In his new book, The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson tackles one of the most heralded figures in modern Western history: Winston Churchill.
The subjects you’ve tackled over the course of your career are quite broad and varied. Is there any common thread that unites your interests?
There’s no particular common thread, other than story. I’m always looking for compelling historical events that can be rendered in narrative form, with a beginning, middle and end, so that readers can get caught up in the action and live through it as if they didn’t know the ending. So that’s first. But a corollary motive is to answer the question: What was it like to have lived through that event? Then it becomes a matter of finding the right real-life characters whose experience provides the richest insight.
What compelled you to zoom in and write about this particular slice—just his first year as prime minister—of Churchill’s life and the lives of his family?
What drove me was an interest not so much in exploring that first year but rather in learning how Churchill and his family and inner circle actually went about surviving Germany’s aerial campaign against Britain. I mean, how really do you cope with eight months of near-nightly bombings—essentially a succession of 9/11s? It just happened that the Luftwaffe’s campaign coincided, rather neatly, with that first year. In fact, the year ended with an intense raid that occurred one year to the day after Churchill took office.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Splendid and the Vile.
You’ve described this book as a kind of “Downton on Downing,” because of the way the book chronicles not just Churchill but other people in his life during this period. What were some of the challenges of researching these other figures?
It’s always relatively easy to research so-called “Great Man History,” because leaders like Churchill leave rich archives of documents and vast amounts of scholarship. But often the histories written about them give short shrift to the people who were crucial in helping them get through the day and to the fact that, even in the midst of great events, our heroes still had to deal with such quotidian matters as paying bills and resolving domestic dramas. It’s these little corners of history that most appeal to me, and that can be the most difficult to unearth. But the reward is great, because as I’ve found time and time again, when you open a new window on a subject, you invariably find material that other scholars, looking for other things, are likely to have overlooked.
With so much having been recorded about Churchill already, did you uncover anything in your research that surprised you about the man?
I was surprised and delighted at every turn, actually—especially by the man’s sense of humor and his ability, even in the midst of the most awful events imaginable, to step up and just have fun—whether doing bayonet drills in the great hall of his country home or singing along to “Run Rabbit Run,” one of his favorite songs. Of course, his idea of fun also happened to include watching air raids from the nearest rooftop.
Why are we so interested in Churchill? What makes so many writers want to write about him, and so many readers want to read about him?
Maybe because there’s a heroic clarity to the man that seems so absent in the leaders we have today. Also, there’s always that underlying mystery: How did he do it? That’s what most intrigued me. My goal was to capture a richer, deeper sense of the man and his day-to-day experience and of those who helped him endure—because believe me, he did not do it alone. He relied heavily on family and his closest advisers for wisdom, comfort and simple distraction.
Your footnotes contain fascinating stories and insights that weren’t included in the main text. Would you share your favorite?
I do love salting the notes with little stories. That’s my reward for those stalwart souls who, like me, enjoy a good footnote. I’m a bit hesitant to give these stories away, but I suppose my favorite is the one in which Churchill’s long-suffering bodyguard, Inspector Thompson, describes the uniquely withering quality of Clementine Churchill’s glare whenever she became annoyed with him—which, apparently, was quite often.
“Even in the midst of great events, our heroes still had to deal with such quotidian matters as paying bills and resolving domestic dramas. It’s these little corners of history that most appeal to me . . .”
This book, like your others, is both methodically researched and engagingly narrative. Do you frontload your writing process with research, or do research and writing happen simultaneously?
My ideal is to finish all my research before I begin writing. This never happens. Invariably I get to a point where I feel that I’ve just got to start writing, whether the research is done or not. The story starts begging to come out, scratching at the door. So I’ll start writing those passages for which the underlying source material is most complete. I should point out, however, that the research never does end. I keep reading and tweaking until the final page-proofs are finished and the book is ready to be printed. And then I hope to God that I got everything right—which is why, for this book, I asked three top Churchill experts to read the final manuscript and hired a professional fact-checker to give it a line-by-line, quote-by-quote examination.
What’s the significance of the title, The Splendid and the Vile?
It derives from an observation made by one of Churchill’s private secretaries, John Colville, a central character in the book. In his diary he describes a particularly dramatic night raid, which he watched through a bedroom window. He was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the interplay of searchlights, guns and fire, and the awful reality it represented.
Are there any contemporary figures who embody Churchill’s leadership style—particularly, as you put it, “his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all, more courageous”?
At the moment, no. Sadly, quite the opposite.
Do you have a favorite Churchill portrayal in film or TV?
No. Frankly, I think they mostly miss the mark, invariably leaning toward caricature. I must note that during the three or four years I worked on this book, I avoided watching any film or television portrayals of Churchill, so as not to distort my own emerging sense of the man. One of my favorite moments in my book is one windy night in the garden at 10 Downing Street, when Churchill, on the verge of a devastating decision, desperately needed the comfort and advice of a close friend, and. . . . Oops, too bad. I see we’ve run out of time.
Author photo © Nina Subin