Author Erik Larson Answers Questions About In the Garden of Beasts

October 31, 2012 | By | Comments (3)

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts

Hi, Bookies:

While the Real Simple offices in midtown Manhattan were totally spared damage from Hurricane Sandy, we know that many of our readers have suffered losses and hardships from the storm, and our thoughts go out to them. One thing that did brighten a gray day: a note back with Erik Larson’s answers to our questions about his nonfiction best-seller In the Garden of Beasts. And as fascinating as that book was, so are his replies. See for yourself.

From reader Chris Himmelwright: How long did it take you to research this book? And what was your motivation to write about this period and these characters?

It’s always hard to say precisely how long the research phase takes, because it’s always hard to pinpoint an exact start and end date. Having said that, I’d estimate three-ish years. But during the last year I was also starting to write.

As to my motivation: Curiosity, pure and simple. I’d been looking for a good book idea and kept coming up dry, when one day just to jump-start my thinking I went to a bookstore near my home and wandered through its history section to see what was new, what interested me, what jackets excited me or bored me. I came across a book I’d always meant to read, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. So, with nothing else on my plate, I took it home and soon found myself enthralled. I was about a third of the way through when I had a minor epiphany: I realized Shirer had actually been there in Berlin and had met all these evil people in the flesh, even socialized with them, but—and this is where my imagination caught fire—he did so at a time when no one knew the ending. I suddenly wondered what that would have been like, to be in Berlin in that first year of Hitler’s rule, without benefit of the hindsight we all now have. So, I started looking for the right real-life characters whose experiences would let me best capture a sense of that time.

From reader Georgia C. George: Were Dodd’s manner and his quiet habits why no one listened to him?

No, I don’t think so. There were other reasons. For example, there was a widespread sense that Hitler simply could not last; that he wasn’t worth worrying about. At the same time, there were many who thought Hitler might be just the thing for Germany. But above all, no one wanted another war. The “Great War” had been such a wrenching horror that the world was willing to overlook Hitler’s rather obvious campaign to rearm Germany—a kind of willful ignorance. Finally, the top men in the State Department did not like Dodd and were thus inclined to dismiss both him and his warnings.

From reader Alex Green: Was Martha’s behavior typical of privileged young women of the time?

I wouldn’t call it typical, although in the world of writers and artists in that period her behavior would not have seemed extraordinary—and that was the world she wanted to be a part of, or at least be perceived to be a part of. It’s interesting—young women who read my book seem to really like Martha, and see her as someone who was at the forefront of feminism, while readers at the opposite end of the age spectrum tend to dismiss her as a libertine, although the terms they use are rather more colorful.

From discussion leader Maggie Shi: We hear very little about Mrs. Dodd and Bill in the story. While I understand that you wanted to keep the narrative focused on Dodd and Martha, what were Mom and son like? Did you have access to a lot of their writing?

I did want to focus on Martha and her father, for the sake of narrative structure, and because as the father of three daughters I have a personal interest in father-daughter relationships. But there’s a more practical reason for why Mrs. Dodd and Bill are such shadowy figures: There just isn’t much material available on either. Or at least, not enough to allow me to bring them to life. Martha and her father, meanwhile, left vast troves of writings, letters, and personal miscellanea—in Martha’s case, 70 linear feet of documents in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.

From deputy editor Maura Fritz: Do you think the American government did the right thing in choosing to send Dodd to Berlin in place of a professional diplomat?

As a matter of fact, I do. I think Dodd was the right man for the job at that particular time. I don’t think a traditional diplomat could have done any better. Dodd did exactly what Roosevelt wanted him to do. He provided a standing model of American liberal values, in the face of Nazi violence and excess. Maybe Dodd took that mandate a bit far, as when he brought his beat-up old Chevy to Berlin, but my feeling is that any man who ended up being despised by the Nazis, to the point he was mocked on his deathbed by a Nazi newspaper, must have done something right.