Erik Larson nervously awaits reaction to 'In the Garden of Beasts'

May 23 2011 - 3:02pm

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Seattle Times
Author Erik Larson’s new book “In the Garden of Beasts” follows an American family on its sojourn to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power.
Seattle Times
Author Erik Larson’s new book “In the Garden of Beasts” follows an American family on its sojourn to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power.

SEATTLE -- The weeks leading up to a book's publication can be hard on an author. Will the books get to the booksellers? Will the cover come out right-side-up? Will people buy it? Will they read it? Will they like it?

Erik Larson is as well-known and well-read as any Seattle author -- his 2003 book "The Devil in the White City," the story of a serial murderer who preyed on the margins of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, was one of the more successful nonfiction books of the late 20th century (2 million copies sold). Leonardo DiCaprio is the latest in a line of Hollywood luminaries to option "Devil" for a possible movie -- DiCaprio wants to play H.H. Holmes, the killer.

But Larson is not immune from opening-night jitters: Earlier this year, he wrote on his blog (eriklarsonbooks.com) about what it's like to wait for his new book, "In the Garden of Beasts" (Crown, 450 pages, $26), to come out:

"We look for signs that our books will fly off the shelves and be loved by readers everywhere." ... When the book arrives it's "a terrifying moment, in a way. It's my baby, and I need to make sure it has all its fingers and toes. Is my name spelled correctly? Is there some obvious flaw?"

"In the Garden of Beasts" recently landed in bookstores. It's the true-life story of the Dodds, an American family that lived through a nightmare time in Nazi Germany during the years 1933-34. Over a soothing cup of tea in his home -- and later via email -- Larson answered questions about how he became enmeshed in the subject of Nazi Germany during those pivotal years:

Q: Did you want to write about the Dodds, or the period they lived through? How did you find them?

A: It was five, six years ago. I was hard up for an idea -- I'm always hard up for an idea, until I get one. I was browsing the history section at the Barnes & Noble. I bought "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer with some trepidation -- it is quite long (1,264 pages). Shirer was in Berlin in the 1930s as a radio correspondent. Reading and realizing that he'd been there, I thought: What would it have been like to go to a party and meet (Nazi leader Hermann) Goering?

Then I came across William E. Dodd's diary at Suzzallo Library (at the University of Washington). I found Martha's (Dodd's daughter) memoir, and Bella Fromm's (a Jewish journalist who eventually fled Germany). I wondered: How does a culture slip its moorings, to go from the freewheeling Weimar culture to this dark, claustrophobic regime? Why did it take so long for people to take on Hitler?

Q: What drew you to Dodd, a University of Chicago historian who wound up as the American ambassador to Nazi Germany?

A: I liked the fact that Dodd was a completely unlikely candidate for his position. ... He wanted this cush job so he could write his damned book. He wanted to free himself from the demands of academia. I sensed his pain.

Q: What did you make of Martha, Dodd's flirtatious and promiscuous adult daughter, who had affairs with Carl Sandburg, a French diplomat, the head of the Gestapo and a first secretary of the Soviet Embassy -- among others?

A: She was very complicated -- she's obviously a very sexual being. She went wild. She loved the power she had over men. Initially, Martha was utterly enthralled by the Nazis. I liked the fact that she had a very satisfying arc (from inflation with the Nazis to disgust). I found her a very difficult character to write about. She seemed so insouciant, and at the same time, very smart.

Q: You've said that part of your interest in this time stems from your concern with civil liberties in our own country. Can you elaborate?

A: My sole reason for writing this book was to answer the question, what would it have been like to have lived in Berlin during that first year of Hitler's rule. ... I saw it as kind of a horror story, or very dark Grimm Brothers fairy tale -- two innocents go into the dark wood and lose their way. Or something like the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" movie, where the town physician returns to find everything changed, albeit in subtle ways.

But part of the context in which I conceived the idea was my concern about what seemed to me to be a drift away from such bedrock civics-course liberties as the right to confront one's accuser, the right to a speedy trial and so forth. I wasn't deeply worried, just vaguely unsettled by it all.

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