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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