Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Erik Larson
In May 1915, in one of the greatest maritime disasters in history, the Cunard liner Lusitania was attacked on its crossing from New York City to Liverpool, by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. Germany had warned that its submarines would fire on ships like the Lusitania if they entered the zone of European hostilities; the ship's owners and passengers believed that the Lusitania's record-setting speed would make it an impossible target. Of the nearly 2,000 passengers and crew aboard, almost 1,200 died as the enormous ship was struck by two torpedoes and quickly sunk. International outcry followed, and President Woodrow Wilson came under increasing pressure to enter World War I against Germany though this would not come to pass until two years later.
Can it be any surprise that Erik Larson the author of Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and In the Garden of Beasts would be drawn to the story of the Lusitania, its passengers, and its place in the history of technology, warfare, as well as America's emergence as a dominant world power? Researching his riveting new book, Dead Wake, Larsen sorted through passenger manifests and correspondence, reconstructing meals, games, wardrobes, and worries of its self-contained world. He also uncovered a little-known story of naval espionage that paralleled the disaster, a game of fox-and- hounds carried out by an unlikely team of British cryptographers. They could not save the ship, but in time they changed the course of the war.
Erik Larson spoke with us via email about the many stories that were braided together in Dead Wake. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: Your book coincides with the centenary of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitaniawhat initially drew you to the subject? Had you been interested in writing about it for a long time, or were you prompted by the anniversary?
Erik Larson: I'm not a big believer in timing books to anniversaries. In this case, though, let's just say it was the thing that tipped the balance for me. I'd always been interested in the Lusitania, so, recognizing that the anniversary was at hand, I did a little reading, and immediately realized that there was so much more to the story than I had ever thought. More important, I realized that there was a very rich array of archival resources available that I felt had not been used to full advantage. I saw an opportunity to marshal all these sources in a way that would put readers aboard the Lusitania in a visceral way and conjure for them a rich sense of what that voyage must really have been like the glamour, the suspense and, in the end, the tragedy and grief. It became for me an exercise in narrative suspense. True, real-life suspense.
BNR: In a sense the centerpiece of the book is the Lusitania's list of passengers and crew, which you mine to deliver a marvelous cross-section of American society at that moment. Did you come to have favorite "characters" among them?
EL: I like all the characters, but my favorite is probably Dwight Harris, a young New Yorker on his way to England to get engaged. He wrote a detailed letter about his journey to his mother, but it wasn't just the detail that drew me to him. It was his youth and enthusiasm. Clearly he was terrified; but just as clearly he was so delighted to have survived and lived to write about it. Passengers aside, my absolute favorite character in the book is easily the submarine commander, Kptlt. Walther Schwieger. He's the villain, of course, but he's a nuanced villain. As strange as this may sound, I think readers will feel a certain amount of sympathy for him.
BNR: By comparison to the Gilded Age or the '20s, the period of World War I in America (as opposed to Europe) has gotten something of a short shrift in popular history and historical fiction. Yet as you unveil it through the lives of the passengers of the Lusitania, it's a heady and rather exciting moment. Are we overdue for more treatments of this place and time?
EL: What makes this period in America challenging for writers is that the real action the war was occurring elsewhere, with no American involvement until 1917. Politics and labor history are compelling, but not nearly as much as war. The Lusitania provided a vehicle for looking at the home front in that era, in a way that was inherently compelling and suspenseful. When you know characters will soon be confronting catastrophe, you're likely to find even the most mundane aspects of their lives and their world interesting.
BNR: From the other side of the Second World War, it's hard for us now to imagine the reluctance of many Americans to get involved in the war in Europeeven after the sinking of the Lusitania, President Wilson was not ready to ask Congress for a declaration of warand Wilson's secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, resigned over his belief that the administration might be drawn into the conflict. Are we a very different nation now, less reluctant to go to war?
EL: I think we, today, are far more willing to go to war witness the Iraq invasion and subsequent military action. Wilson understood that war promised only tragedy and grief and tried to keep America out of it as long as he possibly could. His restraint was noble, and moral, but also practical. He recognized that if America did ever join the war in Europe, the nation had to be ready, fully and deeply primed for it, because this war promised evils gas, machine guns, tanks, Zeppelins, submarines like no war that had come before it. In 1915, the nation was not ready, and he knew it.
BNR: A torpedo attack against a neutral nation's unarmed ocean liner seems, absent of context, a very cold-blooded and reprehensible act, and of course it was seen by Americans that way at the time. You put it in the context of the more complex struggle of WWI. What does the view of Germany's submarine warfare look like from where you sit now?
EL: The thing that struck me over and over during my research, and while writing the book, was that you really have to go back to that era and adopt the point of view of the time to grasp how utterly, radically new the submarine was as a weapon of war. Only a few souls understood Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one, as he revealed in a prescient short story; the Admiralty's Jacky Fisher was another. Even Churchill, as chaotically brilliant as he was, couldn't accept the idea that Germany would actually use submarines to sink ships without warning. But, as Fisher put it so succinctly, "The essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility." In the end, Germany's submarine commanders were simply soldiers exploiting the power of a weapon that was new to them as well, and that offered means of attack hitherto unknown.
BNR: As passengers are boarding the Lusitania, with a very public threat from Germany published in the newspapers, the sinking of the Titanic just three years earlier in 1912 was on the minds of many. Yet the insistence that the ship's physical construction would make a disaster unthinkable seems to have been repeated. Were there lessons from the sinking of the Titanic that should have been applied?
EL: We today can look back and cluck at how the passengers and crew of the Lusitania exhibited the same hubris as those on the Titanic. The Titanic was believed to be unsinkable; the Lusitania was too fast to be caught. But the thing that characterized the age was an overweening confidence in the power of man-made objects to overcome obstacles like time and distance, and that confidence could not be deterred. Those who boarded the Lusitania on May 1, 1915, doubtless felt some anxiety, but at the same time, they took comfort in the sheer scale of the ship and its speed, and in the fact that for a century naval warfare against civilian vessels had been conducted in a chivalrous, humanitarian manner.
BNR: In the moment of the attack itself, you point out than a particularly unlucky confluence of events conspired to cause a catastrophethe timing of the fog, the position of the ship, and even the U-boat captain's misjudgment of the Lusitania's speed, which turned out to result in a deadlier explosionis it possible now to see the most significant error? Was it ultimately a misjudgment of Cunard to send the ship at all?
EL: The blame, in the end, falls to one man, and one man alone: The submarine commander, Walther Schwieger. Should Cunard have taken Germany's warning more seriously? That's a question that we today can ask, from the comfort of our living rooms. But in writing history, it's important to try to adopt the point of view of the time. POV, as screenwriters are fond of putting it. The fact is, only a few passengers canceled their bookings. Over a thousand passengers got on the ship that day, with every confidence that they would make it safely to Liverpool. What killed the Lusitania was a chance confluence of forces that brought it into the sights of Kptlt. Schwieger, whose torpedo happened to strike exactly the spot in the Lusitania's hull to cause it to sink in just eighteen minutes.
BNR: There is an unexpected thread of espionage and code breaking running through your story, of a type familiar those who followed the history of the Enigma project in World War II. How did you come across the story of Great Britain's "Room 40" and the secret war against German submarines?
EL: I'd like to say that I discovered the secret of Room 40, but I most decidedly did not. The exploits of "Blinker" Hall and Room 40 are well known among naval historians, although as best I can tell no previous writer sought to integrate the story of Room 40 into the voyage of the Lusitania. I must say, however, that I personally had never heard of Room 40 before starting work on this book. To me, just reading the archival materials written by and about the founders of Room 40, and seeing the actual intercepted German naval telegrams was a delight. My favorite research moment was at the National Archives of the UK, in Kew, when I opened a document box and found the actual codebook said to have been washed ashore in the arms of a dead German sailor the codebook that let Room 40 begin listening in on German naval communications, and allowed it to keep doing so throughout the war.
BNR: You weave throughout the story of the Lusitania the path of President Wilson from grief and loneliness into a new chapter of his lifeat the same time that he is drawn closer to war. For all of the significance of his administration, Wilson is a president Americans now have little connection to. Do you think humanizing accounts like this will change that?
EL: I can't speak for anyone else, but my research into Wilson's life during this period caused a profound change in my own perception of the man. I'd always thought him to be a rather stiff, professorial sort of guy. But here he was, a widower, who suddenly found himself falling deeply, passionately in love with the woman who would become his second wife. Such love letters! Dozens of them, revealing a man crushed by the death of his first wife and finding at last a hope of rebirth. I have a new respect for the man.
BNR: With so many other calamities during WWI and just after, which claimed so many thousands of lives, why does this one still fascinate us?
EL: I think, frankly, it fascinates us for the wrong reasons. As I worked on this book, I took every opportunity I could to ask friends and family how long they thought it took America to get into the war after the Lusitania. The replies I got ranged from two days to two months no surprise, frankly, since high school history timelines portray the Lusitania as the Pearl Harbor of World War I. It wasn't. America didn't enter the war for two more years, and on the day Wilson at last asked Congress for a declaration that a state of war existed with Germany, he never even mentioned the Lusitania. What's been lost, I feel, is the true meaning of the Lusitania it was a deeply moving, wrenching, horrific human disaster that killed wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and infants, in macabre and capricious fashion.
March 10, 2015