David Liss is an American author.
His novels include A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, The Devil’s Company and The Peculiarities. Most of David’s books are historical fiction, set in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 2001, A Conspiracy of Paper (the first of the Benjamin Weaver series) won the Macavity Award for the Best First Mystery Novel, as well as the Barry and Edgar awards for best first novel.
David has also written comic books, including Black Panther: The Man Without Fear.
Talking About Books interviewed David about his interest in the 18th century and the research he does for his novels.
TAB: Many of your novels are set in London in the 18th century. What draws you to London during this particular period?
DL: Only three of my novels are set in 18th century London, but the 18th century in general is a default time for me, and, in total, I have five books set then—six if you count The Twelfth Enchantment, which is in the early 19th century, but still in what scholars would call the “long 18th century”. I studied 18th-century literature and culture in graduate school, so it’s the time I know best and remains a comfortable period to which I can return.
TAB: The East India Company is a malign force in several of your books, ruthless in its pursuit of profit. Would you agree that it is a precursor to modern multinationals?
DL: I make that case fairly pointedly in The Devil’s Company, though I wouldn’t want to overstate the singular importance of the EAC. Many of the trading companies in the 17th and 18th centuries paved the way, although I would argue that the symbiotic relationship that the EAC developed with the British government anticipated modern systems of companies and nations serving each other’s interests.
TAB: One of the things I enjoy about your novels is that the language is modern but has enough of an 18th century flavour to give it an authentic feel. How do you achieve this?
DL: Trial and failure, and a lot of it. When I set out to write my first novel, it was one of the things I struggled with most. I wanted the language to feel historical, but as someone who has spent a lot of time with 18th century writing, I knew contemporary readers wouldn’t have patience for the antiquated syntax and pacing of the period. I tinkered with the formula over the course of writing my first book until I hit on something that I think of as “18th century lite”.
TAB: Your books have a real sense of time and place. How much of a role does research play in this?
DL: I do a lot of research for my books. For any research-based story, I believe writers need to continue to do research until the things they don’t know are no longer interfering with the story. In my case, I usually need to understand very basic structures and systems of ordinary life as well as the cultural or governmental mechanisms that intersect with ordinary life. I need to understand how people would face challenges and understand their circumstances and their options. Once I know all of that, I can get started with telling the story. Other details, like what sort of chair a person might have sat in or how they would have gotten from one place to another, I can find out later.
TAB: In the Benjamin Weaver novels and in The Coffee Trader, you write about Jewish people in London and Amsterdam during the 18th century. Could you tell us about their role and how they fitted into the society of the time?
DL: Both 17th century Netherlands and 18th century England were among the best places for Jews to live in their respective times, and were likely the best places for Jews to live for centuries. These cultures were not liberal or open-minded by today’s standards, but they were certainly open-minded by the standards of much of Catholic Europe as well as the Islamic world. Both countries were, of course, dominantly Protestant, and had both undergone fairly recent revolutions, and so they were well positioned to break with the habits of the past. Both countries were also extremely mercantile in their outlook, and they recognized that having a thriving colony of Jews—which provided a connection to other communities of Jews throughout the diaspora—created the possibility of expanding trade and markets. In both places, Jews lived almost exclusively in isolated communities or neighbourhoods and were not generally welcomed in polite society. It would be some time before anything like modern acceptance would come along.
TAB: You use magic and fantasy in your latest novel, The Peculiarities. I am curious to know what led you to do this.
DL: I’ve always had a fascination with real historical magic, by which I mean magic that was practiced by real people who believed that what they were doing was an efficacious way to interact with or influence the world around them. In particular, I’ve had an ongoing interest in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a massively influential magical organization in late Victorian London. It’s no exaggeration to say that most people in the West who practice magic today are practicing some form of Golden Dawn magic. The Peculiarities began with the desire to write about the Golden Dawn, though I didn’t really know what angle I wanted to take when I began researching. At some point in the process, I decided that treating their magical practices as valid and efficacious appealed to me as a narrative premise, and the rest unfolded from there.
TAB: How did you begin writing? Is it something you have always done?
DL: I’ve always loved narrative in all forms as a consumer, and I wrote fiction from a very early age. I still continue to be fascinated with the many possibilities of storytelling across different media. I write prose fiction of course, but I also write, and am drawn to, more visual media like comics and videogames.
TAB: I have read and enjoyed several of your books and find they teach me something interesting every time. Thank you for doing this interview.