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Powell's Q&A

David Liss

Describe your latest project.
The Whiskey Rebels is a historical thriller about the first financial panic in American history, the Panic of 1792. Modern readers will have to use their imaginations to understand the financial conditions of the time: wild real estate speculation, a vigorous trade in potentially worthless instruments of credit, a widespread fear of bank failures, a superheated political rivalry fueled by malicious lies, and, finally, speculators so blinded by the allure of untamed wealth they are willing to endanger the entire American economy. Different world.

The Whiskey Rebels centers around two characters: Ethan Saunders is a former Revolutionary War spy, cast out of the army on charges of treason. We find him 10 years after this disgrace, for which he has always blamed Alexander Hamilton. He is now a drunk and a gambler, living on the fringes of Philadelphia. At his lowest moment, he is approached by the woman he would have married had his life not fallen apart. She believes that she and her children are in danger, and this danger is somehow connected to Alexander Hamilton, now Secretary of the Treasury, and his great project, the Bank of the United States.

Joan Maycott, the other principal character, is an ambitious woman who dreams of writing the first American novel. When she and her husband are tricked by speculators into trading all they have for land on the western frontier, they discover a hard world of cruelty and violence. But they also make a name for themselves as the region's premier whiskey distillers. Their lives, however, are ruined when, in order to fund his Bank, Hamilton convinces Congress to pass a tax on Whiskey, with disastrous results for the Maycotts. Believing that the American experiment has already gone horribly astray, Joan vows to destroy Hamilton, the Bank, and perhaps even the country.

The Whiskey Rebels is a tale of two characters steeped in the uncertain and fractious world of the early American republic. One is driven by a powerful need for redemption, the other by a need for revenge.

  1. The Whiskey Rebels
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    The Whiskey Rebels

    David Liss

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  3. The Coffee Trader (Ballantine Reader
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What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Lydia Bennet, the youngest sister in Pride and Prejudice. She's the one with terrible judgment who runs off with Mr. Wickham, that cad. Maybe I think she's just misunderstood. Or maybe I like bad girls. Or maybe I like fictional bad girls. Or maybe I'm just contrary.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I spent the summer after my freshman year of college as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in Florida. There is no way to convey sufficiently how bizarre an experience this was. We worked (if you define the term loosely to also include the time we were supposed to be in one another's company) a good 18 hours a day, and when we weren't selling, we were being indoctrinated, so the effect was sort of like being in a cult. Our principal sales techniques involved targeting poor people, lying to them in order to gain access to their homes, and making them feel like bad parents if they did not buy books they could not afford. On the other hand, they did get a set of good encyclopedias, which was how I justified it to myself. I quit when I realized I was dreaming about nothing except selling encyclopedias, and that meant I was working 24 hours a day, every day. Not healthy.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I'd have to go with Anthony Trollope, perhaps the most underappreciated novelist in the English language. As a contemporary and rival of Dickens, Trollope clearly lost the popularity war and continues to be the loser. Everyone can at least name a Dickens novel even if they have never read one or never read one they liked. Most people can't name a single one of Trollope's more than 60 novels. But where Dickens went for the heartstrings, Trollope went for the purse strings. He wrote relentlessly, honestly, and brutally about how wealth and greed and poverty affect relationships. Unlike Dickens, whose characters are often cloyingly sweet or diabolically evil, Trollope dealt with ambiguity. His good characters are always in danger of falling. His bad characters are just like the good ones, only they have already fallen. There is no better place to start than with the book I consider his masterwork, The Way We Live Now. Awesomeness.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Not as such, but when I do research for historical novels, I always wait until I'm very far along in the process — usually on the final draft — before going to the place I am writing about and doing physical research. The end result, if it is not a place I know well, is often like visiting a fictional land. I've taken research trips to London, Amsterdam, and Philadelphia, and when I walk down streets or enter buildings I've read about and written about, it feels strangely surreal, like I'm visiting Oz or Middle Earth.

Why do you write?
"Why did I write? What sin to me unknown / Dipt me in Ink, my Parents', or my own? / As yet a Child, nor yet a Fool to Fame, / I lisp'd in November, for the Numbers came." Who doesn't like a little Alexander Pope? I realize, of course, that the answer to that question is almost everyone.

Name the best television series of all time.
Babylon 5. Brilliant in its conception and writing, if not always in its acting, and rarely in its special effects. It was, however, a series built upon novelistic principals, meant to last five years, with its creator, J. Michael Straczynski, having mapped out its beginning, middle, and end in advance. Thus, seemingly insignificant events in the first season might make developments in the third season seem incredibly powerful. It was a series of big ideas and well-drawn characters, and every episode offered something rewarding. Second place goes to Joss Whedon's short-lived but wildly engaging space western, Firefly. Yes, I know my dork is showing.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Is this a joke? My idea of a wild time on book tour is taking a can of Pringles from the hotel mini bar, knowing that my publisher will be picking up the bill.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
I never, ever, ever thought I would write a book about the Federalist period. Like a lot of Americans who only know the period from boring passages in public-school textbooks, I imagined the founders as dry and uninteresting, the period dull and airless. Even while I was reading about the period — at first because I was simply curious, and later because I was sucked in by the instability of the times, the paranoia of the politics, and the larger-than-life, sometimes comically bombastic personalities of the founders — I never believed I would write a novel about these figures and these times. One day, however, I realized that I was thinking of plots and stories and characters, and I was in whether or not I wanted to be. Here are five of the books that drew me in:

His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis

I started reading about the founders and the origins of the American republic in late 2004. Political events of that year left me feeling like I didn't really know that much about my own country, and I wanted to have a better sense of who we were as a nation and where we came from. Ellis is a brilliant writer who drew me in immediately, helped me understand why Washington was such a monolithic figure in his time, and got me hooked on learning more about the other founders, whom he portrays with a novelist's sensibility and a historian's accuracy.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis

I went straight for another Joseph Ellis book. I read many more, but I won't just include him on the list. This one is important, though, because he uses a series of separate stories about pivotal moments in the republic's early years to paint a broad picture of a tumultuous time and grand historical figures. This book gives the reader a clear sense of how the founders perceived the stakes, what they wanted for America's present and future, and how far they were willing to go to get it.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I read a lot of biographies of the founders, and biographers often "go native" with their subjects, seeing the world as the subject sees the world. Hamilton had a lot of enemies, and in many of the books I read, I saw only his darker side. Chernow provides a much-needed corrective, and while he clearly finds much to admire in Hamilton — and he should — he never loses a sense of perspective. Hamilton comes across as a very flawed but very brilliant man.

The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty by William Hogeland

There are many books out there about the Whiskey Rebellion, and I think I've probably read them all, but this one is my favorite. Hogeland recreates the events of the rebellion, but also does a wonderful job of relating what life was like on the Pennsylvania frontier, and he has the best analysis of the economic conditions that led to the uprising that I've yet seen. I don't always agree with his take on some of the major figures, especially Hamilton, but that's okay. I don't mind a little disagreement. This is a smart, informative, and engaging read.

The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick.

Not for the casual reader, I warn you. This is a big book, and it doesn't spend a lot of time trying to convince you that you are really interested in this stuff even if you don't think you are. But this is the book on the Federalist period, examining it from every conceivable angle and drawing conclusions that are very hard to argue with. This is the one book to read if you really want to know the early republic.

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David Liss is the author of A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, as well as The Ethical Assassin. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children. spacer

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