In some ways, Erik Larson is as much historian and detective as writer. The New York Times-bestselling author writes nonfiction accounts of events or milieus through the experiences of individuals. Using sources like archival materials, news clippings and transcripts of conversations, he painstakingly reconstructs events as they were experienced by the people who lived through them. His latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, chronicles the sinking of a British ocean liner by a German submarine in 1915. The event killed hundreds of people and is sometimes credited with helping draw the U.S. into World War I.
Larson will speak at the Jewish Community Center of New Orleans Tuesday, April 12, in an appearance sponsored by Octavia Books. Tickets are required and can be purchased at the Octavia Books store or online. He spoke with Gambit in advance of the event about history, his research process and sinking ships.
As shipwrecks go, the Lusitania can sometimes seem overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic. Why do you think that is?
Larson: I wondered about that. I think part of it is the way that writers in the past have treated the Lusitania as if it were an element in a geopolitical dispute, rather than as a human drama, and I think also that the Lusitania is a mark on a timeline that leads to something else-like World War I is the big show, and the Lusitania is sort of a side act.
But it really makes no sense, because frankly (to me) the Lusitania is a much more interesting story, because [its sinking] was a deliberate act.
You're famous for writing lively, meticulously researched accounts of historic events. Can you talk about some of the tools you use to investigate and fact-check these stories?
Larson: I love going into archives, physically going into the place where the materials are stored I think there is no substitute for doing that, even today. Even though a lot of things end up online, you can’t go entirely with what’s online because you’re going to miss things. You’re going to miss bits and pieces of things that you’re going to find if you go to an archive…like something that’s jotted on an envelope, or some little throwaway thing in a margin.
[In regards to fact-checking], doing historical research is a whole lot more precarious than doing contemporary research, because [with contemporary research] you can always pick up a phone and call somebody, then call somebody else and see what they say, and come to a consensus on that level. The problem with some historical stuff is you need to spread your net wide enough so that you know what is considered to be valid material and what is not, especially in the case of something like the Lusitania, where there were a couple of books in the past that had absolutely specious stuff in them. And if you didn’t know that, then you might have a problem. I relied on a guy who is like, the reigning Lusitania minutia expert, and he was kind of my backstop on things,
In researching this book, did you come upon any tips for surviving if you're on a sinking ship?
Larson: Always try on your life jacket. That’s a good lesson for life: always try on your lifejacket, seriously. I took a voyage on the [transatlantic ship] Queen Mary 2, and they make you put on your life jacket before the ship even leaves the dock, it’s so important. To make sure you know how to put it on, you need that sort of muscle memory. It’s only one time, but if you try it on for the first time in the midst of a serious emergency, you might have some surprises.
[Aboard] the Queen Mary 2, when they muster you - and you’re supposed to wear your outer clothes, because that will help you in terms of hypothermia - you have to put on your life jacket and snug it tight. It gets your attention. You suddenly become very aware that wow, yeah, this could be the difference between life and death.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.