Erik Larson

From the October 2007 DePaulia

Erik Larson is seemingly a household name in Chicago after his book, The Devil in the White City, captivated the city’s attention as it followed the true stories of Daniel Burnham and the 1893 World’s Fair in Jackson Park, contrasted with brilliantly evil murderer H.H. Holmes.

He will be back in Chicago at DePaul’s Loop Campus Bookstore, Oct. 12, to sign copies of his latest book, Thunderstuck. It describes the Burnham-esque perseverance of Guglielmo Marconi and his all but impossible dream of wireless communication across the Atlantic – just in time to catch Hawley Crippen as he makes a dash for America with his lover on an ocean liner after killing his wife. The Seattle-native Larson spoke with The DePaulia about feeling sorry for a murderer, Chicago, and how there might be corrupt politicians in the city.

Are you somewhat sympathetic toward Crippen?

It’s hard not to feel sympathetic for him. But then you have to remember this guy hacked his wife to bits. He didn’t have to do it, he could have left or he could have gone through the long arduous deal of divorce. I feel a certain sympathy for the guy, just as I feel kind of the opposite for Marconi. He apparently had amazing personal charm but he didn’t treat the women in his life terribly well. I’ve had people routinely come up to me and say they liked Crippen a lot more than they liked Marconi. One guy said to me, ‘To tell you the truth, I would have killed her a whole lot sooner.’ (Laughs) That is not a sentiment I want to encourage, but it does speak to the idea.

Is there something about the turn of the 20th century that intrigues you?

I do really like that period. But I did not set out to do a book in the so called Gilded Age. I was looking to do a book anywhere. There is something about that period that is very likely to generate good ideas because of the character of the time. The thing that really characterizes the Gilded Age is the sense of hubris and ambition that people had. They were willing to think, contrary to today, really, really big and attempt things that had no business attempting, like in The Devil in the White City, building the World’s Fair in a year and a half is nuts.

Same thing with Marconi. The guy is trying to send a signal across the Atlantic Ocean at a time when the top physicists said it couldn’t be done; it violated the laws of optics. Yet Marconi had this instinctive sense that he could do it, and he did it. That’s the kind of thing that I think was pretty common around the Gilded Age. It was the last time that people could really focus on doing the impossible and had a shot at achieving it.

You can’t help but marvel at the age. In The Devil in the White City, with Ferris and the Ferris wheel, how nuts is that? He’s building this massive, massive thing and he knew he could do it. They didn’t temper them with practical or ideological concerns. ‘This is what is best for the nation or Chicago, and this is what we’re going to do.’ Today we’d be selling the name of the Ferris wheel to Chicago Trust or whatever it is.

Did you imagine The Devil in the White City could end up being so big?

No I did not, in fact, absolutely opposite. When I had to finish the final draft and turn it in, I was in a state of despair. Here I was with this non-fiction book about these two elements, the fair and the killer and I was acutely aware that the stories don’t really touch. I thought this was the end of my career, I’m going to be raked over the coals by critics coast to coast, ‘they mish-mosh, the two stories don’t go together, what the hell is wrong with this guy?’ It was with a great deal of anxiety that I awaited the publication of the book and it was completely gratifying to see the response.

I really got the first inkling was when I gave my first Chicago talk. It was at the University of Chicago adjacent to the Midway and the place was packed. I’d never had a book talk that full of people. What doubly intrigued me was there were three or four homicide cops there from the Chicago Police Department. At almost every talk through the Midwest there was almost always a cop who loved the history and the story of this case, especially in Chicago.

My favorite moment in that talk was when this one guy got up during the question and answer and says, ‘I got one question, Chicago got the World’s Fair when New York was competing, Washington was competing, but Chicago got it. Who put in the fix?’ Which is a uniquely Chicago question. He was one of the alderman, and I was like, ‘Oh man, this is too good.’ (Laughs). It just got better from there. I think I owe a lot to Chicago and Chicagoans. I was really surprised by Chicago and its history. I would never imagine that a city that large could be so passionate about its history. Have you been to Graceland Cemetery yet?

No and I’ve been dying to get out there.

Dying is the word. (Laughs) That’s where the whole thing came together for me, and it was at the very end of the research process. Because of the weirdness of the whole thing, there’s always this question in the back of your mind, did this really happen? Is this some monumental hoax from the Art Institute and the Chicago Historical Society could trick me into writing this? Of course it’s not. It came together for me where all the principles were buried close together. It’s like a nuclear bomb went off when they were in their roles and positioned in ways that suggest what they were like in life.

It was fun getting to know Chicago because I hadn’t known much about the city until I started the book.