Like any writer who dives into history, Erik Larson knows research is its own reward.
To build the superstructure of his vivid narratives, the Seattle-based author has scrolled through miles of microfilm and spent hours deciphering the penmanship of Frederick Olmstead, who landscaped the grounds of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. That spade work informed his best-selling, "The Devil in the White City."
The 58-year-old author of "In the Garden of Beasts," speaks at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall. His latest book, published last year, shows how U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family reacted to Hitler's rise to power after they arrived in Berlin in 1933. Mr. Dodd's 24-year-old daughter, Martha, conducted affairs with Nazis. Universal Studios and Tom Hanks' Playtone have optioned the film rights.
Now at work on a fresh take about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the longtime Seattle resident is quite deliberate in choosing subjects. He's in search of fascinating characters and a story that has heart.
"From the time I finish a book to the time I have an acceptable idea for the next book, it takes a year," Mr. Larson said in a telephone interview. "I don't have a backlog of ideas. I wish I did."
The author studied Russian history and culture at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1976. He earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, and, after a stint at the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, landed at the Wall Street Journal.
In his quest for ideas, he trolls through the history shelves at the University of Washington and picks a book at random "just to get my mind out of standard tracks. In the course of a year, I may come up with a few ideas that I'll spend maybe a month or two on."
If research leads him to repeatedly think, "Wow, I didn't know that," he figures it will be news to most readers, too.
While reading standard texts about Hitler's Germany, Mr. Larson confronted evil daily, which darkened his mood. While reading "The Third Reich at War" by Richard J. Evans, Mr. Larson learned of German and Russian tank battles that killed 10,000 people a day. Even as German soldiers retreated in defeat from Russia knowing that they had lost the war, the Nazis continued their systematic deportation of Jews to death camps.
"That's where it got so limitless I couldn't wait to be done," Mr. Larson said.
Universal Studios and Tom Hanks' Playtone have optioned the film rights for "In the Garden of Beasts."
Leonardo DiCaprio plans to make a film of "The Devil in the White City" and play the diabolical Dr. H.H. Holmes.
"I don't hinge my future hopes on either book being made. I'd love it. My kids would love it. But I'm not putting off that trip to Rome until the movie gets sold," the author said.
He loves the bullish, optimistic attitude that defined America at the turn of the last century.
"There was an awful lot of pride, of attempting to do the impossible," he said, citing the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal as examples.
"Who knew that you could actually build that world's fair in a year and a half?"
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.