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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In the Moonlight with David Liss, Author of The Devil's Company

Why Don't Suspense Heroes Like To Read?

by David Liss

Have you ever noticed that in suspense novels writers almost never depict protagonists who read, or even like, books? Yes, I am sure there are lots of exceptions out there, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. If a detective or a spy or an attorney has some down time in the novel, he or she will turn on the television, practice the harpsichord, brush up their Tagalog or indulge whatever obscure, character-developing hobbies they may have developed over the course of their unusual life. They rarely read.

Why is that? Why do writers seem so reluctant to make their heroic protagonists readers? I think part of it is the anti-intellectual stigma we have in American life that posits reading as somehow the opposite of doing. Readers are not doing anything of value, after all. If Secret Agent Jones is not busy uncovering terrorist plots, then he can working on his vintage Ferrari, because that gives him depth and makes him cool. If, on the other hand, we see him relaxing after a hard day by losing himself in Middlemarch, we can pretty much assume that it’s only a matter of time before the terrorists get the drop on him.

Several years ago I was on a panel of thriller writers, and the moderator asked us all to talk about how we researched our books. Everyone else had much to say about their exciting lives: This one spent weeks living with real smoke-jumpers; that one joined a daring smuggling venture across the heavily-guarded Freedonian border. Me? I spent a lot of time in the library. I could tell from the response of the audience that this was a let down. And sure, the library doesn’t make for great anecdotes – though there were some scary paper cuts – I think it’s a perfectly reasonable way to go. Historical novelists, of course, often have no choice but to rely on library work. Until we get that time machine working properly, and I get over the urge to go back in time and kill my own ancestors just for the fun of creating a paradox, the library is the best thing going. But somehow, many readers find this vaguely disappointing.

Books, even works of fiction, are supposed to contain some kind of authenticity. Readers expect information to be truthful. You can go to a historical film and see Vikings riding around on Segues and somehow that’s okay, because it is only a movie. If a novelist puts the wrong color sandals on Jules Cesar’s feet, there is going to be hell to pay.

I also hear this kind of thing from my readers. Just this morning received a very kind email from a man who read a galley of my new novel, which is set in England during the 1720s and, like much of what I write, focuses on a pivotal moment in financial history. “I don’t see anything about it in your biography,” he writes, “but I am sure you must have worked in business yourself, or maybe someone in your family did. I find it hard to believe that you could understand the inner workings of a corporation so well without some kind of personal experience.” Thank you, sir, for your very kind praise, but other than some office temp jobs. I’ve learned many things from my family, but not much of it is useful when writing about economic history. On the other hand, as Henry James wisely observes in “The Art of Fiction,” a mere glimpse of something, when combined with the writers experience, can be synthesized to produce the illusion of reality.

And that’s pretty much what I try to do. My research provides me with the details that cannot be obtained otherwise, and combined with the experience of the world that most human beings acquire through being alive, I can reasonably hypothesize how a particular kind of person would respond under particular circumstances. A lifetime in business would be one way to get that information, but personally I think research is better because when I’m done with one novel, I can go learn about something else and writer a different one. In any case this system has worked for me and enabled me to write about the kinds of characters I want to write about. Who often read, by the way.

David Liss is the author of five novels, with more on the way. His debut novel, A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) with its hero, the pugilist turned private investigator Benjamin Weaver, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won him the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First Novel. David's second novel, The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year's 25 Books to Remember. His third novel A Spectacle of Corruption (2004) the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, became a national bestseller. David's fourth novel, The Ethical Assassin (2006) is his first full-length work that is not historical fiction. David's most recent novel, The Whiskey Rebels, is set in 1790's Philadelphia and New York. The third Benjamin Weaver novel, The Devil's Company, will be in stores in late 2009.

Born in New Jersey and raised in Florida, David is, in fact, a one-time encylopedia salesman. He received his B.A. from Syracuse University, an M.A. from Georgia State Universty and his M.Phil from Columbia University, where he left his dissertation unfinished to pursue his writing career.

David lives in San Antonio with his wife and children. You can visit his website at

4 Moonbeams (comments):

Molly Daniels said...

The experts say to 'write what you know', but sometimes the barest glimmer of an idea/career/lifestyle will manifest itself in the subconscious and find a way into our stories! Sometimes I just write the scene and follow the 'don't get it right, get it written' policy and fix it with research and rewrites later. Other times, an issue will come up and I'll have to actually stop and research before continuing on.

You're right; it's high praise when we come off as experts when in actuality it was dumb luck (or a sharp editor!) to get the correct words written and create the illusion!

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. That was a really interesting article.

Carrie said...

Thanks for that bit of inspiration David!

You know, I think you're right about the heroes not reading, or reading much.

However, I do have to say that Amanda Quick (aka Jayne Ann Krentz) does have heroines and some heroes that do read. It's interesting how she does it. Sometimes, it's the heroines who write, or some female connected to either the hero or heroine that writes. Sometimes, she likes to surprise the reader with the fact that the hero has read some of the adventure novels of the day.

But you're right, I do believe that reading has too much of a stigma to it, unless it's a comic book or graphic novel....

Enjoyed the post, really insightful.


Terry Kate said...

Maybe if the hero was reading something super interesting?
Not sure exactly what that might be. Plus down time can give your hunk a chance to go workout. Any activity where we can follow him and he can be contemplating such things as the mystery or his lady love is always good.

Thanks so much for the thought provoking article!
Terry Kate
Romance in the Backseat