I arrived at Erik Larson’s author event the other night to be ushered into a small overflow room with a TV viewer. There were about 250 people total in the audiences; I did not know Larson was so popular. I came to hear him talk about his latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, which is the true story of William Dodd, the first U.S. ambassador to Germany after the Nazis took control (apparently nobody else wanted the job).
Larson was inspired to write his book after reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer—a thick nonfiction narrative that he said reads like a thriller. He also knew that most people, including himself, thought they knew plenty about Nazi Germany, yet he found so much more in the little details discovered in his readings. Larson is known for doing extensive research and in this case read numerous memoirs set prior and during WWII in Germany. He read Dodd’s memoir, based on his diary and written by Dodd’s wild child daughter, Martha. Larson found his story line in Martha, who had affairs with diplomats and dashing German officers. “She is the one transformed in the story, as every story must have transformation.” This book covers the difficult topic of why the Jews were mostly abandoned by the rest of the world, including the U.S., and how Hitler’s “pathology” could last and even spread.
In the Garden of Beasts, which I bought and perused, includes a lot of dialog that is actually direct quotes from source materials. Larson has melded his source documents into a story that remains nonfiction but reads almost like fiction, further confirmed by a number of Amazon reviews. I’m sure William Shirer would approve. The book ends with an epilogue summarizing Martha’s life (she died in 1990), a long list of sources, and a proper index. And how nice the publisher thought to include a 1933 map of Berlin.
I’m looking forward to reading In the Garden of Beasts. Larson told a number of ironic stories about details he found in his research, including Hitler saying in surprise that there was a “sea of meaness” in the people of Germany. Larson was also astonished that there was no uprising against Hitler who was viewed by plenty of people, including foreign diplomats, as crazy. I will be comparing Beasts to Laughter Wasn’t Rationed, a civilian memoir I read last fall that opened my eyes to life under the Nazi regime as well as survival through WWII Germany.
I wish I had read something like Larson’s work while writing my mother’s story of her youth in the years around WWII Japan. Ghostwriting someone else’s story is tough, because it is their story in their words—not yours. But, to produce a memoir that appeals to the public, it is necessary to find that transformation to focus on, as Larson mentions; memoir is not so different from fiction in that sense. It certainly helps, too, to make the writing flow like fiction. Another important tip is to include history and place in a memoir, to let readers more fully experience the story, to be “in the story,” which is Larson’s goal in his historical narrative books. While I did eventually realize these important aspects of memoir, especially including more historical details, it would have been nice to start out in-the-know.
PS If Erik Larson comes to your town for an author event, go! He’s a great speaker, funny and full of interesting historical tidbits from his research. Check out his earlier books, too.
PSS Film rights to The Devil in the White City were bought by Leonardo di Caprio, so perhaps we’ll see the old Chicago World’s Fair (and its serial killer) on the big screen.
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”