Another Terrifying Moment (And, in the Window-Sill Wars, Mulling the Mystery of Severed-Head Ken)

Image of a couple of pages from book, with cover in background

When a book at last becomes real

My first hardcover copies of In the Garden of Beasts arrived the other day via Federal Express (the book, however, does not go on sale until May 10). This is always an important moment, for it marks the point where a book is really, truly done–a terrifying moment, in a way. It’s my baby, and I need to make sure it has all its fingers and toes. Is my name spelled correctly? Is there some obvious flaw? Did the publisher use the right author photograph, or the one of me at age twelve?

Oh please, you say. Have some backbone. Man up. Eat barbecue. And yet, once, for a foreign edition of my books, my name was indeed spelled incorrectly. Actually, it was worse than that. My name was correct on the binding, wrong on the cover.

Happily, I can report that Beasts looks quite gorgeous and has all its fingers and toes. It has that lovely feel that a book should have: nice heft, a certain shininess. The interior pages are well-designed. Open, clean, easy on the eyes. I sometimes worry, as a writer, that I don’t really do anything all that worthwhile or productive, and certainly there are reviewers who feel that way, but then comes the book itself, and I realize, why yes, I do produce something. Okay, it may not be a car or stereo system or iPhone, but it certainly is a physical product. As my youngest daughter said when she hefted a copy, “you could throw this at someone and they’d know it.”

I personally am very pleased.


Speaking of iPhones: Last week I asked readers to weigh in on what I should do about upgrading my cellphone so that I can actually read and send emails during my upcoming book tour, which starts May 10. Should I get a Blackberry, an iPhone, or even one of the newest iPads? Well, the vote was unanimous: Get an iPhone. To those who weighed in, thank you.


Another bit of miscellaneous reportage: I’m a huge fan of detective fiction, especially of the dark Scandinavian variety. I include Stieg Larsson, of course, though in fact I far prefer the books of Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, the latter a Norwegian writer. But of late I’ve started reading a writer wholly new to me who hails from a slightly balmier clime: Ireland. I just finished City of Lost Girls, by Declan Hughes. It’s a terrific book. Suspenseful, atmospheric, but above all, one of the most beautifully written works of detective fiction that I’ve read in a very long time. (Note: I do not know Declan Hughes; he has not sent me a check to write this, though if he wants to at any point send me a check he is certainly welcome to do so.)

I am also reading, now, Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell. So far I find it a pretty magical work, with mighty prose of the kind you don’t come across all that often anymore. (Same disclaimer applies.)


The Window-Sill Wars IX: The Mystery of Severed-Head Ken

Severed-head Ken

As armies converge and the spies–Rat and Rubber Snake–continue bartering secrets, the mystery of Severed-Head Ken continues to intrigue observers. How did Ken lose the rest of himself? How did he make his way to Erik’s window sill? Can he possibly be as empty-headed and vapid as that smile suggests?

Theories have been put forth: One holds that Ken is like the obelisk in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, sent to the sill by some alien culture. Others endorse the idea that Ken jilted Barbie and in a jealous rage she tore his head off and dumped it from her Barbie Car before careening wildly off to find solace with her good friends, the artist models and their cat.

Artists' figurines consoling Barbie, looking haggard in red dress

Consoling Barbie

But the correspondents on the scene believe there is a deeper story here: That Ken, whatever his roots, is in fact a creature of high intellect and dignity—a Gandhi-esque character, without the diaper, or for that matter, the torso—and that he is merely waiting for his moment in history, to save the day. The Nunzillas think this theory is cracked, but they for the moment are keeping their opinion to themselves.

Vapid Ken with Nunzillas conferring in background

Ken looks on, as Nunzillas confer

Everyone agrees the forces at play are merely waiting for the Seattle rains to stop before launching the final battle for Erik’s window sill, though really this makes no sense because so far the rain has only fallen outside the house and the opposing armies are advancing inside. But in these strange and uneasy times, even this prospect of delay is a source of comfort, offering the hope that a peaceful solution may yet arise.

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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