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  • Writer's pictureJim M. Morgan

An Animator of History

Bestselling author Erik Larson shares insights on writing – and history – during visit to Tulsa

 


Erik Larson’s latest nonfiction bestseller was something he never imagined writing.

 

The Demon of Unrest delves into the political and social discord that gripped the United States just prior to the start of the Civil War. It’s a topic Larson says he knew little about before beginning work on the book.

 

“My super power was my ignorance,” Larson told an audience of 400 at a recent Magic City Books event moderated by Booksmart Tulsa founder Jeff Martin and held at the Cascia Hall Performing Arts Center.

 

“I came to everything fresh,” Larson said. “An old story can be very fresh, depending on how you tell it.”

 

Larson was about a year into his Civil War research when the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred. Reflecting on that event – and the actions that led up to it – convinced Larson that the book he was imagining had currency.

 

As has become his signature style, Larson juxtaposes the personal and the historical within The Demon of Unrest.

 

It’s an approach that has served him well through multiple bestsellers, including Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City, but it wasn’t his idea alone.

 

When work on a previous book stalled, Larson credits his agent for helping him reframe his approach.

 

“He encouraged me to find a character or two you can hold hands with as you go,” Larson recalled.

 

For The Demon of Unrest, those real-life characters include Civil War-era diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut and then-Secretary of State William Seward.

 

But for any subject to be truly viable, Larson says it must meet three criteria.

 

“First, it has to be a subject with inherent, organic energy,” he said. “It has to have an arc that ascends and is inherently suspenseful. Second, there has to be a rich reservoir of archival material. And third, I have to like the idea, and be willing to live with it for four years.”

 

That last part – a willingness to commit to a project for the long-term – enables Larson to delve into the richest depths of a subject so that he can then bring it to life for others.

 

“I see myself as an animator of history,” Larson said. “I want to create rich historical experiences for the reader.”

 

To that end, Larson relies heavily on archival research to inform and enliven his work. In the case of The Demon of Unrest, the Charleston Historical Society was a significant source for, among other things, slave trade fliers from the Civil War era.

 

A visit to Fort Sumter – the target of Confederate shelling that launched the Civil War – helped Larson visualize the enormity of the competing forces at work in the early 1860s.

 

At its core, Larson’s book seeks to help readers better understand how and why the fighting began.

 

“There were a whole soap opera of things that happened on the way to Sumter,” Larson said.

 

Though he said he did not write his latest book to shed light on the present day, Larson emphasized that researching and writing the run-up and aftermath of the Sumter shelling taught him a couple of important lessons.

 

“When people talk crazy, take them seriously,” Larson said. “And know that the inconceivable is always conceivable to somebody. I believe it was Churchill who said, ‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.’”

 

Despite how terrifying history can sometimes be, Larson said he tends to look at historical events through two opposing lenses.

 

“I come to history as a trained journalist,” he said. “There’s the good me on one shoulder who recognizes events as tragic. But then there’s the bad me who says this is great stuff to write about.”

 

In some cases, the subject matter has affected him personally. Writing In the Garden of Beasts – which tells the story of an American ambassador in Berlin during the rise of Nazi rule – was one such instance.

 

“Dwelling in Hitler’s mind gave me a low grade depression,” Larson said. “But I’m fine now.”

 

At 70 years old, Larson said he has no plans to slow down his writing.

 

“I like to think I’m getting better,” he said. “It helps for me to take on ideas that stress me, like Churchill or the Civil War. My plan is to write until I drop at my desk.”

 

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