“It is not my intent with my books to inform in the way that perhaps a hardcore historian might be inclined to do. My goal is to create as rich a historical experience as I possibly can.” Author Erik Larson talks to host J.T. Ellison about THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE on NPT’s A Word on Words.
We’re joined today on Nashville Public Television’s A WORD ON WORDS by the indomitable Erik Larson to discuss his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. His saga of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, The Devil in the White City, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won an Edgar Award for fact-crime writing; it lingered on various Times bestseller lists for the better part of a decade. Hulu plans to adapt the book for a limited TV series, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese as executive producers. Erik’s In the Garden of Beasts, about how America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter experienced the rising terror of Hitler’s rule, has been optioned by Tom Hanks for development as a feature film.
Erik Larson: The first thing I’d like say to J.T., thank you for doing this.
J.T. Ellison: Absolutely. I’m thrilled that you’re here. I’m a huge fan, huge fan. So happy to have you on A Word On Words today.
Larson: I am delighted to be here. Believe me.
Ellison: I could not be more in love with your book. I have told every single person I know. I’ve been talking about it everywhere. My dad and my buddy read it, which is really fun. It’s fantastic. You make nonfiction engaging in ways that I haven’t seen before. You say you’re not a historian. Can you describe what you feel like you’re doing with your body of work?
Larson: As paradoxical as it may sound, it’s not my intent with my books to inform in the way that perhaps a hardcore historian might be inclined to do. I see myself as a writer of history. My goal is to create as rich a historical experience as I possibly can. All true, I hasten to add, but as rich historical experiences I possibly can with the goal of, that readers will sink into the past and maybe not return until they finish the book, ideally, but then when they do finish the book, they will have had an almost physical sense of the past. That’s my goal.
Ellison: Oh, you’ve achieved it.
Larson: This was a bear of a book to write.
Ellison: I’m going to ask you about that because I’m a writer as well, and I tend to approach these interviews from the, “how in the name of God did you do that?” Because, wow. What is the story behind The Splendid and the Vile? Will you go into a little bit about the title itself?
Larson: Sure. First of all, at the inception of this project, when I was first thinking about doing a book along these lines, it was not Churchill at all. It was on my mind. I had no intention of writing about Churchill at all. The way this book got started was because my family, my wife and I moved from Seattle to Manhattan. Our kids have flown the coop as kids do. As soon as I arrived in Manhattan, I realized that, as one of those duh moments, I suppose, but I realized that in New York, the experience of 9/11 had been so different than what we’d experienced obviously in Seattle, even though we had watched the whole thing unfold in real time on CNN. But coming to New York, I realized all this was very, very upfront vivid, you know, sirens, smoke, the whole world.
But more than that, there was that absolutely traumatic idea that your hometown was attacked. And I started thinking almost immediately, “Oh, how did Londoners deal with the Blitz?” The portion of the air campaign that we know as the Blitz included 57 consecutive nights of bombing. And I just wondered how on earth, given how 9/11 threw us and continues to be this awful thing that we think about maybe daily here in New York. I just thought, how on earth did people actually manage to do it? So at first I thought I would try to find the typical London family, and then I thought, much to my subsequent regret, why not do the quintessential London family, Churchill and his family and his close advisers who were more or less family.
So that’s how this that’s how this came about. Now the title The Splendid and The Vile comes from the diary entry where one of the key characters in the book, John Colville, who I very much like as a character. John Colville was one of Churchill’s very hardworking group of young men. They were young men who were his private secretaries. Frankly, they were like apprentice prime ministers. They worked so hard and did so much. [Colville] was one of them. He kept a very detailed diary, a really rich diary of daily, literally daily, life at 10 Downing Street. Articulate, beautifully written––every scholar who writes about Churchill uses this diary. I, however, wanted Colville to step forward and become a character unto his own in the book.
We can talk about that a little bit if you want to talk about his love life, but he made an entry in his diary one night during a particularly intense raid. He was in a bedroom and he was watching the raid unfold through the bedroom window as one does, was watching this raid unfold. And he was struck by the beauty of the night, the sable black night stars, searchlights, anti-aircraft, shells, exploding bombs, exploding fire. And he was struck by how beautiful it was, but also by the juxtaposition, as he put it, between natural splendor and human vileness. Right away, I thought, okay, that’s it, that’s my title: The Splendid and the Vile. Because it really kind of sums up the whole saga.
Ellison: It does. I want to talk about how you built this book. How do you build a book over something that is so well-documented? Churchill is not untrod territory.
Larson: You mean something that’s so overdone?
Ellison: [laughs] I don’t think you can ever overdo something so great, and everybody brings their own personality to it. You brought a personality to this, you’ve shown him in a light that I’ve never seen. You hear the stories and the anecdotes, but you really do bring me to the rooftop with him quoting Tennyson. I mean, it’s just really his quirkiness. He was very lovable and we always see the abrasive portrayal of him, but this was the more familial.
Larson: Once I realized, okay, this is going to be Churchill. As they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And that was really me. I know that there’ve been a lot written about Churchill, but honestly I had no idea the depth and breadth of the scholarship about him. Usually I like to try to read everything about a subject before I jump in. And I realized that would be a fool’s errand. I could read for 10 years literally, and I would not go through everything that’s been written about Churchill, let alone everything that Churchill has written about himself. Actually even then at the 10 year point, I wouldn’t be done because another eight books would be coming up at that point.
So I made a strategic decision. I decided I was going to read as much as I could about the Churchillian landscape, if you will. I understood the key territories, key elements. And then I decided I was not going to try to continue reading just all my own interests. I was going to jump right into the archives, which is where I feel comfortable and I’m always confident that I will find something new. And in so doing, I had, believe it or not, my lens, my question, if you will. Like, what was that like for the Churchills? How did they deal with this period, this period of the German air campaign? That was a lens nobody else had used before to write about Churchill. So I was able then to, using that lens, jump into the archives and find things that I’m sure others had come across, but had not used in their work because it was not relevant. A lot of these sweeping biographies of Churchill cannot dwell on the fine points of daily life. And so I found, much to my delight, that I was actually coming up with a lot of new stuff and actually telling it in what I believe in the end turned out to be a new and fresh way.
Ellison: I couldn’t agree more. It works, it works on every level, which kudos to you. So set the stage for us. Where are we as the book opens in the war, in the world? How does Churchill come to this world right now?
Larson: The way I opened the book is with a few pages, not really a prologue, but of what the British strategists had expected in the 30s of the next war. They were confident there would be a next war, they just didn’t know who would be the enemy, but they speculated the next war would involve significant improvements in aircraft and bombs and so forth. And that the effect of raids on Britain, on London would be horrendous. They speculated hundreds of thousands of deaths in the first day of any such war. Okay. So then from there, I cut to opening the book, the actual action of the book with Churchill’s appointment as prime minister on May 10th, 1940, which was a very interesting moment because any ordinary mortal would have maybe passed the torch to the next guy in line because of everything that happened that day.
That was the day that the so-called phony war became a real hot shooting war when Hitler invaded the low countries. That same day Churchill became prime minister. Now for Churchill, this was the high point of his life. This is what he had worked for his entire life, to become prime minister. Now he also sort of knew that it would happen one day. He just didn’t know when it was going to happen, but here it is, it happens when this war becomes a shooting war. And even that delighted him. He made himself defense minister, which is sort of an unprecedented thing, because he wanted to control the war. He wanted to be that man in the hot seat, to control the war. So we began at that point.
It is not at all clear that Churchill at this point is the right man for the job. The public thinks so, but everybody in Whitehall––which of course is the descriptor of the broadening of the British government in London, to the seat of it––but a lot of people in Whitehall did not think he was the right guy. They feared him coming in as prime minister, because he might be very erratic, prone to, as one minister said, energetic action in all directions. John Colville, he comes into the scene, into the action quite early. He had worked for Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a very staid, methodical prime minister. He was referred to his nicknames, which were The Old Umbrella and The Coroner, which gives you an idea of what he was like. Colville worked for him and had a very normal lifestyle, nine to five essentially. And here comes Churchill, Colville is assigned to him.
Colville doesn’t think this is going to be a good thing. He does not like the idea that Churchill has become prime minister. He changes his attitude really quite quickly as he sees that Churchill really is the man for the hour. We have Churchill becoming prime minister on this incredible day. It’s also a day when my favorite character, Mary Churchill, makes her appearance in the book. Mary is 17. At this point, she too has kept a diary, wonderful diary. And I am incredibly lucky to have been given permission by Mary’s daughter to have looked at and used this diary. At the time I was one of two people who had actually looked at, two scholars shall we say, who would use this diary. So when she comes into the action, she’s out at the family house, Chartwell, with her nanny. And she hears the news about Churchill’s appointment on the radio. There’s all this sort of evocative moment of, “Oh my gosh, this is a great thing for Papa.” Then the action starts and moves on through all kinds of horrendous things.
Ellison: Mary’s lens on this is an absolutely fascinating one. She’s a Brit, she wants to be involved and she’s clearly a patriot and she wants to do the right thing. But her dad is prime minister. She’s giving us that interior that nobody else has given. How hard was it on his family? How hard was it for Mary and Clementine and Pamela and obviously Randolph…Randolph didn’t turn out so well. Were his ambitions… did they hurt his family, or did they help them?
Larson: Whose ambitions? Churchill’s ambitions?
Larson: The family knew what they were dealing with before he became prime minister. You asked that question in terms of Mary. Was it hard for her? Is that basically what you were asking? Was it hard for her? Or how did that change things for her?
Larson: I think they were. Clementine [pronounced Clemen-teen] is his wife. They of course knew their man. They understood Churchill in a way that none of us ever will. But for Mary, she was, after leaving Chartwell, coming back to London. The family farmed her out to the prime ministerial country home, Chequers, which by the way, it becomes kind of a character in the book.
And so she is farmed out there for her safety. So clearly Winston and Clementine are concerned about her safety. She’s a 17 year old girl. They didn’t want her in London with bombs falling all around. She, on the other hand, she really sort of chafes at this. She doesn’t want to be out there in safety. She wants to be a part of the action. She really bemoans the fact that because she’s a woman, a young woman, she is not allowed to fly a bomber or a fighter or do anything. No fight on the beaches or anything like that. She’s going to be forced, as she puts it at one point in her diary, to stuff envelopes or something along those lines. But at the same time, as she’s chafing about being farmed out there and being kept safe by her parents, she is also a 17 year old girl, an attractive young woman, vibrant, vivacious, and she likes to have fun.
And she talks a lot about having fun as well. There are periodic references to snogging in the hayloft with RAF pilots from nearby bases. She talks about a process called “beating up”, which I got a kick out of. This is when the RAF pilots from the nearby bomber base, when they would, they knew the girls were there, Mary and her friends. And so they would fly their bombers over at tree top level. This was called beating up. They would fly the bombers over tree top level just to thrill the girls, which of course they were quite successful at. She talked about those things too. The nice thing about her portrait is that it’s exactly what I was trying to get at was, you know, how do you deal with this kind of relentless tragedy, this unfolding violence every day, every night? Well, the answer is, you reel, and then you begin to adapt and you begin to live your life, around the edges of this tragedy, which I found very enlightening. I also love the denouement for Mary which I will not give away.
Ellison: No. That watching, thinking about it every night, especially full moons, bombers moons… I heard you say in an interview that it wasn’t that everybody was going to die, but somebody was.
Larson: Yes. Yes.
Ellison: The psyche that has to deal with that… The Brits clearly are incredibly strong people. Churchill rallied them. How could they handle this though? It boggles my mind how they could handle that.
Larson: There was a continuum of reactions to this. The initial reaction of many was to flee and rightly so. Many moved out to the country and moved out to their country homes. Country homes, being a big thing among the aristocracy of London, if you will, the upper crust. Others moved out to friends and family and so forth, but many, many more stayed actually in London. And they tried to come to terms with it in their own ways. There were public shelters, many people made those their de facto homes. There were the tube stations where people hid at night also. And by the way, it is a myth that most Londoners flocked to the tube stops. In fact, relatively few did. Most Londoners actually stayed in their homes.
Some had backyards shelters called Anderson shelters and they hunkered down in there. Some hunkered down in their basements, but after a while, a lot of London just said, “I can’t control my fate. I’m just gonna sleep in my bed and whatever happens, happens.” And then some actually felt there was a debate about, should you be in the basement of your home, or should you in fact be in your bedroom on the top floor? Because then if your home is blown up, you will fall down upon the wreckage, instead of being buried under the wreckage. This is the kind of calculus that people went through.
One of my favorite other characters besides Mary is a young woman named Olivia Cockett, who wrote a diary for an organization called Mass-Observation.
Mass-Observation is a social sciences research entity that was founded before the war, no intention of dealing with anything war-like. The point of the organization was to try to get a handle on ordinary British life. They recruited hundreds of diarists to write about just the most quotidian things about their lives and to file these diaries. Then along comes the war and these people are still filing these diaries, and this becomes a wonderful resource for seeing firsthand fine grain effects of this kind of ongoing trauma. Olivia Cockett continues to do her diary, very detailed, very rich diary. She has a very interesting life. She is a young single woman. She’s having an affair with a married man. On the first day, on the night of the first deliberate bombing of London, September 7, 1940, when the bombs really began to fall on central London, she was of course terrified, deeply, deeply traumatized, as well as just about everyone, except Churchill.
She continued to be fearful through the next few days and so forth, next few days, weeks, but then an interesting thing happened to her. An incendiary bomb landed outside her house. Incendiaries were what the Germans dropped first in order to light fires that would then guide subsequent aircraft. And so it was very important if you could, to try to put these out and civilians were instructed to do so. She put this one out. There was this incendiary right outside of her home. She put this out by herself and she felt so emboldened to at last, not be a victim. She had done this thing and suddenly, actually her fear really started at that point to go away. So much so that, another one of my favorite moments in the book is at one point she was walking along with her boyfriend and as she became more and more bold, he became more and more of a coward, which really rankled her.
But they’re walking along one night during what becomes an air raid and they hear two bombs falling, the distinctive sound of high explosive bombs and Bill the boyfriend shouts, “start getting down, get down” and her reply is “not in my new coat, I’m not.”
Ellison: The bravery. They’re just so sassy. She is not going to be cowed. And that has to be part of why Britain won. It’s gotta be part of it, right? They were so underestimated.
Larson: Churchill had something to do with this as well. Churchill was fearless. You mentioned the quote from Tennyson. I’d like to mention that scene. During raids, Churchill was more likely than not to go to the nearest rooftop and watch the raid unfold. Something that caused a lot of consternation on the part of his close advisors who were really concerned that this guy was putting himself at risk. One night during one of these raids, he actually goes up on the rooftop and he brings his dinner guests with him and some of his staff and they’re all up there on the roof, watching this raid unfold and, and Churchill, is you know, a smart, really quite brilliant guy. He is well-read and, and so forth. He begins to quote Tennyson. He quotes a poem called Locksley Hall, which many who know the story or know the poem saw as sort of a sort of forecasting eventual aerial warfare, of course at a time when there were no planes at all. But anyway, he starts quoting Locksley Hall as bombs are falling, the distant aircraft, searchlights and so forth. Anyway, that’s a leader, there’s a guy with presence of mind. Or he’s insane. But I like to think the other way.
Ellison: I would do anything to have been at one of those dinner parties. They just seem magnificent to me.
Larson: Me too. Churchill was actually a lot of fun. He could be a lot of fun. We know him to be this cantankerous sort of bulldog, but the thing that endeared his staff to him was that he really was very warm and could be very, very funny. He was also deeply rude and inconsiderate, as they well knew. That was more than balanced out by this very warm, fun, loving part. One day at one of these big parties, I believe it was Chequers. Maybe it Ditchley, that’s where he started going to for a country home after things got really hot, and you could go there on nights of the full moon. So, because the risk was higher of being attacked, I think it was Chequers.
It was the great hall after this dinner, lots and lots of guests. Everybody’s well lubricated with alcohol and they’re all in the great hall and, and Churchill turns on the gramophone, and puts on some martial music and proceeds to do bayonet drills to the music. But here’s the thing he’s wearing at this point. He is wearing his pale blue “siren suit”. This is a one-piece jumpsuit of his own design and meant to be pulled on at a moment’s notice. Keep in mind his shape so you have an idea of what this looks like. In this pale blue jumpsuit, and he’s got his flaming red gold silk dressing gown, his robe and is carrying a Mannlicher, a big game rifle with a bayonet at the end. And he proceeds in all seriousness to do bayonet drills precisely, across the floor of the great hall, as his guests just doubled over in laughter. It was just a really, a hilarious moment.
Ellison: These are the things that you’ve brought to this story, and it just makes it so incredibly rich. And the tapestry that you weaved is wonderful. Let me ask you, in your acknowledgements, you speak about the Vonnegut Curve, which I love and I too use. In particular, you used the Man in the Hole. Can you run us through Churchill’s Man in the Hole Curve?
Larson: Just to first describe the Vonnegut Curve, which I love. I’m not sure, honestly, that’s always that incredibly useful for me, but it does help me think about things. Maybe this is the same for you. It does help you think about things a little bit differently. When you’re thinking about things differently, who knows what’s going to come into your mind, what’s going to be the little inspiration there. The Vonnegut Curve is basically this. There is a vertical axis, which is fortune to misfortune, or good to bad, if you will. And then there was a horizontal axis, that intersects with that at the start, which is chronology from point A to point B. And so you plot on this, you know, moments of misfortunes, moments of good fortune.
As the plot moves along time, Man in the Hole is somebody who has a moment of fantastic fortune and then suddenly zero fortune. Suddenly he’s in that hole, which is Churchill. Now disregarding for the moment that he loved being in that hole. But he was, in fact, in that hole, he had to figure out a way to save Britain. That was the hole, and then you have him fighting his way out of that hole toward eventual triumph. So that’s the man in the hole, but the really nice thing about the Vonnegut Curve is that it makes you feel like you’re productive even when you’re not. You’re playing with this curve. So yeah, I’m writing, I’m thinking about my plot.
Ellison: It is great. So I saw on Twitter a picture of the multiple drafts that you had. Tell me a little bit about the actual writing of the book.
Ellison: It’s over, that’s what you’re happy about.
Larson: I was telling my wife yesterday, I think I still have post-Churchill book traumatic syndrome. The writing of this book was the toughest. This was the toughest that I’ve had to do, honestly. One problem I had was making sure that the book wasn’t so long that it would become yet another one of those gigantic 1500 page tomes about the sort of generalized biography of Churchill. It is my sworn policy that I’ll never turn in the manuscript to my editor that I would not want to see published the next day. I provide as final a polished draft as I possibly can with the idea that if it was published tomorrow, I would be happy. So I did that with this book, although at that point it was about 160,000 words, something like that.
I gave it to my editor and, God bless her. She really went through it quick and she had the most wonderful narrative suggestions about how to peel out certain elements of the narrative to make the book really zip along. And I really owe a lot to her on this, but I think she saved the day. That was my final draft. In that photograph of my two foot mounds or maybe three foot of basically final drafts. Kind of a joke there. These final drafts, it was just harder.
It just got harder and harder and harder to start paring stuff out of them. So I had to just go draft after draft after draft, and then it became eventually line by line fighting just, okay, I can, I can get 20 words out of this page. That’s good. That’s a victory for the day, you know? Anyway, that’s how it went. My favorite thing when I’m writing and I’ve got a final draft or, what I think is the final draft before I do the final final. I will lay the entire thing out on the floor and just make sure that everything’s in the right place, whatever I can see, if I can cut anything else, if I can move things around. I had this thing and the entire floor of my New York apartment was just covered with Churchill, which my wife of course loved.
I had to go through that process and did a lot of thought and a lot of good cutting and trimming and so forth there. But boy, it really is a process of just sort of winnowing things down and, you know, like Churchill said, blood, sweat, and tears.
Ellison: How long was the process? How long did it take to write and how long did it take to edit?
Larson: Okay, so you mean the physical process of writing?
Ellison: Sure. Yeah.
Larson: Gosh, I don’t know because the writing begins in a weird way. I want to have critical mass and want to have all my research done, but that’s never the case. So I get to a point where the story just really, it’s sort of like barking at the door, has to come out.
And so then I go into my one page a day mode. All I have to do is one page and always, I always stop when I’m at one. That’s why I really can’t place the beginning. It just sort of started, but I would imagine the whole process of writing and editing took about two years with the understanding that even during that process, I’m still doing a lot of research. In fact, even during that period, I made two trips to London, or at least one trip to London, one to Cambridge where the Churchill archives are. I’m still constantly doing the research because you’re actually never really done until the book is actually in somebody’s hand. And even then there’s somebody who writes you and says, you know…
Ellison: Well, they’ve got the paperback. You can always fix it in the mix.
Larson: That’s true.
Ellison: I need to ask you about our current situation and the odd parallels to the Blitz and to the war and to people having to adjust their lives because they’re under attack. Is it fair to compare COVID and our current situation to Cromwell and the Blitz and everything that was happening?
Larson: I think it is fair to a point and certainly readers have decided that there are tremendous parallels. And in fact, interestingly, weird phenomenon, but time and time again, I hear about this, is that people read the book and actually take solace in the book. The book is about mass death, destruction and chaos, but they take solace from this book. I think because it has a happy ending. And because there is a firm, good, compassionate leader in charge. So in that respect for people, I think it becomes almost a fable relative to now. But I think that the biggest parallel is that this is a situation where we are called upon, all of us, to do what we can to resolve this situation. We all have to take part. Same was true during the Blitz.
Only the manifestations were different. You know, here we all, you know, the best, most heroic thing that we could do is stay home. Stay home. It is a heroic thing because a lot of people have lost jobs, lost livelihoods. Many lost their lives. I think Churchill would have found that to be quite a heroic situation, full of a good deal of pathos. We all need to pull together. We all need to do the right thing. We all need to wear a mask when we’re outside. The thing that kills me, it was all these people somehow thinking that not wearing a mask is a political statement. I just read something today about a bar that has a “no mask” policy. They decided just to, “Nope, you wear a mask, you can’t come in.” That’s one bar I have to skip.
Ellison: It’s ridiculous. My parents are literally on a plane right now because you know, they are older and they are independent and they want to live their lives. They had been homebound for three months and they’re doing it. And I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I checked with my dad: Do you have your hand sanitizer? They’re wearing masks, they’re doing it right. But they were describing the airport to me and just how incredibly surreal it was. There’s a moment in your book that you’re talking about the streets being empty and the parallel to seeing New York empty, it’s so eerie. It is so eerie.
Larson: Of course, once again, yes. We can draw parallels to it to a point, but one of the things that’s so compelling about the scenes in London, where the various manifestations I didn’t really have occasion even to think about until I started coming across these things in the many, many memoirs and diaries that I read for the research. After some of these raids, the salient features of the landscape were broken glass, like in one description was a sea of broken glass in the streets up to six inches deep, broken glass. And also whenever a bomb struck a building, it was a tendency for bombs to strike smaller buildings. Like many of those in London where the bomb would pass through the building and only detonate once upon striking the earth underneath, underneath the house, you know, thereby ensuring that the entire place would go up. One of the salient features of that was that people reported time and again, these incredibly dense clouds of dust, not smoke, dust, just billowing out from the homes. This is dust that dates to that early past of London, just rolling through the streets of the city. I found that very sort of evocative.
Ellison: Very much so. Thank God, the technology hadn’t advanced to the point where, you know, they drop a bomb and it would take out the entire city.
Larson: I know, I know, you mean it hadn’t advanced to the point where we are now.
Ellison: Where we are now. I mean, if you wanted to take out a city, you could do it in five minutes and we wouldn’t have 57 days of bombing and years more of war. It’s terrifying.
I could talk to you about this all day. What’s next for you? What’s going on? What’s going on in your head?
Larson: Those are two different things. What’s next? What’s next for me. I really have no idea. I’m in that phase where I’m looking for my next idea. It’s a really tough time for me. I don’t know how it is with you, but you know, I mean, there are writers, maybe you’re one of them who, when they finish a book, they know exactly what they’re doing next. Are you one of those?
Ellison: It depends. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. I do right now. I just turned in two different books and I think I know where I’m going, but it’s kind of that awful, “Is that it?” Because you don’t know until you really get going.
Larson: But I still hate you. I have absolutely no conception of what it is. And I always start with a blank slate because, if for some reason, I may go into a book with five competing ideas. I choose one. And for whatever reason, the other four ideas just suddenly, they’re literally dead to me. I suppose it’s like courtship, you know, let’s say you’re dating or interested in like five people and you choose one to marry. The other ones are just going to go away. Right. So I’m currently idea-less. Not totally idea-less. I have things that I’m mulling, but I don’t have that. You know how when you get a great idea or what you think is a great idea, you almost sort of just vibrate. It was like, “yes, this is exactly what I need to be doing now.” I’m not there yet.
Ellison: It will come. Yours is a much more challenging endeavor than mine. I’m writing fiction. That’s a whole different situation than committing your life to a story for the next five years. I have such respect for nonfiction and for historical fiction, nonfiction really is… it’s huge what you’re doing and how you have to commit yourself. It’s amazing.
Larson: But one problem also is honestly, is that a lot of what I do, people like to call narrative nonfiction. I don’t particularly like the term, although I like it better than creative nonfiction. It connotes that people are faking things or making up stuff, but let’s say it’s narrative nonfiction. The problem is narrative nonfiction has become very popular for writers of nonfiction. I start to worry that all the good stories are being taken.
Ellison: I don’t think so. I mean, if you were able to find a completely new path into Churchill, I think there’s something else out there for sure.
Erik, I really cannot thank you enough for being with us today. Congratulations on all the success of the book. It’s absolutely wonderful.
Larson: Thank you. And thank you for taking the time.
Ellison: And thank you for watching A Word On Words. I’m J.T. Ellison. Keep reading.
Erik Larson Recommends
All Adults Here, by Emma Straub
In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena
Erik Larson is Reading
Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown
Under Occupation, by Alan Furst
The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel