Erik Larson on Writing Wartime Life During the London Blitz
The Author of The Splendid and The Vile Answers 5 Questions
Erik Larson’s The Splendid and The Vile, which recounts life in London during the WWII German bombing campaign of 1940 and ’41, and Winston Churchill’s handling of the Battle of Britain, is available now from Crown.
Lit Hub: You’ve obviously done extensive primary sourcing for this book, poring over diaries of the time. Did you read much fiction set during the Blitz, either of the time or reflecting back on the experience? The End of the Affair comes to mind…
Erik Larson: When I’m working on a book I generally avoid reading fictional accounts that describe the same events, because I don’t want false “facts” to skew my thinking. This is not a hard and fast rule, however. I recall that while researching my book The Devil in the White City, I read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and found it very helpful for getting a first-hand sense of 1890s Chicago—but then Dreiser had a unique reportorial style and laced his novel with real-life detail about the city as he personally experienced it.
LH: What do you think made it possible for Churchill to so fully unite the British people, aside from the obvious attack from without?
EL: His obvious courage and confidence, which rose from that mysterious thing we call character. He was ever aware of the power of symbolic action, of demonstrating courage and confidence at all times, even in small ways—visiting bombed-out cities as fires burned; rushing to the nearest rooftop to witness an air-raid in progress; striding through city streets as bombs fell. Even his refusal to call Hitler by his name was part of the picture. Churchill called him “that man,” or “that bad man,” a subtle way of diminishing him. And of course there were those speeches, the best of which took place in his first year as prime minister. He stirred the soul, but he was careful, too, to offer a sober analysis of Britain’s circumstances and to explain why he felt the empire would prevail. I argue that he taught the public the art of being fearless.
LH: What surprised you the most about the day-to-day details of life during the Blitz?
EL: I was surprised to see how well Londoners adapted to the certainty of nightly, or almost nightly, air raids—commuting to work with gas masks in hand; going to restaurants and dancing at jazz clubs even after dark; wearing small identity discs in case they got blown to bits; going to bed in their own bedrooms, and often staying there as raids unfolded. Popular myth holds that most of London flocked to underground tube stations, but in fact a relative few Londoners did so, preferring instead to stay in their homes and backyard shelters.
LH: Did you consider at any point writing a straight biography of John Colville, one of Churchill’s secretaries, and an unusually detailed diarist of the moment?
EL: No. While I adore Colville as a character, and feel great empathy for his travails with romance, he was in the end a secondary character who achieved a certain stature in history solely because he kept the best, most detailed diary of the era, a day-by-day account of how Churchill worked and played, with acute observations about all the advisors, ministers, and family members who populated Churchill’s first year in office.
LH: Most of your books—certainly the most recent—are concerned with events of two or three generations ago (at least). What contemporary geopolitical situations and/or world-historically significant events would you most like to get inside, in order to write about?
EL: I gave up writing about contemporary events a long time ago. I prefer dead people. However, if I were to lose my mind and decide to pursue such a topic, I’d try to find a way of telling in narrative fashion a saga involving climate change and the real-world impacts it’s clearly beginning to have. I do believe that climate is the big story of the first half of the 21st century, and that sometime soon there will be a climate-triggered event of global importance—a war, a disaster, a water crisis, a particularly vast hurricane, or a deadly heat spike. Cheery stuff, but something’s going to happen, possibly all of it.
I recommend a TV series on Netflix called Occupied, created by the thriller writer Jo Nesbo, which lays out a very credible scenario for climate-generated conflict between Russia and Norway. Also, I’m in love with the actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite, who plays the Russian ambassador.
Erik Larson’s The Splendid and The Vile is out now from Crown.