Strange Moments Abroad (plus, the latest on the Window-sill Wars: Diplomacy and Mobilization)

February 10, 2011

map detail of Tiergarten in Berlin

The Tiergarten in Berlin, 1933

Every book I write brings strange moments of serendipity, when the past seems to call out to me to affirm that I’m on the right track. Undoubtedly such moments can be explained simply by the fact that if you immerse yourself in a subject deeply enough and long enough, peculiar coincidences and confluences will occur. But invariably at such times I’m always reminded of that closing scene in Miracle on 34th Street, which features Santa’s cane resting against the fireplace in a house for sale on Long Island.

When I worked on Thunderstruck, I stayed in a small hotel in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London that I picked for no other reason than that the city was in the grip of a rare heat wave and this hotel, The Academy, happened to have air conditioning and was a short walk from University College, London, where I knew I’d be doing a lot of reading. (If you plan to stay at The Academy, ask for a “luxury double” in the back.) I was on the trail of the killer who is central to Thunderstruck, Hawley Harvey Crippen, the second most famous murderer in British history. (Okay, do I really have to identify the most famous one?) I had a list of addresses I needed to find, and made that my first day’s mission. I was so jet-lagged there was little else I could do but walk, stunned, around London, like the Simon Pegg character in Shaun of the Dead. The hotel gave me a room that overlooked a quiet garden and an adjacent street.

I set out early the next morning after dosing myself with a gallon of truly excellent coffee, and began checking off addresses. By day’s end I found myself mysteriously back in Bloomsbury, tracking streets in my London A-Z, the indispensable guide to the labyrinthine streetscape of the city. And there, adjacent to my hotel, within full view of my little room, was one of the most important addresses of all, where the killer and his mistress had met secretly for, well, tea and crumpets, of course. But how strange. It was as if some invisible hand had guided me to that hotel, to that room. This called for a drink, so I headed to the nearest pub. One thing led to another, and again I was staggering the streets of London.

In my research for In the Garden of Beasts, to be published May 10, a similar moment occurred—the serendipitous kind, not the staggering kind. I traveled to Berlin in February, on the theory that hotel rates and flights would be less expensive than, say, in June or July. I checked into the spankingly new Ritz-Carlton on Potsdammer Platz, not because I’m spoiled and need the Ritz, but because the Ritz at that moment needed me, and was offering amazingly low come-hither prices. I received a gorgeous corner room with views over the city’s central park, the Tiergarten (literally, the garden of beasts), for the price of a room at the O’Hare Hilton.

Once again I hoped to find key locations in the saga, though this time I was acutely aware that the challenge was likely to be much greater than in London. A significant portion of central Berlin was obliterated during the Russian assault on the city in 1945 and by debris-removal efforts later, and by the Soviets in clearing ground for the Berlin Wall and its associated “death zone.” I set out happily, amid horizontal snow, and headed for the Tiergarten, since I knew that most of the action I hoped to capture occurred in and around the park.

One key address I hoped to find was the Hotel Esplanade, where William Dodd and his family—the key protagonists in the book—lived during their first months in Berlin. As I ambled north toward the park, I passed on my left the massive Sony Center, with its vast sheltered interior courtyard. Soon I came to a glass wall that rose five stories above the ground, behind which stood a bullet-pocked facade. Curious, I staggered—this time because of the frigid wind—to the nearest historical marker, and discovered that the facade had belonged….to the Hotel Esplanade. There it was. Preserved behind glass, as if just for me, literally across the street from my own hotel. And for just the briefest instant I could see Dodd striding toward the park for a secret meeting with his friend, Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador, and Martha, racing south toward Prinz Albrechtstrasse 8, the most-feared address in Berlin, for an assignation with Rudolf Diels, chief of the Gestapo.

This was cause for celebration, so I ducked into the Sony Center to find coffee, and there stumbled upon the new incarnation of the Cafe Josty, which once also had stood in this vicinity and where once upon a long ago time Martha and her friends sipped coffee and smoked and watched the traffic go by.

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The Window-Sill Wars III: The Diplomat and the Red Rose Army

The New York Public Library Lion book-end has agreed to step in and try to mediate the conflict caused by the sudden appearance of a wind-up Triceratops pencil sharpener on my office window sill.  NYPL-Lion’s first stop was at the Nunzilla camp, where his efforts had no effect, given that none of the parties could actually talk.

A book-end in form of NYPL lion parlays with nunzillas

The diplomat arrives

Lion later indicated through a text message that he and the Nunzillas had in fact had a full and frank conversation, though a later Wiki-leak quotes Lion as texting his superiors that Nunzilla was “even crankier than usual” and that “all she gave me was a face full of green sparks.”

There are disturbing reports that the secret Red Rose Army, based in the kitchen, has mobilized. (Red Rose tea drinkers—you know what I’m talking about.)

Red Rose tea box with figurine

A new recruit resides within

No one knows where the army’s allegiance truly lies.  Happily, the army moves very slowly.

Little figurines from Red Rose Tea marching across tabletop

The Secret Red Rose Army on the move

And still Severed-head Ken retains his splendid equanimity, at peace amid the turmoil, smiling bemusedly as if at some private joke. Utterly annoying, actually.

Head of a Ken doll which I keep on my window sill

What is he thinking?

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Ideas and Agony, Plus the Latest in the Window-Sill Wars

February 2, 2011

Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo

Rudolf Diels

Many of you have asked, via this website, how I come up with ideas for books. For me, this is the toughest phase of writing. Roughly a year typically passes between the moment I make the final corrections in the page proofs, or galleys, of one book and start research on the next. During that period I do everything I possibly can to spark a new idea. I always tell my writing students (on those rare occasions when I do teach) to read voraciously and promiscuously.

I’ll read newspaper obits and whenever I’m in another city doing a talk I’ll try to go to a local museum and read the local newspapers. I’ll go to my favorite library, the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington here in Seattle, and wander the 900 levels of the Dewey Decimal System, pulling books at random in search of some forgotten but spectacular event from the past. I’ll go to the periodicals department and begin at the A’s and over a series of visits read, or try to read, an issue of every magazine on the shelves, no matter how obscure. In fact, the more obscure, the better. It helps that the Suzzallo Library is quite possibly the best library I’ve ever worked in, with the exception of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—though the Suzzallo has infinitely better views. I’m always surprised at the things I learn. For example, I discovered in the pages of an aerospace magazine that the way jet-engine manufacturers test their engines for their ability to withstand birdstrikes is by throwing birds of various sizes into the whirling blades of an actual engine.

Mostly, though, I have no idea where my ideas come from. They rise to the surface over time like methane in a swamp, waiting to be ignited by some small spark. In the case of The Devil in the White City the thing that lit my imagination was not the killer H.H. Holmes—frankly, I had no interest in writing what I call “crime porn”—but rather the fact that Juicy Fruit gum was introduced to consumers at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Once I read that, I was lost: I had to learn more, and quickly realized the real story was one of darkness and light, the killer and the fair, the Devil and the White City.

The idea for my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, came to me first about five summers ago when I was reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and realized that Shirer had actually been there, in Berlin, and had met the characters he wrote about face to face. Which got me thinking: What must that have been like? Was it frightening? Was there any inkling of what was to come? And how was it possible for a democratic culture, a font of liberal thought and ideas, to slide so rapidly toward oppression and murder?

These musings hardly constituted a book idea, but they got me thinking: If I could find a couple of characters to hold hands with as they experienced the first year or so of Nazi rule, and look at the world through their eyes and experiences, could I learn something new about the time and about why no one did anything to stop Hitler? Could I capture in non-fiction the murky pre-war atmosphere of threat that Alan Furst so brilliantly depicts in his novels? I wanted to know what Berlin felt like, smelled like; what the cars looked like and where people went for dinner, and what it was like to sit down for a cup of coffee in a cafe with a member of Hitler’s SS at the next table—or, for that matter, with Hitler himself at the next table surrounded by his usual low-brow entourage.

I began “gathering string,” as my agent likes to put it, while first proceeding with my last book, Thunderstruck, a book that, strangely enough, had its genesis in a minor incident on a drawbridge in Seattle—but that, sorry to say, is a story best left for another time. At some point I came across Ambassador William E. Dodd and his flamboyant daughter, Martha, and realized that their stories had the potential to present a rich portrait not just of life in Berlin, but also of perceptions and attitudes in Washington, where a deep seam of anti-Semitism ran through the State Department. My two characters seemed like the innocents in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, setting off into a dark forest unaware of evils yet to come.

Once again, there was one particular trigger that set me irrevocably on my way, in this case, a surprising character named Rudolf Diels, the very first chief of the Gestapo. But, you’ll have to read the book to understand why.

And that, by the way, is either a shameless tease, or an example of suspense.

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The Window-sill Wars II: Force Multipliers

Two Nunzillas, severed-head ken, and Triceratops ally, a crocodile pen

Forces gather

Meanwhile, things are not going well on my window sill. Ominously, another Nunzilla from a nearby office (my wife’s) has joined the Nunzilla who usually dominates my window sill. There is mounting tension. Forces are gathering, allies are being recruited. Triceratops has made an alliance with crocodile pen, to counter the force-multiplying effect of the second Nunzilla. Severed-head Ken, as always, has chosen a neutral stance.

So far a balance has been maintained. But it’s precarious. And, a worrisome development: There is talk that spies have entered the picture, on both sides.

A snake confers with Triceratops

The spy who came in from the sill

A rat has entered the picture, literally

A rat enters the picture, literally

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Some ‘Beastly’ News

January 24, 2011

An image of a small wind-up pencil-sharpener in form of dinosaur

The newest arrval in my office (see below)

A few months remain before the publication of my next book, In the Garden of Beasts, but already a lot of nice things have happened:

–Publishers in France, Britain, Australia/New Zealand, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Poland have acquired rights to publish the book in their countries;

–The Chautauqua Institution has chosen In the Garden of Beasts to be one of the books featured in its Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle for this summer, a huge honor;

Vanity Fair has dispatched a photographer to “shoot” yours truly for the magazine. 

 –Y.T. has also been invited to be the night’s speaker at the University of Washington Friends of the Library 2010 Literary Voices banquet, and at the annual fundraising event of the Library Foundation of Hillsboro, Oregon. For details on these and other upcoming events in Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, please pay a visit to my Events page.

But the really big and rather unsettling news in my office is the arrival of a wind-up Triceratops pencil sharpener. Not surprisingly, tensions have arisen. Nunzilla, who thus far has dominated my window sill, is FURIOUS and has vowed that sparks will fly. Severed-head Ken is placid as always. The Triceratops is taking it all in its spring-wound stride. More later, I’m sure…

Face-off between Triceratops and Nunzilla

Clearly tensions are brewing

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