Narrative non-fiction master Erik Larson shares his love of history with Ogden

Narrative non-fiction master Erik Larson shares his love of history with Ogden

OGDEN — Erik Larson hates to fly. But that won’t stop him from boarding an avian sardine tin (what an airplane feels like when you’re 6’2”) and heading west for Ogden School Foundation‘s Fall Author Event.

Larson, sometimes called the master of narrative nonfiction, is the 23rd featured guest at this annual event that begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, at the Ogden Eccles Conference Center Grand Ballroom, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden.

The event is sold out; including the overflow seating that was added after ballroom seating filled up.

Janis Vause of Ogden School Foundation likened the turnout to that of an athletic event. “The fact that our community bought over a thousand seats says a lot about our values,” she said.

In addition to meeting the foundation’s mission of enhancing educational opportunities for kids, Vause believes it really promotes community literacy. “Everyone in the community is reading Erik Larson,” she said.

“An author has to work for the community and students,” she said. “We knew the community would love him and we knew English teachers, who are teaching his books in high schools, would love him too.”

Vause said Larson has been sought after for many years because of his ability to write about history in an engaging manner. He has a knack for personalizing events of the past by focusing on individuals involved she detailed.

“He always has sub-plots running through his stories,” Vause said, recounting what makes Larson’s books great. She appreciates his ability to blend, for example, the architectural and structural miracle of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with the horrors perpetrated by H.H. Holmes — without being salacious.

Vause was referring to “The Devil in the White City,” Larson’s fourth book, released in 2003. In an interview with the Standard-Examiner, Larson deemed this book to be a longtime favorite with readers.

Larson followed with ”Thunderstruck” in 2006. This might be his most underrated book, probably because it was overshadowed by a presidential book release he deduced. It certainly wasn’t the subject, as he interweaves the stories of Guglielmo Marconi and Britain’s second most famous murderer, Hawley Harvey Crippen, for the best type of mystery-detective novel — one based on a true story.

“In The Garden of Beasts” — an account of the experiences of William E. Dodd and his family, who arrived in Nazi Germany in 1933 after Roosevelt chose Dodd to be America’s first ambassador there — is experiencing a resurgence in popularity he reported.

“The things that the Nazis did — there are echoes of that now,” he said. “But nobody has thrown the Democrats in jail.”

“There’s a lot to be concerned about,” Larson says about current events. “Anyone who’s not concerned is blind or greedy.”

When asked about his political posts on Twitter and whether he was worried about repercussions, he said, “In difficult times you have to be honest. It’s when you don’t speak up when bad things happen.”

He said that he tries to modulate and keep things light and funny, as well as in perspective.

In regard to the cliché question about where he gets his ideas, Larsen admitted there isn’t a process, saying, “An idea comes to me and I decide I can live with that for 4 years.”

Getting to that point varies from one book to the next he clarified. What is common, and the nearest to a process, “is to read widely, broadly, promiscuously, about things that aren’t necessarily in your territory,” he said. From there, he continues searching with the awareness that an idea will come to him.

Larson proclaimed he loves telling stories about history “in the way that one does when one does narrative history.” He finds it as satisfying as fiction, without having to make things up.

“Writing narrative nonfiction is easier than a novel,” he said. “The novelist’s challenge is making things up in a way that seems real.” He admitted he doesn’t have this sensibility, nor the inclination to make bad things happen to people.

Larson said he is about two-thirds of the way through another book. He explained the research process — which includes six months to write a proposal, copious amounts of reading, visiting archives to see live documents, taking photos of archive documents and processing documents — and writing take around four years. Keep an eye out for the release sometime before the next presidential election.

At the event, Larson reported he will talk about the process of putting a book together. “The fun parts,” he said, then paused. “The whole process. It’s all fun.”

On Friday, Nov. 9, Larson will meet with 10 high school students who wrote the best essays around the theme “Sink into the Past.” The winning students — selected by English professors at Weber State University — are Alice Sievinen, Payton Trujillo, Esly Villezcas and Hannah Williams from Ben Lomond High School; Julia Hall, Audrey Jones, Graicee McMullin, J.C. Mesloh, Hannah Peterson and Zoe Schlaich from Ogden High School.

Larson will also speak to around 500 high school students from Ben Lomond and Ogden high schools at an assembly on Friday morning.

Since 1996, the Ogden School Foundation has hosted a renowned author for this community-wide event. Larson’s name will be added to the list of past authors, which includes other non-fiction greats like Jon Krakauer, David McCullough and Simon Winchester. For more information about the foundation and other authors who have been featured, visit

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