Seduction and Distraction

Image of fields and trees of different shades, depth

A number of readers have asked why there are so few photographs in my books. I’ll explain. But first, let me throw some napalm on the grill and say this: If it were up to me, there would be no photographs at all. I did get my way with a couple of my books, notably Lethal Passage and Isaac’s Storm, but eventually my publisher, editor, publicist, mailman, and dentist forced me to compromise. 

Fact is, I adore photographs as an art form; I love wandering around with my digital SLR camera, experimenting with lenses, settings, filters, and composition. (I took the photo above on Whidbey Island, WA, Jan. 8, 2012.) What I don’t like are photographs inserted in nonfiction books, especially books like mine that are meant to be read as if they were novels. Coffee-table books or medical texts, of course, are a different matter; the more photos, and the gorier, the better.

Otherwise, photographs distract readers from the business at hand, which is reading. They typically are grouped together in one or two sections called “signatures,” each having maybe half a dozen glossy white pages, with two or three photos per page. (The photos are invariably gray, washed out, and too small to provide much viewing satisfaction, but that’s a different complaint.) When reading a book so-equipped, the temptation is to flip to the signature every minute or so, and you can find it readily, because the paper is shiny; it gleams from the text like a lighthouse beacon.

When I write a book, my goal is to create as seamless a dream of the past as possible. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with “making it up,” but everything to do with mining the historical record for the most vivid, evocative details, and deploying these in such a way as to light a fire in the reader’s imagination. My ideal reader is someone who sits down to read one of my books, with a glass of bourbon or a cup of tea at hand, and allows himself or herself to fall into the past, without emerging until the book is done. Photographs obstruct this descent. They invite a reader to stop reading, take a break, go to bed, thereby always creating the possibility that our dear reader will never return. One of my favorite writers, the late John Gardner, author of Nickel Mountain and Grendel, once wrote that anything that distracts, be it overly showy writing, inept punctuation, even an unusual type font, is to be avoided, lest it impair the creation of this narrative dream.

It is also the case that historical photographs often don’t do justice to the moment at hand. For example, in Galveston, Texas, after the monster hurricane of 1900, surviving residents resorted to burning thousands of corpses in impromptu pyres throughout the city. In the course of my research for my book on the hurricane, Isaac’s Storm, I saw photographs of such pyres, but they failed to capture what surely was the reality of the moment—the scents, the sounds, the sheer horror of seeing a next-door neighbor hurled into the flames, all this amid the cloying heat of a Galveston summer day.  

Ultimately, I lost my battle to have no photographs at all, but my publisher and I reached what I consider to be a happy compromise, for the books that followed Isaac’s Storm. Instead of a glossy signature, I insert a small number of carefully chosen photographs into the text itself, at the start of each major section or “Part.” Thus readers come upon each photograph in the natural course of reading, and each photo does something to propel the narrative forward—perhaps raising a question, or imparting a mood. My favorite photograph in my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, is the one at the start of Part IV, which captures a woman sitting on a bench in the snow-covered Tiergarten in January 1934. There is something melancholy and threatening about that image that fits exactly the character of the scenes that follow.

What I want most is to create the kind of experience expressed by a woman in Chicago after she read my Devil in the White City. She got up during the question and answer period of one of my talks, and, her voice wobbling with emotion, declared, “When I finished reading your book, I didn’t want to come back.”


Interesting light, Whidbey Island, Jan. 18, 2012




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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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