to hard-news coverage of business. You could still do features, but it was no longer the case that you could make a career doing the kind of stories I did. I was never in it for the business writing. I never liked writing about corporate assholes. That’s what it came down to, and I was having to do too much of that. So I was ready to give journalism up. But I suppose if, you know, The New Yorker had stepped up and said, “We want you as a staff writer,” I would have stayed in it.
DS: So you gave up a secure gig. Then what?
LARSON: Then I got married. After a blind date and three broken engagements. So dumb luck became a factor. Then we made a huge mistake. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those stress scores—you know, for what causes over-the-top stress. We did precisely what’s on that list. After we got married, I left my job. I had been working, at that point, at the San Francisco bureau. We left San Francisco to go to Baltimore. So everything was in upheaval. I was so adrift. I totally lost what I refer to as my cocktail identity. Do you know what I mean? People ask, “What do you do?” I could say, “I write for The Wall Street Journal.” I lost that. So I had nothing. I had no friends in Baltimore; I had no identity. It was actually very hard.
So to keep my name out there, I started doing freelance pieces for whatever magazines would take my stuff because I discovered, early on, that magazines had a prejudice against news reporters. I wrote some stuff for Harper’s and for The Atlantic, and that was very satisfying. But at one point, I also realized that given the amount of work I was putting into each stupid little story, I could probably write a book. Didn’t it make more sense to write something that would stay on the shelf for longer than 24 hours or a week? This was a gradual realization, and I vividly remember the day it came to a head. I had a contract with a magazine (that you would recognize, but I’m not going to tell you what it is), and the editor was a very good editor. And this contract paid the bills with an annual fee; plus, they paid a certain amount on top for each piece. But one day, I’m on the phone with my editor, talking about ideas. We talked a lot. I was sinking to my desk as I was talking to him, and I fell asleep. But here’s the thing: I woke up a few seconds later, and he was still talking. He had no clue. So after that conversation, I thought, “This has to stop.” That’s when I wrote my first book proposal, which became my first book, The Naked Consumer, which nobody read. And nobody bought. If that had been my first book today, my career would have been over. Because nobody gives you a second chance now with new books.
DS: The full title is The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public
Commodities, and you were prompted to write it by the avalanche of targeted junk mail you and your wife began receiving as new parents even before your first child was born. It came out in 1992, making you a pioneering observer of how companies invade our privacy to advertise their products.
LARSON: Yes, I was very early on the subject of how companies spy on consumers, writing about it at a time when people were not paying much attention. I thought that book was going to be the next The Hidden Persuaders, which came out in the 1950s, before my generation, and was hugely successful. The Naked Consumer sure was not. It received zero support from the publisher, zero publicity. It was a nightmare experience. But I did love doing the book. It satisfied a lot of things that hard-core journalism did not.
DS: If you revisited that subject now, you would have to tackle an enormous amount of high-tech and corporate information about online surveillance and data-mining and advertising strategies.
LARSON: I would not even be tempted to revisit it now. I really liked that first book, but there was no story. That’s where I went wrong. I started evolving toward story in my second book, Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun.Funny enough, given the subject, my youngest daughter told her friends I wrote Lethal Weapon, and they were like, “Wow!”
DS: Lethal Passage is another remarkably prescient work. You were the first to trace the journey of a certain handgun model as a way to illuminate the sources of gun violence in our society. The criminal use of handguns remains a complex and tragic problem.
LARSON: The sheer number of illegal guns used in crimes is not getting worse, but I don’t think the numbers tell the story. What happened with that book was that I was living in Baltimore, where there was a lot of crime. The show “The Wire,” unfortunately, gets it right. It was in the mid-1980s, and there was a real surge in drive-by shootings. I was always struck by the fact that 13- and 14-year-old kids had these sophisticated handguns. At the time, nobody ever wrote about where the guns came from, how the kids got the guns. It was completely absent from the story. I just wanted to find out how these things get into these kids’ hands.
So, I started looking for a case and pitched it to The Atlantic Monthly. I wrote about the model that had become the most popular crime gun. I traced its history, and the history of a boy and a school, and how he and the gun came together. I thought it was a very good piece, and The Atlantic did, too. I was so worried about that piece. It must have been about 30,000 words, and I remember telling my wife, “I’m so depressed. They’re not going to buy it. It’s too long, but I can’t cut anything. It’s all important to me.” So I sent it in, and 48 hours later, I get a call from the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, and he says, “We really like this piece. We’re going to run the whole thing, but if you can find any places to cut, we would love it.” So they ran it as a cover story, this gigantic piece; it was great.
I thought, I have all this stuff; I’m going to turn it into a book. It wasn’t successful financially; it didn’t become a bestseller, but it was successful critically. And more importantly, it really helped change, for a time, the gun landscape. It really did. Police departments kept calling me to say thank you for giving them a way to look at this, to deal with it. In the Justice Department, somebody I can’t name would bounce ideas off me for what needed to be done. All this was reversed in a heartbeat by (U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft. Everything. If there’s a gun problem today, it’s on John Ashcroft’s shoulders. Nothing has been done to counteract the trend. But it will happen. Something will, at last, get people’s attention, and things will change for the better.
DS: You wrote two very topical books about current trends and issues, with a growing interest in telling a story. What inspired you to return to your love of history and start writing narrative nonfiction about the past?
LARSON: On some level, I knew that what I wanted to do was to write narrative nonfiction in order to tell true stories from the past. The way it came about: I had read a novel, in 1994, The Alienist by Caleb Carr. It’s about a serial killer in old New York in the 1890s. What I loved about it was the way he evoked that era in New York. I came away feeling like I’d lived there. So I started thinking: Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a nonfiction book about a historical murder? So I very deliberately started looking into historical murders. I actually came across Holmes, the serial killer in The Devil in the White City, fairly early on, but I didn’t want to write about him at the time because I didn’t want to write crime porn. I was looking for something along the lines of the film Gosford Park. I came across a murder that involved William Marsh Rice, who founded Rice University. He was murdered in New York in 1900 by his valet and an unscrupulous attorney. And there was a hurricane connection to this story. I got enthralled with this hurricane because I’ve been a hurricane junky from way back, growing up on Long Island.
At this point, I had a new agent, David Black, who was crucial to steering me onto the right path. He really was. He has a tremendous, instinctive sense of narrative. You know how it works with nonfiction: You do a proposal, and then they say yea or nay, and then you get an advance and go off to do the research. So I submitted a proposal for a book about the hurricane. My agent liked the idea broadly, but he said, “You need to do something more.” He wanted a stronger story. I went back and did some more research and gave him another proposal, a little closer, but not quite there for him. He’s renowned as a proposal Nazi. So I kept going and going and going. I must have gone through eight drafts of this damn proposal. I was so ready to dump him, and he knew it. He wasn’t going to push me too far. Finally, we got down to the last, essentially typographical, nuanced edit, and he said, “We’re ready.” So we sent it out. People did love it. We sold it to Crown. A very nice offer. It was great. That was my first step into narrative history.
DS: The writing in Isaac’s Storm is so rich.
LARSON: It’s my wife’s favorite of my books. With The Devil in the White City,we went through the whole process again. David was instrumental in getting me to concentrate on what makes a powerful story: Where is the conflict? Where is the suspense? We’re not talking about making things up; we’re talking about where the story is in real life. Who are your characters? Find the right characters, and you’ll have your story.
DS: The stories you’ve chosen involve the worst of crimes. What draws you to tales of murder?
LARSON: I don’t necessarily hunt for dark subjects. It just happens that the darker events of history are often the most compelling.
DS: Are social and moral concerns important to you when you’re selecting subjects to write about?
LARSON: Not really. I simply look for whatever historical event or situation offers the best opportunity for nonfiction storytelling.
DS: Is grappling with evil a great challenge?
LARSON: As a rule, no. However, I did find that steeping myself in Nazi pathology for four to five years took a toll on my psyche, conjuring in me a kind of low-grade depression. I’m happy to say, however, that once the book was done, the depression lifted completely.
DS: Does hubris fascinate you?
LARSON: Hubris does fascinate me. Excess confidence can often lead men to do very interesting things, often at great cost to everyone else. Throughout history, hubris and tragedy have been frequent companions.
DS: Let’s talk about research. You’ve said you want your nonfiction books to read like novels, and they do because you bring every scene and detail to such vivid life. How do you acquire all the requisite information, and how do you utilize it?
LARSON (laughing): Yeah, that’s the challenge. First of all, I have the luxury of being able to do this full-time. So I can spend a 40-hour workweek doing nothing but reading books and traveling. I get pretty well-funded, so I can go the distance. To some extent now, you can do a lot of the same if you’re not as well-funded because of online resources, although I find online research so tedious I could scream.
DS: So there’s archival research and out-in-the-world research.
LARSON: Right. The way it starts, for me, is you read the broad stuff, the big survey histories and so forth. You kind of circle in, getting closer and closer to the nub of things by going into what I call the intimate histories—the published diaries, documents, letters—and all the while you’re looking for the right characters. Then you have an idea of who these characters might be; you come down to a half-dozen characters, one of whom could be central to the story. Then it’s time to go to the archives. The Library of Congress is stop one. The manuscript division. It’s a bad thing to plan too far and with too much detail about how much you need and where you should go. There’s no substitute for parachuting in and flailing. Inertia is a powerful force in my life. I can put off anything for a long time. Just ask my wife.
DS: There’s always something else to read.
LARSON: Absolutely. So then you go to the archives. I love it. I love going through boxes filled with files that are full of stuff. You never know what you’re going to find in the next folder. The problem with online research is you always know what’s coming. Somebody else has selected what’s online. The serendipity effect is crucial, finding things that are potentially really valuable to you. Say, an envelope with nothing in it, nothing associated with it, could be valuable because it might have so-and-so’s return address on it. Or it might confirm a contact. Little detective-like things. I just love those. In the case of In the Garden of Beasts, Martha Dodd, the central character, has 70 linear feet of documents, letters, writings. The first couple of files in the first box, if I remember correctly, were calling cards that she collected. Hundreds of calling cards. They were common currency in that period; they were very important to the ebb and flow of social life. So here they are, and I’m going through them, and here’s the calling card for Hermann Göring. I’m holding this calling card that Martha held at one time, that Göring held and gave to her. There’s this little electric charge that comes from stuff like that, and that’s the fun that keeps you going.
My favorite find for In the Garden of Beasts was two locks of Carl Sandburg’s hair I came across in one of the files. What the—?! It was very cool. I knew that Martha and he had an affair—later in the files, I found material that definitely supports that fact—but I couldn’t get my mind around her having an affair with an older guy. She’s 24, and Sandburg’s 50-something. But there are the locks of hair; it’s true. You need those little discoveries.
With The Devil in the White City, so much of the stuff I came across I found hard to believe. I’m not even talking about the serial killer part; I’m talking about the World’s Columbian Exposition and who participated in it. One thing I didn’t know about when I proposed the book was the fact that the mayor, Carter Henry Harrison, was shot and killed the night before the elaborately planned closing ceremony, which was cancelled. What the hell? So you look at these critical moments. The thing that stood out in the files in the Chicago Historical Society was the evidence tag for the gun that was used to kill Harrison. Of course, no one knows where the gun is. That’s the missing element. So it’s the tactile contact with the materials.
And, of course, you have to go to the places and get a sense of what’s there, even though there may not be much left. I didn’t know Chicago before I started writing The Devil in the White City. Suddenly, I’m here doing this research for this book, and one of the things that leapt out at me was the power of the lake in defining the city. Not just how the day looks—the light in summer, say—but the shifting moods of the lake at any one time. That became very important to know and to see. I like to think the lake is a character, a quiet character. I think it would be a different book without my having seen the lake. Subtle, intangible things matter.
When I went to Berlin for In the Garden of Beasts, I discovered the really attachable thing, which I think somehow infuses the entire book, when I was just walking around, looking for addresses. I found the location, but the Dodds’ house is no longer there. Believe it or not, it’s an empty lot with a fence around it. How strange is that? It’s prime territory; what’s going on there? But what I realized, in a miniature epiphany, was that everything was in walking distance from that spot. Walking distance to Gestapo headquarters. Walking distance to Hitler. You could walk across the park to the Reichstag. Suddenly, I realized that all the action took place around the eastern quarter of Tiergarten, the park. The location is very important to know. It played a key role in the ultimate choice of the title: “The garden of beasts” is the literal translation of “Tiergarten.” I learned, also, that it was one of the few places you could go and feel safe from surveillance, and that Ambassador Dodd used the park for conversations with diplomats. It became very important to the writing to know that all this was there. Things magically popped up. Then I could see Dodd walking out the door. You’ve got to have moments like that. If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for your readers.
DS: You’re a master at conjuring the physical worlds your characters occupy, and you also try to get inside their heads.
LARSON: Hmm. Be careful with that. …
DS: Ah, well, I have that impression.
LARSON: Right. You have that impression. I know this is not what you’re getting at, but let me preface this by saying I get a kick out of people saying to me, “You must have made this up. Because this is dialogue. How could you know this?” I put this note in every one of my books, and everyone ignores it: “Anything between quotation marks is from a written document. All dialogue that appears in this book is taken verbatim from the sources in which it initially appeared.”
So what I’m getting at is that it is the reader who brings the magic, I am convinced. I’m trying to lay out all those little vivid details that might spark the imagination. The reader comes to this with his or her vast experience of reading novels and everything else, and puts those dots together. It’s kind of like removing the noise from a digital photograph, so that instead of pixels, you have this smooth thing. So the reader is providing the sense that it’s dialogue when it’s not.
I think the same thing happens when you say I go into their states of mind. I will only propose what somebody is thinking or not thinking if I have something concrete in hand that makes that clear. If I have a letter that Dodd wrote to Roosevelt saying, “These people are crazy,” I’m totally justified in saying Dodd thought they were crazy. But you absolutely cannot make that stuff up out of whole cloth because then you pass into another realm entirely.
DS: You have written novels. Are you ever tempted to go back to writing fiction? Perhaps to take a break from all this rigor?
LARSON: You know, when I left San Francisco to go to Baltimore in the devil’s bargain—my wife is a physician, and she was offered a great job at Johns Hopkins––I intended to work on novels. And while I enjoyed it, there’s something about this sort of writing that I find very satisfying. Part of it is the adventure story that I get involved in by going places – the challenge of finding the best stuff. It suits an element of my personality. I’ve very compulsive. Partly, it’s easier; you know, you’ve got to go with what you’ve got. If you find the story and you get enough details, you can tell a good story. There’s a great paradox with fiction. If I tried to write a novel in which I proposed that the daughter of the American ambassador was sleeping with the first chief of the Gestapo, no one would believe it. But because it happened—wow!—this is interesting. I really like that. Also, I don’t think I have the sensibility to be a novelist. To be a novelist, you’ve got to do really rotten things to your characters. You’ve got to paralyze them; you’ve got to give them cancer—all these awful things. I don’t have it in me. But it’s not to say I won’t do it sometime in the future. I might try it again.
DS: What sort of notes do you take in the field and when you’re going through library and archival material? And how do you organize and work with all the information you gather?
LARSON: First of all, I don’t believe in coming and spending six months in a city in a hotel, reading everything as I go. My M.O. is to read far enough into a document or book to think, “This could be valuable,” and then I photocopy it. Or, today, I take a digital photograph. So I make hundreds and hundreds of copies and bring them home. Some will be worthless, but it’s still cost-effective. Then I find the highlights in those things, and I index each document, and each collection of documents, with little tabs, so I know that’s where the best quotes are. And as I’m doing this, I create a chronology, in which everything is tied to specific times and days. The result, before I start to write, is about 100 single-spaced pages covering everything day-by-day-by-day, with little references to each of the indexes of the copied documents. So it might say “Tiergarten,” and then there would be the name of the source and a Roman numeral, and then just a couple of notes about that particular quote, enough to make me remember it. I know exactly where it is; I can go right to it.
This detailed chronology is my secret weapon. Because chronological order is the key to any story. If you simply relate a historical event in chronological order, you have done much more than most historians do. I’m appalled when I read books about things I’m interested in—the Third Reich or whatever—by how many times historians just don’t tell it in the order that it happened. By how much they jump around. It’s so weird. Chronological order is the most important thing. So I have, essentially, a default outline for my entire project. The major events will declare themselves because that’s where the most information is. So when I go through this chronology, there are obvious points where a chapter is going to be, and there are obvious places where I can see that if I end this scene there and jump here, that’s good foreshadowing.
DS: You have created this powerful two-track approach to telling complex stories, in which you do end each chapter with a dramatic pause and a forerunner of what is to come.
LARSON: But they’re very natural breaks. I’m not just dicking around. My chronology says, “This happened then,” and, “Meanwhile, this is going on here, and it will influence the outcome of that scene.” That’s very powerful.
DS: It enables you to present amazing juxtapositions and also a rich sense of simultaneity.
LARSON: And you never know that those things are simultaneous until you do a chronology, and you realize, “Oh, that’s the same day.” Who knew? That’s what I love. Until I do the chronology, I never know where those little serendipitous overlaps are, but they always appear.
DS: You become fluent in these materials.
LARSON: Well, I do and I don’t. I have what I think is a serious flaw. I have a really limited memory. It’s always been the case. With each book, it’s very hard for me, afterward, to do interviews about it because I’ve forgotten most of it. So this process, this chronology, is really a way of compensating for my lack of an ability to memorize detail, although I am very good at conceptual recollection. So that’s the way the chronology is vital to me, to spark the recollections and to help me make vivid the conceptual things.
The memory problem goes way back. I love to play the piano, but I cannot memorize pieces. I can’t. I consider myself to be very musical. I’m very good at improvising. But I can’t remember lyrics. I could not sing a single song for you. Except “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” I could do that. So, it’s an elaborate system to compensate for my failure.
DS: Speaking about memory, and about documentation, I wonder what you think about the future of research? If all of us are communicating in emails and Tweets, what will writers interested in excavating the facts about our time have to work with in the future?
LARSON: Well, that is a very interesting question. In a hundred years, when people are writing about now, they will have Tweets. Twitter gave a huge trove of Tweets to the National Archives. This could be of immense value in terms of providing a sense of currency to an event. You know, Tweet, Tweet, Tweet—sort of like telegrams once did. But it will be tougher to conduct deep research, especially because people don’t write long, detailed letters anymore. So, we’ll see what happens. But I’m glad I’ve got letters to rely on. And documents.
DS: Are you at all concerned about the digitization of books? The changes e-books are bringing to publishing, maybe also to writing itself and reading?
LARSON: I don’t know what’s going to happen, obviously. But I can tell you that with In the Garden of Beasts, half the sales were e-books. My attitude is that people will always want a good story. They will always consume good stories. And as long as there are people around who will produce them, there will be a market for them. It is interesting that there are such cutthroat battles underway over e-books, with high stakes. A lot of money is being spent to try to capture readers, stories and books; that shows that nobody thinks e-books are going to go away. The question is, who’s going to get the profit from that? Things are changing. J.K. Rowling is selling her books now without digital rights. She can do that. She’s powerful. You cannot buy an e-book of hers, of Harry Potter, unless it’s through her store. But you can use her e-books anywhere, on any device. So things are in flux. I am sorry for bookstores; they’re getting hammered by this. But I do think the best bookstores will endure.
DS: On your website, you have a logo with a pencil and …
LARSON: Two Oreo cookies.
DS: Is that your coat of arms?
LARSON: That is my coat of arms. A young woman suggested that I come up with a logo. So I told my Web designer that I wanted a logo and suggested Oreos and pencils or something. And God bless her, she came up with the perfect logo. I love that logo. What it relates to is the fact that when I’m working—and now it’s every day that I’m researching or writing—my day starts very early. I make some coffee, half decaf, half black, and I have one Oreo cookie. A bad day is two Oreo cookies. And the pencil is Ticonderoga Number Two. The best pencil ever made. Ticonderoga Number Two Soft. I use those to write passages that are particularly difficult. Using a computer is great; you can spew and rewrite a paragraph 10 times. But there are passages that are too important, too complex, to do that. I have yellow legal pads; I can even tell you which kind: yellow legal pads with a reinforced back made by Tops. So I sharpen my pencils, and what I find is that it almost invariably comes relatively easily because when you write longhand, you’ve got to think about it before you write, because the manual effort is significant. It matters. That really helps.
--Donna Seamanconducted this interview for Creative Nonfiction Magazine. A senior editor for Booklist, Donna Seaman is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award. She created the anthology In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness, and her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books.