I first became aware of the work of David Liss in 2006, with the release of The Ethical Assassin. The title was irresistible. I loved that crime novel’s complex and darkly satirical look at the intersection of capitalism’s drive for profit at any cost and the ethics surrounding both the factory farming of animals and radical animal rights activism. I immediately started to read his backlist, pleased to discover the Benjamin Weaver series–which began with A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel–and even more, the historical thriller I consider to be his masterpiece, The Coffee Trader, a look at the early days of modern capitalism, set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, examining the role of the coffee trade, and coffee itself, as fuel for the world of relentless production and consumerism in which we now find ourselves. Liss is also the writer of several pulp comics, most notably a run redefining the classic vigilante The Spider for Dynamite Entertainment. His most recent works include the science-fiction comics series Angelica Tomorrow (with artist Allen Byrns) and a new novel tangentially related to his Benjamin Weaver series, the historical thriller The Day of Atonement.
Claude Lalumière: Your first three novels were historical crime fiction, but for your fourth, The Ethical Assassin, you ventured out of that genre with a (near-)contemporary satirical thriller. Were either your agent or your publishers concerned about this shift? Were you consciously stepping away from historicals with this one, or did that not even occur to you as you were writing it?
David Liss: I feel like I may have always been a source of frustration for my publisher. From the beginning of my career, I wanted to make certain I wasn’t pigeonholed into a writing just one sort of book. After my first novel came out, I was under a fair amount of pressure to write a sequel immediately, but I suspected doing so would make it even harder to branch out in the future. My second book dealt with material very similar to the first, but I took a different approach. My third novel was the sequel my editor wanted, so I knew I wanted to do something very different for #4. So, yes, I have always been aware of how each book I write fits in, or does not fit in, with whatever sort of readership I’ve established. While working against the grain of that readership may not be the best career move, I hate the idea of writing a book I don’t want to write, so I’ve always pursued my interests, and so far I’ve been lucky enough to get away with doing so.
While I was working on my third book, I became interested in researching animal rights issues, so I decided that writing a novel on the subject was the best way to learn more about it. I’d been a vegetarian for a number of years at that point, and I wanted to get a better sense of the philosophical underpinnings of choices, and fiction has always been the best way for me to work though these sorts of questions.
CL: On your website, you don’t hesitate to be blunt and outspoken regarding what it means to choose to or not to participate in (to use your words) “unspeakable cruelty” or, to be more specific, “torture that happens on an industrial level.” Has that stance alienated any readers? Did The Ethical Assassin generate any hate mail?
DL: Any time you take a strong political position in a novel, you are going to anger some readers. That’s inevitable. I can either write about what I want to write about, and risk alienating some people, or choose not to write about the things that are meaningful to me. I’ve received some angry letters from readers who didn’t agree with positions outlined in The Ethical Assassin, but I’ve received far more letters from people who tell me that after reading my book, they’ve decided to become vegetarians. I consider that a pretty good trade-off.
That said, I don’t think TEA is a preachy novel. One of the characters is certainly preachy, but he’s also completely insane. I decided to make the spokesperson for animal rights someone who was obviously not reliable specifically because I didn’t want readers to feel like I was ranting at them. When writing the book, I felt I’d be happy if readers walked away thinking about issues they had, perhaps, never before considered.
Finally, I’d add that readers who are already politicized are probably not going to be persuaded regardless of what I do or don’t. Most of my historical novels deal with significant moments in economic history, and they tend to be extremely critical of unregulated capitalism. I get favorable email all the time from guys who work on Wall Street and who, themselves, steer the economy to the brink–and sometimes over the brink–of disaster with their reckless practices, yet they seem to love stories in which historical figures who do the same are rendered as villains. Go figure.
CL: I’m not surprised about those Wall Street readers who fail to notice that irony. I think people in the English world, especially in the USA, have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to capitalism. One of the things I find most fascinating about your work–actually, the aspect that made me connect to it so enthusiastically–is exactly that critical stance toward capitalism, depicting it as a specific articulation of human society in time and geopolitics. Over the last thirty-odd years, English-language media–and I don’t think this is an accident–have been using “capitalism” and “democracy” as if they were synonyms. I’ve spoken to scientists who now sincerely believe that processes in nature follow the laws of unregulated free-market capitalism. There’s been a pervasive and all too successful propaganda effort to make us believe that capitalism is not only the only way that democracy can exist but is also more fundamentally the way of the world and that anything else is chaos, or wrong, even evil, in some way–a disruption of the natural order. There’s a cultural amnesia: as a society, we’ve forgotten that the world wasn’t always this way. In the Benjamin Weaver books you’re so famous for, in The Ethical Assassin, in your run on The Spider for Dynamite Comics, most especially in your novel The Coffee Trader–in fact, in everything you write, the hand of capitalism is never totally invisible. What led you want to write about capitalism? Can you talk about the relationship between capitalism and the ethical crisis at the heart of The Ethical Assassin?
DL: For most of my adult life, I’ve been fascinated by Marx’s analysis of culture and ideology, as well as the writings of many Marxist thinkers, especially Foucault and Althusser. It’s not just that I find their ideas interesting. I find them to be indispensable tools for making sense of culture. As far as my novels go, I think I first became interested in writing about the history of capitalism because I happened to know something about it, and, beyond any kind of theoretical concern, I saw a lot of narrative potential in stories about people willing to unleash massive amounts of destruction in the pursuit of personal gain. The fact that we live in a time of accelerated boom/bust cycles almost certainly kept me thinking about the historical precursors for our own endless strings of preventable financial crises.
Personally, I am all in favor of capitalism as a part of a healthy and thriving economic system. What I object to, as you point out, is the idea of capitalism as a pure good, so that the more unfettered the capitalist system, the more liberty and goodness there is for everyone. There is, of course, no real world example of unchecked capitalism ever leading to anything other than a huge income gap. More to the point, we don’t live in anything like a free system. The American system has devolved into one of privatized gains and socialized losses, so corporations, and the people who run them, are shielded from the consequences of their own rash actions and, consequently, are encouraged to take huge risks that affect the general population.
I deal with some of the trends in The Ethical Assassin when I write about factory farms. These are sites of truly unimaginable cruelty for animals, and often for laborers, and they produce waste that has a horrific impact on environments. These things are indisputably bad. But factory farms make money. We live in a culture in which the generation of profit is indisputably good. Thus you have a conflict. To my mind, anything that requires large-scale suffering and negative environmental consequences is pretty much pure bad, but the idea that the pursuit of profit is a virtue disguises this fundamental truth.