GJR: Why historical fiction? Why this time period?
David Liss: I’d always wanted to write fiction, but I never really took a serious crack at it until I was in graduate school studying 18th century British literature. It’s hard to say exactly what drew me to the period in the first place, but the first time I took a course on the 18th century novel, I read a social history of 18th century Britain, and something about it fascinated me. Fascinated, not charmed. I have no idealized notion of the period, and would most definitely would not want to live in it. I just find it extremely interesting. In any case, when I settled down to write a novel, I decided to go with the old “write what you know” adage, and what I knew was 18th century Britain.
GJR: How much research goes into each of your books?
DL: It depends on the book. For the ones set in 18th century England, I only have to research fairly specific things because I already know the background, culture, and details. For other books, such as The Whiskey Rebels, The Coffee Trader, and the one I am writing now, there is a lot of more research because I am attempting to get a handle on a culture with which I have only a passing familiarity.
GJR: Do you come up with an idea for a book and then do the research? Or do you like a particular subject/time period do the research and then come up with an idea?
DL: It is always different, but always some sort of combination. Usually I will get an idea for a novel set in a particular time and place about a particular thing, and then begin the research. Once I am into the research, however, the nature of the project almost always changes based on what I learn and what I find exciting.
GJR: The thing I liked most about Benjamin Weaver is that you know he isn’t a good guy but he’s not necessarily a bad guy either. Why did you decide to make your protagonist a bit “gray”?
DL: I’ve always found morally ambiguous characters to be the most interesting. I’ve read novels, particularly genre novels, in which the protagonist is unambiguously good with no dark side and no demons, and I find that to be wholly uninteresting. Most of us are a bit “gray,” more so than we like to believe, and I like to write about a hero who is, in the end, maybe not as different than the villain as he would like to believe.
GJR: What do you think it is about Benjamin Weaver that makes you want to continue to write him?
DL: He may have a dark side, but he also operates with a fair amount of ethical certainty and physical authority, and characters like that are always fun to inhabit. I don’ t think I could be happy only writing about him, and I am committed to returning to him only when I have a story I really want to tell, but each time I have returned to the character, I’ve had a great time doing it, so that’s a pretty strong motivation.
GJR: I found that some of the passages of your books could be plucked out of today’s society regarding corporations and our current obsession with “celebrity”. Was this intentional or did it just come about while writing the book?
DL: I came across these parallels in the research, and I knew I wanted to include them in the book. One of things that attracted me to writing a novel about a major company in the early 18th century was precisely the fact that the debates and difficulties then are so much like the debates and difficulties today.
GJR: Are you working on a new novel? If so, what is the premise?
DL: I am writing a novel set in 1811-12 about the Luddite uprising, Romanticism, and traditional English folk magic.
GJR: Who are your favorite authors to read? Why?
DL: I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of favorites. When my daughter asks me to tell her my favorite color, I always say that I like them all. I don’t like all writers, of course, but I like a lot, and there is no one figure who towers above the others. One of the pleasures of reading, at least for me, is the constant discovery of the new rather than celebrating the old. But, so that I don’t completely evade the question, I will say that I tend to favor voice and character driven fiction over plot-driven fiction.
GJR: What are you currently reading?
DL: Right now I am reading Jonathan Tropper’s terrific new novel, This Is Where I Leave You; the bound versions of Robert Kirkman’s brilliant comic book series, Invincible, and Edna O’Obrien’s new biography of BYRON.
GJR: What books would you recommend for someone who loves the historical fiction genre?
DL: You mean other than mine, right? I am actually not a big reader of historical fiction myself, but some of my favorites from recent years include The Crimson Petal and the Whiteby Michel Faber; Cloud Atlasby David Mitchell; Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham; Instance of the Fingerpost by Pears by Iain Pears; and THE DRESS LODGER by Sheri Holman.
A big "Thank You" to David Liss for taking the time to answer my questions!