ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. The bestselling author Erik Larson writes books that weave together multiple plots based on actual events. His most successful books are Isaac's Storm, about the killer hurricane in Galveston, and The Devil in the White City, about the architect who built Chicago's World's Fair and the serial killer who preyed on women drawn to that city.
In his new book, Thunderstruck, Larson dives into the North London Cellar murder, a notorious crime just prior to World War I. Again it's a tale of two men: Harvey Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered doctor who murdered his wife, and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor who created the wireless telegraph - the device that helped capture Crippen as he fled.
Larson says the idea for Thunderstruck struck him quite by accident.
Mr. ERIK LARSON (Author, Thunderstruck): I set out to sort of look into the idea of maybe doing a book about wireless, and one thing led to another, wound up on a web site that was about Marconi. And in that web site I came across an entry about the killer in the book, Harvey Hawley Crippen. And I was really startled. I could not imagine what connection wireless would have with this murder. And I find what the connection is and I was absolutely transfixed. I was hooked.
NORRIS: And the connection was?
Mr. LARSON: The connection was this trans-Atlantic chase in which the killer is trying to flee Britain with his lover. Unbeknownst to him, the entire world is listening in thanks to wireless, even though he is completely unaware that he's being followed by a Scotland Yard detective on another ocean liner. I thought wow, this is just an amazing sort of confluence of invention and murder.
And what really drew me ultimately was the idea that, you know, this was a great way to look at the Edwardian era through a very different window than anybody's looked at it before.
NORRIS: And if it was a window, what did it allow you to see about life in that period of time before World War I?
Mr. LARSON: Oh, I just loved it. I mean it was so compelling to me. First of all, on the Marconi side, one of the things that was really striking in this period was how there was no such thing as invisible communication, this idea that you could send signals for hundreds of thousands of miles. And so when he first managed to do it, this was so novel that people actually thought it might actually be somewhat supernatural, that he might have tapped into that realm where ghosts lived. And this is a time, by the way, when even the most prominent physicists were members of the Society for Psychical Research. They were ghost hunters.
But I think what I found particularly charming was the insight this whole case gave into a middle-class Edwardian marriage. The middle class is something that we kind of lose sight of I think in looking at this historical era. There's Upstairs, Downstairs. There's Gosford Park. That kind of thing. But right there in the middle there was this very charming sense of how a routine marriage was led thanks to these very finely detailed Scotland Yard documents.
NORRIS: Many authors who write historical fiction rely on a sort of behind the scenes army of researchers and diggers who mine for all kinds of details. I understand that you prefer to do all the research yourself.
Mr. LARSON: I do. I do. I love the have tactile contact, if you will, with my sources. To me, that's half the fun. The research for this book took me many interesting places. I had to go to London, to Rome. I had to. Note my phrasing there.
NORRIS: I did note that.
Mr. LARSON: I had to go to Rome, Bologna, Munich and Nova Scotia. I mean, why -I guess I'm selfish. I mean why would I want to share those moments with a researcher? I just love it.
NORRIS: Is it important to actually see - is there something in holding the document? You described a sort of tactile experience in seeing the way someone filled out a form? Their penmanship. Something the little notes that maybe they took on the side of the page that provide you some sort of insight into that person?
Mr. LARSON: Very much so. I mean I think that it gives you confidence that this stuff really happened, when you're actually holding a form. Like when I was going through those Scotland Yard documents as a writer, as a guy who likes research, I felt that I had died and gone to heaven. I mean it was just an amazing experience. Seeing these actual live documents that were done, you know, police reports sort of tracking this monumental chase, you know, across the globe was just a thrill.
NORRIS: When you sit down to write is there a particular routine?
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, when I get to the writing part, when the research is starting to peter off and I'm starting to feel like, you know, I better start writing this or I'm going to go nuts, then I start. I get up very early in the morning, four o' clock, just start writing until about noon. And then I always make it a point - this is I think the key to my life. I always make it a point to stop in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph so that the next day I know exactly where I'm going to start and I know that the moment I start writing I will be productive.
NORRIS: So you stop mid-sentence but you know in your mind what the end of the sentence is? Or do you ...
Mr. LARSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. No, I know exactly where it's going and actually, you know, another benefit to that is that you stop in mid-sentence and for the rest of the day and throughout the next night your mind is not only completing that sentence quietly in a sort of subconscious realm, it's also adding the next sentence and the next and the next. I find it's just a tremendous tool.
NORRIS: When you're working on a story like this that was just so complex, has so many plot lines, what does your office or your writing space look like?
Mr. LARSON: Oh, you better ask my wife that question. It drives her nuts. And actually I have to tell you, I have to tell you that, you know, my previous book, The Devil in the White City, was a dual narrative also. And after that book I went storming around my house saying there is no way I'm going to do another dual narrative. It's too complex. It's too exhausting. It's like writing two books.
So fast forward, there I am doing another dual narrative. And at least this time around, though, I knew the physical tactic that I would have to have to finally put the book together. And that is there is no alternative; you have to lay the entire book down on your bedroom floor, or somewhere, and, you know, peel apart both narratives, lay them side by side and adjust them so that they fit perfectly, and that's the part that my wife particularly enjoys.
NORRIS: I think she would say, or somewhere. The bedroom floor or somewhere.
Mr. LARSON: Or somewhere.
NORRIS: Now before we let you go I have one last question. I heard that when you sit down to write that you also develop a soundtrack for your story.
Mr. LARSON: Yeah, what I like to do is, in particular when I'm reading passages back, I like to have a soundtrack in the background so that I can sort of enhance the mood and the feel as I'm reading it back, as if it were sort of a cinematic narration. I mean for example - gosh, I shouldn't confess any of this but, you know, when I was doing two books ago, Isaac's Storm, about a giant hurricane, the soundtrack was Titanic. And for The Devil in the White City it was The English Patient. And for this one it was a mix of several things, primarily though The English Patient, which I found very, very moving. I suppose I should pay rights to somebody but I'm not going to.
NORRIS: As long as you purchased it.
Mr. LARSON: I did. I did. I did not download it. I did.
NORRIS: Erik Larson, thanks so much.
Mr. LARSON: Thank you.
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NORRIS: Erik Larson is the author of Thunderstruck. You can hear him read from the book and see pictures of some of the characters at our web site, npr.org.