Skip Navigation

Best-selling author Erik Larson is on The Spark before York appearance

  • Scott LaMar
Erik Larson

Erik Larson

Airdate: March 15, 2023

New York Times best-selling author Erik Larson has written nine mostly non-fiction books about history that gives the reader the sense that they’re witnessing the scenes firsthand that he’s writing about. His books have been described as reading like fiction, even though they are about events that actually occurred.

A quote from a book review in the New York Times said “Mr. Larson occupies a rare niche of historical writers whose books seem to straddle the high and low end of the nonfiction market, reaching the masses but also attracting scholarly attention and landing in college and high school curriculums.”

On The Spark Wednesday, Erik Larson was asked if he has a specific audience in mind when he’s writing,”That specific audience is my wife. She’s an academic scientist, she’s a physician, but she’s an avid reader and she reads the kind of things that I like to read. And when I write, I have her specifically in mind, like she’s the reader who I’m going to try to lure into a subject that she might not otherwise have been particularly interested in. And if I can do that with her, then I think I can do that with a pretty broad swath of audience. That’s what I’m after as a broad, the broadest possible audience, not writing for scholars, but I’m also not going to write something that they’re not going to like. But it’s really for this broad audience that I can just sort of invite into my world for a really long story.”

How does Larson decide what to write about?”When I finish a book and I start looking for the next book, it takes me a long time. It takes me about a year, sampling ideas, thinking about things, testing ideas. It is not at all a natural process. There is no 3D printer that will help me just come up with some great new idea. I always have to, even if I have a subject in mind. Yeah, there are topics and then there ideas topics or,anybody can come by the topic. I had a guy come up to me once to say, you know, this year wasn’t this year like before the pandemic. This year is the 100th anniversary of the auto industry. You should write a book about that. And I was like, Well, okay, well, you know, what’s the story? So I really have to test my ideas. And I have I have certain criteria that that they have to meet. For example, if I, if I come up with an idea for something, it is something about the event or the period that I’m writing about has to have a natural narrative arc, a natural narrative engine that will draw readers along because of the inherently suspenseful nature of of the event. For example, the sinking of the Lusitania. Has to have that, which was another book that I’d done. It has to have that central narrative arc. It has to be something I’m interested in and I’m willing to spend four years on it. But it also has to have probably the most, most important thing, because this is this is what’s referred to as narrative history. You can’t make it up. You have to have you have to have the details that let you tell the story as if it were fiction. I use fictional techniques, but my books are completely nonfiction. But in order to be able to do that, you to have the fine grained material that lets you tell a story in a rich way telegrams, memoirs, diaries and so forth. So I evaluate the idea also to see how rich a reservoir and how deep of archival materials there is on the subject. And if all those things check off, then I do a book proposal. And by the end of the book proposal, I either pretty confident that I have a book or that it’s it’s not it’s not going to happen.”

Erik Larson will appear as part of the York County History Center’s Distinguished Speaker Series at the Appell Center for the Performing Arts in York on April 18. WITF’s Scott LaMar will be in conversation with Larson.

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Up Next
The Spark

Rasika School of Dance gets opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall and shares insight on the Indian dance culture