David Liss

David LissAuthor David Liss was the winner of the Edgar Prize for Best First Novel (2001) for A Conspiracy of Paper. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and has Master's degrees from Columbia University and Georgia State University. His latest novel is The Coffee Trader. David Liss currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife, who is a university professor, and his daughter. He has completed his third novel—a sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper— due out in the spring of 2004 and is working on his fourth novel. He is a New York Mets fan and can be reached at his website.

The Coffee Trader is set in Amsterdam in 1659, and Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jewish immigrant who trades on the world's first commodities exchange, is desperately trying to restore his wealth and reputation. Disregarding his community's proscriptions, he enters into a partnership with a Dutchwoman and plots to corner the market on a new commodity called "coffee." Liss' novel is an exploration of the clash of traditions with a new, rapidly evolving international business culture.

Robert Birnbaum: Has the imperialist multinational coffee retailer approached you for any promotional tie-in?

David Liss: They haven't approached me as much as we have begged them. (both laugh) It's the biggest coffee show on Earth and we had some vague hope that they might want to put The Coffee Trader in their stores. Which would be great distribution and exposure, but they didn't. I am doing an event with Starbucks in Seattle at their headquarters, and I think I might be doing something with them in San Francisco as well. But we haven't managed to get up there next to the great CDs of martini music and that kind of thing.

RB: If I wasn't a coffee drinker before I read your book, I would definitely be trying it out now. You made it seem like a delicious and exciting experience.

DL: That was one of my goals. I had some friends read the book pretty early on—when I was not done—but I knew I needed feedback. One of the first questions I asked was, "Did this make you want to drink coffee?" I wanted to create that desire to consume in the reader. First, I thought I wanted them to consume Starbucks coffee, but they weren't willing to underwrite the project so, the hell with that.

RB: (laughs) Quite a leap of the imagination to place Starbucks in Holland in 1659.

DL: That was another slight problem. There are always going to be anachronisms in a historical novel, so it may as well be a profitable one.

RB: Does the origin of Starbucks' name have anything to do with Melville?

DL: I have always wondered that myself. The icon is nautical looking.

RB: And the first mate in Moby Dick is named Starbucks.

DL: Exactly. So it's either a Melville thing or a Battlestar Gallactica thing.

RB: How did you come to writing since you don't seem to have taken the by-now seemingly conventional pathway, though you have a graduate degree in literature? This was not a direct lock step march to writing novels.

DL: I don't know that there is one. I always wanted to write fiction. After I graduated from college, I tried to write a book, and it was very, very bad. It hadn't yet occurred to me that it was very, very bad because I was twenty-two years old and hadn't yet figured things out. I was a victim of the American cultural myth that genius requires no work. That if you have to work at something then you are not really gifted at it. So I said, "I can't do this, I'll do something else." I ended up in graduate school for English lit, which I was enjoying for a very long time and I did like. At some point—I suppose when I was half through my dissertation—I just decided I wanted to take another crack at writing fiction. I realized it is was very plausible that I could end up getting a job, and I was doing pretty well with my graduate work, and when I was lying awake at night terrified at the prospect of getting hired, I knew I needed to rethink my options. If I did get a job, I knew that it would be at least another seven years before I would have a chance to tinker around with fiction because I would be so worried about getting tenure.

RB: You do a lot of worrying?

DL: Yeah, yeah. It's something I am pretty good at. So I took a fellowship that I won to finish my dissertation and essentially stole that money and wrote a novel instead.

RB: You have gotten your doctorate?

DL: No I didn't finish it. I am a quitter. I quit. I am a drop out.

RB: Did your biography on the dust jacket go through a number of versions?

I was a victim of the American cultural myth that genius requires no work. That if you have to work at something then you are not really gifted at it.

DL: This is a pointed question—so focus it a little more for me.

RB: The Random House website says you won an Academy Award for screenwriting.

DL: I did not.

RB: Is there another David Liss (besides the gallery director in Montreal)?

DL: This is an error that haunts me. People are perpetually disappointed by me, wherever I go.

RB: I'm not that disappointed.

DL: Here's the intellectual history, the mistake road map of that error. I sold the screen rights for The Conspiracy of Paper to Miramax. And for a while it was being fast-tracked and looked like it was going be a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who directed, among other things, The Cider House Rules, that was adapted for screenplay by Bob Jacobs who won an Academy Award for Cider House Rules. That's how I ended up getting associated with these people.

RB: Yes. That makes sense for the website to credit you with the Academy Award. Hallstrom also did What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

DL: I think it's his best movie.

RB: So you have a master's degree…

DL: I have an MFL, which is the degree of losers.

RB: Can't you say you are an ABD (all but dissertation)? I was going to ask how you wrote your dissertation and an extensive historical novel at the same time, but now I know.

DL: Well I did try to keep going when I was working on the book. I divided up my time along the academic calendar. So I would work on my novel during breaks and my dissertation during semesters. It took me two winter breaks and a summer break to write A Conspiracy of Paper and then at the end of the second winter break, I felt I had about a month's more work to do, so I kept going and broke my rule.

RB: Is A Conspiracy of Paper still optioned to Miramax?

DL: The option expires at the end of this year. Right now nothing is happening. A screenplay was submitted and Miramax decided that they didn't want to use it. They discussed bringing in a new screenwriter, but right now it's in limbo. They are not talking about anything until after Oscar season.

RB: You tried to write a novel at the age of twenty-two, and you discovered that you didn't have what you needed. There seems to be a burgeoning of historical novels, from Caleb Carr's work to Darren Strauss and Daniel Mason and to some degree Arthur Phillips, who invents a faux history in his novel. Would this have to do with the fact that young writers might not have much world experience to write about?

DL: I can't speak to what other people do or why they do it. I know from my one perspective I could not have written a novel when I was younger, and I know that the only reason I was able to write a novel was because of the education I got when I was a graduate student at Columbia, which has nothing to do with writing fiction. It taught me a lot of remarkable critical thinking and analysis skills that enabled me to look at books that worked and figure out why they worked and to look at my own writing that didn't work and to figure out what the difference was. I began with the idea that I wanted to write a novel, and I had no idea what I wanted to write about. So it wasn't as if I woke up one day and had this brilliant idea for a novel. I chose to write about 18th century British culture and economics because it was something I knew about. I had been researching A Conspiracy of Paper for years before I even knew I was going to write it. Because I had such limited time, I wanted to write something I knew about and not take on an entirely new research project. My choices were to write about 18th century Britain or an academic parody novel. Which I decided the world did not need at that time.

RB: Give me an example of an academic parody novel?

DL: Books by David Lodge.

RB: Straight Man by Richard Russo and Michael Malone's Foolscap?

DL: Yes. Malone's not a name people bring up very often and expect other people to know. I think he is great. I had a friend that was working at Little Brown when I graduated college and she sent me Time's Witness, and I thought if there was any novel I would like to write, it would be this one. He has had two books out in the last two years.

RB: Now you have written The Coffee Trader. It is set in 17th century Amsterdam. Newly arrived immigrant Jews from Portugal—Conversos—how much fact is The Coffee Trader based on?

DL: The actual events of the novel are pretty much fictional. But they are rooted in research on the commodities markets at the time. The idea to write this book happened very gradually. I began with wanting to write about Jews in 17th century Amsterdam and not knowing anything other than that. After several months of reading and becoming more panicked that I had no idea what this book was going to be about, nothing was appealing to me. I was reading through Ferdinand Braudel's wonderful History of Capitalism, which is just a hoot. It's remarkable that you could write a fifteen-hundred-page book on capitalism and have it be so much fun.

RB: Do you feel that everybody finds it amusing?

DL: I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't. It's not dense. It has all this great detail about material culture and everyday life and what people wore and what they ate. It’s almost gossip. There is one line in the middle volume about monopolies and schemes to corner markets and I read that (snaps his fingers) and I said, "That's what I want to do." I want to write about that and was instantly excited about it and from there went to research what commodities were first emerging on to the scene around the middle of that century. I wanted to write about a new commodity.

RB: Are you Jewish?

DL: Yeah.

david lissRB: Can I assume that was helpful to you in your research?

DL: Oh absolutely. It certainly frees me up to make my Jewish characters more unpleasant because nobody could accuse me of Anti-Semitism.

RB: Sure they can.

DL: And that's good because all the people I write about end up being kind of bad in one way or another because it's just more fun to write characters that way.

RB: Is that true of Miguel Lienzo in this book?

DL: He is a pretty shifty guy. I think he is likeable but a likeable liar. He is a likeable cheat.

RB: For me, his saving grace is that he feels badly for people that suffered because of their connection to him.

DL: He understands his actions have consequence. It's an understanding that ultimately he can reach once he can afford to pay his bills. One of the things I wanted to show in the novel was the way in which morality is frequently bound up with luxury. You have to have the luxury of time and space and freedom and health and liberty to live in ethical ways. For much of the novel he is so beleaguered by his financial problems he can't even take the time to think about what he's done that maybe he ought not to have done.

RB: I didn't find him so ethically compromised given the milieu he found himself in.

DL: Everybody is to some degree ethically compromised simply by stepping foot on the floor of the Exchange. You have to engage in a kind of elaborate dance of lying and deception because everybody else is.

RB: And that is what the reader is constantly aware of, this shark pool. In that sense, I didn't find his behavior extraordinary.

DL: It's not anomalous, I suppose.

RB: And again he expresses remorse about a number of people—the Dutchman and the Widow—who don't fare well. No one else has that kind of ethical breadth.

DL: Okay, so maybe he is not as bad as I wanted him to be. (both laugh) One of the things I really wanted to explore in this book was the idea that I have read about many, many times. It's so hard to grasp because you can't really imagine in a different time and place, understand their universe. But the idea that it was only during this period—only during the early modern period—that the contemporary idea of duplicity as we understand it was really coming into being. That people were simply incapable, before this time, of dissimulating the way we do now. Or maintaining multiple senses of self or multiple identities that can move in and out, shift and not seem contradictory. As a former Converso, somebody who had lived in Lisbon and had to pretend to be a Catholic while secretly worshipping as a Jew, Miguel seemed to me to be an interesting character too. He was forced in this period to engage in duplicity, to be one thing while pretending to be another. That makes him very good at going to Amsterdam and suddenly engaging in this whole economy of duplicity where you have to lie and engage other people's lies in order to figure out where there was a likely truth.

RB: Everyone he dealt with was a liar.

DL: (in a mock announcer's voice) DON'T READ THIS UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK.

RB: Okay, I'll stop.

DL: In a way that is less about arguing modes of early modern identity than trying to write a good thriller. It's simply more fun to write a book in which everybody is either crooked or likely to be crooked. It’s also true that it was a world in which being honest and saying, "I know you are going to ruin me if I don't do what you want, but I have to be ethical." That would just not get you very far. There was no higher authority. You couldn't go to the trading board and say, "This guy is trying to force me to be unethical. Stop him."

RB: Before I move on, in defense of Miguel, he seems to be the first Jewish character I can recall that expresses joyfulness at observing his own religion. His prayers and rituals are not drudgery. There is buoyancy about his religiosity. Most of the time religious observation is a burden to people.

…the only reason I was able to write a novel was because of the education I got when I was a graduate student at Columbia which has nothing to do with writing fiction. It taught me a lot of remarkable critical thinking and analysis skills that enabled me to look at books that worked and figure out why they worked and to look at my own writing that didn't work and to figure out what the difference was.

DL: To some degree that's a very contemporary interpretation of religious observance. And if you think about it from the perspective of somebody like Miguel—who has been forced to practice in secret all of his life—and has made a conscious decision as the secret Jews of Lisbon did, that they were going to try and maintain the rituals and traditions of their ancestors despite the fact that it could cost them everything including their lives—that suddenly finding themselves in a place where they were allowed to practice, where they could worship openly, where they had cemeteries and schools and kosher butchers—this was a really joyous thing for them. This is a period which will shortly give rise to ecstatic Judaism. And the Hassidic movement comes not long after this and it also a period that comes shortly after the codification of Jewish law in the Shulkhan Arukh which I see as a problematic turning point in Judaism, in that it takes Jewish law out of the mode of argument as it appears in the Talmud and puts it in the mode of decree. There is a real conflict in this, and Miguel is someone who wants to worship, who enjoys worship, who loves the way Hebrew sounds; he takes a real proto-ecstatic pleasure in it, but he hates orthodoxy. He doesn't like being told what to do.

RB: That's how he came to worship in the first place. His father forbids him to worship.

DL: Right. He is inherently a troublemaker, and it just so happens that he ended up in a camp that it can be argued is commendable or respectable.

RB: Were you disappointed that your first novel won an award for excellence as a mystery as opposed to something literary? Did it matter?

DL: I was hoping for the Nobel Prize. (both laugh) I am still very bitter about that. I wanted the Nobel Prize for both literature and peace.

RB: And economics.

DL: That's right. I have to admit I had mixed feelings about winning the Edgar and I won a couple of other mystery awards as well. I enjoy mysteries and am very happy that people who enjoy mysteries enjoyed the book. But I was concerned about what kind of an effect it might have on my career. I don't want to be limited to writing genre mysteries. I might someday write something that is strictly a genre mystery without any literary pretensions. I might never write another mystery again for as long as I live. I like keeping my options open. So I did intentionally make The Coffee Trader perhaps a more overtly literary, and less overtly mysterious novel for that reason, among others. I was trying to contour my career a little bit in making those decisions. Plus I knew I wanted to write about 17th century Amsterdam and I have a pretty detailed argument embedded in A Conspiracy of Paper that detective work as we know it could only have come into being in the early part of the 18th century. So I was out of luck if I wanted to write a mystery that took place earlier than that. Because I have proven that that couldn't happen.

RB: Have you thought of reining your publisher, who has stated that you have invented the category of historical financial thriller?

DL: They can say I have invented the smallpox vaccine if they want. (laughs)

RB: What about how your writing and your books are viewed?

DL: The word 'thriller' is used a lot more liberally and I think is less inherently strapped to genre. We are lucky enough to live in the era of the literary thriller. That doesn't really bother me. Any time you strap the word 'economic' to something you are automatically taking it out of the rotating drugstore book spindle.

RB: Do they still have those?

DL: Oh yeah. Actually, they have them in the hotel where I am staying.

RB: Do you have a theory about writing fiction that is historically based?

DL: I don't have a theory. I have a practice. I really object to anyone who says this is the way it should be done. This is the way you should write historical fiction. Or this is the way you should write fiction. I make a point of not using characters that are historical figures. Sometimes I will have them as secondary characters. I had a couple of them in my first book, almost against my will. I write about a real person named Jonathan Wilde only because he was so outlandish a character that if I had made him up nobody would have believed me and it enabled me to write about this insane guy. In this book I have a couple of passing references to historical figures, one to Spinoza and one more hidden toward Rembrandt. I think you have to know whom Rembrandt was, to get the references.

RB: And the reference to the Night Watch?

DL: I have a passing reference to a character who lived in the Jewish neighborhood who hired, who paid old Jews to pose for him, and that would have been Rembrandt. I do that for a bunch of reasons.

RB: There is a reference to the Night Watch in the book…

DL: There is, but I wasn't even thinking of the painting "The Night Watch." I was more interested in the Night Watch as this proto-police force that if it found you out on the street at night would be beat the crap out of you and take your money. I feel like one of my goals, as a historical novelist is to de-romanticize the past. And I don't like novels that are funhouses of people who have been selected by history as being important. Where you wheel Samuel Johnson onto the set and he says "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" and they wheel him off. I am more interested in trying to as best as we can with the best history we have and the best theory we have, give readers a sense of what it might have been like to have experienced a certain kind of existence in the past. It's a risky decision. I know this. Readers like having their own knowledge reflected back at them in historical novels. I do. It's kind of fun when somebody I know from my reading shows up in a book. I also think it creates a kind of skewed view of the past. And one that I am not so interested in doing. I also just find it hard to take characters that already exist and try to turn them into fictional characters. I don't have the kind of freedom I want.

RB: Yes, but it's a novel. Why can't you say to yourself, "I can do whatever I want"? Colum McCann's novel Dancer is about a character called Rudolph Nureyev.

david lissDL: Sure, you can. I don't feel right. I actually did toy briefly with the idea of writing a novel with Spinoza at the center. Every time I started thinking about plot, I was like, "Then there is a scene where Spinoza fights the pirates or something." (both laugh) If I want to have my character fight pirates, I want to have freedom to have the kind of plot that works that I think is going to be an engaging novel to read. And still have it be plausible and I just can't see Spinoza having sword fights with pirates.

RB: I just thought of Thomas Mallon's wonderful novel Henry and Clara. This story is about a couple who is seated in Abraham Lincoln's box at the Ford Theater the night he is assassinated. The story begins before that and continues into the early 20th century. If I recall correctly this is based on an actual couple…

DL: I think that's a really nice way to write historical fiction. If you want to talk about the big events is to show ordinary people as witness to them or as affected by them. That is a story that would be more satisfying to me than a novel about Lincoln's wife or something like that.

RB: You live in San Antonio, Texas. What are you doing there?

DL: My wife is a university professor. And she took a job there and so we moved.

RB: You grew up in Florida and went to school at Syracuse and then Columbia and now you are in Texas. How is it living there?

DL: The only thing I have to say against San Antonio is that it is not New York. It's not really a fair criticism. It’s fine and like it. I am temperamentally a New Yorker and it’s where I would choose to be if I could be anywhere. I would like to end up in New York at some point. I also have to say I like having the conveniences of non New York life. I like being able to buy a week's worth of groceries at a really wide-aisled super market and load them in to the car. I like to be able to buy something that weighs more than fifteen pounds without strategizing on how I am going to get it home.

RB: So, you have a car?

DL: I haven't gotten the hang of running errands in my car. Errands are things you do on the way to and from the subway. You go to subway. You pick up your dry cleaning. You bring it with or you drop it off. And then you get on the train. On the way home you go to the drug store and the super market and getting in your car to do these things is unnatural to me.

RB: So this is good.

DL: It's growth, sure.

RB: You will master all sort sorts of life's skills. What's your contact with cultural life in San Antonio?

DL: We don't leave the house because we have a very small child.

RB: How old?

DL: She just turned two.

RB: I take it you were writing this book during your wife's pregnancy.

DL: Yeah, yeah. I see where this is going (both laugh).

RB: I commend you on that accomplishment.

DL: Oh I thought you were going to comment on Miguel's fixation on his pregnant sister law.

RB: No, I don't want to give away any more of the story. I think we have given readers of our talk enough juicy hints about the book. What do feel like when you finish a book?

One of the things I wanted to show in the novel was the way in which morality is frequently bound up with luxury. You have to have the luxury of time and space and freedom and health and liberty to live in ethical ways.

DL: I felt like I knew while I was writing The Coffee Trader what I would do afterwards. I felt when I was writing my third book, which I just finished a couple of weeks ago, I knew what I would do after that. So far I have been pretty lucky. I spent a lot of time after writing A Conspiracy of Paper with no idea of what I was going to do next. That was hard.

RB: So you write anything other than novels?

DL: Not regularly. One time my editor was putting together a short story collection and tapped me to write something for that.

RB: Who is your editor, Jonathan Karp?

DL: Yeah. I have done some reviews when asked or op-ed pieces. But not regularly. I know people who write novels and do journalism, but I don't think I know how to write a feature piece or a magazine article. It seems hard.

RB: I think most writers would say that they thought writing a novel was probably the hardest writing to do.

DL: It's like anything else, I suppose. It's a skill, and once you write a magazine article or two, you know what you are doing, and it's probably less hard after that.

RB: What do you read?

DL: I read pretty much anything.

RB: That's helpful.

DL: I’ll read anything in any genre from any time period.

RB: How do the candidates get to you considering you never leave the house?

DL: Book reviews and recommendations. I have read some really great books recommended to me by people who have read my book. Sometimes I will decide I am interested in a subject and read a book on it.

RB: What are some recent books you have read?

DL: A book called The Elegant Universe by Green who is a physicist at Columbia, which is a dum-dum's guide to string theory. It was very hard for me because I don't have a mathematical aptitude and I would read something three times to figure out what he was talking about and thing I've got it that's incredible. And forget exactly what it was two seconds later. But it was still a pretty great experience for me to read. Right now I am researching a book on the Animal Rights movement. So I have been reading many things about that.

RB: Can you talk about what your third book is?

DL: My third book is actually a shameless commercial venture. It is a sequel to my first book.

RB: (Laughs)

DL: Hey, I have college payments to think of…

RB: No one is making any judgments here. Don't feel guilty.

DL: I don't feel guilty.

RB: When you finished A Conspiracy of Paper did you intend to leave it open for a sequel?

DL: Absolutely.

RB: So does that mean we may see the next generation of The Coffee Trader also?

david lissDL: The Coffee Trader is a not natural for a sequel. It's theoretically possible but it wasn't designed to go on. When I did Conspiracy I did want to keep my options open. And I was under a certain amount of pressure to write a sequel right away, which I did not want to do. Both for career reasons and because having worked on 19th century Britain for close to ten years I was pretty sick of it. And when I went back to it was a lot of fun. I had the most enjoyable novel-writing experience of the three books I have written, working on the sequel.

RB: How far can you take it?

DL: I don't know. I think that we'll see what kind of reception the next one gets, and I definitely have one or two ideas for other subjects of interest that I could work with this character that I want to write about the 18th century. There could be one more, there could be none more, and there could be fifteen more. Who knows? We'll see.

RB: In addition to these specific projects do you have a sense of your future?

DL: No, no. I was doing an event in Florida this last weekend where the Broward County Library has this big fundraiser and they invite a million people, and one of the things I did was go and talk to high school students. One student came up to after my talk and asked, "Which would you rather write, a best seller or a cult classic?" I just didn't know. It was not a question I could answer. Do I want to write books that I hope will be read in one hundred and fifty years or do I want something that will enable me to get a mansion and a yacht? You can't really design the reception of your books. I know people who write and they do want their works to be classics. They want their books to be taught in universities in two hundred years. I don't know if it is possible.

RB: To even know what that would be?

DL: Right

RB: Were you a contestant in the Godfather saga sweepstakes?

DL: Was I a contestant?

RB: I thought Random and Jonathan Karp solicited submissions from an array of writers to continue the Godfather.

DL: I am horribly insulted that he never talked to me about it. Actually, it’s not an offer I would have wanted to have been made. It seems like the equivalent of somebody driving up a big truckload of money to your house and saying, "Do you want this?" I'm glad I wasn't asked. He [Karp] was cooking up a scheme to get a pretty major former Met to write a memoir. And I'm a big Met fan and he asked if I would be interested in maybe getting involved in a project like that. That is something I would have done.

RB: Ghostwriter?

DL: Yeah, or collaborator. That's something that it would have been pretty much impossible to say no to. So I am also kind of glad it never happened.

RB: So can you still be a Mets fan in San Antonio.

DL: It probably makes it a little bit easier to be further away.

RB: No interest in the Astros or the Rangers? Arizona Diamondbacks?

DL: I know people who have moved and they have become fans of the locals. I just can't do that. Your fandom is not something you can change. It's like your religion.

RB: That makes sense for a by-gone era. Having grown up in Chicago I will always be interested in the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Bears, but I don't know why. None of these sports have the good-faith relationship with fans that engenders loyalty.

DL: I agree, especially this past season with the Mets with their aging hired guns, none of whom really wanted to be there. It really makes you wonder, what is a team? What constitutes a Met or a Cub or whatever? I have gone on rants that you should have to grow up in the area where the team plays in order to play for the team. Something that would create a kind of coherence to the teams. That would make them much more interesting.

RB: I've watched baseball in Cuba in Nicaragua in Puerto Rico, little league…it feels better and more enjoyable.

DL: I can totally understand. I think a system where it's much harder to switch between teams and that you had to come up through the farm system in order to play on the team and maybe every team was allowed a certain amount of exceptions to this rule would make for much more compelling sport.

RB: But then what did Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith fight for?

It's simply more fun to write a book in which everybody is either crooked or likely to be crooked.

DL: I don't think the unions would go for it this scheme.

RB: The Coffee Trader strikes me as having the makings of a successful book. How's it doing?

DL: Like every other novelist in this day and age I have been keeping a close eye on Amazon numbers. Today it was around 13O. I think that's good. I liked to see it go up by another 129 points.

RB: Well, push that imperialist globalized coffee chain.

DL: I suspect that the reason they don't want to put the book in their stores is that they would have to hire forty seven thousand people to fend off the calls from publicists who also wanted their books…

RB: So, novel number three is published in spring 2004?

DL: This is absolutely unintentional, but it will be an incredibly timely book. It's about a parliamentary election so I am hoping that the election fever of the presidential election will…

RB: Maybe you can get the Democratic National Committee to buy copies of the book?

DL: No one comes out smelling too well in this one. Not even the not so bright corrupt incumbent who is in the pocket of big business. I don't know who people will draw analogies to.

RB: Have you started book number four?

DL: I have just been doing research. I am hoping I will have an idea of what this book will be about and start writing by May.

RB: Do you have to have an idea before you start writing?

DL: Yeah I have to have it outlined. I am not one of those people who can just start. No way. My characters will all be killed in a fire bombing on page forty-five and I'll be out of luck

RB: What is the nature of your research?

DL: The book I am working on now is not historical. It will be set in contemporary time so it's a slightly different research project than I'm used to. I need a little bit of a break from history, and so I am grabbing hold of anything related and talking to people whom are involved and hoping lightening strikes.

RB: 2005?

DL: I hope.

RB: Do you write that quickly?

DL: The Coffee Trader took a long time to write. Second books are hard, and this certainly was a hard second book. When you write your first novel you use all your ideas (laughs). And with your second book you run out of the stuff you have always wanted to do. Or your first narrative impulses have already been used. If you want to write something that's different enough that you are not just writing the same book over again, it takes a certain amount of work to trying to reinvent the wheel. For me the hardest thing to get is the narrative voice and with the Conspiracy sequel it was already there; all I needed was a story and some characters and the rest was gravy.

RB: Well, good. Thanks very much.

DL: Well, thank you.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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