Call Erik Larson's work journalism, or call it history.
Just don't call it "narrative nonfiction."
"I don't like typecasting," says Larson, the best-selling writer, based in Seattle, whose latest book deals with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the early 1930s, as told through the experiences of an American family living in Berlin.
"If you're going to tell about a historical event, and tell it in a way that is moving and rich," explained Larson, "you're going to get into the characters' lives. You're going to tell it in the way it really unfolded. You're going to tell it in chronological order, which is the most powerful tool ever invented."
And that is what he does in "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin," the September selection of The Buffalo News Book Club. The book, now available as a 400-plus-page paperback, occupied the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list and was named best nonfiction book of the year by many publications, among other honors.
But, Larson said, he remains perplexed as to why people have to label his work as "narrative" history, or "novelistic" nonfiction, or in similar ways.
For Larson, who is married and has three grown daughters, his work is not anything unusual. It's just good storytelling that happens to be about history.
Make no mistake: He appreciates the enthusiasm for his fifth book. (There is always a worry, for a writer like Larson, who notched a tremendous literary success with "The Devil in the White City," that subsequent books might not be as popular with the public.
Larson said his work is, in essence, simple: He chooses stories that are true-to-life and that speak to him and hold his interest; and he researches and writes about them with the same exacting rigor he learned as a reporter for such publications as Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
Journalism, Larson said, is not bad at all as preparation for history writing.
"I get that a lot from people - 'Oh, you must have made up the dialogue,' " he said. "They must not have read the author's note, which says anything in quotation marks was actually said by people.
"I supply the dots - and people connect them."
History, past and present
Larson majored in history as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he particularly enjoyed classes with a professor who was an expert in Russian history.
Then he stepped away from his love for history for a time - or so it seemed.
In 1979, he landed his first job at a newspaper, after having had his decision to enter the journalism field shaped by seeing "All the President's Men," the movie based on Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's book about the Watergate scandal.
"I thought, 'OK, this is what I've got to do,' " recalled Larson of those early days in his career. "I thought, I am going to apply to one journalism school, and if I get in - it's a sign."
He applied to one school. Columbia University.
"And I got in," he said. "And so it was a sign."
Larson worked first for a small Pennsylvania newspaper and then, after a few years, landed a job at the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper transferred him a couple of times, including to San Francisco, which is where he met his wife, on a blind date.
They have been married for 26 years. She is a doctor specializing in neonatology.
Larson left the newspaper, and he and his wife moved around a bit, to accommodate her job. He worked as a freelance writer, putting together long-form nonfiction pieces for magazines.
Finally, it hit him: He had to find a way to make his writing more practical and more satisfying.
"I was tired of living hand-to-mouth," Larson said. "So that's when I decided to do the first book."
The footnote did it
Larson, on the phone with The Buffalo News from Seattle, says he has been traveling to promote his newest book and working on his current project.
"On top of everything, I have a cold now!" he complains, in a mock-annoyed tone, after coughing a few times.
But back to his books. In doing them, Larson rediscovered his loves of history and of the real-life characters that populate the past. He has written about Marconi ("Thunderstruck") and the 1893 World's Fair ("The Devil in the White City"). The idea for the latter book - which became a surprise runaway best-seller - was something that Larson came across in a footnote when reading a history about the Chicago World's Fair.
"Reading is the key," Larson said. "You don't know when a book - even a single footnote - can spark your interest."
In "Garden of Beasts," Larson explores the Germany of 1933 and 1934, through the experiences of William E. Dodd, an American ambassador in Berlin, and his family members, particularly his young and lively daughter, Martha Dodd.
Larson said the idea to write about Germany and Nazism through the Dodds came to him when he read the diaries and letters of William and Martha Dodd, and realized how detailed and revealing they were, particularly about the mood and culture of the time in which they took place.
"I came across Dodd's diary, and it was really good," said Larson. "It caught my attention."
"Then when I read his daughter's diary - that's when it clicked."
Larson said his idea for the book was to bring to life a remote and seemingly foreign, opaque episode in world history, and to make such a time and place accessible to readers by giving them characters that are "people to hold hands with, throughout the work."
Mind you: William Dodd, Martha Dodd and the other Dodds - and other characters, American and otherwise, sprinkled throughout the book - are not perfect people. They make some bad decisions. They have sympathies and affections that, with the hindsight of 80 years, we might wish they did not have. For instance, Martha Dodd becomes involved with various Nazi and Russian men; she and her father express sentiments that, at times, strike our modern ears as anti-Semitic.
But Larson said his goal was not to make the Dodds and the others around them likable people.
His goal was to illuminate a chapter of the past - and to reveal the complicated ways that these real people behaved and thought, in a singularly difficult time.
"I've had audience members tell me they are annoyed Dodd and his daughter were so unlikable - as if that's my fault!" Larson said, and laughed a bit ruefully.
But there is a deeper lesson there, he said, about the ways that real people act in complex circumstances.
"If you start tailoring your material to what the audience wants - a hero, and so on - you are lost," said Larson. "I like nuance."