Fascinating History: Erik Larson's Page-Turning Nonfiction

Whether or not you’re familiar with the term creative nonfiction (also known as narrative or literary nonfiction), you’re likely a fan of the genre if you enjoy gripping and suspenseful nonfiction that reads like a novel. One of the best-selling authors in the genre, Erik Larson, is currently on tour for his recently published book - Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. And thanks to Fairfax County Public Library and Fall for the Book, hundreds of excited fans had the opportunity to hear him speak on Friday, March 20 at Northern Virginia Community College’s Ernst Theater.

While his books are gritty, delving into dark and even sinister historical events, Larson was quick with a joke. That, along with his personal stories, certainly helped lighten the mood from the death and destruction that is the focus of Dead Wake. One particularly hilarious anecdote involved his daughter. Years ago, when he was speaking at a large book festival in Texas, his young daughter raised her hand during the Q&A. Dubious, but game, Larson called on her, and she asked him how much of the book he made up!
Larson also gave insight into his writing process, discussing how he comes up with ideas and decides which real historical characters will come to life in his books. We learned much of this is determined by the archival materials available. Each book idea goes through a very thorough vetting and research process to insure he can provide the type of details that, as he says, sparks his readers’ imaginations.

Larson is best known for The Devil in the White City. This compelling history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair follows the lives of two men, the exhibition’s architect Daniel H. Burnham and serial killer Herman Mudgett. But Larson's books span a variety of topics. Isaac’s Storm is a disturbing account of the brutal and deadly 1900 Galveston Hurricane, and In the Garden of Beasts recounts the experiences of the American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, as the Nazis rise to power before World War 2.  

Erik Larson is by no means the only narrative nonfiction author. Try one of these titles the next time you want to read a page-turning history book: 

Columbus: The Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen 

The Great Influenza by John Barry 

Lost City of Z by David Grann 

Lost in Shangri La by Mitchell Zuckoff 

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt  

 --Rebecca Molineaux, George Mason Regional Library

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