Larson was incredibly personable from stage, and put off a distinctly Alan Alda-esque familiarity and congenial tone. He started off with a story of his first book signing, where he was stuck at a table with 30-40 books and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, and no one showed up to see him—rather, they’d look at books around him and make no eye contact. One woman walked up with a big smile, and he finally thought he’d made it until she asked him how much the cookies were…
He described his idea process, and the criteria he used to pick subjects for books. Writing historical nonfiction, but still “stories”, they had to contain the following:
1.) Actual historical events
2.) Events that could be broken down to their DNA so that we the viewers could relive the event
3.) Compelling characters that would lead us through the event
After reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer, Larson thought, what would it be like to have lived in that time? To have hobnobbed with Goebbels, Himmler, and Goering, not knowing how the whole story would play out? Larson said he wrote the book mainly to satisfy his own curiosity.
Erik Larson stated that he LOVED loved loved libraries. “In fact,” he said, “I love libraries so much, that given a choice between a night alone with Cate Blanchett and a night alone in the Library of Congress… well, I would take the night with Cate Blanchett. But I do love libraries.”
Larson zeroed in on William Dodd and his family as characters for the book. William’s daughter Martha was certainly colorful enough. “As a writer, I’m glad I found her,” Larson said. “In fact, I wish I had met her. Perhaps I’d have gotten lucky, like the rest of the Third Reich did!” Martha was in a dead marriage to a New york banker (Larson: “I didn’t know there was any other kind of marriage to a New York banker!”) and fell in love with Nazi Germany. Her father, Dodd, expected to find a bunch of smart, rational statesmen, but instead found crazy, pathological ones. What struck Larson the most was how quickly Germany changed. You could have gone away on a business trip and come home to find friends that no longer spoke to you, shopkeepers who no longer served you… Hitler himself in 1933 complained that Germany was a place where, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.”
Larson thinks that in a way the book is resounding so well now because it feels as though we are going through similar things as the US was at that time—on the Left, we are scared of the Tea Party, on the Right they think Obama is the reincarnation of Hitler. On that point, Larson says, they draw that comparison because of health care, and “I’m only a fledgling Hitler scholar, but I can tell you that the last thing on Hitler’s mind was health care!”
Berlin at that time was a vibrant, charismatic city for Martha, who has parties and clubs to dance in and a park right outside her door. But about once a month, some American visiting Berlin would refuse to return the Hitler salute to a Storm Trooper and they’d get beaten severely. There were strong isolationist sentiments in America at the time, and FDR was trying desperately to get the US out of the Depression with the New Deal. He likely feared that stepping into the Germany situation would cause these isolationists to revolt and ruin all the work he’d put into the New Deal, and Larson thinks he was right about that fear. There was also a pretty strong Anti-Semitic sentiment at the time in the US. About 30% of Americans in the 1930’s felt that the Jews had too much power—in comparison to today’s 13%, so clearly there has been improvement but there’s still work to be done in that arena.
In his Q & A portion with Virginia Prescott, which is always MY favorite part of any Writers on a New England Stage production, she fielded audience questions that were handed in and merged them into her own questions.
Q: Do you think Martha’s “dalliances” harmed Dodd’s ability to be an effective ambassador?
A: Probably not—nothing could really have been done about that situation by an ambassador with no US support.
Q: What about the Night of the Long Knives? What compelled you to use that as a climax?
A: It was perfect for a climax in the story because that’s really when Dodd had a turning point, where after that “he could no longer look at Hitler,” he was horrified at this “purge” within the ranks of about 700 members of the Third Reich being massacred in under three days. It was telling that in the US that had practically no impact and was just seen as “in-fighting” and nothing to get involved in.
Q: Has writing this book changed your view of the “everyday” German at the time and their complicitness/non-complicitness?
A: Yes, the scholarly view now supports that the “lay German” was much more complicit, especially whne it came to using the Gestapo to solve their own personal problems—if you didn’t like someone, call the Gestapo on them and have them investigated. The Hitler salute was sort of genius in this way—it was an obvious visual way to see who was “toeing the line” and who wasn’t. No one wanted to be beaten, so most complied.
Q: Wasn’t this a very dark three years to write the book?
A: Yes and no. There are usually “two me’s” when I’m writing a book. The “Good Me” who recognizes that this is a terrible, terrible thing, and the “Bad Me” who looks at it and thinks, God, this is great stuff! But there came a point writing this book where after 40 hours a week of being steeped in Nazi pathology, I did slip into a low-grade depression. It really can’t NOT effect you.
Q: Why did the US appease the Hitler government?
A: Walter Moore wrote a statement at the time stating that we were “lynching Negores here in the United States” and in his home state, so that was one reason we couldn’t step out and get into Germay’s business. Also, Britain had just lost an entire generation of young men and wasn’t about to step into another war…
Q: Was Dodd up for the job?
A: Dodd didn’t get a fair shake in history. In a way, he did exactly what Roosevelt asked of him, which was to be a standing model of liberal American values in Germany. He really was in an untenable position. Most other diplomats of the day would have simply thrown lavish parties—Goebbels in particular had a sense of humor—vicious, but a sense of humor—and was in great demand at parties. Goebbels was also hated by the Nazi leadership, so he must have done something right!
Q: How do you weigh what’s credible when going off a diary and a memoir?
A: It’s tough, but you can triangulate. In particular, Martha’s memoir leaves out entirely what was the great love of her life, so it’s really not super reliable, but eyewitness accounts at the time always beat eyewitness accounts handed down over generations. I got to talk to the daughter in law of the man who rented the Dodd’s his home, and she was absolutely certain that they only rented the bottom first floor, when all the correspondence and documentation at the time corroborates that they rented the bottom three floors.
Q: If you had to write a book report on your book, like I do, what is the most important aspect to highlight?
A: I’m not going to help you!
Q: Would you write another book about Anti-Semitism in America?
A: Usually when I’m done with a book, I’m done. But if I found a story that met all my criteria, I may do another book about that and in fact I have an idea that I’m not going to share, but I might just do that in another book. Not my next book, as I don’t want to get pigeonholed, but maybe the book after that.
Q: Are we living through the same thing now?
A: No. But maybe. Probably the closest thing currently going on in my opinion is what’s going on with the president of Iran. Does he have nuclear weapons or not? Does it matter? They’re threatening to wipe out the entire Israeli state, do we take that seriously?
In many ways, I think Roosevelt had it easy compared to Obama. But I may be in the minority in that opinion.