Writer’s Hat Trick: Erik Larson

Traveling Marla and Erik Larson
Angela Love, of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, was gracious enough to take this photo of me with Erik Larson at the opening night of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Literary Evenings.

Today is my birthday. I hope, as a gift, you’ll bear with me through a text-heavy, photo-light blog about an amazing writer and lecturer, Mr. Erik Larson.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you may remember a few weeks ago that I introduced what I call the Writer’s Hat Trick in a post about Maureen McHugh. I consider a Writer’s Hat Trick to be when he or she has Pen, Pedagogy and Personality.

I won’t write about an author, no matter how much I love a book, unless I also feel strongly about the person who wrote it. Maybe it’s unfair. We should separate the art from the artist, right? Sorry, but I think that’s a bunch of crap. I don’t think most people operate that way. For the same reason that some people elevate an artist who is crotchety or elitist, I elevate artists who are the opposite. They’re all skilled craftsmen, but we are each drawn toward other things that complement talent. For some it’s attractiveness. Others like brooding or moodiness. For me, it’s a personality that reflects a genuine regard for readers and fans, and often an ability to engage an audience.

Erik Larson is my latest hat trick “stalkee” and will be added to the list on my website’s stalking page.

In May, when I received my full residency Master’s degree from Chatham’s MFA program in Creative Writing, I gave myself a superb graduation gift: a subscription to Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. I attended lectures on the student discount for two years, enjoying many great authors from the balcony. And I knew by the time I graduated that I not only wanted more interaction with this community of Pittsburghers, I wanted to give back to PA&L for all the amazing lectures I enjoyed at the student rate.

I know not all students can do this. Unlike many, I returned for my degree at a later stage in life, already having had a good career in logistics and customer service management. I’m blessed that my husband has a steady job with a solid company and I was able to reward myself for my hard work with a great subscription and donation to PA&L. But most can at least subscribe as a Friend or Patron, and I hope many more of you do so.

I hope, through the blogs I bring you about these literary evenings, that you will be encouraged to join next year as a subscriber and enjoy the lectures more fully. PA&L is such a worthy organization and they help cement Pittsburgh’s reputation as the up-and-coming literary city.

Last night was my first time attending as a subscriber. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Larson at a pre-event reception and he was incredibly gracious. It was easy to see that his appreciation for readers and supporters of the arts was genuine. What I didn’t know, until the lecture began, is that he’s a thoroughly engaging speaker.

He prepared his talk with the same narrative brilliance as his books, weaving his process, his research and his travels to readings with his wife and daughters along with perfectly timed humorous quips about a crush on Cate Blanchett.

Each time the talk would turn serious and dark, as anything will when talking about Nazi Germany, he would deftly work in a joke about Hitler’s moustache or use a slight self-deprecation to keep the hall from becoming to somber.

Each story contained a relatable moment, a teachable moment. When he talked about his love of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (about the sinking of the Titanic) and Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (about World War I), his moral was that each time he reads them, despite knowing the history, he finds himself wanting desperately for a different outcome. That, he implied (or did I infer?) is the magic in writing about historical events. We all know “what happened” but how does a writer immerse us so fully that we find ourselves rooting, again and again, for an ending we know can’t happen?

Erik Larson books
My two new additions: Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.

Mr. Larson deftly tackles Hitler’s Berlin with In the Garden of Beasts. He worked tirelessly to find pieces of history stranger than fiction to breathe life into the true account of murder at a World’s Fair in The Devil in the White City.

I now have my own inscribed copies of these two books, but I’m eager to get my hands on a first edition of Isaac’s Storm, referred to by the Washington Post as “The ‘Jaws’ of hurricane yarns and his best-selling Thunderstruck. See all Mr. Larson’s books here.

While Mr. Larson is not teaching and offering workshops as much as we neophyte writers would love for him to, (when would he ever have the time?) his lessons during the lecture were invaluable, and I couldn’t deny him the Pedagogy portion of the hat trick. If he should ever choose to teach, I will be the first to sign up. (Seriously, Mr. Larson, if you’re reading this, consider allowing an emerging nonfictionist with her own affinity for historical nonfiction in non-competing topics to shadow you for a few days or week of researching – hint, hint. She’s really good at giving other people ALL the credit for her success! 😉 )

Mr. Larson’s tips for writers, particularly those interested in historical research, were engaging. “It’s about finding the right details to light up the reader’s imagination.” He went on to give examples from his days spent in archives digging through material.

I know he spends the time he claims, because I’ve been following Mr. Larson on Facebook for quite some time. His authentic Facebook page gives glimpses into his days in the libraries with photos and eureka moments as he scours mountains of material for ideas and insights to make his work stronger. He describes his process in collecting and arranging details as an event “broken down into DNA and reassembled” so that his readers can live the history as accurately as possible. In other words, “I like to think of myself as an animator of history.”

Of course, equal parts teacher and entertainer, he lightened such explanations with glib quotes, like my personal favorite: “I would rather have a vasectomy without anesthetic than hear another writer read his or her work.” Hilarious.

Providing even more insight for writers and readers alike, Mr. Larson gave away many secrets during his lecture. One such tip I liked was to “attain the point of view of those alive at the time…and look at the world only from that lens.” He talked of the importance of disciplining himself to maintain that point of view. Hmmm—“discipline” again—I’m noticing a theme among my favorite writers. This is the very thing I talked about in my post about Ann Patchett, BK Loren and Pico Iyer.

When Q&A arrived, Mr. Larson kicked it off with his own poll of the audience on the number of readers using (a) e-readers only; (b) combination of e-readers and printed books; (c) printed books only. The last, as well as I could tell from the show of hands and Mr. Larson’s reaction, had a surprisingly large percentage, considering the doom and gloom talk of the death of print publishing lately.

In other words, my first Literary Evening of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures as a new subscriber was perfect, surprisingly given my penchant for awkward moments.

My friend Caroline attended with me. She’s complete grace to my ongoing guffaws. As we entered the building, I was laughing so hard at something she said that I nose-chortled. When we reached the wine station, I almost high-fived the server for having Pinot Noir. Upon meeting a long-standing patron and being invited to sit with her at the reception, I bumbled my way through explaining who I was, why I subscribed and fighting hard not to make another Peter Sellers moment out of meeting someone new (see earlier blogs for what that’s all about). I gushed over the turkey breast and almond cookies, and by the time we were ready to go in for the lecture, my name tag had somehow migrated from my chest to the bottom of my shoe, looking like a piece of toilet paper flapping from my heel.

Thankfully, Caroline (all the while poised) discreetly let me know so I could remove it (which I did in my usual classless manner). Caroline is much like Kurt in letting me run my course of discomfort and awkward moments. I think she knows, like he does, that trying to settle me or bring attention to it only makes me more awkward. And, like, Kurt, she finds me (mostly) charming and assures me my outward composure is not as much like Rodney Dangerfield as I imagine.

In addition to the reception, which I managed not to actually bungle after all, another advantage of being a subscriber to PA&L is pre-ordering signed books to avoid standing in line after the lecture. PA&L has an arrangement with Mystery Lovers Bookshop for this purpose as well as to be on-hand at the event with additional books. For someone like me, this is a good thing. I’m not a real stalker, in the sense that I don’t actually have delusions about being part of the life of a writer I admire, or of knowing him or her intimately just because I’ve read something to which I can relate.

But I do geek out at book signings and usually have some kind of awkward gush take place when I arrive at the table. It’s that same-old, same-old I’ve told you about before: I put so much pressure on what I should say or how I should act, that my brain misfires and it’s, well, awkward.

The only disappointment I had of the evening was with myself. I have a couple quirks in my book-collecting: (a) I usually try to purchase personally pre-inscribed books, because I like each of my books to have a history that precedes me, especially if it belonged to someone who may have passed who loved the author or who had something special inscribed to them; (b) I usually ask the authors I really like to write “Marla – QUIT STALKING ME” or something humorous like that.

Erik Larson
Erik Larson, courtesy of eriklarsonbooks.com

This latter part is best achieved when you know the personality of the author. Phillip Lopate, for example, is a writer from whom I took a workshop and who got to know me well enough that when I asked, he added some extra comments about restraining orders and even about stalking me back. Knowing Mr. Larson’s personality a little better after the lecture, I think he may have had a chuckle at the request.

Of course, often there isn’t the time or opportunity for a detailed request. Betty White, for example, had so many people in line (I was proudly within the first 10 of that line) that they didn’t allow the option for any kind of personalization, not even a name. Given that the two books I was getting were for my niece and nephew, this still haunts me as one important lesson as a writer. Should I ever be blessed enough to have a full-length work published, I will never not personalize, at least with a name if requested, no matter how long the line. There is no reason I can think of that should preclude adding something as simple as “To So&SO.”

Maybe for the next author I’ll work up the nerve to make such a “Quit Stalking Me” inscription request. Probably not. I’m still in “I’m not worthy to be a subscriber” mode. In any case, I’m still quite happy for the simple “To Marla” at the top and to hear the wisdom and anecdotes from the great line-up at Literary Evenings this year.

I encourage you, dear reader, to support this worthy non-profit organization by giving to them on October 3rd, Pittsburgh’s Day of Giving. That day your money will be matched when you give to a non-profit.

If you’ve made it to the end of today’s blog, you are indeed my favorite readers and I hope you’ll take time to leave me a comment telling me which work of Mr. Larson’s you like most, or which books of his you now want to read.

Tomorrow it’s back to our current assignment in Coshocton, Ohio for more travel blogging.

Love, Marla

14 thoughts on “Writer’s Hat Trick: Erik Larson

  1. Happy birthday! (now a bit late, I suppose) I’ve been meaning to read Devil in the White City, and I’m glad to learn of his others. Oh, also – you have such a bright, brilliant smile in all your pictures!

    1. Thanks. No worries on the lateness. That just means I get to enjoy it longer! Thanks for the compliment on the photos. I hope you get to read Devil in the White City soon!

  2. Happy Birthday, Marla! Congrats on you Master’s Degree as well! I’ve so enjoyed reading your blogs, and I’m very proud of you and your accomplishments! Have some MC mementos to send you. Love!

    enjoyed rea

    1. Marge! Oh my gosh it’s so great to read your post. Thanks so much. It was so worth the work. Thank you for being such a great teacher and for staying in touch all these years. I hope everything’s well there. 🙂
      Mementos? Ooh I’m so excited! (And even more excited that the currently popular “momentos” version of the word has not corrupted you. That’s one of those awful examples of language devolution, hahaha.)
      Love, Marla

  3. I thought he was mildly sexist and a namedropper. But I saw your name on the subscribers list and I think it’s awesome. Drue Heinz is one of my favorite things in Pittsburgh.

    1. Hi Frank, thanks for commenting. I always respect what you have to say, as a scholar, a writer and all around good guy.
      I think it’s interesting when there are different perspectives on the same person at the same event. It makes me think so much about what we each bring of ourselves to the way we perceive or interpret others. I have been told many times that I have a tendency to only see things from the perspective of the person talking – something to do with poor boundaries, I believe. In any case, it does have both pros and cons.
      You’re great, Frank and I’m really grateful that you took the time to read my blog. It was certainly lonnnnng today, huh?

      Drue Heinz is one of my favorites too! If you’re going to Jeffrey Toobin in October, let me know. It’s been so long it would be great to see you!


      1. We’ll definitely see each other this year. We got season tickets too! I’m particularly excited for Jared Diamond and Candice Millard. Who are you looking forward to the most?

        1. That’s great! It’s going to be such a great series of lectures. I’m most excited to hear Rebecca Skloot and David Lacks. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is incredible.

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