David Liss never received his doctorate. According to the tongue-in-cheek F.A.Q.s on the author's web site, this is the second most common question that Liss is asked in interviews. The first, of course, is "are you Jewish?"
Halfway through his dissertation on 18th century British literature and culture, Liss decided to take a shot at writing fiction. His extensive knowledge of early British culture and his Jewish heritage informed the world he would create -- an anarchic, corrupt economic playground in which Jews and Christians forge tenuous bonds in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
For the next few semesters, Liss wrote his dissertation during the school year and his novel during breaks. As time went on, the breaks became longer and longer. Liss found himself ignoring his dissertation and concentrating full time on his fiction, living off of a fellowship grant he had received to finish his studies. The gamble paid off; published in 2000, A Conspiracy of Paper was released to glowing reviews and brisk sales.
A Conspiracy of Paper introduced readers to Benjamin Weaver, the "thief-taker" who is also the protagonist of Liss's third novel, Spectacle of Corruption. Benjamin Weaver is "an outsider in eighteenth-century London: A Jew among Christians; a ruffian among aristocrats; a retired pugilist who, hired by London's gentry, travels through the criminal underworld in pursuit of debtors and thieves." Critics and mystery readers immediately took to this "Philip Marlowe done up in a wig and buckles," and A Conspiracy of Paper won Liss the Edgar award for Best First Novel.
The Edgar came as somewhat of a mixed blessing for the young novelist. Liss did not necessarily set out to write a "mystery novel," nor did he feel any particular leanings toward continuing to write in the mystery genre. By winning the Edgar, Liss feared that he would be pigeonholed as "the historical mystery guy." So for his second novel, Liss decided to take a step away from Weaver, further back into the 17th century.
The Coffee Trader tells the tale of Miguel Lienzo, a Jewish trader in Amsterdam who tries to corner the market on a promising new commodity known as coffee. Echoes of our current economic climate surface throughout, and the storyline carries a special poignancy in today's culture of multinational coffee chains.
A Conspiracy of Paper fans finally received their second helping of Benjamin Weaver in 2004, with the release of Spectacle of Corruption. This time around, Weaver escapes from prison and steps incognito into the world of 18th century politics. The setting gives Liss a fresh opportunity to flex his intellectual muscles, creating a fascinating and enlightening portrait of London's political scene.
Liss is currently putting the finishing touches on his fourth novel, which he promises will have nothing to do with the eighteenth century, stock trading, or men in wigs. As for that dissertation, Weaver is still listed in his official bio as a doctoral candidate. With three successful novels and a fourth in the works, however, Liss is not rushing to finish his degree. When asked whether he feels a need to complete the degree, he says, "Not at all. I'd quit again if I could."
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A few outtakes from our interview with Liss:
"I once spent a spent a summer selling encyclopedias door to door."
"I am dedicated to the cause of animal rights."
"On my first day of college, I vomited on the dining hall steps in front of a timid young lady and her horrified parents."
"I don't have any especially interesting unusual hobbies. When not working or parenting, I tend to be reading, exercising (I'm told that fitness has replaced alcoholism for contemporary writers), and general socializing. I have a long-standing interest in, and appreciation of, wine."
"Also, I'm thinking of starting my own cult -- a small group of people who will give me all of their material possessions and worship me as the most powerful being in the universe. If you're interested in joining, shoot me an email."
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In the winter of 2004, David Liss took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I would prefer to weasel out of the question by talking about how all of the books I've read in aggregate, the great, the not so great, and even the horrible, have taught me what works, what doesn't work and why.
But if I absolutely had to pick something, I would give honors to The History of Sexuality, Volume One by Michel Foucault and -- admittedly, it's not a book -- the essay "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus" by Louis Althusser. The Foucault, despite its racy title, is less about sex or even a history of sexuality, than a clearly articulated argument about the circulation of social discourse and how ideologies are perpetuated and dissent crushed. He takes the shaping of sexual identity in the Victorian period as a case study to show how our most basic, fundamental and unexamined ideas about not only social institutions (as he had previously done with the hospital, the mental institution and the prison), but also our own natures, are subject to dominant and oppressive ideologies. His exposition on the idea of how cultural discourse is "intentional but nonsubjective" is, alone, worth the price of admission.
Althusser's equally, if more brazenly, Marxist argument details how ideology replicates itself and how cultures produce the means of ideological reproduction. I seriously doubt a day goes by that I don't interpret some either current or historical phenomena through the aperture of Foucault and/or Althusser. As a historical novelist, I'm not only interested in what happened, but why, and how people responded, reacted and were interpolated within historical events and cultural developments. Certainly there has been an anti-Foucault backlash in recent years, and no one outside of the academy reads Althusser much anymore, but both of these writers are, I think, the most significant starting point for applying philosophical (not political) Marxism in our post-capitalist world.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I officially change the question to name ten books you like a lot and come to mind at this moment. There are far more books I love than I can easily name, and I hate having to rank some and leave out others. Here's a sampling from a bunch of different fields I enjoy:
Amelia by Henry Fielding -- His unread masterpiece. Arguably the first 19th century novel, and he wrote it in 1753. Now that's what I call being ahead of your time. It was a massive step forward for psychological realism and inquiry in the novel.
Cecilia by Frances Burney -- It's the greatest book ever written about financial anxiety. You too will lose sleep.
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope -- Another great novel about money, and Trollope is the absolute master of interesting and multidimensional characters. It's about a zillion pages of narrative goodness. In your face, Dickens.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser -- I've always loved novels about people who make bad decisions and watch their lives spiral out of control, and I work very hard to keep my writing as anxious and tense as Dreiser does in this exceptional book.
Bodies Electric by Colin Harrison -- It might just be greatest thriller ever written. Unlike so many clumsy, blockbuster thrillers, Harrison's book create tension by placing fully fleshed out and believable characters in plausible jeopardy. I recommend this book to just about everyone.
Ghost Written by David Mitchell -- It's a series of interconnected short stories. What interconnects them is fascinating and inexplicably bizarre, but Mitchell is such a good writer it is frightening.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby -- Sure, it's a cliché. All guys of my generation love this book. The truth about guyness and all that. But Hornby is a genuinely talented wordsmith with an unfailing gift for humor, character insight and pure linguistic fun. Besides, I managed a record store when I was younger, so I can identify.
A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe -- Speaking of identification. Sure it's smart, funny, brilliantly observed, well written, and full of great tension and satisfying moments, but what I love most about this book is that it's Wolfe's crack at Atlanta. I lived in Atlanta for a couple of years while getting my masters at Georgia State. I thought I hated it at the time, but I've been back a couple of times since, and there's no place I've lived to which returning is so much like visiting a place I only remember from my dreams. Wolfe gets it just right.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears -- As odd as it may sound, I don't generally like historical novels, but Pears absolutely nails this one. Learned, smart and absorbing. I put off reading it until I finished my first book because I was afraid it would freak me out. It didn't, but it came close.
Civilization & Capitalism by Ferdnand Braudel -- Anyone who can make a three-volume history of capitalism from the 15th to the 18th centuries not only a pleasure, but a naughty pleasure, is okay in my book. Braudel's examination is the most satisfying kind of intellectual voyeurism. You get to learn not only how people lived in these centuries, but what they ate, how they worked, how they lived. Great stuff.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I hate having to pick a favorite, as I've said before, but I do have a soft spot for the anti-capitalist screeds of Frank Capra, especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And no matter how many times I've seen it, I will always sit down for another viewing of The Caine Mutiny. Finally, and I don't know if these count as favorites, but I have burned into my brain movies that were on cable all the time when I was growing up, especially Stripes and Excalibur. The ability to recite the Charm of Making has become something of a shibboleth to people in my age group.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to different kinds of music for different activities. When I'm running, I tend to go for more fast paced and electronic stuff. I don't generally listen to music while working, but sometimes music can help me get past minor writer's block. I tend to go for things with interesting arrangements but that also have a pleasing monotony that can reward, if not necessarily demand, a great deal of attention: Radiohead, the Thievery Corporation, and Stereolab, for example. The most dependable music for me to listen while writing, however, is the great Nigerian Afropop icon, Fela Kuti. And I should probably mention Billy Bragg, since I dig his socialist agenda.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I do, in fact, have a book club. I meet with a couple of guys once a month of a lunchtime discussion of some interesting text, usually but not always philosophical. The Feminine and the Sacred by Catherine Clement and Julia Kristeva is next up.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give books that I feel will open people's minds to new ideas and issues. I love being given books that expose me to new and interesting things I hadn't previously considered.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
What I have on my desk is a great big mess. I don't really have any rituals except I write best in the morning, I have to shower and get dressed first (none of this writing-in-my-PJs stuff for me), and I often consume massive quantities of coffee.
What are you working on now?
Two things: I am finishing up the final edits for my next book, The Thoughtful Assassin, my first non-historical novel. It is set in Florida during the 1980s and it was an absolute blast to write. I'm also working on the next novel to feature Benjamin Weaver. It's also been fun to work on. I play with the formula a little in this one -- it's more of a thriller and less of a mystery -- and it centers around the origins of the modern corporation.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I wrote my first book while I was still in graduate school, and I organized my time along the semester system: I worked on the dissertation during semesters and the novel during breaks. The book took me two winter breaks and a summer break, though by the end of the second winter break I was almost but not quite done, so I basically threw over the dissertation entirely and dedicated my time to finishing A Conspiracy of Paper. I had my fair share of rejection, including people telling me that I would never, ever, get the book published, but I fortunately ended up with an amazing agent and a genuinely talented editor. I've been very lucky.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
One of my favorite writers about to break through is Mark Haskell Smith. His first novel, Moist, is twisted and hilarious, and his second novel, Delicious, which will be published later this year (and of which I've been lucky enough to read an advanced copy) is even more twisted and more hilarious.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I'm a firm believer that the key to writing a good novel is mastering your critical thinking skills. Read constantly, and then think about what you read, talk about what you read and write about what you read. Every time you read something and you are enjoying it, ask yourself why. What is working? What is holding your interest so well? When you are bored or losing interest, ask yourself why as well. A skilled writer never turns off his critical reading skills.
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