Friday, May 06, 2005

The Big Read: An Author Lecture by Erik Larson

This review is for Aaron, who had to work at the reference desk on Thursday night, and for everyone who missed hearing a very entertaining author lecture.

Approximately 900 people filled Ashton Place in Willowbrook, Illinois last night to hear Erik Larson, author of the popular history The Devil in the White City. Many were readers from the eight suburban libraries that sponsored The Big Read, a series of book discussions and lectures spotlighting Larson’s book and the events of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Staff members from all the libraries were there, taking tickets, giving out prizes, and enjoying the lecture. It was a wonderful gathering of book lovers.

After being introduced by architect Daniel H. Burnham (looking very good for his 159 years), Larson told about his desire to bring history alive, to be an animator of history, to write books that readers enter but do not leave. To succeed, he said authors must balance story and detail. He loves the details, spending much effort on evoking the odors of the location, believing that smell triggers many mental images. He said that a visitor getting off the train in 1893 Chicago would have been immediately aware of the thousands of horses in the city and the pervasive smoking of cigars. Weather is also important to the author, who told readers about the storms that played a role in the story. He reported that getting the story line in order was the more difficult task for him. At one point in the writing process, he had the pages of his manuscript all over his bedroom floor, as he tried to get the order right. With Devil in the White City, he had the architect’s story, the story of the mass murderer, and several side stories, including the development of the Ferris wheel and the fate of a Chicago mayor, to weave together. He must have a big bedroom.

In the question and answer period, he told how his wife helps him pare down the manuscripts, using up and down arrows, smiley faces, and sad faces with tears. What he notices most are the sections she does not mark at all. He wrote 28 pages about the building of the Auditorium Theater but dropped this section when his wife passed it over without comment.

When asked about the movie rights to the book, he said that Paramount has lined up Adrien Brody to play H. H. Holmes and is suggesting Jack Nicholson for Burnham (the audience groaned “no”), but the struggling studio is having second thoughts about the costs for animating the scenery of the fair. The movie may not be made.

In a response to a question about his research, Larson said that he visited Chicago in all seasons and spent much time in both the Chicago Historical Society and the Art Institute libraries, where he made hundreds of photocopies on each visit. He added that on the lecture circuit he has learned interesting facts that he would have used had he known them before publishing. A reader in Philadelphia told him that Aunt Jemima Pancakes were originally names “Slave in a Box.”

Larson said that he has always wanted to be a writer. When he was twelve, he wrote a detective novel with what he thought was a sex scene. He spent many years writing for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He got the idea for the type of books he is writing now when reading the novel The Alienist by Caleb Carr; he wants to write nonfiction books that tell history in like fashion.

On the way home, thinking about Larson saying that the 1800s were his favorite century, it occurred to me that the author lecture is a very 19th century entertainment. When done as well as it was last night, it is a very good entertainment choice. Libraries should produce more of these lectures.

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