Erik Larson Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Erik Larson
Photo: Mary Cairns

Erik Larson

An interview with Erik Larson

Erik Larson talks about Dead Wake, his non-fiction account of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania.

You often write about fascinating events in history that most of us have never before heard of, but much is already known about the Lusitania. What made you decide to write about its last crossing?

The Lusitania, like the Titanic, is just such a compelling story, and I felt I could do it in a way that no one else had. I was drawn by the prospect of using the vast fund of archival materials available on the subject to produce a real-life maritime thriller—things like code books, intercepted telegrams, even some extremely passionate love letters between Woodrow Wilson and the woman he fell in love with after his first wife had died. It became for me an exploration of the potential for generating suspense in a work of nonfiction. Plus, I knew the one hundredth anniversary of the disaster—May 7, 2015—was just over the horizon. Further, I'd wager that just about everything that people know or think they know about the Lusitania is just flat-out wrong. Certainly that was the case with me. The sheer wrenching drama of the event pretty much took my breath away. 

What does the phrase "dead wake" mean, and why is it particularly appropriate as the title of your book?

"Dead wake" is a maritime term for the disturbance that lingers on the surface of the sea long after the passage of a vessel—or a torpedo. As readers will find, the term resonates in other ways as well. 

Germany made it clear that passengers sailing on British ships "do so at their own risk," yet the Lusitania's crew and passengers were, at least initially, surprisingly unfazed. Why did they feel so confident the ship was safe?

The ship was so big, and so fast, it just seemed invulnerable. Plus, the prevailing belief at the time was that no German submarine commander would ever sink a passenger liner. It was unthinkable. 

Dead Wake is full of fascinating characters. Do you have a favorite among them? 

Dwight Harris, a young New Yorker on his way to England to get engaged. I found his account to be utterly charming—despite the fact he was describing a disaster that took over a thousand lives. He was very pleased to have survived the episode, and wrote about it at length in a letter to his mother (who probably fainted as she read it).

President Woodrow Wilson and his budding relationship with Edith Galt feature prominently in the book. Why did you feel it was important to include their story in the narrative?

It was important for context. Too often historical events are presented without a sense of what else was going on at the time. I found it very compelling that while the Lusitania was making its way across the Atlantic on that last fatal voyage, Wilson was falling ever more deeply in love with Edith, so much so that it left him disoriented, and doubtless contributed to one of the great gaffes in the history of presidential speeches.  

You provide a harrowing, moment-by-moment account of the Lusitania's sinking. What helped you most in terms of your ability to re-create that event in real time?

The most valuable tools were depositions and other first-person accounts given soon after the sinking. These provided a rich timeline of events: the peace and good cheer aboard ship as the Irish coast appeared in the distance, the moment of impact, and the truly macabre and disconcerting things that followed, as parents made cruel choices and passengers confronted the decision of whether to jump, get in a lifeboat, or stay aboard. These events, juxtaposed against details about the U-boat's voyage as revealed in the War Log of its captain, Walther Schwieger, and in secretly intercepted telegrams, helped me create a real-time sense of growing dread and danger.

What was the most surprising or affecting thing you learned in the course of your research?

Easily the most moving moment was when I was granted special access by the University of Liverpool to examine a collection of morgue photographs taken soon after the disaster. I was not permitted to photograph or otherwise reproduce the images, for obvious reasons. But the photographs really brought home to me something that tends to get lost in the historiography of the event—that it was first and foremost a deeply tragic event that subjected two thousand men, women, and children to unimaginable horror. 

You've called Dead Wake a maritime Devil in the White City. Why?

Because here was this luxurious vessel, a monument to the hubris and invention of the age, making its way through the sea, as another vessel, a German U-boat commanded by a prolific killer of ships and men, entered the same waters. It seemed to touch some of the contrasting themes that arise in Devil—the juxtaposition of good and evil, light and dark, invention and destruction. 

The German U-boat captain Walter Schwieger was beloved by his crew, yet ruthless when it came to sinking ships, and the associated casualties. Is he to be admired or loathed?

Neither. He was a submarine commander whose sole mission was to sink as much British tonnage as possible. This was a war; he did his job. But, at the same time, he was a character of considerable nuance, sufficiently humane to rescue a dachshund adrift at sea after one of his attacks. 

An ultrasecret spy group, working under the British Admiralty, was tracking the German subs, so knew the Lusitania was at risk. Why didn't they convey that information?

It's one of the lasting mysteries of the Lusitania affair—Why was the ship allowed to proceed into British waters without escort, and with only minimal information conveyed to its captain as to the mounting danger that awaited him in the Irish Sea? In my book, as the story unfolds, I lay out various strands of evidence; I leave it to the reader to decide. 

Captain William Thomas Turner ends up being blamed for the sinking of the Lusitania, by those who knew better. Why?

To me the answer seems pretty clear: The Admiralty had a very important secret to protect. But I don't want to spoil the fun, so I'll leave that for readers to discover on their own.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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