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Heroes and Villains 

Erik Larson's books capture history's shadows

Erik Larson wrote one of my—and my mom's—favorite books of the 21st century. Written in 2003, Devil in the White City is actually about the close of the 19th century, a compelling (true) story about the creativity and civic power that was plowed into rebuilding Chicago for the 1893 World Fair after a massive fire consumed most of the city. The book also pokes around the dark shadows, putting together the sordid tale of a prolific murderer preying on World Fair attendees and boiling down their corpses to resell as skeletons to medical schools.

Larson's latest book, In The Garden of Beasts, also a #1 New York Times bestseller, picks apart the horrifying stories of America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany.

One of the strongest historical nonfiction writers in, well, history, Larson wraps up the Deschutes Public Library Author! Author! Series. Thursday, 7 pm, Bend High School Auditorium, $20-$75.

I hope that this question comes out correctly. You are one of the writers who my mom and I bond over, Ever since Devil in The White City. Do you find you have an intergenerational appeal, or is my family just oddballs?

I actually I do. Whenever I do talks, I do see a lot young'uns out there, not just who are believed to be your standard book readers—middle-age women. That's encouraging.

My mom wanted me to ask this question, which I imagine you get all the time: Are you a writer or a historian?

More a writer. I do not consider myself to be a historian. I just happen to write history. My goal is not necessarily to inform or convey a body of information. What draws me to history is the narrative potential.

I have to tell you my mom was very excited when I said I was interviewing you. She gave me a couple questions: First, she wanted you know that she feels guilty tension when she reads your books, in that you write very compelling page-turners, but they also are very detailed, and she feels bad skimming over the details to get to the who-done-it.

Well, tell her not to feel bad. But, in my view, it is the details that make the story come alive. I think that when you have the right bits of detail stung together, the story comes alive in reader's mind. Tell you mother.

Is that like "word to your mother"?

(Laughs) Tell her she needs to read Isaac Storm. It is my wife's favorite.

Last question from my mom: She was really interested in whether you ever considered being a fiction writer?

You know, I think every writer—newspaper, magazine, otherwise—thinks they will take on a novel. I'm not writing that off, but this narrative nonfiction satisfies a lot in me. It satisfies my detective instincts. I love hunting things down, hunting down things no one else found. I also really love taking that information and reassembling it in chronological order so that people can experience it in the way people who lived through it experienced it.

It may be as simple as I don't have the imagination to write a novel. I'd also have to visit bad things on my characters (in a novel), and I'm not sure I have that sensibility with my own imagination

Do you feel constrained or inspired by facts?

Facts: I don't feel at all constrained by the facts. Taking the existing body of facts and using it as artistically as I can. In Devil in the White City, I wanted to capture a sense of opulence of the time. Instead of writing what people had for dinner, I just presented the menus.

Certainly in Devil in the White City, and to perhaps a lesser degree, but still prevalent in Thunderstruck, there is a tension between men being absolutely elegant and inventive, and then men being utterly cruel, albeit often in very clever ways.

It's not like I seek them out, but I'm drawn to the tension. Paradoxically, I liked Hawley Harvey Crippin (in Thunderstuck), but he's a killer. And Marconi (a pioneer in transmitting radio): I liked him less and less, for how he treated his wife. It was such a strange juxtaposition: At the end of the book, Crippin is a very decent guy, but Marconi is rotten. You can't jump up and down and say I'm going to hammer this. I just have to present it. I'm not provoking, this is the way these characters are.

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