(Read Part One here
David Liss is the New York Times-bestselling author whose literary suspense titles have earned him a special place with readers and reviewers who appreciate the quality of his writing, the development of his characters, and the page-turning stories he tells.
His newest book is The Whiskey Rebels, and it takes place in the early 1790s in the United States.
MJR: How do you delve into a historical past you cannot yourself remember — yet you somehow manage to write about so well?
Liss: My background is in literary studies, not in history, and so by training I am inclined to pay as much attention to researching historical subjectivity as material historical fact. What people ate and wore and how they got around and the material conditions of their day-to-day lives are all very interesting, but they are also meaningless if we try to impose a contemporary sense of self into a historical setting. When I work on historical characters, I always try to imagine how this person, living at this time, would respond to this problem or obstacle or success or whatever it is they are dealing with.
MJR: Do you believe at all in a collective unconscious and that you are pulling from memory, or is your ability to write about a past you cannot have lived just a testament to your creativity?
Liss: I've never really considered the idea of a collective unconsciousness in terms of my writing, but I never feel as though I am tapping into something that is already there. I think of the ability to project a character from the past into my writing as a combination of in-depth historical research with the kind of creative character development in which all serious writers engage. I am a real believer in using as many primary sources as possible, especially letters, journals, newspapers, advertisements, and any other relatively unpolished or personal documents that provide a glimpse of how people imagined themselves and the world in which they lived. In the end, writing historical characters is always guesswork, but you want to make the best guess you can. Another way of saying that is that the historical novelist doesn't have to always be demonstrably right, but he or she should never be demonstrably wrong.
Memory plays an important role in all character-based fiction. Writers create characters whose lives and experience may vary widely from their own, but they also always try to build these characters through the sympathetic harnessing of their own memories. Historical fiction is no different except that it requires the extra step of projecting that sympathy into a fully researched past.
(Read Part Three here.)