Erik Larson should be on a book tour right now. Instead he’s tucked away on the east end of Long Island, avoiding the plague, reading thrillers (Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door is hitting the spot), and fielding phone calls from the likes of me.
Larson, 66, is a master at crafting novelistic narratives out of history, making page-turners — albeit completely nonfiction ones — out of events like the sinking of the Lusitania in Dead Wake or the Galveston hurricane in Isaac’s Storm. So, despite the truncated tour, his new book, The Splendid and the Vile, has sailed up the nonfiction bestseller list, the sixth of Larson’s books to do so, including 2003’s The Devil in the White City, a true-crime masterpiece about a serial killer in Chicago amid the 1893 world’s fair that has somehow not been made into a movie yet (though Hulu is finally developing it into a series.)
In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson turns his pen to Winston Churchill’s harrowing first year as U.K. prime minister during World War II — a period when continental Europe had already been steamrolled by Hitler, America had not yet joined the fight, and England, standing alone, withstood nine months of continuous bombing raids that would kill 44,652 of the British people. It was the year Churchill’s legacy is built on — when his most iconic speeches were delivered, when the image of him as the indefatigable bulldog was sealed. But it’s also just a damn good story. There are narrative arcs, heroes, villains, and suspense aplenty to craft the kind of rich, immersive histories that have become Larson’s trademark. He came to the project not out of any particular Churchillian devotion but to answer the question of how anyone could have possibly endured such a prolonged, terrifying ordeal as the Blitz. “I did a lot of research, obviously, in the U.K.,” he says, “and I recall one evening in my hotel in London, and I was just looking out the window and it was dusk. I found myself with this powerful imagined scene — in my mind’s eye, I could see this — hundreds of bombers coming over the horizon at that moment. I mean, what on earth would that have been like? Just beyond conception.” Well, he managed to do a pretty good job of conceiving it in The Splendid and the Vile, anyway.
Rolling Stone talked with Larson about why he doesn’t consider himself a historian, the importance of having a good narrative arc, and what Churchill would have done about the coronavirus. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve been reading The Splendid and the Vile for the past few weeks, and I actually found it to be a strangely comforting read as I’ve been holed up.
It is the strangest phenomenon, actually, that I am hearing this from all over the place, that people do seem to take a certain solace in reading about the saga of Churchill during the Blitz. And I find myself a little bit surprised, thinking, “If you’ve got to find solace in a time of mass death and destruction, you know things are pretty bad right now.” But that does appear to be a kind of an odd little phenomenon that’s emerged since everything went to hell.
I think maybe it’s because we know how their story ends. Even though there was a lot of death and destruction, we know that they prevailed in the end, which is maybe a comforting thing.
I think a big part of it is because there’s a certain good-vs.-evil clarity, you know. Churchill standing up to the bad guys and rousing Britain to a high level of defiance until eventually victory is achieved. There’s something very satisfying in that. At least I feel that way. If I were gonna go back and read anything right now, I wish I had not already read The Lord of the Rings, because that’s what I’d be reading. That kind of thing is very satisfying in times like this.
It’s hard to not romanticize Churchill because of those aspects that you’re talking about.
Well, it’s hard, but romanticizing Churchill is a danger.
Certainly his wartime leadership is more revered than his leadership at other times or his colonial record.
Absolutely. There’s a lot of criticism of him for his imperialist leanings, and both before and after this period. I mean, it sounds trite, but this was truly Churchill’s finest hour. And in particular, this first year.
The fact is he was a central protagonist in the biggest war in human history. If civilization is still around 500 years from now, there’s a decent chance they’re still going to be telling stories about Churchill.
He would have said the same thing.
He had a deep sense of history, and it came through in his speeches. Do you think that was part of the secret to his oratory, helping people see themselves as part of this epic struggle?
That was a very important aspect of his power as a leader. He had a grasp of the long sweep of history. And in fact, there was one speech in particular where he alluded to Britain’s glorious past and, in so doing, tried to place his audience in the greater pageant of British history. It was very effective in terms of making people feel heroic, like they’re part of this great long saga.
But, you know, I think people overestimate the power of his oratory in terms of his ability to coin a phrase. I don’t think that’s what won the people at the time. I think it’s the way he structured his speeches. There is a pattern. And that pattern is that he begins with a sober assessment of the problem. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, he’s not interested in happy talk. He conveys the actual reality of a situation, no matter how gloomy. But then he comes back with grounds for optimism. And again, not happy talk and not some artificial belief and some miracle thing, but talking about real things that can be brought to bear on the situation at hand. And then with a great flourish, he closes with some rhetorical bit of magnificence that has people metaphorically and perhaps even literally rising from their seats. But only after giving them a real portrait of the situation. And I think that’s very important, because people know what the situation is. They knew that this was a dire threat. And if Churchill had done anything less than tell the absolute truth, his credibility would have been completely undercut. He understood that.
Have you thought at all about if Churchill was around to see this particular crisis, what he would have said or what he would have done?
This has been sort of a central question, unfortunately. I had to laugh. I think at one point Trump was comparing himself to Churchill. It’s like, “Oh, my God, please.” I mean, for one thing, Churchill would have known every detail about coronavirus and its emergence in China and would have been on it a lot sooner, if only because, you know, he had the wisdom to appoint as advisers people who were not going to give him happy talk. Speculative history is always a fool’s errand but, you know, I think with a Churchill at the helm, we would have had a feeling that even though this thing was unfolding in a violent way, there were wise heads at work trying to stop it.
I mean, what you’re describing is kind of all you can ask for from leadership.
Yeah. It’s as basic as it gets, right? And you know, I do feel that Governor Cuomo has somewhat filled the vacuum. I think he’s risen to the occasion. I’ve heard people call him the Churchill of our moment. I think that might be going a bit far. But you know, in the White House, there’s just this vacuum, and it’s been a costly and actually, I think, lethal vacuum.
Were you at all daunted by writing about Churchill and the Battle of Britain when there’s been so many books about it?
You better believe it! I mean, I did not come to this to write about Churchill. I’m always drawn by the story, and whichever characters populate that story, so be it. When we moved from Seattle to New York, I had this epiphany about how New York dealt with 9/11 and how wrenching it had to be for those who actually lived there and that sense of violation of their hometown. In this case, what I was really trying to get at is, how on earth did Churchill and his family and his advisers endure what was 57 consecutive nights of bombing — in effect, 57 9/11’s, right? Plus, another six months of raids at longer intervals. How do you actually go about dealing with that? My initial thought was maybe I’ll just portray a typical London family. And I thought, well, why not do the quintessential London family? Churchill and his family. And so that’s what caused me to embark on the book.
One of the things that comes across is the sensory experience of being in London at the time, the dust covering everything and the smell of burning timber and the blacked-out night. What were some of the sensory details that popped for you that brought this period to life?
One I was absolutely captivated by when I read: It was actually Walter Thompson, [Churchill’s] bodyguard, who was flying with Churchill over Washington [D.C.], and they see the city lit up. How stunning this was to them because they hadn’t seen a city lit up in so long. That was, to me, very moving. But I was also really intrigued with the whole dust issue. It was something that came through in a lot of accounts. Also, as one guy puts it, the mean stink of leaking gas. The sound also of broken glass. So much broken glass after a raid that it would just accumulate in the street like snow, like a couple of inches deep, and the sound it made as people walked through it was very distinctive.
I was struck by the extent to which life carried on during the raids. Nightclubs were packed as the air-raid sirens were going off. And people would watch raids from rooftops like they were watching a thunderstorm, as one person described it.
I kind of knew that people had adapted — had, of course, carried on. [Note: The slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” originated as a wartime poster in England.] But I was intrigued by the degree to which they did. You know, when Mary Churchill, the daughter, who’s my favorite character in the book, when she goes to the Queen Charlotte Ball, the debutante ball, and as the raid begins outside, the ball continues. They can hear the anti-aircraft guns thumping away, but the ball continues. And then afterwards, Mary and her friends go off to the Café de Paris [which had been] blown up [that night]. And after they realized they couldn’t go there, they went to the next club.
Why was Mary your favorite character?
Mainly because she’s brand-new in terms of the historiography of Churchill. I was one of only two quote-unquote scholars who had actually seen [her] diary. And she offered such wonderful insights into the era, into her father, into how a 17-year-old would feel about these things. She hung out with the RAF pilots. She talks in a number of places in this diary about “snogging” with them, you know, bringing them back to the old hayloft. And I just got a huge, huge kick out of that. And also because she was just this terrific kind of one-woman Greek chorus as a counterpoint to all the action. And because she undergoes her own transformation, she goes from being the country mouse to directing 230 women in an anti-aircraft battery. I mean, that’s a nice narrative arc.
One of the sources you use for the book that I was most intrigued by was the Mass Observation program, which recruited ordinary British people, hundreds of them, to record everyday life in diaries. What did you learn about the Blitz from their perspective?
When I realized that this was in existence, I died and went to heaven. The organization was founded before the war. It was never intended to provide wartime diaries. It was intended to be a way of looking at ordinary British society. And then the war comes along. And it becomes this invaluable source of information about how life was actually lived as the Blitz unfolded. Another of my favorite characters in the book is Olivia Cockett, who was one of the diarists. She, too, has this sort of transformative arc where, in the first raids on London, she, like so many others, is terrified. But then one day she puts out this incendiary bomb and she is just absolutely emboldened. She’s thrilled with herself. She is no longer the passive victim. And I think it kind of metaphorically speaks to a significant portion of the British population who at first were terrified and then said, “Hey, screw this, we’re not going to take this lying down.” And then they didn’t.
You interspersed the German perspective throughout the book, based a lot on [German propaganda minister Joseph] Goebbels’ diary, an eerie document. How did Goebbels’ perceptions of Churchill help you to round out your story?
I felt that the German perspective was very important. And mainly, honestly, from a craft-of-narrative perspective: You have one set of protagonists, those who are on the ropes, if you will — Churchill and Company and Britain — and you have their opponents. It’s very important that you know what the opponent’s thinking and you know what Churchill and Company are thinking. And that you convey this, because it’s usually not the same thing, and therein lies suspense. We [the reader] know, for example, when Hermann Goering starts orchestrating that first massive assault on London. And we also know that Churchill and Company don’t [know it]. And therein lies more suspense. So it’s very important to have this.
You use a lot of narrative techniques, obviously. I once got into an argument with somebody because they didn’t believe The Devil in the White City was nonfiction. It read too much like a novel. Do you encounter this?
[Laughs] Yes, I hear that. I hear that all the time. And I think part of the problem is that if you’re going to write what’s referred to as narrative history — I quarrel with that label — but if you’re going to write narrative history, the underlying story has to be amenable to that kind of retelling. I have some very strict criteria that apply to any idea before I take it on, one of which is it has to have a natural narrative arc. Most important of all, after that — I mean, the central idea is the most important thing — but you can’t even take on that idea unless the second criteria is there in spades, and that is a rich, deep reservoir of archival material. Because you can’t fake it. Then you’re going to fall into the trap that some writers do of trying to come up with composite characters or, you know, people will concoct imaginary dialogue and in an author’s note say, “I hope you’ll forgive me for imagining what this conversation was like.” But you can’t do that. That’s fiction, right? And so the trick, I feel, is to go the distance on the research. If you collect much more stuff than you’re ever, ever going to use, and deploy it properly in the course of the narrative, it’s gonna read like a novel. But it’s not. And the reality is that sometimes history is a lot more unbelievable than fiction.
Are there any writers or historians that you think most influenced your style?
Well, I’m a big fan of Barbara Tuchman. The Guns of August, in particular. I love that book. David McCullough, absolutely. He did a book in the 1960s called The Johnstown Flood. And I loved that book because it took this kind of dusty thing we all came across on high school timelines and turned it into this really powerful human story about hubris and mismanagement and class tensions, and juxtaposed that against the details of the flood — the preamble to the flood, the rainstorms, the signs this thing was going to happen. So he really had two narratives, the people and the flood. And so when I started thinking about my first work of so-called narrative history, which was Isaac’s Storm, a book about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, I went back to The Johnstown Flood and I diagramed that book. I went through it, I outlined everything just to see how he did it in terms of structuring the narrative to make it so compelling. A real fundamental reason why in Isaac’s Storm the hurricane becomes a character in itself is precisely the sort of Johnstown Flood model.
Why do you quibble with the term narrative history?
I don’t like labels. Next thing you know, then there’s a course in narrative nonfiction. And then there’s a doctoral program in narrative nonfiction and then the world goes to hell. I think that I just don’t like labels.
Do you think of yourself more as a historian or a writer?
I don’t think of myself as a historian. I think of myself as a writer who writes history. My mission is not — this is gonna sound strange, maybe — but my mission is not to inform, per se. My mission is to try to create as rich a historical experience as I can for the reader, so that when they’re done with the book, they come out of it feeling like maybe they lived briefly in a past time. It’s not my goal to come up with some new insight into the past or to do a revisionist history of something. My favorite reaction to any of my books was after Devil in the White City came out, a woman got up after a talk in Chicago and said, “When I finished this book, I didn’t want to come back.” That was exactly the reaction I wanted.
Yeah, that is a good compliment. Studying history is like traveling a little bit.
Well, it should be, I think. Don’t you? I don’t mean to undercut the value of so-called conventional or academic histories. First of all, I couldn’t do what I do without those. But typically, honestly, a lot of these monographic histories, they put the great stuff in the footnotes. That’s why I always read the footnotes of other histories, because that’s where scholars, people who are trying to get tenure somewhere and they don’t have time to have fun with something [because] it wouldn’t be rewarded, they often stick the juice in the footnotes. And that’s where I go.
Do you have any sense of what your next project will be about yet? Have you been inspired at all to write about the Spanish flu perhaps?
[Laughs] Well, you know, the Spanish flu was always kind of an interest of mine. But I really felt it had been done too often. And now that we’re sort of living it, my interest has dwindled to zero. I just want to be done with this thing. I don’t want to dwell on an epidemic. I’ve had it with this one already.
I don’t have the next thing in mind. Whenever I finish a book, it is the case that I have a completely blank slate. I wish I didn’t. I don’t know why I am this way. So I’m looking for that next idea.