Erik Larson’s latest book The Splendid and the Vile focuses on Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister from 1940 to 1941, the period when things were darkest for Britain during the Second World War. The book went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it published in the United States in February, and it publishes this month in the United Kingdom. The Churchill Bulletin recently sat down with Larson to discuss what has become a very timely topic.
CB: You state that the impetus for this book was your own experience living in New York and trying to understand how New Yorkers felt during 9/11. Tell us more.
EL: About five years ago, we moved to New York. On 9/11, like everyone else, we had watched the collapse of the towers in real time on TV. As soon as I arrived in New York, I realized that the experience was totally different for those who lived through the tragedy. Seeing the fire trucks, the smoke, the paper blowing, it made me think about London during the Blitz, which was essentially this experience for fifty-seven nights in a row. I wanted to learn how people deal with this situation.
I figured that I would write about the quintessential family, the Churchills. I wanted to get a sense of how he, his wife, and his inner circle survived the first year of his Prime Ministership. This book was a real-life narrative arc from May 10, 1940, until May 10, 1941, which just happens to be the same day that Rudolph Hess decided to drop in (no pun intended).
CB: You describe in vivid detail the centuries-old dust that settled on homes during the Blitz—what sources did you use for this narrative?
EL: As you know, there is so much written about Churchill that I started by getting a baseline grasp because I didn’t have ten years to read everything! There’s a ton of stuff that’s been written about the Blitz, but I began with the tertiary accounts. I then moved into terrific memoirs, such as Harold Nicholson’s diaries, which provided descriptions of London in the Blitz, including the bombing of the Carlton Club. The National Archives, the Metropolitan Police, the Churchill Archives; when I read all of this, I know what I’m looking for, even if that is one kernel of fact. The diaries of Mass Observation provided numerous accounts of the dust settling and the unmistakable sound of broken glass.
A coup for me and this book was access to Mary Soames’ diary, which her daughter Emma so graciously let me use as a source. She had read my book Dead Wake, which has a portrayal of Churchill, and Emma thought I treated him with respect and allowed me to use her mother’s diary. According to Churchill Archives Director Allen Packwood, only one other person has looked at this diary, maybe Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, but I couldn’t find anyone who used this in a published work. The diary was so wonderful which depicted a brilliant, emotive girl living through this nightmare and wanting to take part, but her parents wouldn’t let her!
CB: You describe how the BBC was reporting live on a dog fight when one listener complained of the presenter’s “callous Oxford accent.” How do you find these hidden gems?
EL: I’m glad you brought this up. A lot of listeners were appalled by this reporting, and I had to include this lady’s comment.
CB: In your writing you include many of these everyday experiences and quotes, where did you pick up this trait?
EL: I don’t know! It’s not a technique I have tried to develop, it’s more instinctive. When I go into an archive I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I find it. It’s these mundane (I wouldn’t call them mundane) details that cause a resonance with readers that helps them. My goal when writing is not to inform, but to produce the richest non-fiction sense of the past as possible. One aspect of that is these little details that help people slip into the past and stay there for a while. That’s what I’m after.
CB: Speaking of the devil is in the details, in the epilogue you say Churchill reveals himself in his frivolity, which is spot-on; tell us about one of your favorite frivolities that you found.
EL: There are so many, but the one that stands out right now is Churchill in his siren suit and his golden dragon robe, marching to marshal music carrying his rifle and bayonet. Similarly, one witness recounts that he has a watercress sandwich in his hands while he is dancing.
I very much like the moment where he plops down between the gap between a chair and its ottoman and shouts “a real Charlie Chaplin!”
CB: You say a definitive part of his leadership was being able to focus on trivial things and to pivot quickly. What about that leadership style interested you?
EL: You know, Roosevelt had his trivialities, he collected ship models. But it’s Churchill’s ability to switch tact from the trivial to the cosmic. It seems very Churchillian! I don’t know that I’ve encountered any other leader who did it like Churchill. For example, he would sit in his office dictating message after message, one being the anti-chortling memo and the other is a grand strategic effort.
This really comes through in Martin Gilbert’s companion volumes to the official biography, which contain the full text of all documents quoted in the narrative volumes. I read in their entirety the volumes for 1940 and 1941, which was a significant investment of my time. What comes through very clearly is the range of Churchill’s mind, his grasp of history, how articulate he was, and how willing and able he was to descend to the humane. I found very striking the note he writes to the Belgian Ambassador who lost his two kids in a train fire. In the midst of this appalling tragedy, there’s Churchill with a heartfelt letter of condolence.
CB: You mentioned the cannon of Churchill and how you didn’t want to write a biography; how do you want this book to be received by Churchill enthusiasts?
EL: I don’t even want it lodged in that cannon! I’m writing for people who may not have an affiliation for Churchill but are drawn into him and his life. I’m trying to bring Churchill to a vast audience, but at the same time, I’m hoping hardcore Churchillians will like this also and get a new sense of that time. I sent the manuscript to Allen Packwood and International Churchill Society Executive Director Lee Pollock, and, to my delight, they loved it! Packwood even said he learned something from the book that he had not previously known.