A Conversation with David Liss
David Anthony Durham: This is your first historical novel to be set in the United States. Was it a difficult transition to make from Europe?
David Liss: It was difficult in a number of ways for a number of reasons. My other books have been set in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and this one was set in the late eighteenth century. Historians mark the dividing line between the early modern period and the modern period as 1750. Although it’s a fairly arbitrary line, I do feel that people are much more modern at the end of the eighteenth century than they were at the beginning. Then of course there is the issue of writing about people and events with which many readers will already be familiar. And certainly American culture is very different from even English culture. So, yes, there was an enormous amount of research to do and an awful lot I had to learn.
DAD: Some of your previous books were populated with with lesserknown figures from history, such as Jonathan Wild in A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, but in The Whiskey Rebels you have a large cast of canonical figures, including Hamilton and Washington. What was that like?
DL: I tend not to like to write novels that are overpowered by names, places, and events with which a reasonably knowledgeable reader is likely already familiar. I’ve always been interested in trying to get inside a time and understand and express what it would have been like to be alive during a significant or transformative historical moment. I’m less interested in recasting the historical record in fictional form. I have nothing against that sort of historical fiction, and there are many fine examples of it, but I just don’t like to write it. In my other books, I’ve written about moments in time that are largely populated by figures with whom most modern readers will be unfamiliar. With this book, it would have been disingenuous to write out figures like Hamilton, Burr, Washington, and William Duer. If you were involved in the world of finance in New York or Philadelphia in the early 1790s, you would come across these people. The early American republic was a small world by today’s standards.
As for what it was like, I have to say I prefer to write about purely fictional figures or at least very minor historical figures. It always felt to me disrespectful in some way to write about people such as Hamilton, to manipulate them as though they were completely made up. Also, I like having the freedom to take a story or character in any direction I want it or him to go. If I suddenly decide that the best way to make the story work would be for Hamilton to shave his head and grow a beard, I don’t have the freedom to make him do that.
DAD: Can you say more about recreating a historical moment, and how you accomplished this in The Whiskey Rebels?
DL: When I think about the function of the historical novel, I tend to think about what it can do that history cannot. I think if you want simply to learn about the root causes of the Whiskey Rebellion or the Panic of 1792, there are numerous excellent works of history that you can reference that can provide all the important information you need. On the other hand, fiction can attempt to recreate the human experience of these events, the emotional context and specific subjectivity of living through such pivotal moments. It is all guesswork, of course. We can never really know how people in the past experienced their lives, but it is great fun, and interesting to try.
DAD: Your books generally have a crime or thriller or mystery aspect to them. Is that an integral part of the storytelling process for you?
DL: I think it is an integral part of the storytelling process for all traditional, narrative- driven fiction. I don’t like to think of myself as being limited to one particular genre, but I do employ many elements from mysteries and thrillers. I think those elements have been around as long as the novel has been around. When you think of the great early examples of the novel, you will find there is mystery and suspense in them, even if these are not what you would think of as mystery or suspense novels. Tom Jones is driven by the central mystery of the identity of Tom’s mother. Pride and Prejudice is driven by the suspense of who Elizabeth will marry. Narrative plots thrive on mystery, tension, and uncertainty. In my case, I often write about financial history, and so I tend to use these techniques because people are trained to believe they find finance dull, and I need to show in bold strokes what is at stake for the characters and their world if things go wrong for them.
DAD: What is it about financial history that so appeals to you?
DL: I wrote about finance in my first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, because the transformation of the British economy in the early eighteenth century was a large part of my graduate school work at the time. I had no idea that I would keep writing about finance in other times and places. I think what I like about it is that how major financial endeavors are managed and mismanaged tells us so much about the times. The Panic of 1792, for example, is entirely different from the South Sea Bubble. The early United States was, despite covering a lot of space, a small world economically. It made it easy for a small group of bad actors to wield undue influence in the market. I am drawn to showing how in each unique time and place people tend to make the same sort of overreaching errors, though the nature of those errors and how they play out are always very different.
DAD: Is it a coincidence that your novel about a major American financial panic was published during a major American financial panic?
DL: No coincidence. I crashed the economy in the hopes it would help me sell books. Does that make me greedy or simply aggressive? I just don’t know.
DAD: Your novel suggests that the events you write about had the power to destroy the early United States. Is that an exaggeration?
DL: I don’t think so. We tend to see the history of this country in progressive terms. There was the triumph of the Revolution, the triumph of the Constitution, the slight hiccup of the Civil War, but that was good because it ended slavery, and now here we are. The truth is so much more complicated and treacherous. One of the things that really drew me to write about the early republic was the tentative, fragile, and paranoid feelings of the time. Many people genuinely believed the country could never survive after Washington died or stepped down. Others were already horribly disillusioned with the Constitution, which they thought was oppressive and established a new kind of federal tyranny to replace the one they’d defeated in the Revolution. There was talk in New England about succeeding over slavery, and the South was, of course, twitchy whenever the issue of slavery was raised. The Westerners, whom I write about in this book, experienced firsthand the consequences of the centralization of government. The ideology of the Revolution was that the people have the right to direct access to those who govern them, but they were finding the government in Philadelphia no more responsive than the government had been in London. The right blow in the right place could have ended everything.
DAD: Joan Maycott suggests at one point that it would be better to destroy the early American republic than let it continue in a flawed state: “Is that [destruction] not preferable to permitting something rotten and insidious to dress itself up as glorious and just? If we do nothing, if we take our little share of wealth and turn our backs now, in future generations, when rank corruption masquerades as liberty, it will be upon our shoulders. True patriots will then ask why we who were there to witness this nation at the crossroads did nothing.” This is strong stuff, and she is a sympathetic character. You wrote those words, but do you agree with them?
DL: There are so many things I find brilliant and inspiring about the founders and the Enlightenment ideals they managed to crystallize into a working government. I continually marvel at the intelligence and flexibility built into the Constitution. On the other hand, all these things in all their greatness has tended to produce a kind of reflexive posture of rectitude in American culture. America is a shining beacon of freedom, and therefore if America does it, it must be good. Of course, no country is right all the time, and this one, like all others, makes mistakes. The principles upon which it was founded can’t be used as a shield to ward off selfreflection. I think Joan’s anger is just and her desire to strike back reasonable, but I don’t think she was right. It is hard not to wish that the founders would have had the courage to push back against slavery, or would have been more modern on issues of gender equity, but that is simply not the world they lived in. I think it much more healthy to see our country as a work in progress rather than as something that was cast in stone at the beginning. That is, after all, how the Constitution was designed.
DAD: Why did you choose to write the novel from two first-person perspectives? Was it hard for you to write from the perspective of a woman?
DL: For me, the hardest thing about getting a new novel under way is figuring out the right voice for the book. I played around with a lot of ways to tell this story before deciding on the two first-person voices. It was the one that felt most comfortable.
As far as writing a woman goes, I don’t think I would have the courage to write a story from the perspective of a contemporary woman, but I took shelter in the murkiness of the past. I did lots of reading on what life was like for women at the time. I read as many journals and letters as I could to get a feel for a woman’s perspective on early American politics and on life in the western frontier. I don’t know if I got it right, but it is an honest effort, and once I did the background work, those chapters were comfortable for me to write.
DAD: Ethan Saunders, like many of your characters, has a number of unlikable qualities. Why do you often write about flawed protagonists?
DL: I find flawed characters so much more interesting than squarejawed superhero types who always know the right thing to do and then do it without hesitation. I’m not entirely sure why, but I knew almost from the beginning that I wanted his story to be one of redemption, and for that to be possible, Ethan needed to be in a bad state at the beginning of the story. It is also fun to write about a character who is a drunk, womanizing, self- aggrandizing social misfit. I know in my own reading that it is often much easier to identify with and root for a flawed character so long as there is some basic human element to sympathize with and latch on to.
DAD: We began by asking you about the shift to an American setting. Do you plan to return to this period or these characters?
DL: I would say that it is a possibility but not a certainty. I feel that if I were to bring some of these characters back, I know exactly the story I’d like to bring them back into, and I think it would be something I’d very much enjoy writing. On the other hand, this book took me longer to write than anything I’ve ever done, and I’ll need some time off before I even consider such an undertaking again.