Alternative Biography

To begin with, I was born in Brooklyn. Like half the planet. Birthdate: Jan. 3, 1954. I spent a couple of years in Brooklyn, but have really only one clear recollection—of being bitten by my upstairs friend/neighbor, John H—. I lived briefly in Central Islip and Massapequa, but mostly grew up in Freeport, Long Island, a suburb of New York City, and had three main pursuits: climbing tall trees, riding my bike to the far reaches of the island (typically without my parents’ knowledge), and body-surfing at Jones Beach. At first I wanted to be a New Yorker cartoonist. For a year or so during my junior-high years I sent my work to the magazine. I seem to recall my cartoons being returned within 24 hours, though surely that can’t be the case. Next I wrote a novel. It was 75 pages long and had a sex scene, even though I had no idea what sex was. I loved it when I got to stay home from school for a cold or some other illness. Yes, once I feigned being ill by putting the thermometer under the hot-water faucet. When I think about it now I’m pretty sure my mother guessed, because a 112-degree F temperature is pretty high. When I did get to stay home from school I read the Dumas brothers and drew things. I drew for hours and hours on end. I did have a high-school girlfriend, Michelle G—, who in fact shaped my destiny. It was because of her that I went to the University of Pennsylvania. She dumped me two weeks later. This was hard. I recovered. She undumped me. We dated another six months. Then she dumped me again. But I was happy. I studied Russian, learned to drink vodka from a real Russian prince, fought acne by wearing underwear on my head to keep the hair off my face, and graduated summa cum laude. My first job was in New York as an editorial assistant, meaning gopher, for a publisher in New York. On the way to my interview I stopped in Penn Station to use the men’s room. When I flushed the john, a plume of blue water sprayed out onto my white shirt. I got the job anyway, a pity hire, clearly. But I enjoyed the work. Two editors fought over me, not because I was particuarly talented or good looking, but because they hated each other and had offices with big glass windows that faced each other across a narrow corridor, which only amplified their hatred. I became their pawn. Each would sit me down in front of the big glass window and try to be charming, so that the other saw and suspected that gossip was being traded. This was hard until I caught on. Then it became fun, and again I was happy. I saw All the President’s Men, and again my life was changed. I went to journalism grad school at Columbia University. On one of my first assignments I was standing under the West Side Highway when a pigeon, or possibly a large goose, crapped down the face of my new London Fog raincoat. I didn’t know it until I began conducting man-on-the-street interviews and one of my subjects kindly pointed out that I stunk like hell and should go look at myself in a fucking mirror. On graduation day former-mayor John Lindsay was sitting in the row behind my family. At the conclusion of the ceremony, my mother stood up and told him he was the handsomest man she had ever met. This was embarrassing. My first journalism job was for the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pa., a great spot to start my career. One day they passed me over for a promotion I dearly wanted and hired a new guy instead. I immediately shipped my resume to newspapers all over the planet and got hired by the Wall Street Journal. The job changed my life and shaped my future in ways I cannot even begin to describe. I tried as much as possible to avoid the main mission of the journal, which was to write business news, and concentrated instead on feature stories for Page One. My favorite: A story on video-dating that caused Bob Woodward to launch an investigation of me. So there WAS something that Nixon and I had in common. I hit it off so well with one of my video women that we ended up dating for about nine months. In the story I called her Emily; after it ran I received maybe 500 letters, including at least one marriage proposal. I also got a call from a female reporter for the Washington Post who told me that Woodward didn’t believe the dating story and its result. This struck me as very funny, given that the Post had only recently won a Pulitzer for a story that had been fabricated from the ground up. However, I arranged a clandestine conversation between the reporter and “Emily.” I never heard from the Post again, at least not in that capacity. At some point I grew tired of writing journalism. One day the managing editor summoned me to New York, to a breakfast at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, where I knew he planned to offer me a job as bureau chief in one of the paper’s key bureaus. I told him no. Soon afterward, I got married—blind date, of all things—and my wife and I moved to Baltimore, where I wrote a couple of unpublished novels, did some respectable free-lance pieces, helped raise some babies, and wrote my first book, The Naked Consumer, about how companies spied on individual consumers. I loved that book. No one else did. This was hard, but I was happy. One thing led to another and now I’ve got seven books under my belt, with an eighth on the way. I live in Manhattan with my blind-date wife; we have three daughters, all of whom are gainfully employed. I love to cook and play tennis—not simultaneously, though that would be interesting. I drink too much red wine; I like martinis and humor dry; I think Airplane is the finest comedy ever made; and I have a passion for dark, gloomy Scandinavian detective stories. As a friend once said, “The Scandinavians really know how to kill people.”

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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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