I suffered a terrible and psychologically devastating trauma as a child. The fact that I have no recollection of it doesn't much matter, because I have the proof that it happened. Proof! How else to explain my insistence on writing historical novels about finance? Even worse, I've consistently tried to write historical novels about finance that are entertaining, funny, exciting and engaging. When I try to explain what I do to strangers — let us say, for example, people on airplanes who insist on talking to someone they don't know who is, at that precise moment, very obviously trying to read a book — I am often asked, "Why would you want to write about that?" Clearly these strangers (without books of their own to read) believe that if I had any sense, I would be writing about interesting topics like sex or reality television. Of course, these are the same people who, when I tell them I am a writer, will approximately 50% of the time ask, "Is that your book that you are reading?" as though writers spend their days reading and re-reading their own work.
But I digress. When I look at my friends who write novels that don't include tons of research and don't require elaborate narrative strategies to convey lots of arcane information in a way the reader will find interesting, I am understandably jealous. And bitter. Those guys have it easy. All they have to do is make things up. I do it the hard way. That is my burden. I don't ask you to pity me, just to buy multiple copies of my books.
So, why finance? Why history? Why the rhetorical questions? The truth is that I more or less backed into this interest. As a graduate student I developed an interest in the 18th century when it occurred to me that this was a time in which men went around wearing wigs, stockings, and shiny buckles on their knees, and yet no one made fun of them. Surely this was a culture just asking to be scrutinized. While preparing for my major grad school exams, I undertook the task of reading nearly every major canonical work from the period, and I discovered that 18th-century literature was fascinated with money, particularly the sudden appearance or disappearance of wealth. The literature was also obsessed with who was going to marry whom, but that was well-trodden material, so I ignored it. Instead, I wanted to know why these writings were infused with an fixation on credit, the difficulties in getting it, and the even greater difficulties in managing it. The fact that I should happen to notice this trend at the same time my credit card companies were making outrageous demands of me — like that I pay them some small fraction of what I owed — is purely coincidental. Suffice to say that there were times I was very happy that debtor's prison went the way of wigs and stockings for men.
It was at that time that I began my ongoing fascination with finance, but not finance as an abstract science. My interest is in the impact of money, trade policy, investment scandals, and corporate power on human lives and struggles. It is certainly very reasonable to study economic history in the emotionless vacuum of charts and graphs, of trends and theories, of rows and rows of numbers — I could not do what I do if others did not undertake this important, revealing, and mind-numbing work — but my goal has always been to understand the ways in which our thinking changes finance and finance changes our thinking. The economics of our time is not something that we wander though without touching or without touching us.We are always engaged in a dialogue with the economics of the world around us, even if most of us do more listening than speaking in that conversation.
In A Conspiracy of Paper, I wanted to use the South Sea Bubble, the first stock market crash in the English-speaking world, as a way of looking at the ways in which new methods of deploying money change the most fundamental ways we think. Because I wasn't sure if that would be enough to interest readers, I also included a protagonist who enjoyed punching people in the face as a means of conflict resolution. It turned out that it was a fun combination of things to write about. In that novel, I showed how modern detective work was linked to financial investment — that probability theory, which led to speculation in the stock market also led to the more intellectual kind of speculation we expect of detectives trying to solve crimes, for the first time in history, with investigative and circumstantial evidence rather than relying on eye-witnesses and confessions. In The Coffee Trader I took an even more personal approach. In writing about the commodities markets in Amsterdam in the 17th century, I wanted to show how a culture of trade based on hidden tactics and bold deceit erodes everyone's sense of integrity. And in The Whiskey Rebels I use America's first major financial crisis, the Panic of 1792, as a way of looking at the personal and social dangers of reckless and unregulated markets. Alexander Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury, learned in the late 18th century what we have re-learned in our own time — that investors with no oversight and in pursuit of massive gains not only cannot be counted upon to act in the best interest of their country, they cannot be counted on to act in their own best interests. In that novel I wanted to show how, when caught in the game and lured by the thrill of massive returns, investors lose all sense of, or even belief in, a long term future, and function only from one moment to the next. Just take a look at Bernard Madoff.
In the new book, The Devil's Company, I wanted to turn my local-tv-news-esque scandal-revealing eye on origins of the modern corporation in the 18th century to see if there were interesting parallels to the problems we see today. The more I researched the British East India Company in the 1720s, the more I was surprised at how much the problems, dangers, and conflicts of the period resemble those of today. Cynics would say that we have learned nothing from the past, but I am an optimist and prefer to see the positive side: we are no more stupid today than we were three centuries ago! Then, the East India Company was both at odds with the British government as well as uneasily allied with it. Their imports of cheap, foreign-made textiles were threatening to put British laborers out of work and decimate native British industries. There were bitter, often violent clashes with labor. And finally, the urge to make money, to produce impressive returns upon stocks, drove the company to pursue short-term black ink at the expense of long term stability.
All of these conditions go a long way toward making for an exciting background for human ambition and human struggles. But while all of these details may be interesting in themselves, that doesn't mean they belong in a novel rather than a work of nonfiction history. That's my burden, the curse I mentioned at the beginning of this essay and that I bring up again because my love of symmetry. The numbers, charts, and graphs of historical finance may not be, in themselves, great stories, but they are ripe material for human longing and desire, the failures and successes that are the stuff of gripping narrative. For me, the reach and power of the emergent corporation creates an atmosphere rife with tension, risk and promise in which characters live and thrive. The bottom line, as I see it, is that any time in the past when there were people doing desperately idiotic things for money is a time I want to know about.
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David Liss is the author of The Whiskey Rebels, The Ethical Assassin, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.
Books mentioned in this post
David Liss is the author of The Devil's Company