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The sinking of the Lusitania

Author Erik Larson on the 100th anniversary of this tragic event

Created date

March 26th, 2015

Erik Larson is one of the best-selling nonfiction writers of the twenty-first century and, probably, one of the most eclectic. His previous books have covered topics ranging from serial killer H.H. Holmes (Devil in the White City) to William E. Dodd’s experience as America’s ambassador to Nazi Germany (In the Garden of Beasts).

His latest, Dead Wake (Crown, 2015), in which he explores the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, is every bit as riveting. Recently, he spoke with the Tribune about the book and the tragic story that inspired it.

Tribune: Your choice of subjects encompasses an impressive range. How do you select the topics you write about?

Larson: Dumb luck—a glib answer, I know, but more true than not. Whenever I finish a book, I start looking for the next idea, and I always start with a blank slate. I’m not one of those charmed writers who knows exactly what he’s going to write for his next five books. Finding ideas is hard. I try to put myself in the way of luck, by reading, visiting museums, sometimes pulling old history books at random from library stacks, in hopes of sparking something that leads to an idea.

Tribune: What made you want to write about the Lusitania?

Larson: I’d always been interested in the episode, but I only started to look into it when I realized the 100th anniversary was fast approaching. The anniversary provided the spark, in that I started reading about the disaster and immediately realized that everything I thought I’d known about it was false. 

I also realized that in terms of narrative dimension and power, the story behind the sinking was in fact a very, very good story, and that the episode presented an opportunity to tap the rich seam of archival materials in Britain and the U.S. in a way I felt no one had successfully done before.

Tribune: Do you think Lusitania’s story has been overshadowed by the Titanic?

Larson: Yes. Very much so. But I think that’s because of how we all typically learn about the Lusitania—as the briefest of entries in a high-school timeline, where it’s portrayed as the World War I equivalent of Pearl Harbor. But in fact, at root, the Lusitania is a deeply moving, horrific story of people confronting catastrophe, and thus just as compelling, frankly, as the Titanic, if not more so, because the Lusitania was sunk as a deliberate act of war. 

It was murder, not accident—murder on a vast scale.

Tribune: You mention that the whole story of Lusitania’s sinking hasn’t been told until now. In writing Dead Wake, what parts of the record did you think most needed to be set straight?

Larson: It isn’t so much that the whole story hasn’t been told. Just that there seemed to me to be room in the Lusitania canon for a different approach to telling the story. What I’m trying to do in Dead Wake is to bring the story alive, with all its inherent real-life suspense and horror. It’s not my intent to set any records straight, though I suppose, in the end, the book does do so. Rather, it’s my intent to create as rich a historical experience as possible, so that readers will emerge from it feeling they spent time in another place, another world. 

Tribune: What do you think the most prevalent misconception is about the ship’s sinking?

Larson: The biggest misconception is that the sinking immediately threw us into World War I. In the course of writing and researching the book, I asked friends and family how long they thought it took for America to enter the war after the sinking. Answers ranged from two days to two months.  And yet, we didn’t join the war for two full years.

Tribune: The book was beautifully written but also beautifully researched. How long did it take to finish, and where did your research take you?

Larson: Four years in all, from point of conception to the last round of proofreading. The research was an adventure. I traveled to Britain and spent many happy hours in the National Archives of the United Kingdom and in archives in Cambridge and Liverpool, and at the Imperial War Museum in London. I also did extensive research back here in the U.S. at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Because I knew I’d have a lot of research to do in Britain, my wife and I decided to spend six months in Paris. 

I suppose at first glance it makes no sense to live in Paris in order to do research in Britain, but in fact, Paris was ideally located, and presented a more interesting challenge in terms of language and culture. Access by Chunnel to London was startlingly easy and fun, and Paris was a great jumping-off spot for a foray to Denmark’s North Sea coast, where I was able to see the actual conning tower and gun of the submarine that sank the Lusitania.

Tribune: Did Dead Wake pose any unique writing challenges compared to your previous books?

Larson: Every book has its own set of challenges. My goal in this book was to tell the story in a way it hadn’t been told before. I approached it the way I’d like to imagine Alfred Hitchcock might—as an exercise in suspense. Only in this case, all true. There is a vast trove of archival material on the episode, and I didn’t feel it had been exploited to full advantage. 

Tribune: In 1915, people were still brimming with a naive confidence in human ingenuity. I noticed in the book that some Lusitania passengers were strolling the decks after the ship was attacked, firmly convinced that the boat wouldn’t sink.

Larson: Yes, it’s one of the things I love about this era and the decades that preceded it—this overwhelming hubris that caused our forebears to think they could do anything they pleased, no matter how daunting the task. Unfortunately, they were all too often proven wrong, as in the case of the Lusitania. 

When you put yourself back in that time, you can understand why almost no one canceled on the voyage. The idea that a submarine commander would dare sink a fully loaded passenger ship was too far-fetched—and even if he tried, the belief was that the ship was so fast, so big, so strongly built, it couldn’t possibly be sunk. 

Tribune: Do you think Lusitania’s demise ultimately signified the end of such optimism?

Larson: Not at all. Hubris took a body blow, but, arguably, things like the atomic bomb, America’s rail system, intercontinental flight, and the first moon landing seem to me to be offspring of the same kind of spirit. 

Tribune: The 100th anniversary is approaching. What might we learn from the Lusitania’s tragic end?

Larson: The obvious lesson is that nothing is infallible, indestructible, or invulnerable, and it’s something I think we need to hear as much as possible because, frankly, there are thousands of nuclear weapons lying in arsenals all over the world. A single detonation, by accident or on purpose, will change the world forever. Anyone who thinks it can’t or won’t happen because no human being is cold enough to let it happen, needs to read my book.