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Interview with David Liss, Author of The Devil’s Company

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Disclosure: David Liss is represented by Pump Up Your Book Promotion, a public relations agency owned and operated by the author of this article.

David Liss is the author of six novels, most recently The Devil’s Company. He has five previous bestselling novels: A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Ethical Assassin, and The Whiskey Rebels.

In 2008, at the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in Bali, Indonesia, Liss was named an Artist for Integrity by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. No one is really sure why he should receive this honor or what it means, but it very possibly makes him the Bono of historical fiction.

David Liss’ novels have been translated into more than two dozen languages. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children, and can be reached via his web page, which features his endlessly fascinating and edifying blog. You can also contact David Liss on Facebook.

We interviewed David to find out more about his new book, The Devil’s Company, and his life as a published author.

Your newest book, The Devil’s Company, is filled with foreign spies, government operatives, and a large number of very dangerous and greedy people. Why did you decide to write this type of book?

I've always been very interested in writing about how large social movements, especially economic and political movements, affect people largely ignored by history. In this novel I have, on the one hand, the incredible and growing power of the British East India Company, and on the other, the ordinary people, especially laborers, but also stockholders and consumers, whose lives are shaped, and often distorted, by that power. When you are writing about such daunting subjects, it often makes things more interesting to include elements of suspense, but suspense is more than just a narrative trick for me. It is at the heart of traditional fiction. Wondering what will happen next, or how characters will cope with obstacles and dangers and setbacks, is one of the great pleasures of reading.

Why did you feel the British East India Company was perfect for your story?

In the time when I wanted to set the novel, the 1720s, it was already a major business presence in Britain and the growing British empire. And, of course, it was destined to become a significant arm of Britain's global presence in the late 18th and 19th centuries. There were also a number of elements in the story of the East India Company at this time that presented interesting parallels to the world of business today – the Company’s financial ties to the government, how its cheap imported goods hurt many domestic industries, its efforts to limit the power of unions, etc. The story is not an allegory of a contemporary company, but there many interesting points of contact between the way business is done now and the way it was done almost 300 years ago.

This makes your sixth book, all with Random House. What’s your secret?

My secret is that I like to write books, and I am not happy unless I am working on something. As soon as I finish a novel, I start researching the next one. Once I took a day off between books, but I didn't like it.

What kind of frustrations have you encountered since becoming a published author?

I think the thing that frustrates me most is the general notion in our culture that novels are movies in embryonic form, only waiting to be born. A novelist's success, in many ways, is measured by whether or not his work has been adapted to the big screen. Don't get me wrong — I love movies, and I would love to see successful adaptations of my work (a couple are in the early stages right now — hooray!). When I was growing up, everyone's parents read novels. Now, novel-readers are more of a subset of society, like stamp collectors or spelunkers. And, as various media outlets — newspapers, magazines, television — shrink their coverage of fiction, it only exacerbates the trend. So, it's time for fiction-reading to go mainstream once again. Who's with me?

Your agent is Liz Darhansoff of Darhansoff, Verill and Feldman. How did you get accepted by such a prestigious agency?

I was very lucky. I went through the usual harrowing process of sending out query letters and sample chapters and getting rejections — everywhere from polite to scathing. Then, a friend of mine who had recently published her first novel — the talented writer and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro — offered to read my manuscript and then pass it along to her agent, Liz Darhansoff. And from there, everything went about as well as I could possibly hope.

Your novel had an unusual publication history. Can you tell us about that?

I actually finished this novel several years ago. I turned it in, and my editor was very enthusiastic, but both she and my agent thought it would be a better career move to publish my next novel first. They thought this book, which became The Whiskey Rebels, would do a better job of building audience. I was disappointed, because I did not like sitting on a finished book, but I understood their reasoning. In any case, I can't argue with results since The Whiskey Rebels did, in fact, bring in many new readers.

How has book marketing changed over the years in your own experience?

As I mentioned in an earlier, ranting response, the mass media has increasingly edged fiction-reading out of the American mainstream. I think this is especially strange in the case of newspapers, which are devoting less time and money to book reviews than ever before. Newspaper readers, after all, are already readers. But that's why I love that there are now so many outlets for fiction readers, reviewers, and enthusiasts on the Internet. It is great that those of us who love books can now find so many places for news, reviews, and other exciting tidbits.

What’s next for you, David?

I've recently begun to work in the world of comics, and I have my first issue coming out with Marvel in September: Daring Mystery Comics Annual #1, featuring the Phantom Reporter. And there is another project in the development stage as well. Otherwise, I am hard at work on my next novel, which is set in England in 1811-12, centering on the Luddite uprising, romanticism, and practitioners of traditional English magic. It's fun stuff.

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