Often times, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Take the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The fair was the groundbreaking birthplace of such things as neon lights and the Ferris Wheel; a wonderland of futuristic technology and architecture. It was also the playground of a demented murderer who set up his very own chamber of torture within striking distance of the fair. This bizarre dichotomy of creation and destruction is what enticed Erik Larson to tell the twisted tale of the 1893 World's Fair in his fascinating fourth book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.
Journalist Larson's work displays a fascination with the ways various forms of violence affect every day life. His second book Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun is an exploration of gun culture throughout American history, using a horrendous incident involving a machine-gun toting 16-year old as its uniting thread. His next book, the griping, critically acclaimed Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, detailed one of the worst natural disasters in American history, a hurricane that hit Galveston Texas in 1900 leaving between 6,000 and 10,000 people dead. However, when Larson first encountered the story of Dr. Henry H. Holmes, he was reluctant to use it as the basis for one of his books. "I started doing some research, and I came across the serial killer in this book, Dr. H. H. Holmes," he told Powell's.com. "I immediately dismissed him because he was so over-the-top bad, so luridly outrageous. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do a slasher book. It crossed the line into murder-porn. So I kept looking, and I became interested in a different murder that actually had a hurricane connection, where I of course got distracted by the hurricane and wrote Isaac's Storm."
When Larson completed Isaac's Storm and began researching ideas for his next book, he began reading about the 1853 World's Fair. Hooked by the numerous colorful characters and amazing occurrences surrounding the fair, Larson decided he would use it as the subject for his fourth book. Still, he had little interest in telling a straight chronological play-by-play of the fair's creation. So, he resolved to revisit the subject that had so repulsed him prior to writing Isaac's Storm.
Dr. Henry H. Holmes was a heinous modern monster. Just west of the fair, he built the mockingly named "World's Fair Hotel" where he would torture his victims by any number of means. The grotesque hotel was equipped with its very own gas chamber, dissection table, and crematorium. As abhorrent as Holmes was, Larson could not resist the jarring juxtaposition of this remorseless killer and the fair.
The resulting book Devil in the White City is both a richly detailed history and a chilling yarn as unbelievable and spellbinding as any work of fiction. The book was both a finalist for the National Book Award and a Number 1 New York Times bestseller. It was garnered nearly universal raves from The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Esquire, The Chicago Sun Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among many, many others.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of Devil in the White City is the fact that the book is an accurate history that also manages to be a riveting page-turner. As Larson says, "I write to be read. I'm quite direct about that. I'm not writing to thrill colleagues or to impress the professors at the University of Iowa; that's not my goal." Larson's goal was to render a fascinating story, and he succeeded admirably with Devil in the White City.
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As entertaining as Larson's historical works are, he currently has little interest in expanding into fiction. "The research [involved in nonfiction] appeals to me," he told Powell's.com. "I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives -- but the beauty is that the complexity of the characters is there. You don't have to make it up."
As thoroughly detailed and well-researched as Larson's books are, it is hard to believe that he does not employ an assistant. Every detail in his books was gleaned by the author, himself.
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In the fall of 2003, Erik Larson took some time out to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, for the sheer power and simplicity of Hammett's prose.
What are your favorite books?
This question is difficult to answer. If you asked me again two months from now, I'd have a different response. Having said that, here's today's list, in no particular order, and excluding The Maltese Falcon:
Caroline's Daughters, by Alice Adams
Dark Star, by Alan Furst
Roseanna, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
In Our Time, also by Hemingway
The Honorary Consul, or anything else by Graham Greene
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Maltese Falcon, because it's such a brilliant evocation of Hammett's work.
Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, The Russians Are Coming, The Pink Panther, and Airplane, because they make me laugh no matter how often I watch them.
The Great Escape, for the tension and sorrow, and for Steve McQueen's wonderfully underplayed performance.
The Big Chill, because it was the right movie at the right time.
It's a Wonderful Life, because I adore Jimmy Stewart.
Alien, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby, because all three scared the hell out of me.
Schindler's List and The English Patient (the book is excellent too), for capturing the awful nuance of life in wartime.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all kinds of music, though I tend to prefer jazz and classics. I don't listen to music when I write, but I do turn on appropriate music when I read portions of my manuscripts back to myself -- kind of like adding a soundtrack to help shape mood. When reading aloud sections of my latest book, The Devil in the White City, I tended to put on George Winston's Plains, and the soundtrack from the movie The English Patient.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'm not sure I'd want a book club, because I never like having to read a particular book. I'm very perverse. If someone tells me I have to read a book, I'm instantly disinclined to do so. It's an unfortunate quirk, I know. Though my mother warned my wife about it before we got married.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
For the same reasons as in the book club question above, I rarely give books as gifts, and don't really like getting them as gifts either. Reading is such a personal thing to me. I'd much rather give someone a gift certificate to a bookstore, and let that person choose his or her own books.
Do you have any special writing rituals?
I have one important ritual: When I stop work for the day, I make sure to stop in the middle of a paragraph, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence, so that I know exactly where to start the next morning. It's so much easier to wake up each day when you know you'll be productive as soon as you get down to work.
What are you working on now?
If I told you I'd have to eviscerate you.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing for a living since my first newspaper job, back in 1978. The most important lesson I've learned is that you just have to discipline yourself to write every day, regardless of outside demands, because inspiration only comes once you've put in the time and laid the necessary groundwork. If you wait for those thunderbolts of inspiration that so many beginning writers seem to expect, you'll wait an awfully long time -- and probably wouldn't even recognize the inspiration if it comes.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Alan Furst -- he's not exactly a new writer, but he's relatively undiscovered. He writes wonderfully evocative novels about life in Europe in the days just before, or just at the start of, World War II. He crafts his plots around men and women suddenly caught up in the intrigues of the time, who find themselves compelled to make choices and take actions for which their conventional backgrounds left them unprepared. I get the sense reading his books that I'm catching a glimpse of how life really was lived in Paris, and elsewhere, as the great darkness descended.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write, write, write. And above all, write about the things that move you, not that you think an editor or publisher wants. I'm not saying you have to write what you know. Frankly, that ethos has led to a lot of boring, self-involved novels and short stories. Only by following your own vision can you hope to create something new.
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|Erik Larson Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Erik Larson|
|Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities, 1992|
|Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun, 1994|
|Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, 2000|
|The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, 2003|