Earlier this year, Erik Larson shelved a project he’d been working on for six months.
The popular author, best known for “The Devil in the White City,” won’t say what the topic of this scuttled project was, but he will say why he killed it: an unsatisfying narrative arc. It had an interesting beginning and end, but the events in the middle lacked punch. So he moved on.
“What I try to write is history that is all true, but can be read the way people read novels,” Larson says. If a historical event lacks this pacing, it doesn’t make it off the drawing board. Many of the most immersive narratives he’s found center around disasters – the Galveston hurricane in “Isaac’s Storm” or the human disaster of Nazism in “In the Garden of Beasts.”
“What I’m after is the inherently compelling central narrative,” Larson says. “If that’s disaster, if that’s what it takes, so be it.”
Accordingly, 2015’s “Dead Wake” is a disaster story.
Larson appears Friday at Meredith College’s Jones Chapel and Saturday at The Barn at Fearrington Village, touring in support of the book’s new paperback edition. “Dead Wake” tracks two ships – the Lusitania and German submarine U-20 – until they converge just off the Irish coast on a sunny May afternoon in 1915. History books record the Lusitania sinking with substantial loss of life, often jumping directly from that event to the United States’ entry into World War I. Larson, however, focuses on the event itself and the people who lived it – the captains of each ship, the British intelligence officers who may have been able to warn the Lusitania, and the men, women, and children who died when the massive cruise liner was torpedoed just one day from its Liverpool destination.
“The drama of the incident itself was kind of overlooked, as incredible as that may seem,” Larson says.
While he was working on the book, he recalls asking his friends how long it took for the U.S. to enter the war after the Lusitania’s sinking. Their answers ranged between two days and two months. It was actually closer to two years. And when President Woodrow Wilson eventually asked Congress to authorize America’s entry into the war, Larson notes, he didn’t even mention the Lusitania in his speech.
“A lot of writers who were writing about this thing fell into the trap of kind of kissing off the actual incident and then dwelling on what happened afterward, this long, tedious diplomatic saga,” Larson says. “The actual detail of the sinking is quite horrific – lifeboats falling on top of lifeboats, all the awful things that were happening.”
He also found the details on the actual people involved: Capt. William Turner of the Lusitania and Kptlt. Walther Schwieger, the U-20’s commander. Larson doesn’t believe in constructing heroes or villains, he says, and tries to present people as they were. Considering the 1,198 people killed in the attack, it would be easy to picture Schwieger as an evil pre-Nazi – someone with a big scar down his face like a Max Von Sydow villain, Larson says – but that wasn’t what the author found.
“The reality was that he was a man who liked his job with three-dozen other men packed into that submarine,” Larson says. “They weren’t evil people, they were just soldiers – soldiers of the sea.” He describes life inside an early 20th-century submarine, too, in all its foul-smelling, un-air conditioned detail.
Context is everything, Larson says, and the gritty detail of submarine life is exactly that. He explains the background, goals, and social lives of the passengers who left adequate records of themselves, expanding what grade school history books cover in a paragraph or two into a vivid, human narrative.
Context, too, meant chapters on Wilson, wracked by grief over his wife’s death and distracted by a new love interest, and Room 40, a secret code-breaking office in London where a 40-year-old Winston Churchill intercepted and decoded German transmissions.
“Historians of World War I are quite aware of Room 40, but to me it came as a surprise,” Larson says – and he knew he was onto something. “I have to assume that I’m like the ordinary reader.” He’s not the first to write about Room 40 or Churchill’s involvement in World War I intelligence gathering, he admits, but he’s also not trying to write a definitive history – he’s trying to write a true story that reads like a novel.
“I’m not writing for the historians and the experts on World War I and the Lusitania, because they know all this stuff,” Larson says. “I’m writing for the lay reader.”
Erik Larson will be reading and signing books at:
▪ 7 p.m. Friday, March 25, at Jones Chapel, Meredith College. Receive two entry and signing line tickets with purchase of “Dead Wake” paperback or hardbacks from Quail Ridge Books, sponsor of the the event. Entry-only tickets for $5. www.quailridgebooks.com/event/erik-larson16
▪ 11 a.m., Saturday, March27 at The Barn at Fearrington Village. Receive an entry ticket with purchase of “Dead Wake” paperback from McIntyre's Books, sponsor of the event. www.fearrington.com/event/erik-larson-dead-wake/