June 19, 2018
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A literary break from the ballpark

By Emmet Meara, Special to the News

Man cannot live by baseball alone. Even a diehard Red Sox fan must abandon the ballpark occasionally, to drink in the cultural offerings of Ft. Myers, Fla., during spring training. No, not Hooters and the strip clubs. I mean the annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival, held last Saturday.

If print is dead, then hundreds of faithful fans have not been told the news. The annual sessions with authors drew standing-room-only crowds and the lines to buy their latest offerings were long. True, the audience was tilted towards retirement age, but still.

Featured author Erik Larson, an Edgar Award winner, told an overflow audience that he would love to be a novelist but he cannot “visit the required woe upon” his characters. Instead, the author has concentrated in historical nonfiction where the characters visit woe upon themselves.

Larson wisely abandoned the newspaper trade (Wall Street Journal) for writing and has scored best-selling status with “Garden of Beasts,” “The Devil in the White City” and “Thunderstruck.” The Seattle resident was so struck by the dazzling South Florida sun that he assumed an apocalypse had occurred, he told his admirers.

He pretended to read from his latest work, and then laughed. “I would rather have a vasectomy” than read or listen to an author reading, he said.

He considers himself an “animator of history” who seeks not to inform but to re-create a historical event which allows the reader to actually “live in the past.”

“I collect bits and pieces of history to stimulate the imagination,” he said. The Chicago Sun-Times said, “Larson is a historian … with a novelist’s soul”

One woman who finished “White City” told Larson, “I didn’t want to come back.” The author considered that an “ideal reaction.” But no one said that about “Garden of Beasts,” a recollection of Nazi Germany that gave many readers nightmares, he said.

Larson got the idea of re-creating Nazi Germany after wading through the 1,200 pages of “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” He was intrigued, and then thought, “Who wants to read another book about Nazis?”

After discovering the memoirs of the American ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd, then the scorching diary of his seductive daughter, Martha, he had found his next book.

Amazon’s website stated, “The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.”

Larson insists upon doing his own research. In reviewing pre-war Germany, he was astounded at the level of blatant anti-Semitism, even among Dodd’s assistants. After the utter devastation of World War I, isolation and appeasement were almost understandable in countries which desperately wanted to avoid another war, he said.

In 1933, while Dodd settled in dealing with Hitler and the Nazis, Martha started her string of affairs, the first with the head of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels. In fact, she “fell in love with the Nazi movement,” the author said.

Even in those early days, Hitler made his wishes known concerning the Jews. “I will put an end to all of them,” he told Dodd. In another time and place, the Nazi leaders “would have been treated in a mental hospital,” he said.

His research included the copious letters between characters in the book. Today, an author would have to examine blogs, tweets and texts instead of typewritten letters. “There is no comparison,” he said.

There are frightening comparisons to pre-war Germany and the U.S. today. The zealotry and mean-spirited legislation has a familiar ring, he said.

After leaving the gloom of Nazi Germany, many fans moved to a session with mother-and-son writing teams Roy and Iris Johansen (“Silent Thunder,” “Storm Cycle”) and Caroline and Charles Todd (Inspector Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford mysteries). Both teams have been nominated for Edgar Awards.

There is less tension in a family writing team than one might imagine, all agreed.

Caroline Todd said they never outline a book before plunging in and do not decide “who did it any why” until 20 pages from the end. No one can tell which author wrote which passage. “I write a hell of a battle and he can write women very well. After all, he has a mother, a wife and a sister,” she said.

The Johansens also ignore outlines and enjoy “putting the other writer in a spot.” Iris Johansen said.

There are inevitable conflicts, however. “When he stops calling me ‘mother’ and starts calling me ‘Caroline,’ I know we have a problem,” Caroline Todd said. Some of the literary disagreements last until 2 a.m., she said. She likes to take a different look at characters, like making Scrooge a detective or Arthur Conan Doyle a character in their books.

“We don’t call them conflicts. We call them consultations,” Iris Johansen said. Roy Johansen loves to travel and does all of the foreign research “Like falling down a pyramid,” she said.

She has started several short stories which she considers “the height of elegance. But I am a slob. I end up with a 60,000-word novel.”

Enough literacy and culture. Back to the ballpark.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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