How a Non-Fiction Writer Finds His Next Subject
Erik Larson on Escaping the "Dark Country of No Ideas"
The most difficult part of my writing life begins the moment one of my books is launched. I am not talking here about the angst that arises while waiting for the first reviews to get published, though that is indeed a time of significant anxiety. No, the hard thing for me is beginning the search for my next book. Why this is such a struggle for me, I have no clue. You would think it would be the most pleasant of times, to be between books, sitting in the sun with bees flitting to and fro in my Seattle yard, sipping a cup of tea with a notebook open in my lap, periodically jolting forward to write down my latest bit of brilliance until I have filled an entire page with ideas that I cannot wait to explore, a satisfied life-is-good grin on my face.
When I am between books, however, that is not how my day goes. My day is darker. The bees are yellow jackets. I become snappish, pissy, annoying to be around.
A friend has coined a phrase to describe when I am in this phase of my work. She says it is when I am in “the dark country of no ideas.” For whatever reason, when I finish a book, I never have a backlog of ideas waiting for me. I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could open one of my old notebooks and find half a dozen winning ideas just sitting there, waiting for me, as seems to be the case for some of my writer friends. They walk around like drinking fountains, burbling with ideas, so many ideas that they moan about not having enough time in their lives to be able to do them all, and oh how they wish they could write two books at once, or even three. I am envious of these people, these founts of creative energy and enterprise. “You are so lucky,” I say, when what I mean to say is “If you tell me this once more, I will stab you in the throat.” I admit, there is pathology here.
What happens, I suspect, is that with each new book my thinking evolves, or maybe I even mature a bit intellectually, so that what once seemed compelling no longer does. For example, after I wrote Isaac’s Storm, about a giant hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston in 1900, I quickly found that I had no interest in writing about other kinds of natural disasters. I realized this most acutely after the book emerged, when I spent a day in San Francisco looking through archival materials on the great earthquake of 1906, thinking it might make a good book. What I found, however, was that much of what I was reading had a strikingly similar feel to things I had read in my research about the Galveston storm, as if a cunning archivist had taken the same letters and diaries and substituted the word earthquake for hurricane. I felt only ennui. Plus, there was a fundamental narrative obstacle: the 1906 earthquake arrived with no preamble, which meant there would be no opportunity to build suspense and momentum. A book about an earthquake is by its nature all denouement, no foreshadowing.
So now storms and earthquakes as topics are off my plate forever. Though anytime I make a broad statement like that, I am almost invariably forced to retract it. Now, with Dead Wake safely published, maritime tragedies are also off my plate. I am not interested in ferry capsizings or ammunition ships blowing up in harbors, and no, not in the ruptured boilers of the riverboat Sultana, which exploded in 1865 and yielded America’s worst-ever maritime disaster, killing 1,800 passengers, mostly young men returning home at the end of the Civil War. No, I am not interested. Well, maybe just a wee bit in that last one, but otherwise no. Zip. Nyet. Finito.
Sometimes when I am searching for a next idea, I will, out of desperation, resort to browsing the stacks of my favorite library, the Suzzallo and Allen Libraries at the University of Washington in Seattle, just picking out books at will. The best territory for these wanderings is the 900 level of the Dewey decimal system, where the older history books dwell, with their pleasant scent of dust and old glue and, by inference, dead horses. I wander from shelf to shelf in hopes that some random title will ignite in me a new flare of thought. This is fun but pointless. It has never yielded an idea. It does, however, give me a place to go so that I can at least feel productive, while my fountainy friends engage in what I imagine to be a daily act of glee-filled triage, dividing their time among multiple ideas, pausing a moment to light a candle in thanks for the fact they do not have to suffer like their poor, barren friend Erik.
The problem is, only certain ideas lend themselves to the kind of historical writing I like to do. For me a winning idea has to meet four criteria:
–First, of course, the subject at hand has to be interesting to me—interesting enough to occupy me for about four years of my life.
–Second, it has to have a built-in narrative arc or engine, meaning there has to be something about the subject that will drive the story along and compel readers to keep reading.
–Third, it has to be supported by a deep, rich base of archival materials, such as telegrams, letters, testimony, and the like, because in writing this kind of history you have to have as rich a palette of real, true material as possible. You can’t fake it.
–Fourth, the idea should be complex enough to allow me to proceed with a reasonable assurance that no one else is doing the same book. It needs what business folk refer to as “barriers to entry.” This may sound un-American, but I hate competition.
As to that fourth criterion, the Lusitania posed some problems, until I did a little preliminary research and realized I might be able to bring something new to the body of work already published about the episode.
I first started thinking about the Lusitania back around 2010, five years in advance of the 100th anniversary of the sinking. I had long had a vague interest in the ship mainly because I have always been interested in ships and maritime history. When I was a kid, ships populated my imagination, especially the famed ghost ships, the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste. For my evening bath I made ships of aluminum foil with masts made of drinking straws stuck into bases of clay and sails made of paper dinner napkins, and then populated these vessels with little green army men, before setting them off on perilous voyages from one end of the tub to the other. These ships invariably foundered, sometimes by straying under the faucet just as the faucet happened by sheer coincidence to turn on, sometimes by getting caught in extraordinary waves of the kind a kid can generate by sliding back and forth in the tub until water begins sloshing out onto the floor. My maritime interest could be a genetic thing. I am Scandinavian by heritage, and pillaging from the sea is something we have always done well and with a great sense of drama, as is evident in our use of helmets with horns. Frankly, I would have written a book about the Titanic by now if it had not already been done to death by James Cameron and Celine Dion.
Despite this predisposition to be interested in maritime sagas, I have to admit that when the Lusitania first crossed my mind, I dismissed it as a subject. It seemed too obvious and too familiar, in clear violation of that fourth criterion about barriers to entry. However, I had nothing else on my plate and needed to do something to fill my day. When I am in the dark country of no ideas, I cannot kill time by reading novels or watching old episodes of Friends because that is entertainment, and entertainment is reserved for evenings only. This too is an artifact of my upbringing. My mother never let my sisters and me watch television during the school day. If we were at home, sick, we had to find something to occupy ourselves other than television. The scars are still raw. To this day I cannot watch television when the sun is up; I do allow myself to play tennis, however, on the argument that it is not entertainment but exercise, and good for one’s health, which is vital for good thinking.
So I went back to the Suzzallo and Allen Libraries, took out a few books, and began doing some reading. I quickly realized there was a lot more to the story of the Lusitania than I had imagined. For one thing, I discovered that I shared the vast misconception that the disaster drove America immediately into World War I. In fact, we did not get into the war for two more years, and when President Woodrow Wilson finally asked Congress for a declaration that a state of war existed between America and Germany, he never once mentioned the Lusitania. Too much else had happened over those two years, including the sinking of American ships (the Lusitania having been a British vessel) and the interception of the infamous Zimmermann Telegram.
What really drew me were the details of the sinking itself, which were utterly absent from anything I had read in high school or college—for example, the fact that the ship sank in 18 minutes, or that during the struggle to launch its lifeboats, one fully loaded boat fell on top of another. If I had known some of these details early on, my bathtub experience would have been considerably enriched.
But I still couldn’t commit. I was put off by the fact that other books had been done on the Lusitania, and I was skeptical as to whether I would be able to say anything new about the subject.
I decided, however, that it was at least worth an exploratory trip to an archive. I knew that a collection of Lusitania documents was held by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, an easy flight from Seattle, my full-time home at the time. I decided to fly down and spend a couple days reading these materials to get a sense of the range of documents that might be available. Even though this was just one relatively modest collection, I very quickly saw that the reservoir of primary materials on the sinking was likely to be richer and more textured than had been the case for any of my other books. I knew that far larger troves of material resided at various repositories elsewhere in America and the United Kingdom, among them the National Archives of the UK at Kew, which, by the way, has no connection to the famed Royal Botanic Gardens, other than sharing the same tube stop.
It was then that I realized that I might in fact be able to bring something new to the story. The depth and variety of the available materials—passenger testimony, secretly intercepted and decoded wireless messages, the love letters of a besotted president, the detailed War Log kept by the U-boat commander—seemed to offer the opportunity to put on my Alfred Hitchcock cap and craft a nonfiction maritime thriller infused with real-life suspense, so that readers could experience the tension, foreboding, and ultimate horror of the voyage in the way that passengers did at the time. And so, I plunged in, and spent the next four years more or less cheerily immersed in love, death, and war.
But now, with Dead Wake launched and the Lusitania sunk once again, I find myself back in the wilderness. I do see a glimmer of a potential next book. Nothing definitive—just a glint in the murk. Whether it rescues me from the dark country of no ideas, only time and neurosis will tell.