Early Morning Conspiracies: The Writing Life interview with David Liss

David Liss is the author of classics of historical fiction from his Edgar Award-winning debut A Conspiracy of Paper, which was rooted in his academic studies, through the fabulous tale of the Portuguese Inquisition and the Amsterdam commodities exchange, The Coffee Trader, and on into his compelling portraits of real historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in The Whiskey Rebels. It has always seemed to me that his masterful use of the historical mystery allows him to get to the heart of political and social issues that remain with us today – anti-Semitism, the morality of finance and of punishment, and much more. That’s why I asked him to tell me about his Writing Life. It turns out a lot of it takes place while most writers are asleep…

How long did it take you to get published?

Even though it felt like a very long time while it was happening, the process actually went very quickly. I sent out a ton of query letters and received a ton of rejections. About the same time, however, an old friend of mine published her first novel, and she offered to show my manuscript to her agent – who then became my agent. After that things went very quickly. I started sending out my first letters in March of that year. I had a contract in August.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

When I teach creative writing, I often use On Writing by Stephen King, though part of the reason I use it is because -- while he says some very smart things about writing -- I disagree with about a quarter of the advice he gives. I think it is important to recognize that there is no one right way to do things, and that in the end the only real rule is that each writer should do what works for him or herself.

What’s a typical writing day?

I am an early riser, and I can only do my best work in the AM hours. These days I get up at 4, go to the gym, come back home and get the kids ready for school. I drop off my daughter and go to a coffee shop with my laptop and write until about noon. After that, I spend the day running errands and doing research.

The Whiskey Rebels is the only book I’ve ever written under deadline, and at once point I realized I had far more work to do than I had time to do it in. I started getting up at 3 every morning, working until the children woke up, getting them off, and then having another writing session. I ended up doing this for a year, and though it was a hard year, it was also a very productive time.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

The Devil’s Company will be published in July. It is essentially a novel about the 18th century origins of the modern corporation. In this case I am writing about the British East India Company at a moment when it has to change its entire corporate model. We tend to associated the East India Company with tea, but in the early 18th century it was best known for its textile imports. In the 1720s, Parliament finally caved to pressure from the native wool and silk-weaving industries, which were suffering from having to compete with cheaply made foreign imports.

Like several of my previous novels, this one deals with a pivotal moment in economic history, but I also like to emphasize that I don’t write dry, ponderous books. I see my first responsibility as entertaining the reader, and I always do my best to write a story that is engaging, exciting, suspenseful, often funny and filled with engaging characters. My second responsibility is to say something worth saying.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
Some, but not much. I don’t write within the genre mystery format any longer because I found it too constricting. I consider what I write now to be more in the thriller camp, and the only real requirement of that genre is that the material be fast-paced, exciting, and suspenseful – which I think ought to be true of pretty much any traditional narrative.

b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
I primarily write historical fiction, but that is always my choice. My publisher may not like it, but they know I will always write what I wish to write. I probably could have made choices early in my career which would have made me a more commercial writer, but I feel very lucky that I can make a living doing what I love, and I get to write the books I want to write. Also, I am very open to branching out. I recently wrote a short story for an anthology about zombies, and I just finished my first comic book script for Marvel.

c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
Some of my books are entirely unlike any of my other books. The Devil’s Company will be my third novel with a continuing protagonist, Benjamin Weaver, but while the first two were very much like genre mysteries, this one is not. I do not reinvent the wheel each time, but never want to be guilty of writing the same book over and over again.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

I don’t really believe in exclusive favorites, but one thing that comes to mind is the final sentence of Paradise Lost:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

I know it is a sign of mental illness, but I love Milton, and I think this is the most powerful conclusion to any long work in English letters.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

My vote is for David Mitchell.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

No one does the twists and turns better than Harlan Coben. Sometimes his choices verge on the totally implausible, but he provides such a great ride that I honestly don’t care.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

Depends on the book. If I am writing about 18th century Britain, I’ve already done most of the leg work, and those books only require specific research into the particular topic of the book. If it is set in a different time and/or place, then I have to learn an entirely new culture, and that is a fairly demanding and time-consuming process. I always like to do enough research to get me to the place where what I don’t know is no longer keeping me from writing the story I want to tell.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

Novels almost always begin for me with an idea for an opening scene. I think of something dynamic and exciting, and then I try to decide who the characters are who would inhabit this scene and the world in which it belongs.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Right now I have to say pretty good. I am writing this interview at an outdoor café in Piacenza, a town in northern Italy, where I am attending an arts festival. I became involved with this festival thanks to my Italian translator, one of the organizers. I’ve been translated into about 2 dozen languages, and I do better in some countries than others. Someday I would like to be translated into Icelandic, but so far, no luck. I have a theory that if I include a character from a particular country in a novel then the rights will be picked up there. The only one of my novels to be translated into Turkish, for example, is The Coffee Trader, which includes a very minor Turkish character. I plan to put an Icelandic character in my next novel in order to test this theory.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live off my writing since my first book.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I attempted a novel right after I graduated from college, but it was really, really bad. A Conspiracy of Paper, my first novel, was the first book I tried to write when I gave it another shot ten years later.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Once I flew into Milwaukee and as soon as I got to my hotel I went out for a run. It was a beautiful day, and I was running by the water, so I lost track of time for a while. When I decided I needed to return to my hotel in order to get ready for my reading, I realized suddenly that I did not remember how to get back to my hotel or what its name was.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I plan to publish all my weird ideas.

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