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

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.


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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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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