Our selection this week is In the Garden of Beasts By Erik Larson. This book tells the sotry of the american Dodd family, who lived in Berlin in the 1930’s and witnessed Hitler’s consolidation of power and the pre-war years of the Third Reich.
Larson specializes in non-fiction books that read like novels. For instance, Dead Wake told of the sinking of the Lusitania, while The Devil in the White City is about serial killer H.H. Holmes, who murdered women and children during the 1893 World’s Fair. Over the years Larson has given many interviews describing his process, which includes Oreos and coffee.
In this npr.org interview, Larson talks specifically about In the Garden of Beasts. Speaking of Martha Dodd, he says:
“One of the things that drew me to her as a character is she follows this very interesting personal arc — almost like the kind of thing you would expect from a novel,” Larson says. “That’s not to say it has the satisfying end you might get in a novel — like maybe she would start an underground operation and start shooting up Nazis; that didn’t happen — but she does come to a realization that this is not the benign revolution she had first thought.”
In this interview for readitforward.com, Larson talks about his research process and the importance of primary materials:
In the case of correspondence, even an envelope is important, because you never know what’s going to be on that envelope. Or on a calling card for instance. When I was researching In the Garden of Beasts, one of the first files I came across were letters and papers from Martha Dodd, the young woman who was the ambassador’s daughter. At first I just kind of passed over these cards—she had three files full of calling cards, which were literally calling cards to announce the fact that you had arrived to somebody’s house—and there were hundreds of cards in each of these files. At first, I went past them, but then thought, Wait a minute. I should go through these. So I went through them, piece-by-piece, and I got a lot of interesting stuff from those cards. One of the cards was from Nazi official Hermann Göring. So you’re holding his card, and it’s like, wait a minute. This was held by him, and also held by Martha Dodd. This card is—it’s electric.
He also says that the only book he’s written that really got to him was In the Garden of Beasts (he’s asked if he was terribly disturbed by writing The Devil in the White City)
I didn’t find anything disturbing. I mean, this sounds a little odd, ‘cause the guy was this weird serial killer who killed people, and dissolved them in acid baths in his hotel.
But to me it was just like, seriously? This is great stuff. You know, people ask me, “Well, did you ever have any sleepless nights after working on The Devil in the White City?” And I answer, “No. It was perpetual fascination.”
But I’m a trained journalist and I see things in two ways. I see the emotional power of something, and then I also realize that some things make great material, so it doesn’t cause me any sleepless nights. The only one that started to get into my head was In the Garden of Beasts, because of Hitler, and the Nazis. You read about that enough and it really drags you down.