2009-03-18 / Arts & Entertainment News


The historical thrillers of David Liss look at money and greed
BY NANCY STETSON nstetson@floridaweekly.com

David Liss may have set his latest novel, "The Whiskey Rebels," in 1790's America, but it's eerily modern.

David Liss
It's not just his writing style, which make his characters and the events in which they're involved practically jump off the page, but the subject matter: greed, banks, and lending.

"Sometimes, if you stack them up in the right way, it seems insane how many similarities there are [to today's financial environment]," Mr. Liss says. "Because you're talking about a crisis that emerged, essentially, from reckless real estate speculation, and the trade in potentially worthless instruments of credit, and a small number of greedy investors who became so caught up in their own ambition and their own desire for short-term profit, that they completely lose any ability to look not only after their investors' best interests, but their own.

"And… contextualize this in a setting of an incredibly divisive and bitter and ugly political rivalry. When you put it that way, you don't know which period you're talking about!"

Of course, there are some differences between the post-Revolutionary War era and our own.

"The big difference is really one of scale," Mr. Liss says, explaining that the American economy in the 1790s was relatively small, so one major investor or group of investors could do a large amount of damage.

"Whereas, in the modern world, it was really more systemic. Everybody was involved in these derivatives of these credit default swaps, and these investments that essentially were bets that nothing would go wrong. And if something went wrong, then the whole house of cards was going to fall down, and everybody knew that.

"But they were so invested in shortterm thinking: 'I'm making money right now, this second; I'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow,' that you lose track of your ability to actually behave and benefit in your own best interest."

Mr. Liss is one of the many authors participating in the Southwest Florida Reading Festival Saturday, March 22. The Lee County Library System presents this free annual event, in which authors gather to talk about their work and do book signings. It takes place in downtown Fort Myers in the Harborside Event Center and Centennial Park.

Mr. Liss will be on a panel with writer Jeff Shaara at 11:30 a.m. at Harborside in room A2.

Though personally passionate about history, he realizes some readers are turned off by historical fiction. But his writing appeals to them.

"A lot of historical fiction makes the mistake of either not knowing how to effectively deploy research or feeling too beholden to actual, historical events in the script," he explains. "My feeling is that history makes for great history, but it doesn't necessarily make for great fiction, and that if you're writing a historical novel, the history needs to be driven by the things that make great novels. That history is there as a context and setting and background, but that it needs to be foremost a story about characters. A lot of it, I think, is… putting character before research.

"Of course, I'm not saying I make things up. But I feel there's a certain kind of historical novel that wants to basically novelize history; the novelization of historical events… It's a perfectly valid way of telling a story, and I have nothing against it, it's just that I don't do that."

It's difficult to know how to define Mr. Liss's novels. Many refer to them as historical novels, because (with the exception of "The Ethical Assassin,") they're set in 17th century Amsterdam, 18th century Britain, and, with the most recent, 18th century America.

"I don't have any problems with different kinds of genre categorization," he says, "as long as we wear them lightly."

But his books are also mysteries, or thrillers. One of the two first-person narrators in "The Whiskey Rebels" is Ethan Saunders, a spy during the Revolutionary War. And Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist in his first novel, "A Conspiracy of Paper," is a pugilist turned private investigator looking into the death of his father.

The book received the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel as well as the 2001 Barry MacAvity Awards for Best First Novel. It was also a New York Times Notable Book.

Ron Hogan, who interviewed Mr. Liss for his Web site, Beatrice.com, writes that his work has the "ambiance of noir fiction" and "his first protagonist, Benjamin Weaver in 'A Conspiracy of Paper' and 'A Spectacle of Corruption,' was compared favorably to a 17th-century Philip Marlowe, while Ethan Saunders of 'The Whiskey Rebels' felt to me like an early Mike Hammer."

Ethan Saunders, a disgraced spy, is a whiskey-drinking womanizer who amasses large bar bills and is often behind in the rent. In fact, the novel opens with him drinking heavily in a tavern in Helltown while waiting for a cuckolded husband to track him down and kill him. Fast forward him a couple centuries, put some new clothes on him and drop him in Los Angeles…or New York… and he could very well be a modern-day PI.

"I think of myself more as somebody who writes mainstream fiction where I engage in various techniques of genre that I enjoy," Mr. Liss says. "And I have nothing against genre fiction, I just don't like to limit myself or consign myself to one thing, sometimes to the irritation of my publisher."

Mr. Liss's first book, "A Conspiracy of Papers," was inspired by the dissertation he was working on while in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City.

"I was doing a dissertation on 18th century British literature, with a kind of interest in representations of financial models in fiction," he says. "And I've always been interested in writing a novel, but had never really given it a serious attempt. And I decided that I would do so, so I went with the adage, 'Write what you know.' And what I knew was 18th century Britain and finance."

So he took the research he'd used for his dissertation and applied it to his novel.

"What makes me want to write about economic history," he asks. "When I was studying for my oral exams, and that basically meant reading virtually every canonical piece of British literature written between 1688 and 1793, I noticed there was an obsession with money, and the way money moves, and indebtedness, that you don't see in writing prior to that period.

"Obviously, if you go back to Elizabethan or Jacobean drama, people care about money, and they care about whether or not they have a lot of it. But you don't see the same kind of obsession, especially with either the loss or acquisition of large sums of money that really forms the early novel, and then as a result, the novel from then on. So in a lot of ways, the nature and movement of money is inherently woven into the fabric of fiction as we understand it today.

"So that's where I began to think about my dissertation, and just as a result of doing research for this project, I became very interested in 18th century finance and the ways in which people become obsessed and irrational, and often evil, in the face of huge sums of money."

He didn't set out and say, "OK, I'm going to write a lot of financial novels," he says. It's just something that naturally grew out of his interests.

"I enjoyed writing the book, and I was happy with how I was able to combine certain elements of fiction and financial history, so as a result, when I'm daydreaming or thinking about things, a lot of times my interest will just gravitate towards these kind of stories."

He wasn't planning on writing a novel set in America in the 1790s. He was reading a lot about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, The Assumption Bill, the panic of 1792, and the nation's first financial institution, the Bank of the United States, when he thought, "This would make a good story."

"I began reading about this stuff because I realized I didn't know very much about the founders of the Founding period, and I just wanted to read for my own edification," he says. "And that's what struck me as well, how much I didn't know, and how contentious and rivalous these figures were. We often imagine them as being stony lawgivers. But they were, in fact, often raving maniacs.

"This book took a lot of work, because I really did not know anything about the Federalist period, or life, what people wore, what they ate, all that sort of human elements of these characters," he says. "It was all new to me."

He obviously had to include real people in his novel, such as Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and his former assistant, William Duer, who uses insider information to try to amass a great fortune. (Duer's bankruptcy set off the Panic of 1792.)

"I tend to avoid writing about wellknown historical figures in the past," Mr. Liss says. "I usually write about fictional characters inhabiting real environments, because that gives them much more freedom to tell what I hope will be a compelling narrative, rather than trying to turn an historical record into a compelling narrative. But in this novel, it seems important and organic to include certain historical figures. It's a small world.

"I get annoyed when you read historical novels and the character just happens to know everyone who turns out to be famous: 'Oh, here I am in Greece, this is a terrible problem. Let me ask my good friend Socrates, he'll be able to help us.'

"But if you were involved in economics, or high finance in the United States in the 1790s, you would run into these figures, and these are people you could not avoid. And so it would've felt wrong not to have characters such as Hamilton and Duer in this novel."

Opening paragraph of "The Whiskey Rebels" by David Liss

"It was rainy and cold outside, miserable weather, and though I had not left my boardinghouse determined to die, things were now different. After consuming far more than my share of that frontier delicacy Monongahela rye, a calm resolution had come over me. A very angry man named Nathan Dorland was looking for me, asking for me at every inn, chophouse, and tavern in the city and making no secret of his intention to murder me. Perhaps he would find me tonight and, if not, tomorrow or the next day. Not any later than that. It was inevitable only because I was determined not to fight against the tide of popular opinion — which is to say, that I ought to be killed. It was my decision to submit, and I have long believed in keeping true to a plan once it has been cast in earnest."

.. If you go

>>What: Southwest Florida Reading Festival >>When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 22 >>Where: Harborside Event Center and Centennial Park, downtown Fort Myers >>Cost: free >>Information: Call 337-READ or go to www. leegov.com/library. David Liss talks about historical fiction at 11:30 a.m. in room A2 in the Harborside Event Center.

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