“I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with the distinction between literary and non-literary fiction.”
By Greg Kishbaugh
As much as any author, David Liss epitomizes the ethos that lies at the heart of The Burning Maiden anthology series. The introduction to volume one was titled “Blurred Lines” after all; a pretty straight-forward shot across the bow of the ghettoized notion that many still hold concerning horror/suspense writing.
Liss, a critically acclaimed author of deeply researched and engrossing literary tales such as The Day of Atonement, A Conspiracy of Paper and The Whiskey Rebels is also a world-class writer of comics, with a celebrated run on Marvel’s Black Panther: The Man Without Fear series, and a string of pulp character resurrections, including The Spider and The Shadow for Dynamite Entertainment.
He is a writer who is celebrated partly because he so ably balances the profound insights achievable only, it seems, with great fiction but who also does not hesitate to relish the sheer thrilling adventure to be found in great storytelling.
“Some books are better written than others, but in the publishing world what counts as literary and what doesn’t is often arbitrary and a function of genre,” Liss said. “It drives me crazy when a book that is clearly science fiction or fantasy or horror is no longer considered to be really genre fiction because it’s ‘good.’ Similarly, many excellent books are brilliantly written, but not considered literary, simply because they are genre—the works of the late Iain M. Banks come to mind.
“In any case,” he continued, “I’ve always loved compelling, well-written, voice-driven fiction, and I’ve also always been drawn to certain genres that are not generally considered literary. When I was writing my first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, I was under the impression I was writing a historical genre mystery, but I was later told ‘no,’ it’s a literary thriller. Okay, that’s fine. I’ll take it. Certainly, that label has served me well throughout my career, so I’m not complaining, though I also know that I got that label while maybe some other, equally ‘literary’ books did not simply because of my agent’s and publisher’s positioning. That positioning has produced some double takes among readers who don’t get why I would want to write comics (which are clearly so low brow!), but the fact is, I love narrative, and each medium offers its own advantages.”
Writers and readers—lovers of words and stories—are bound by so many common elements and influences. It’s one of the most magnificent aspects of the literary life. We share so many cultural touchstones that just the mention of a bygone author or beloved book can lead to spirited conversation and debate.
When I asked Liss for his earliest influences, I mentioned that two of my earliest and lifelong literary loves were (and remain) Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. And suddenly Liss’s passion flowed.
“I also grew up on Burroughs and Bradbury! There were also lots of other usual suspects: Robert E. Howard, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Silverberg, Stephen King, John Saul, H. P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison and on and on and on. You know the drill. I encourage my [students] to read what they like and to enjoy stories rather than to try to shape their tastes—though I do make suggestions, of course. But for me, it was the fact that I read things I loved and found absorbing that fired my imagination. As I grew older, of course my tastes changed, and many of the writers I once loved I now find don’t appeal to me. Similarly, writers I’ve come to love as an adult, like Anthony Trollope would have bored me as a teenager. I think that’s perfectly normal. Our tastes change, and so does what we’re looking to get out of reading. That’s even more the case if you’re a writer. I know I’m always looking to learn from the things I read.”
Liss’s almost inexorable pull toward historical fiction stems from its ability to allow him to analyze social issues through the long lens of time. What surprises him, even to this day, is how much does not change.
“I’ve always been interested in how historical fiction reveals (as do non-fiction history books to an even more powerful extreme), how little the elements of human nature have changed over the years. Anti-semitism, racism, the ill treatment of women, corporate excess and greed are all analyzed in the Weaver books.”
The Weaver books, Liss’s entrée into publishing stardom, are a set of novels centered around the exploits of a Jewish, ex-boxer named Benjamin Weaver who finds himself entrenched in numerous nefarious goings on in A Conspiracy of Paper, The Spectacle of Corruption, and The Devil’s Company. They provide ample evidence of the author’s ability to meld intricate (and obscure) historical events with compelling action and strong character building, as well as a means for the author to analyze the timeless societal issues of racism, classism and the dark side of the financial markets.
Liss’s latest historical release, The Day of Atonement, follows a protégé of Weaver’s named Sebastian Foxx who weaves through the dangerous streets of mid-1700s Lisbon, Portugal, in the hopes of avenging the death of his family. His journey is made all the more treacherous not only by the complicated and morally dark financial atmosphere that Liss delves into with greater verve than possibly any other modern fiction writer, but also by the ominous presence in Lisbon of The Inquisition.
Liss brings an academic’s eye to the details surrounding the historical elements of his stories and a storyteller’s gleeful passion to the bare-knuckled exploits of his protagonists.
“My first novel was historical fiction not because of any love I may have had for the genre, but because I wanted to write a novel, and everyone always says you should write what you know,” Liss said. “I was studying 18th century British literature at the time, and what I knew was 18th century England. I had read and enjoyed lots of historical fiction up to that point, though not exclusively, and I certainly didn’t think of it as a genre. It was more the sort of thing I would reach for if I were looking for a certain ‘feel’ from a novel. But when I started to write A Conspiracy of Paper, I brought a lot of my academic experience to trying to figure out how people in the 18th century would have understood themselves, their lives, and their interactions with the world. I know that there are a lot of critical modes of thinking that have shaped my sense of the world, particularly Marxist thinkers like Foucault and Althusser. Their take on how and why ideology gets reproduced and disseminated can probably be found in everything I write.
“Once I finished that book,” Liss continued, “I stuck (mostly) with historical fiction because I liked it, and even if the research requirements sometimes get me down (I want to start writing already!), I love the kinds of opportunities offered by explorations of the past. In some ways, the past is limiting, but in other ways I find the freedom from writing about the modern world (overtly, anyhow) to be liberating.”
Historical fiction is lined with pitfalls perhaps more perilous than any other in storytelling. The number of ways in which it can go quickly wrong are often outweighed by the subtle (but spectacular) ways in which it can go right. The amount of research and depth of knowledge required to adequately and believably sink a reader into another time period is a monumental task. Almost overwhelming. But it’s a task that Liss not only relishes; he feels he knows the various pitfalls of which to be careful.
“I would have to say that the greatest challenge is trying to create characters who seem to belong to an alien past, rather than contemporary characters inhabiting a historical world,” he said. “This process is, of course, a constant struggle, and it is also a lot of guess work, but I think it is impossible to write truly great historical fiction if the characters don’t seem to belong to a different era.”
Liss’s love of storytelling, and his resistance to being button-holed into any one literary category, has never been more apparent than in his newly released Randoms, a Middle Grade science fiction novel that is an ode to geek fandom. The book’s hero, Zeke Reynolds, is a sixth grader whose love of comics, games and science-fiction themed movies and television shows is the driving force behind his hero’s journey. It’s a love letter to all the fantastical so-called genre fiction that has been a life-long influence on his creative output.
Liss approaches his fiction writing from a deeply analytical standpoint, surely a byproduct of his academic background. But through it all the sheer joy of storytelling for him has never waned. Liss understands the importance of retaining one’s almost childlike wonder when it comes to the strange alchemy of story but also bringing a professional, methodical eye to the craft, as well. A mixture of science and magic one could say.
“I don’t think I would have been able to write my first novel if I had not gone through a ph.d. program in English lit,” Liss stated. “It’s not that I studied fiction writing, or even form in that program, but I gained a lot of hardcore thinking skills that enabled me to figure out how a novel is put together. Beyond that, I picked up a lot of useful research skills, and encountered a lot of thinkers that helped to shape my own views of the world.
“I enjoy, and thrive on, a great deal of input, so not only do I watch TV, film, and read novels when I’m writing, but I need to in order to do my best work,” he continued. “That said, I am always analyzing elements of story and character—and with novels, I am always analyzing craft. To my mind, that’s how people who are storytellers go through the world, but that’s no reason to cut off the stories that drew us to this profession in the first place.
“I tend to be drawn more to style than genre in fiction, so for me a good, voice-driven book is always my first choice,” Liss continued. “In film and television, I tend to favor genre much more heavily. I love science fiction, fantasy, action and suspense. I’m a big martial arts film fan. With novels, I also like genre fiction, but the majority of science fiction and fantasy I’ve read tends to be too action and plot oriented, and not sufficiently voice and character centered for my taste. There are always exceptions, of course, and I am happy when I find them.”
David Liss’s story, “Wrinkled Ghost,” appears in volume two of The Burning Maiden anthology, which can be purchased in various editions through the following:
Visit the author’s website: davidliss.com
Photograph of David Liss by Chantel Nasits
Greg Kishbaugh is the author of the supernatural thriller series, Bone Welder, published by Evileye Books.