After an introduction by Dr. Brian Hosmer, guest speaker Erik Larson took the stage in the Reynolds Center to give the first presidential lecture of the semester.
Larson is the author of nine works of narrative nonfiction. His most recent book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, was published earlier this year and remains a New York Times best seller. Dead Wake was not his first book to make the list: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, all New York Times best sellers, were praised by critics and readers alike.
Erik Larson’s books transport readers to a different time and place, whether it be a luxurious ocean liner over troubled waters, Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 or Galveston, Texas during a hurricane.
Larson brings these darker aspects of history to life in an entertaining way. During his talk, Larson spoke about his craft and amused the audience with his dark humor.
“Tonight we’re going to talk a little bit about how I like to do history,” Larson said. “And we’re going to do so through the lens of this latest book of mine, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I have to be careful because, for those of you who have not read the book, I don’t want to give away the ending.”
The first step in Larson’s process is coming up with an idea, which he described as the most challenging and important part of his work. While his books mainly focus on the American experience during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, his range of subject matter in not limited to a specific topic.
To qualify, Larson says that for an idea to interest him, it has to have a “built-in organic narrative arc” and there has to be enough archival material to vividly depict the past.
Originally, Larson was unsure if he should write about the sinking of the Lusitania, as it seemed to be a well known historical event. But he was convinced the Lusitania was worthy subject matter after uncovering obscure—and human—details in his research.
What interested him was the grimness: one fully loaded lifeboat collapsed on top of another, passengers were sucked into the funnels and blown out after an explosion, and the ship sunk in only 18 minutes on a beautiful day with the Irish coast in sight.
After settling on an idea, Larson begins visiting archives to gather material. In the archives, he encountered many personal stories—important to him because he felt other books lacked a connection to the people involved. Larson talked about a passenger named Theodate Pope, who wrote in her journal about feminist interests and her struggle with depression. He also discussed President Woodrow Wilson’s passionate letters to his girlfriend, Edith Bolling Galt.
Once the idea is in place and he has gathered the material, Larson writes hoping to “bring something new to the story.”
The night ended with a Q&A. Questions were asked about Larson’s experience as a journalist, historic fact versus myth, his emotional reaction to his research and cuts he has to make for a book’s final draft.
One question that amused the audience was about his favorite experience while doing research: Larson was in Italy with his daughter to research Thunderstruck. After dinner at a restaurant, their waiter suggested they stick around after their meal. Before long, a black SUV pulled up and men in suits with firearms filed out. A slim man with grey hair entered the restaurant, and as he walked passed Larson’s daughter he said, “Hi, there,” in a flirtatious manner. It was Bill Clinton.