Author Interview: Erik Larson

The #1 New York Times bestselling author Erik Larson of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake delivers a fresh and compelling portrait of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz in The Splendid and the Vile.

“Larson does a splendid job again of creating the personal story out of a larger historical event. Here he concentrates on the Churchills and the two years of the London blitz. By using diaries and letters, he tells of the immense loss of life and property. He also gives voice to the great spirit of the people who endured this. We are transported to 10 Downing Street and the official weekend home of the prime minister where meetings, meals, parties, and intrigue abound.”

Valerie, bookseller at Blue Willow Bookshop

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London.

Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

We spoke with Erik Larson about what inspired him to write The Splendid and the Vile, the importance of independent bookstores, and more.

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

I got to wondering how on earth anyone could have endured the German air campaign against Britain in 1940-41. Its first phase brought London 57 consecutive nights of bombing. And this was followed by six months of intensifying raids, at longer intervals.

At first I thought about trying to portray the experience of a “typical” London family; then I thought, why not write about the quintessential London family—Churchill, et al. I invented a movie slogan for myself, to help guide my research: “It’s one thing to say carry-on; quite another to do it.”

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

Two things: First, while I did not narrate the book, I did read the author’s note at the beginning. Second, we do something kind of neat at the end, but I’ll save that as a surprise for listeners.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

John Lee has the perfect voice and accent for this book. Incredibly dignified, and oh-so-British.

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I listen occasionally. My absolute favorite audiobooks were the Harry Potter books. I also have a particular fondness for the first audiobook ever made from one of my books—Isaac’s Storm—mainly because it kept my young (at the time) children quiet for an 11-hour drive.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

Everything! I love a good independent. It’s like walking into another world where, for the moment, peace reigns and the only problem I face is having to choose.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

I love it that audiobooks have become so popular. I don’t care how people “read,” as long as they do it.

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