History's Animator: Erik Larson Delighted Last Night's Arts & Letters Audience

Author Erik Larson weilds his mighty pen (and hand) to autograph books and greet fans.
Author Erik Larson weilds his mighty pen (and hand) to autograph books and greet fans.
Sophia Dembling

Juicy Fruit.

That's the answer to the question I've had since I first read (and then reread) The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

So I'm grateful to the person who asked author Erik Larson about his inspiration for the book during the Q&A at last night's at Arts & Letters Live event.

Larson spoke at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. "This is one of the first times I've been allowed in a church, let alone speaking from the pulpit," he said, standing under a gleaming gold cross and giving the large crowd its first laugh of the evening. He then went on to entertain us with stories about the thrill of research and the agony of (some) book signings, library love and Nazi psychopaths, reader comments and the little moments that make a career.

Larson, who calls himself "an animator of history" tries to present the past a way that lets readers feel like they're experiencing it as it unfolds, and he loves quirky details. His new book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, takes place in Berlin in the 1930s, while the storm clouds of World War II gathered, and focuses on William E. Dodd, an American ambassador to Germany, and his trampy daughter Martha. Though the book, by all reports, is disturbing (as Nazis tend to be), Larson's stories about it were jolly.

He was amused that as the Third Reich gained power, Germans were required to give the Nazi salute to everyone all the time. He didn't demonstrate, though. "Somebody out there would capture it on film and I'd suddenly have a lot of new friends," he said. He was tickled to find in an archive a couple of locks of hair formerly attached to Carl Sandburg, who was among Martha's many paramours. He was thrilled/creeped out to hold in his hands calling cards belonging to infamous Nazis.

He also told the story about changing course from freelance magazine writer to author. "It was a really dismal day in Baltimore. I was talking to an editor and as I'm talking to him, I fell asleep. And when I woke up, he was still talking. After that phone call, I said 'this has got to change.'"

Another lovely historical moment. I'm grateful to that boring editor, too, for inspiring a glorious career.

And, oh yeah, Juicy Fruit....

Prior to writing Devil, Larson was thrashing around in "the dark country of no ideas." He wanted to write about a murderer after reading The Alienist by Caleb Carr, but didn't want to write "crime porn. I wanted it to be like a nonfiction Gosford Park."

As always, while seeking his next idea, he read "voraciously and promiscuously," which led him to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. When he discovered that Juicy Fruit gum was introduced to consumers at the fair, he was hooked. He found a serial killer at work at that time, and went on to write one of my all-time favorite books. (If you haven't read it, you're a fool. Then read Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 Galveston hurricane. I didn't get the same charge out of Thunderstruck, about Marconi and wireless, but fully expect to love In the Garden.)

Larson is very funny and very likeable, which was a huge relief. Don't you hate it when your heroes turn out to be dipwads?

He's no dipwad and now he's no longer my hero. He's my idol.

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