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May 8, 2012

Jana Riess on Meeting Erik Larson

Posted by editor

jana riess.jpgJana Riess, the author of FLUNKING SAINTHOOD and a longtime friend of, lives in Cincinnati and attended Erik Larson’s event this past Saturday afternoon at the Cincinnati Public Library. He is on tour for IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler's Berlin, which is just out in paperback. We asked her to share her thoughts on this event in the following Q&A. Have you read all of Larson's books? If not, which have you read and do you have a particular favorite?
Janna Riess: I had only read IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, and my husband (sitting next to me) had only read THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. Hearing Erik Larson speak made me want to read his other books as well. I think I’ll start with DEVIL. I’m also really interested in ISAAC’S STORM, which is a popular history of a devastating hurricane that hit Texas in 1900.
BRC: How large was the audience and what was the mix of people like? Can you share a few anecdotes from his talk?
JR: The librarian told my husband that they had set up 350 chairs, and it was a completely full house. I’d say that most of the people were middle-aged and older, with some younger people mixed in.
Since I’m an author, I’m generally fascinated to hear anecdotes about other writers’ early careers. One story Larson told was about a book signing he did years ago where the bookstore owner had baked some chocolate chip cookies, I guess to make the whole event seem more homey. After an hour and a half of sitting at the table and having shoppers show no interest – no one would meet his eye – a woman walked up enthusiastically to the signing table with a smile on her face. His spirits lifted and he thought, “Finally! Someone is going to buy a book!” And then she asked, “How much for the cookies?”
Another story was from a C-SPAN book event Larson did in Texas for ISAAC’S STORM, so I’m guessing this was over a decade ago. One of the questions came from his daughter Lauren, age 9, who was traveling with him as a special vacation. She asked, “Dad, do you make up stuff for your books?” She had read the book on the plane and had some doubts about its veracity. That story got a good laugh.
One other memorable story was about a signing he did in Cincinnati some years ago. By this time he was a very successful writer, and there were a lot of people in line for the signing. He said he always looks to see who is the last person in line because that is the person who wants to linger and ask him nutty questions. And she looked kind of intense and crazy. Sure enough, when she got to the table she leaned forward and whispered, “My husband is trying to kill me.” And he just took it in stride and replied, “Who would you like me to make this book out to?”
BRC: Were there any interesting questions from the audience?
JR: Some of the questions I didn’t quite understand because I hadn’t read any of his books besides IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS. One was about a documentary film in which someone had claimed that some human bones did not belong to the person Larson had claimed, a theory he said most reputable historians found preposterous. I’m sorry I don’t have more context on that; I’m not even sure which book they were discussing.
Someone else asked him which of his six books was his favorite, and issued the caveat that it wasn’t fair for him to answer the question with the likes of, “My books are like my children. I don’t have a favorite.” But then that was exactly how he answered the question --- they are all his favorites for different reasons, etc. He did admit in the end that IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS was probably his favorite right now, but that may be because he tends to like the most recent book best.
BRC: Were there any hints as to what he is working on now?
JR: No, he completely shut that question down. He said he does not discuss future projects until they’re finished. However, he did concede that the New York Times had just leaked this info last month and that we could find out the basic parameters of the next project if we Googled it. (He also asked for us to wait until we got home to look it up on our smart phones!) So here is what the Times said on April 13:
Just as the publishing industry has finished marking the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking with dozens of related books, at least one publisher is looking ahead to another anniversary: the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat during World War I. Crown Publishers, part of Random House, said on Friday that it had acquired a nonfiction book by Erik Larson, the author of “The Devil in the White City,” that will “offer a fresh take” on the sinking.
The attack, on May 7, 1915, killed nearly 1,200 people, including more than 100 Americans. It fueled anti-German sentiment in the United States, although America did not enter the war for another two years. The book, tentatively titled “Sea of Secrets,” will be published in 2015. Mr. Larson’s latest book,“In the Garden of Beasts,” was released in May 2011 and has sold more than 900,000 copies.
I am excited to see how this book on the Lusitania turns out. He discussed one of his favorite works ofpopular history, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, a classic narrative about the sinking of the Titanic. So I can see why he would be interested in this other sinking just three years later, especially since it was a major factor in turning the tide of U.S sentiment toward changing its isolationist stance and entering the war. I’m sure he’ll do a masterful job with it.