Creative nonfiction is the use of fictional techniques, such as characterization, conflict, foreshadowing, in the service of a factually accurate narrative. To me, the most important aspect that separates creative nonfiction from, say, journalism or scholarly writing, is the use of scenes. The story is broken up into scenes of varying length and detail, carefully crafted and arranged to affect an emotional result in the reader, while staying strictly within the known facts.
In the many years since In Cold Blood there have been many masters of Creative Nonfiction… Mailer, Wolfe, McPhee spring to my mind immediately… but right now the current master of the genre, in my humble opinion, is Erik Larson.
I read “Isaac’s Storm” a few years ago and was absolutely enthralled. Of course, the fact that I am very familiar with Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula made the story even more harrowing and effective. For years we vacationed at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula and I would imagine the horror of the storm surge inundating the island. I would look at the black iron lighthouse and imagine the poor souls huddling inside as the water rose and the winds howled. I read the book before Hurricane Ike struck and wiped our old vacation haunts off the face of the earth.
Then I read “The Devil in the White City” – which didn’t have the same emotional effect on me – but was actually a better book. It was fascinating in its story (which I knew nothing about) of the fantastic Chicago World’s Fair. This story of man’s best creations on display was contrasted with the darkest depths of human depravity in the parallel story of H.H. Holmes, the country’s “first” serial killer, who set up shop in his “murder castle” constructed only a few blocks from the fair.
The book is mesmerizing.
I went to a lecture by Erik Larson at the Eisemann Center here in Richardson and loved it. He talked a lot about the research he did for his non-fiction. I remember he discussed one sentence in Isaac’s Storm where he described what Isaac Cline saw, heard, and even smelled while he walked from his office to his home the day before the hurricane hit. “People ask me how I know what he experienced on his walk over a hundred years ago,” He went on to explain that he knew from Cline’s letters he walked home and Larson learned from the maps of the city that there were stables and workshops on the way, and Cline would smell the horses and hear the workers.
It was very impressive.
So now I’ve finished a third Larson non-fiction book, published a few years ago, Thunderstruck. This, like Devil in the White City contrasts a famous accomplishment – Guglielmo Marconi’s successful “invention” of wireless communication, with a horror – Hawley Crippen, the most unlikely of murderers. The two stories are told separately, until the unexpected coincidences of history brought the two together in an unexpected way.
I found the Marconi story the more interesting of the two. The murder was horrific in its details – but the murderer was portrayed as almost a sympathetic character. Marconi was especially interesting in the fact that he didn’t actually invent anything – he never really even understood how radio worked – but he had the single-mindedness, courage, and business acumen to put other people’s inventions to work in a way that made sense and was successful.
And isn’t that the most important thing… really?
Any criticism of the book is merely picking nits. Larson is famous for layering on detail and here, especially in his description of the murderer’s daily life, it piles up pretty thick and gets a little tedious. I would like to have had less information on Crippen’s love life and more on the fantastic, gigantic, wireless installations that Marconi built on both sides of the Atlantic – spending millions of dollars and risking his entire company trying to get Morse code across the sea – never mind that nobody thought it was possible, that undersea cables could already do the job, and Marconi had no idea what he was doing in the first place.
The ultimate irony is that, in an odd way, the murderer was responsible for Marconi’s ultimate success.
So, in short, very good book, put it on your reading list – enjoy yourself and learn something at the same time.
Larson has another book out that I haven’t read – “In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.“ Oh, man, that sounds good, doesn’t it?