March 2015

Erik Larson

Tragedy at sea
Interview by
Adept at spinning historical events into gripping narratives, Erik Larson couldn't resist the storytelling potential of the Lusitania.
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Adept at spinning historical events into gripping narratives, Erik Larson couldn't resist the storytelling potential of the Lusitania

You started reading about the Lusitania on a whim. What was the discovery that led you to decide to write a book about its last crossing?
What drew me, really, was not so much any single discovery, but rather my realization that the array of archival materials available on the subject—the palette of narrative elements—would allow me to tell the story in a way it had not yet been told. Telegrams, codebooks, love letters, the submarine commander’s war log, depositions, interrogation reports—all of it. For me it’s like heroin.

You’ve always been a remarkable researcher, finding amazing details to tell your story. What were your biggest research scores for Dead Wake?
The best elements are the telegrams to and from the German U-boat that were intercepted and decoded by the British. It was kind of thrilling to see the actual paper decodes in the National Archives of the UK. Probably my favorite moment was when one box yielded the immense German codebook that opened the way for the British to begin reading all of Germany’s naval communications, with Germany utterly unaware. This was the actual book—the one that, according to one account, was recovered from the arms of a drowned German sailor.

Do you have a personal favorite among the passengers whose lives you so vividly describe?
Well, I’d have to say I particularly like Dwight Harris. His account, first of all, was very detailed—that’s why I chose him. That’s also why I chose my other central characters; I swoon for detail. But what I loved most was the charm of Harris’ story, which he told in a letter to his mother. He was a young guy, and was clearly tickled to have gone through this nightmare and survived. I also very much liked Theodate Pope. She too left a detailed account. But I especially liked her backstory. She was one of the country’s first licensed female architects; she was an early feminist, at a time when the term itself was brand new; and she was deeply interested in exploring the mysteries of the mind and the possibility that there just might be an after-life. She was a character with a lot of nuance, and I love nuance. Heroes, frankly, are boring. 

In your telling, the Lusitania itself has a kind of personality, “conceived out of hubris and anxiety.” Are there things you learned about the ship that you found particularly compelling?
Everything. At heart I’m still a little boy. But, what I found most compelling was the sheer physical effort needed to power the ship—the volumes of coal, the innumerable furnaces, all fed by men with shovels, 24 hours a day. One of the amazing things about the ship, and the era’s emphasis on speed, was that with all boilers operating it could move at 25 knots, or nearly 30 miles an hour, and cross the Atlantic in five days—faster than a typical crossing on the Queen Mary 2 today. No wonder its passengers, and captain, believed it to be invulnerable. 

Walter Schwieger, who commanded the U-boat that sank the Lusitania, was beloved by his crew and ruthless in his willingness “to torpedo a liner full of civilians.” Was he typical of U-boat captains during World War I?
One of my favorite archival finds was a collection of interrogation reports done by British intelligence agents who had questioned captured German submariners. These reports convey a vivid sense of the dangers of U-boat life, and of the character of U-boat commanders. All U-boat captains were achingly young, with wide variation in personality. Some were ruthless, some chivalrous, some kind, some brutal. At least one was renowned for his inability to hit anything with a torpedo.

Your portrait of President Wilson in emotional turmoil was fascinating. To what extent do you think his grief over the loss of his first wife and his later passionate pursuit of Edith Galt colored his responses to international affairs? 
It’s hard to say. Clearly at the time the Lusitania was sunk, Wilson’s emotional self was in an uproar, thanks to his incredibly passionate love for Edith, and this doubtless contributed to a remark he made in a speech in Philadelphia that fell flat. Like dead. He said America was “too proud to fight,” which utterly missed the point, and drew ridicule from his opponents. 

Capt. William Thomas Turner, whom you wonderfully describe as a man “with the physique of a bank safe,” ends up being scapegoated by the British Admiralty for the Lusitania sinking. Seems pretty outrageous, doesn’t it?
Seems outrageous to me, but the Admiralty had ample incentive to try laying the blame entirely on Turner. Too many secrets needed protecting. 

Winston Churchill, as head of the British Admiralty, has a behind-the-scenes role in the saga of the Lusitania. Did your research into his role in any way change your opinion of Churchill?
Not really. I love Churchill as a historic character. Always have, always will. He was a brilliant man imbued with a reckless energy, and he was utterly ruthless. What I hadn’t fully appreciated, however, was his role in the disastrous Gallipoli affair. His mad energy and ego cost him dearly in WWI, but served him very well in the war that followed.  

Do you believe, as some have suggested, that the British Admiralty’s failure to protect the Lusitania in spite of its secret intelligence of the whereabouts of German U-boats, was a deliberate gamble to bring the U.S. into the war?
There’s no smoking memo or letter or telegram to confirm it. And certainly, at first glance, you’d have to be skeptical that any agency would deliberately allow 2,000 people to be killed. On the other hand, the fact the Lusitania was left to itself, without escort, and with only the most cursory of warnings, is utterly mystifying. For one prominent naval historian, whom I quote in my book, the circumstances were profoundly perplexing. Late in life he found himself forced to conclude that some sort of conspiracy likely occurred. But, again, that’s only speculation. I lay out a collection of evidence; readers can do with it what they will. 

Why was it important for your narrative to include the details of an autopsy that you warn squeamish readers about in your introductory note?
First of all, the mere fact that someone would want an autopsy done on a body that had been in the water for 75 days struck me as incredible—the likely artifact of deep, shattering grief. But the whole saga of finding that gentleman’s body, and all that happened afterward, struck me as something that offered a brand new view of the era and its customs. Further, it’s new; I stumbled across it by accident in files in the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md. And new is good—though finding new things was certainly not my goal. Story was my goal. 

You write that false facts about the sinking of the Lusitania have sort of entered the DNA of the history of this event. What are the most egregious errors, and how have you tried to counteract them?
The most significant misapprehension is that the sinking of the Lusitania immediately dragged America into World War I. It did not. During my work on the book I would ask friends and family how long they thought it took for America to enter the war after the sinking. Estimates ranged from two days to several months. But in fact, America did not declare war for two full years, and when Wilson gave his speech to Congress asking for such a declaration he never once mentioned the Lusitania.  

Finally, what are the unresolved mysteries about the sinking of the Lusitania that plague you the most?
By the time I finished my research I was pretty satisfied with my understanding of the event. It’s very clear that one commonly claimed “fact”—that the ship was armed with naval guns—was utterly untrue. There were no guns aboard the Lusitania. Another body of rumor holds that there was a secret cache of explosives in its cargo holds, possibly disguised as shipments of cheese or oysters, and that this accounted for why the ship sank so quickly. There may indeed have been a secret cargo, but whether such a shipment existed or not is irrelevant. Explosive cargo had nothing to with the sinking. The Lusitania sank that fine May afternoon because of the chance convergence of a multitude of forces. A single variation in any vector could have saved the Lusitania.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Dead Wake.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Dead Wake

Dead Wake

By Erik Larson
Crown
ISBN 9780307408860

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