Tuesday, September 6, 2011

September Issue of Historically Speaking

Randall Stephens

Read the latest issue of Historically Speaking at Project Muse. (Make sure to go to the site with a university or library computer that has full Muse access.) Among the essays, interviews, and more in the September issue is Philip White's conversation with "Erik Larson on Narrative Nonfiction and In the Garden of Beasts." Here's a sample:

Philip White: How has your background as a journalist equipped you to research and write about historical themes?

Erik Larson: Well, I do have some historical training from my time as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and that training was rigorous. With regard to journalism, I wrote features for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t know if the Journal taught me or if I brought it to the table, but I developed the ability to spot telling details, nuggets of fact or description that make stories come alive.

White: Is it true that you were inspired to write In the Garden of Beasts after reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

Larson: The thing that caused my imagination to kick in was the fact the Shirer had been there in Berlin and had met Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, but he met them at a time when nobody knew the ending. And that’s the key thing— nobody knew the ending. What would it have been like to have met what turned out to be these awful people when nobody knew what was coming down the pike?

From there I started looking for characters. It’s a process—finding what kind of narrative energy this person could apply. I read memoirs, newspaper accounts, and letters, looking for little things that might lead to bigger things. I knew nothing about Dodd when I stumbled across him. I found him compelling but by no means someone I could hang a book on; he was a little dry, and I’m not that interested in diplomatic history. But I liked the fact that he was a plain-spoken, low-key guy who was thrust into a job for which he was anything but qualified. From a narrative perspective that made him interesting. He was an outsider, and that’s what I was looking for—an outsider who entered into the world of the Reich during its first two years. Then I discovered that Martha Dodd had written a memoir. After reading that I decided that these might be the two perfect characters, and happily both underwent transformations in their first full year in Berlin.

White: What were some of the richest sources that you found?

Larson: You really can’t use Dodd’s diary or especially Martha’s memoir without a lot of triangulation with other source material—for example, the diaries of Undersecretary of State William Phillips, Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur Carr, and especially the papers of George Messersmith, Consul General for Germany, at the University of Delaware.

The Library of Congress’s manuscript division is God’s gift to anyone who does research, and the Dodds’s papers were there—Martha has more than seventy linear feet of papers. You could read her diary and then read my book and say “Well, wait a second, she didn’t mention Boris [Winogradov, an official at the Soviet embassy in Berlin]”. But she didn’t include him because she feared he would be killed. Only by going though her papers do you find out about Boris.

Madison, Wisconsin, unexpectedly, also proved to be a trove of information. At the Wisconsin Historical Society on the campus of the University of Wisconsin they have the complete papers of a lot of people who were players in the Dodds’s world in the mid-1930s: Martha’s friend Sigrid Schultz, who first tried to cue her into the realities of Nazi Germany; Louis Lochner, the AP Bureau Chief; and H.V. Kaltenborn, the radio correspondent who refused to believe how bad Messersmith’s accounts were until his last day in Berlin when his son was roughed up a storm trooper. I spent about two weeks photocopying everything.

And then there was Berlin. The big value in going there was for stage direction being able to walk from my hotel to all these nodes of action within fifteen minutes in any direction. The embassy was fifteen or twenty minutes away from Hitler’s Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters was fifteen minutes, if that, from the Hotel Esplanade, where the Dodds first stayed. Knowing this provided some of the mortar for the narrative. I was struck with how flat the city is. Strangely enough, the first thing I thought of when I saw the city from my hotel room was Corpus Christi, Texas, which I visited during my work on Isaac’s Storm—Corpus Christi was so flat, so seemingly vulnerable to a hurricane. Berlin was vulnerable to the final Russian assault. In terms of narrative structure, I remember periodically thinking that this was “Dodd’s Storm.”>>>

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