A Spectacle of Corruption
by David Liss
Published by Random House
400 pages, 2005
Conspiracies, caffeine, and corruption. These are the tantalizing topics that drive all three of David Liss' novels. He began his first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, while working on his doctoral dissertation on 18th century British literature and culture at Columbia University. The dissertation was never finished but his novel was. A Conspiracy of Paper is set in 18th century London against the advent of stock speculation and the brewing fight between the Bank of England and the South Sea Company. The tale centers around a former pugilist, Benjamin Weaver, a Jew on the outskirts of Christian society who sets out to investigate the death of his estranged father. To uncover the truth, such as it is, involves a rollicking and intriguing ride through the parlors and backrooms of high society and poorest slums of the city.
Liss' next book, The Coffee Trader, is based in 17th century Amsterdam, a city more accepting of its Jewish population than many other cities at the time. As Liss characterizes it, "that city [where] Jews enjoyed a degree of freedom unrivaled in the rest of Christendom." Following Miguel Lienzo, a relative of Benjamin Weaver, as he attempts to make in fortune in the nascent coffee industry, the story shifts between multiple perspectives relating how merchants in 1659 were swept up in the speculation over the strange new commodity of coffee.
A Spectacle of Corruption, Liss' third book, returns to London to pick up the tale of Benjamin Weaver, now wanted for murder. With the help and hindrance of several characters encountered in Conspiracy as well as a few new ones, Weaver plunges into the fractious world of 18th century British politics.
As Liss noted in A Spectacle of Corruption, he feels that "there is important political work to be done by writing a novel that exposes the corruption of another age." Appropriately, all three of Liss' books refract the turmoil of our current age through that of the 18th century. Not only do his novels deal with the exposure of corruption in the nascent stock markets and commodity exchanges but also the corruption of the judicial system. How each man negotiates his identity as a Jew emerges as a common theme in each book, integral to the character of each man and often a factor in the conspiracies surrounding him.
Liss makes his home in San Antonio, Texas where his wife is a university professor. He is also a vegan and, on his Web site, he urges all his meat-eating readers to "learn more about factory farms and the ways in which animals are treated and to make decisions about what to eat based on this knowledge rather than on habit and taste."
Though his books are somewhat serious in nature, Liss' very real sense of humor coils just beneath the surface, something that is most apparent on the same site, where he advises visitors that he "rules over his family with unchecked patriarchal fury."
Taking a break from his unchecked fury, Liss talked with January Magazine recently about his past three novels, his upcoming works, and just how much personal research he did on coffee for The Coffee Trader.
Simone Swink: Who or what inspires you when you write?
David Liss: Me. It was just something I wanted to do. I wasn't really out to be anyone in particular. I didn't have a particular writer who I wanted to emulate so much as I wanted to do something. I chose the material -- the old adage is write what you know.
When you were researching your second book, The Coffee Trader, you originally started writing about chocolate instead of coffee. Why?
I have no particular interest in chocolate but I had reached a kind of clinical decision that that was the commodity to write about. There was a lot of literature, a lot out there about it. But as I got going, coffee was a better fit. I have a particular interest in coffee. I like it. I drink a lot of it when I write. It was an excuse to learn about it ... there were a few scenes in that book in which characters are experiencing what it's like to be heavily caffeinated. That was one of my only experiences of method writing. It was one of the only times that I've done it that way.
Did you find there was material that you would have liked to include and just did not have room?
That's always the case. There are scraps left over at the end. Sometimes you work very hard to incorporate them but at the end, sometimes off they go. I tried to use as much as I could because I find people like to read the history of the familiar. A big problem with The Coffee Trader is a lot of the history happens after that book. Some great stories take place with the popularity of coffee in western Europe ... I take them on the road with me and use them on tour.
What characters do you get the most feedback on?
I've written most about Benjamin Weaver. If someone's going to come hear me speak, that's usually who they want to know about. In particular, people want to know what is going to happen with Benjamin and Miriam.
The next Benjamin Weaver novel is already written and Miriam is pretty much gone as a character. I wanted to get rid of her completely in the second book and it was one of the only instances in which I took my editor's advice and I regretted it instantly. I felt like the character was done. I did what I wanted to do with her. I'm a little bit cruel to my characters and readers and I avoid the pleasant resolutions because the pleasant resolution is unpleasant to the writer. As a writer, it's much harder to go back to the happy home rather than to the tormented soul. Originally the last line of the book was that Weaver never heard from her again and my editor talked me out of that.
I read that you based Weaver on Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza. How did you first encounter Mendoza and what about him influenced your creation of Benjamin Weaver?
When I was in graduate school, one of my interests was in Jews in 18th century British literature. There are not that many texts out there about, including, or by Jews, so I read whatever I could get my hands on. When I came across references to Mendoza, and learned that he had a memoir, I read it immediately. It wasn't much use for my dissertation, but it was interesting. Even though I had no plans at that moment to write fiction, I couldn't help but think that he'd make a great protagonist for a novel. I think that must have stuck, because when I started thinking about my novel, I couldn't get Mendoza off the brain. Unfortunately, Mendoza lived and fought toward the end of the 18th century, and since I wanted to set the book much earlier, I took liberties with certain aspects of his life, took some other ideas I had, and created Weaver only partly out of Mendoza.
Was there also a person who was the historical basis for Miguel?
As for Miguel, he is entirely made up based on the sort of character I wanted to see in that situation.
You mentioned in an earlier interview with Mark Haskell Smith that you are interested in Jewish identities at various points in history. Why?
I don't know. I think because I can try and intellectualize it. Jewish identity is interesting to me because there are elements that are perpetual and there are elements always in flux. Given the moment in history in which we live, there ... there's something I've never quite understood about patriotism and what it is to love your country and what it is to love your land and the customs and traditions attached. There's something much more dynamic and fluid and problematic about Jewish history and identity and Jewish identity is often like a sponge and a mirror in whatever moment it happens to exist. It's always interesting to me to learn about how Jews saw themselves and non-Jews saw them at any point in history and that's something I've always found interesting.
You mentioned earlier that you dislike happy resolutions and yet, in The Coffee Trader, Miguel ends up pretty happy at the end?
One of the things that attracted me to that project was the character Miguel who ended up much more likable than I planned. I wanted to write about someone who was his own worst enemy. I ended up liking him much more than I planned. I like writing about characters who are ambiguous. I get frustrated with fiction where the good guys are all good and the bad guys are all so bad. I get e-mail from a lot of people who say The Coffee Trader is their least favorite of my books because they don't like any of the characters. Ultimately, that was one of the points.
In A Spectacle of Corruption, you wrote: I do feel there is important political work to be done by writing a novel that exposes the corruption of another age.
How and why?
Over the last couple years, I've reached this conclusion that I'm lucky enough to have a certain number of readers and it seems to me ethically wrong to not say something if you can. In the case of the Ben Weaver novels, it seems that one thing you can do in a historical novel is not just tell people about that period but hold it up in implicit contrast to our own. I think there's something very interesting about seeing a version of our time in another. You recognize things more clearly when they are defamiliarized. And it seems to me that that is the real obstacle to real political change. For the most part these things are defamiliarized from constant exposure and there's nothing like the funhouse mirror to make you see something new.
In your novels, clever and slightly wicked women like Geertruid (The Coffee Trader) and Miss Dogmill (A Spectacle of Corruption) are vital to both aiding the protagonists and enlivening the narrative. Unlike the women "suitable" for matrimony (Miriam in the Benjamin Weaver novels and Hannah in The Coffee Trader), Geertruid and Miss Dogmill are just as resourceful and engaged in the havoc as the men are. What were the inspirations behind these female characters? Have you ever considered centering a book around one of them?
I'm not sure there is an inspiration behind these women, so much as they represent the end result of something of a kind of intellectual challenge. The historical novels I've written take place in what are essentially masculine worlds -- politics and finance in early modern Europe. If I want to have women in these novels, if I want them to be interesting, and if I want them to be historically plausible, then it takes some trickery -- and the trickery on my part probably translates to trickery on theirs. The one thing I want to avoid above all else is having women who somehow anticipate our period, who long for the day when they can be as enlightened as we are. Rather, I try to imagine how an intelligent and ambitious woman would work with the tools and the intellectual disposition of her moment.
As for centering a novel around such a character, anything is possible, but I haven't any plans at the moment.
As I read the three books, I was trying to work out how or if Benjamin Weaver and Miguel Lienzo were related?
It's a little bit convoluted because there are some tricky paternity issues because Miguel takes his brother's wife. Miguel is technically Weaver's great uncle but the family believes that he's the grandfather.
It was driving me mad trying to figure it out...
I didn't really think it through that it would trouble people so much. It was a plot twist I hadn't really intended.
You have a wonderful line at the end of A Spectacle of Corruption: I had long thought him an unprincipled villain but I now understood that villainy in most men is but a matter of degree.
Were you waiting to use that? Was it a driving theme for you?
That just sort of happened. I don't remember specifically cultivating that line and waiting to use it so much as with any writer there are a few ideas I return to again and again and it's that way for me. Nobody is the villain of their own story, you know, the things we do to cheat other people, those are the aberrations, people are very good at compartmentalizing. I guess I had Weaver come to that realization because that's something that's important and interesting. I don't want to have just villains, I want to have desperate villains. One of the big influences on my writing is Trollope who created flawed villains as opposed to the Dickensian big book common villains.
Your fourth book comes out next February. What is it about? What can readers expect?
This is sort of the beginning of a new phase of my career. I absolutely plan to continue to write historical fiction but I plan to write other kinds of fiction as well. After I finished writing Conspiracy, there was a fair amount of pressure to write a sequel immediately. But I didn't want to get trapped.
This book I have coming out is more or less contemporary. It takes place in the mid-1980s. It's a project I've long had in mind which is a novel about animal rights issues. A friend of mine did a blurb for it and described it as "Hardy boys on acid." It's dark humor, it was a lot of fun to write. I'm hoping it will open up a lot of new audiences for me. But I'm expecting some nasty notes...
Are you surprised about how much readers feel entitled to let you know how they feel?
There's something surprising about e-mail. I should say that the overwhelming amount of e-mail is very pleasant and I'm surprised at how many people write. Novel writing is a solitary affair and you forget anyone is out there. I get some very ugly notes and I'm always surprised that people don't feel the need to extend common courtesy and they feel fine about being mean.
When can people look forward to in the third Ben Weaver novel?
It's done. But my editor quit and the new editor hasn't read it yet. I assume they are publishing it in February 2007.
The book I'm writing now, I realized I could finish before the end of the year. If I could do that, I have this strange impulse to collect things. Not stamps, if I need a post-it note, I like to have a lot of them.
So the idea of being two novels ahead appeals to me. | August 2005
Simone Swink is a television producer and writer in New York City.