Read the author’s latest book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, out now from Crown, and you’ll have a hard time thinking of Larson as anything but a lifelong Churchill scholar. Consider that his 2006 book, Thunderstruck, set in Edwardian London, focuses on an inventor of the radio, and characterizing the author gets slightly more complicated. Add to the mix his 2003 book, The Devil in the White City, set in late-19th-century Chicago, plus several other books tackling different moments in history, and you’ll realize that the driving force behind the tremendous works of nonfiction Larson has produced over the years is not an interest in a particular era but rather an overarching love of the past and its best stories. Here, Larson recommends four books “that influenced how I think about writing history.”
In Our Time and Men Without Women, by Ernest Hemingway
I recognize that Hemingway is not exactly the darling of today’s literati, but for me he remains the master of a particular talent—the art of not saying. In these collections of short stories, he manages time and again to convey meaning larger than the spare phrases he deploys on the page. Nowhere is this more evident than in my favorite of all his stories, “Hills Like White Elephants,” which centers on a conversation at a rail station in Spain between a man and a young woman, the latter identified only as “the girl.” While Hemingway never explicitly tells you what’s really happening here, in the end you know beyond doubt, and this is a high achievement indeed. The story includes a line of dialogue that in these times of ours bears repeating: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner
Paradoxically, it was Gardner’s The Art of Fiction that shaped my approach to writing nonfiction. Gardner emphasizes the importance of striving to create in readers’ minds a “vivid and continuous” dream, and to avoid anything likely to awaken readers from that dream, including such prose felons as showy writing (“fancy talk”), the passive voice, accidental rhyme, and inept grammar. “Where lumps and infelicities occur in fiction,” Gardner writes, “the sensitive reader shrinks away a little, as we do when an interesting conversationalist picks his nose.” His proscriptions apply equally well to writing history, if one’s goal is to have the reader sink into the past as deeply as possible, into a nonfictional dream. There’s nothing like exclaiming “Forsooth!” in a narrative history of the Kennedy administration to eject readers back into their daily lives.
The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough
This book was the first to open my eyes to the power of writing about historical events as stories having a beginning, middle, and end. When I set out to write what became my own first work of so-called narrative history, Isaac’s Storm, about a hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston in 1900, I used the book as my guide, to the point of outlining its chapters and diagramming its structure. I took particular note of how McCullough used novelistic maneuvers, like cliff-hangers, withholding, and cutaways, to build suspense and power the story along, while never veering into the realm of fiction. In so doing he pulled the story from the hoary time lines of high-school history and brought it to life in a visceral, charismatic way.
The Secret of the Old Clock, by “Carolyn Keene”
O.K., O.K. But really, this, the first Nancy Drew novel, and its many sisters that followed, was what made me fall in love with reading. A good story is a good story. And if, as a boy, I happened to also fall in love with the lead protagonist (she had a convertible!), well, forgive me. These pocket mysteries inspired me to write a novel of my own, my first lengthy work, when I was 12 years old. It was 75 pages, with a plot that could charitably be called “derivative.” It, too, involved a mysterious clock, but my story had some added zest—a sex scene—though I knew nothing about sex. It was, after all, a work of fiction.