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Erik Larson on Dead Wake, Weird Circumstances, and Winston Churchill

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Despite the thrilling exploits that have spammed the breadth of human history, the topic can be deathly dull, particularly in the context of freshman core. For many people, their only experience with historical events is via overtired teachers and textbooks.

But when it comes to the work of writer Erik Larson, what put us to sleep in high school will have us clutching our Kindles in sheer suspense: such is his power to tell a compelling story. The bestselling author has tackled many of history's most notorious events, from the inner workings of the Third Reich (In the Garden of Beasts) to the serial killer at large during the Chicago World’s Fair (The Devil in the White City). His latest book, Dead Wake, revolves around the tragic sinking of the Lusitania passenger liner in 1915, and it offers an account like most of us never imagined.

Ahead of his appearance with Books & Books at the Coral Gables Congregational Church April 1, we spoke to Larson about his newest tome, the topics that fascinate him, and the nuances of heroes and villains. 

New Times: What triggered your desire to write about the Lusitania?
Erik Larson: 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, and that seemed to offer me an opportunity to bring something new to the story — to put on my Hitchcock hat, if you will, and write the saga as a maritime thriller. A nonfiction thriller, full of real-life suspense. My goal was to put readers back on deck with all those poor passengers in as vivid a fashion as possible.

When I read your books, there's always an individual story (or stories) that really stands out to me. In Dead Wake, it was the Lusitania survivor who had a lifelong fear of death, but after almost dying, lost it, saying death seemed to her "a kindly thing." Are there any particular stories from Dead Wake that stuck with you, personally?
My favorite character is Dwight Harris, a young New Yorker on his way to England to get engaged. He survived and afterward wrote a letter that just brimmed with charm, and expressed his great delight at having taken part in this amazing historical event, and at having survived it.

What surprised you the most during your research?
Everything surprised me — but I guess what most surprised me was the inherent fragility of WWI submarines, and the failure rate of torpedoes, and the fact that in early 1915 Germany really didn’t have all that many submarines at sea at any one time. And the weird set of circumstances that converged to cause the disaster.

One of my takeaways from Dead Wake is that historical events aren't always as simple as black and white, good versus evil—despite what mainstream culture might have us believe. For example, Walther Schwieger, the captain of the German U-boat who sunk the Lusitania, was beloved by his men and in many ways came across as a sympathetic character. Does your work give you a new sense of nuance about history?
I don’t believe in unalloyed heroes, nor do I believe that villains are homogeneously villains—though I do make an exception there for Adolf Hitler and his cronies. I like warts, I like nuance. Having said that, I certainly did not start out thinking Schwieger would come off as such a sympathetic character. I’ve heard from some readers who actually say they found themselves rooting for him.

I was surprised to learn that the Titanic and the Lusitania tragedies happened only three years apart, and had a similar number of casualties, as well as other similarities. Yet people seem to know far less about the Lusitania. Do you think the Lusitania gets lost in the shadow of the Titanic?
Yes, absolutely. The Titanic captured the world’s imagination with its elegant and tragic demise; and James Cameron and Leo DiCaprio locked it forever in first place. The Lusitania, meanwhile, has tended to be pigeonholed as a dusty geo-political event somewhere on the timeline that led to World War I. One of my goals was to bring forward the drama of the sinking itself, in as thrilling a fashion as possible.

In the book, you reveal that Winston Churchill placed the Lusitania's blame squarely on the shoulders of its captain, William Thomas Turner, despite the fact that the British had a secret spy group that knew more than they let on about the German U-boat threat. Do you think history's opinion of Churchill should change based on his behavior?
Not really. Churchill’s behavior will surprise none of his many biographers.

From Winston Churchill's spy activities to Woodrow Wilson's romance, I think this book gives new context to historical leaders of the time. Why do you think history so often tends to offer a one-dimensional view of great figures?
I don’t think that historians convey a one-dimensional view. Biographers of both Churchill and Wilson know full well that both men had their negative traits, and have done a good job of conveying them. What happens, I fear, is that in high school and college the rush to convey vast amounts of information in a short time forces history texts and lecturers to leave out the good stuff—the flaws, the bad behavior, and such, and leaves most of us with that one-dimensional view.

You make history come alive in a way few writers do. What do you think is the key to writing such riveting accounts?
For me at least, the key is finding the right idea in the first place—a subject with an organic narrative arc that moves the story along and lets me tell it with a beginning, middle and end. And of course a story that has a rich enough archival base to allow me to tell it in narrative form.

Are there any periods in history that really intrigue you, that you haven't written about yet?
My favorite period spans the decades from 1890 to c. 1920 — the Gilded and Progressive eras. I love this period because in that time America was full of confidence, verging on hubris, about its future and its role in the world. And that kind of attitude always yields compelling stories. And tragedy.

Erik Larson is appearing on Wednesday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables. RSVP at eventbrite.com.

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