David Liss is the author of fourteen novels, most recently The Peculiarities. His previous books include A Conspiracy of Paper which was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First novel. The Coffee Trader 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. Many of his novels are currently being developed for television or film. Liss has worked on numerous comics projects, including Black Panther and Mystery Men for Marvel, The Spider and Green Hornet for Dynamite, and
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Ashley Rindsberg: So David Liss, thank you for joining me here on the Burning Castle Podcast. I just want to like kind of lay the table a little bit for people listening. And I can't even really do a proper and thorough job that I should, but I can say one thing, which is that the Coffee Trader is the only one of your books that I've read cover to cover right now because I'm just getting into it. I'm a late comer to David Liss, but that book is in my piece, a masterpiece. In my opinion, is a masterpiece. It is a book that does something so rare, which is take a genre, kind of embrace it fully and turn it completely upside down by doing something unexpected and giving you an experience that kind of just is unexpected and sparkles and is every time you go to, it is a bit of a thrill right up until the end. So, that to me is just a great book and it's inspired me to move on to the rest of your work which includes the Benjamin Weaver series and your latest book, but we'll get to all that. Now that I've kind of done that sort of as adequately as I can right now, I want to just jump into hearing about who you are, where you are, where you've come from and a little bit about the journey that you've been on that you're still on.
David Liss: Okay. Well, thank you for having me on. So I'm a full-time writer. I've been a novelist for 20 years. I've written, I think 14 novels at this point. I also dabble in other media. I've written comics. I'm currently working in the gaming industry. I'm somebody who just really loves narrative. I love consuming narrative and I love producing it. Most of my novels have some sort of connection to Jewish history, at least the historical novels. I'm also very interested in economic history and labor history; those are issues that up a lot in my fiction. Basically, my background was - I was getting a PhD in 18th Century British Literature when I decided I wanted to take what I thought then was one last shot at trying to write a novel, which was something I'd always wanted to do. And ended up turning my I my dissertation research into my first book, which was called the Conspiracy of Paper. My research was very much on the how the origins of the English novel coincided with the origins of certain kinds of modern financial activities. And I was very much interested in the of narrative of storytelling and how we as individuals in what was emerging as the modern world, understand ourselves as financial beings. And I'd also always been interested in Jewish history and some of the aspects of my dissertation research dealt with how Jews were perceived and portrayed in the 18th Century British novel. And so, all of that came together with my first book and then more or less with lots of detour has been on that path ever since.
Ashley Rindsberg: So, there's that question which is, why did you allow yourself to veer into something that is so unknown and so risky, especially when it's compared to an academic career, which is not exactly always a glamorous thing, but the path is fairly laid well-laid out ahead of you were in fiction, it's I would think from what I've personally experienced completely the opposite? You're just groping book to book, and there's no notion of what might happen, what could happen. So, what was that moment that got you to make that commitment and to really step off of the out that you were on and onto this other one that is fiction?
David Liss: Well, I think you really overstate the stability of an academic career. I think once you're on the tenure track, it is very stable as long as you produce, right. It can be very hard to get one of those jobs. It's even harder now than it was then. And when my wife, who I met in graduate school and who was at the same stage of the program I was in, when she applied for her jobs, she was usually one of about 800 people applying for a job. And I was lying awake at night in bed, unable to sleep, worrying that I would get a job. And that's how I knew that maybe it wasn't the right career path for me. I loved being in graduate school. I loved the kind of rigorous academic training I got, which really did rewire my brain. It really did teach me how to think about things in a whole new way. It did everything that humanities education is supposed to do.
But as I was coming through the other end, I knew it wasn't really how I wanted to spend my time. I'd always loved writing. I'd always loved reading and I'd had this idea in the back of my head that I would write a novel if I could, but the fact that I hadn't was evidence that I couldn't. And I eventually decided I was going to make a concerted effort to really think about how novels work to read novels and sort of take them apart and try and understand them structurally, what a novel was doing when it was successful and what it was doing when it was unsuccessful and then to learn it. And I essentially taught myself to write using that method and proceeded from there. And I did it in my spare time. I was using the semester schedule. So I wrote my first novel essentially in two winter breaks and a summer break. And then after the second winter break and I was moving to the semester, I thought, well, I'm really close so maybe I'll cheat and try and finish it. And that's ultimately what I did.
Ashley Rindsberg: So, there's really something I want to hear about, which is how you learn about breaking apart a novel, understanding the structure, understanding how to create your version of the novel, the novel you want to write using those structures. But before we dive into that, I want to go back a little even before your graduate studies and even before undergrad. Like, where you came from and what put you in this place that you were attached to books to the written word, maybe to the spoken word, I don't know, but where were you in life? Because I know where I know in my own story, it was a lot of being uprooted, a lot of I and migration with my family, a lot of being in new places. And for me, going up to the corner of the house and being with books, being with a library, as it goes over time was just the most reaffirming thing. So where did you come from into that process? Where were you living as a kid, and what gets you into thinking about English literature and especially the intersection of economics?
David Liss: Okay. sure. So I grew up in South Florida, and Florida is perhaps the strangest and for me least appealing place you can grow up. Although I take that back, I think there are certainly worst places in the United States,
Ashley Rindsberg: Vegas over here for five years,.
David Liss: But one of my earliest memories is just reading and writing. There is something just organic about narrative that appeals to me, but at the risk of telling a kind of miserable south story. I had a really unhappy childhood. I was just very unhappy where I was, I always felt like I didn't quite belong in this world. South Florida at the time was really undergoing a very strange transformation in that it had been this sort of very, very Southern, very rural place and it was becoming a much more urban and suburban and being repopulated by people largely from the Northeast. And there was a disproportionate number of that repopulation that was Jewish, and so it had a large Jewish presence. So, to the point where my schools would be off for the major Jewish holidays, but we were still a minority. There was still a lot of rampant and visible and undisguised antisemitism, and it was a difficult place to be and be. And because I liked books because I liked stories of books and film and television and comics, you know, all of these things were my escape.
Ashley Rindsberg: I mean, it's such an interesting thing to talk and think about Florida and South Florida, because it really is quite a unique place in so many ways. I mean, you have, like you're saying this overwhelming Jewish population in pockets, and then you also have this Floridian dystopia that like this harmony carmine thing where you're like, what the hell is going on in Florida. I remember Dr. Drew and Adam Carola when they did Loveline, the famous radio show, they used to play a game called Austria or Florida, or Germany or Florida. I'm not sure which. It might have been Germany or Florida, and they'd read a headline of something incredibly disturbing and absurd and grotesque that had happened in the news. And you'd have to guess whether that took place in Florida or Germany. And that was kind of, I mean, and I've also been to Florida and seen the beauty and seen what an amazing place it is. And you have so many different facets of that place, but as you're saying, you felt that it wasn't yours, so you didn't belong there, and so you ended up in New York.
David Liss: And I think because you see New York so much in film and on television that that might be part of it. But the first time I went to New York City, I thought this is the place I've always wanted to be. It felt really familiar and I'm not sure how much of it was just me liking that kind of urban environment and how much I simply absorbed from narrative. But I was very happy in New York. I think it's a great place to live when you are young. When I go back now and visit, I think, how does anyone live here? I think I've just gotten too used to the idea of being able to drive my car to the supermarket and buy as many groceries as I want. The hardship of New York seems a little bit unbearable to me, but I loved it when I lived there. And it was hard to leave, and I got a lot out of it when, when I was there.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. I've had affair with New York, started when I was 15 after growing up at that time, San Diego. And to go from San Diego, which is a nice place, but a bit pasid, a bit, you know, it's San Diego. You show up in New York City, never having seen that, and you feel that energy on the street and the smells, the cigarette, the smoke, the steam the bookstores, the book culture. And that was something so alien for me. I mean, obviously, there are good bookstores in San Diego and people love to read, but it's not a book culture that you feel is something you could actually reach out and touch the way you can, by going to the strand or McMillan Jackson or whatever else. So that was always to me such an important part of it, that book culture. So back to you; you're at Columbia, you decide to take this divergent path, you finish writing the book and you somehow get it published. Your first book becomes your debut novel and not something that ended up in a drawer. So how did that work out? And what was that process like where you got that book out into the world, which is a very big deal, no matter what age or who you are?
David Liss: It did not seemed fast at the time, but looking back, I realized how quickly the process went. I went through the standard thing that authors do, which is you need an agent. So you write what's called a query letter to try and get an agent interested and you get response everything from, you know, it sounds interesting, but it's not for me, to literally no one will ever buy this book.
Ashley Rindsberg: A classic.
David Liss: And what I've come to realize over the years, and what I always tell aspiring writers is that you can't take rejection too hard because people are not judging your project on whether or not it's good. They're judging it on whether or not it's for them. So they're not looking for a book they want to read, they're looking for a book they want to marry. It really has to be something that they feel deeply passionate about for them to take it on. But of course at the time, every rejection feels like somebody deciding that this book does not deserve to be in the world. But I ended up finding a, a terrific agent, you know, relatively quickly within, I would say two months, I think. And she helped me edit it a little bit, get it ready for market and sent it out. And we had offers right away, we had a number of offers. And because I was in New York at the time, I had this really just surreal experience of going around with my agent to publishers, meeting with editors and having to take the stance of tell me why I should let you publish my book, which is of course insane. And I ended up really clicking with one of the editors and in terms of money, it came down to something very similar with another editor. But I ended up going with somebody at Random House who he was a Jewish guy about my age. He was a Metz fan. I felt like he was somebody who I could just talk to and have a relationship with, and that's how I got started.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. It's a story that kind of reminds me of a story I learned from another episode of this podcast with Mark Daumail, who is a French musician, a platinum selling musician in France, who has a band called Cocoon. And he was saying, when he got into music, he put out a few tracks online in the early 2000s and some record A and R people, acquisitions people heard it and then just signed him and that was that. And he just now had a record deal and was now a rockstar overnight. And these are the exceptional stories when you're dealing with creative product. When you're talking about someone who's trying to break through into literature, into music or art, whatever else, those are stories that I think people have in their minds as the ideal or the idyllic, like, I'll just get it out there and they're going to be bidding for my stuff, and then it's a lot of disappointment.
But I think what people miss is that like with Mark Daumail and perhaps with you, you can tell us, even after that point, it's not a straight line. You're dealing with, as you kind of alluded to earlier, the detours that will inevitably arise. So, just give us a little perspective on what happens after, I mean, that book that you wrote and published is the one I'm currently reading, and it is a Conspiracy of Paper. It's a little bit stunning to think that was a first book or first work because it's that good. It's that immediate, and it's that interesting and funny and connected so deeply to this remote time and place, but so intimately, and so in such a familiar way. So, there's that you had this massive launch energy, but what happens next and what were those detours that you were talking about?
David Liss: Well, there are elements of marketing that you have to think about. You have to consider how you want to be in the world and what kind of career you want to have. And so when I was starting to think about my next project, my editor, my agent both said you need to write a sequel. And my my editor in particular really wanted it to be called a conspiracy of something else. We wanted to have that kind of...
Ashley Rindsberg: Franchise.
David Liss: And I absolutely did not want to do that. I wanted to do something different and I wanted to be able to write whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, which I realized this not maybe a realistic way to plan a career, but it's what I did. With me, what that meant was, as I've been in grad school and spending years and years and years studying 18th Century Britain, 18th Century Britain was always over it shoulder at the Netherlands in the 17th Century as a model. And I'd always thought if I ever had time, I'd love to know more about 17th Century Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular. And so I decided that's what I wanted to do for my second book. I would write a book set in Amsterdam in the 17th Century, and just began a kind of research project with no goal of just reading about this time in this place and trying to find a story. And I did that for maybe four months and still had no story, until I started widening the circle of what I was reading. And I ended up reading [Ferdinand Gardel] three volume history of capitalism, which is just surprisingly delightful project. It's just material history and it's all what people ate and what they wore, and how they furnished their homes, and where these products came from, and how they were transmitted. It's a really wonderful project.
And there was one, you know, offhand sentence in volume two about the emergence of monopolies on commodities in the 17th Century. And I thought immediately, that's what I want to do. I want to write about somebody trying to corner the market on a commodity, just as it's first appearing in Europe. And initially I was focused on chocolate; the book was going to be about somebody trying to corner the market on chocolate as it emerges, but eventually I decided, books about chocolate are often kind of language and sensual and erotic. And my book was twitchy and edgy and nervous, and paranoid. And I thought, this is coffee, I'm writing about coffee. And so I switched it up and that became the Coffee Trader. And I felt that my first two novels were similar enough. The second one could appeal to readers of the first one, but I was also making a statement that I wasn't just going to do the same thing over and over again.
Ashley Rindsberg: Which is an amazing choice to make and I think in a lot of cases could be seen as a difficult choice because those offers that you get coming off a successful first book, they're strong and they're tempting, and there's lots of people that are pulling you toward them for good reasons. But then to do the thing that is really connected to what you're interested in. And I think that's the real point where it's like people aren't always aware of what they're interested in because they don't explore, they don't follow the trail long enough to find out. So, that three or four month period of reading of this period, it sounds like it was the key. It was at least that where the lock turned, because you came to this - rather than, I would've assumed you would have started with the coffee because the coffee is so imagistic, it's so connected to sense, and it's this great, sexy idea in our culture, but you actually didn't. You started with the conceptual notion of this economic shift in a society, and what that would mean for an individual who would be the protagonist. And that's exactly what you produced with the Coffee Trader.
We're watching this happen in real time, where people waking up to this idea that there is this incredibly valuable new commodity on the markets in Amsterdam. And not only that, but this particular individual can grab an enormous slice of it. So yeah, it's an incredible book and that's an incredible way to get to that point. And I think the question I have now is the one that I had mentioned earlier, which is learning about structure. You said you had this period where you really tried to understand how a structure of a novel and how it could be built. So how did that fall into this process where you were taking this very conceptual idea and building something out of it?
David Liss: Well really, it was very ad hoc because what I would do is I would read a novel and just take my temperature constantly. Am I enjoying this? Do I like this character? And not like, as in, I think a lot of readers are, do I like this character as in, do I want to sit next to his character on a transatlantic flight, but rather like, do I feel like this is a successful character? And if the answer was, yes, I would go back and try to figure out what had the writer done to make me care about this character? What structurally is happening here that I care about what happens next? If I don't like a character, I also tried to figure out what was going on with that. If I find a scene interesting or engaging, I tried to figure out why, why I'm engaged. What's at work other than, you know, as a reader, I really love style. It's the thing I probably respond most to, but beyond style, I would want to know what sort of narrative elements make a scene work, or if I'm bored, why am I bored? Why do I not care what's happening in this book?
And I certainly wasn't learning how to write a good novel, but I was learning how to write the kind of novel I like, and I'm not sure that there's any other way to go. I mean, taste is really the most mysterious thing in the world. You see all the time that books that are not wildly successful, that are not fantastic, that are not brilliant, will never find an agent and then will never find a publisher, but there are books published all the time that I can't stand, but clearly somebody likes them. Somebody who's taste is completely different than mine. So, that's what I was just trying to do was to learn how scenes work, to learn how characters work, and then think about the larger structure, whole chunks of a novel and the overall structure from beginning to end. And I essentially reverse engineered books I thought were successful.
Ashley Rindsberg: And could you give us any of those that you remember books that you would recommend to do that with?
David Liss: I didn't necessarily read books at the time that I would go on to consider personal favorites. One of the things that comes to mind is the novelist named Colin Harrison, who is also an editor who wrote a number of literary thrillers in the early 2000s. I think it's been a while since he's published something, but I really liked - not everything about his books, but there was a lot I liked about them. And I really liked how he wrote what I thought of as small thrillers, which were the narrative tension came not from like big things. Like they mean to kill the president, or there's a plot to undermine the election in this country, but individual lives. Like my job will be ruined if this thing goes wrong, my marriage will be ruined if this thing goes wrong. And then for me, that's always much more powerful. Character is everything for me as a writer. What I want to produce are characters who feel pushed and pulled by the world around them. And so, I remember his books being very influential for me.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. It reminds me and the Coffee Trader had always reminded me. They're not similar, but they're almost parallel of Michael Farber's book, the Crimson Pedal and the White, I believe it was called.
David Liss: He's actually one of my favorite writers. I think he's brilliant.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, he's great. Like the Coffee Trader, that book similarly puts you in this completely different place in time. And it doesn't do it in broad strokes; that I feel like is one of those key differences where you're reading in genre sometimes, and they're all using the same pieces. It's like Lego. We're just putting these things together Lego-wise. With Farber's book and also with the Coffee Trader, there's a sense that this book is, it belongs to somebody. You know what I mean? That it is the product of someone unique and uniquely curious about very certain things to produce that level of detail. And that level of naturalness in the realism is just - it's amazing. And that also kind of leads me to the next point, which is that you're talking about style and that's such an interesting thing to hear someone talk about who is coming from a place where - from a genre background.
But it's in a different understanding of what it means to be not just a genre writer or a literary writer, but to think beyond those common conceptions of what a writer needs to be. We're often just given those guardrails, like literary writers over here, genre writers over here, and stay away from one another please. But I feel that is not what people really want. I feel like really great books either explode that division or they kind of merge it somehow. So, the question I'm asking to you is that, was this an intentional thing for you? Were you thinking like why do I need to follow these rules and be binary about this choice? Or was it just a product of what you were interested in doing and how you wanted to do it?
David Liss: I think it happened organically. When I wrote Conspiracy of Paper, I really felt like I was writing a genre mystery that this would be maybe a paperback original. And it has many elements of a genre mystery. It starts with, you know, that somebody's dead and you have to figure out who the murderer is. And when I met my agent for the first time, she said, "No, this is a literary novel." And I felt like, okay, I officially don't know what any of these terms mean there. And since then, I've really felt a kind of investment in breaking down the boundaries between high culture and low culture and what's literary fiction and what's genre fiction. You mentioned Faber and he has two novels that are essentially, they're science fiction. They're not anything other than science fiction, but he gets put in the literary fiction section of a bookstore for no discernible reason other than that's his brand. And I certainly don't think that's wrong. I don't think it's right.
And I do think that genre labels are there to serve the consumer as much as to serve the publisher, because readers want to know what they're buying. I think it's a two way street, but I also just have never liked feeling bound by those kinds of labels. I consider a lot of low culture things to be great. You know, a lot of genre fiction to be great. And if it's great writing, that's all, or even if it's good writing, but a great story, if I care about it, that's all that matters to me. And I've tried to write the best books I can and worry less about how they're going to be categorized.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, I think it's kind of a false distinction, and I think it's also this distinction between genre and literary. I think it's almost product of how books were distributed and how they were displayed in bookstores, in categories that had to obey certain rules. They're literally in boxes in a shop, like this is fiction, and if you want to drill down a little bit, this is genre over here, and over here, we're going to group all the literary together. So a decision on some level has to be made. And they're just like, this one goes this way, this one goes this way. But I think what we're seeing today is that because we're not walking into bookstores anymore and looking at the boxes and choosing, oh, this is my box, I'm a literary fiction box guy. But now it's happening through search, through social media, through people talking and gathering, and that sort of changes the calculus a little bit.
I think it will have an effect because people can find you and more importantly, you, as the writer can find them, which is a really interesting thing to think about. And that's exactly what's happening. I mean, with your book specifically, when I'm saying to people, "Oh yeah, I'm going to be talking with David Liss," and they're like, "Oh, okay, David Liss." And I'm like, "Yeah, the Coffee Trader." And people are just like, "Oh, the Coffee Trader." There is this kind of like mylan underground in the culture of books, that's spread now for whatever reason, maybe that was always the case. But I do think that literary and genre are merging, the distinctions are dissolving. You know, you look at something like The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and there's just so much going on there that is taken from all parts of the spectrum. So yeah, I'm not sure what the question is there, but I really do think it's something that people should be paying attention to. And I think within the publishing industry as well, to be finding the people who are crossing over.
David Liss: It's also true that once a book is out in the world, how it's perceived in terms of genre can change as well. So, I just published a novel called the Peculiarities, which I thought was historical fantasy, but once it was out in the world, people seem to think it was horror. And I said, "Oh, okay. I can see why you would say that I'm not going to disagree with it, but that's not what I had in mind when I wrote it." And if it pushes buttons for people who like that kind of fiction, and that's how they want to see it, I have no problem with that. But more and more, I think readers are empowered to make those kinds of label decisions for themselves.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. And on the topic of the Peculiarities, which is your book, I believe it came out last month, if I'm not mistaken. I saw the cover, which is incredible, and I feel like people, if they're just listening to need to like, go look at this cover because it's awesome. I but I want to read a little blurb that I found on, I think it's on the publisher's website, which really just makes you want to like jump at this book. And this is from Grim Dark magazine, which says, “The Peculiarities is an adventure of unraveling conspiracies exposing London's most hidden secrets, and witnessing the unexplainable. It's Terry Pratchett’s satire mixed into a darker version of Alice in Wonderland.” Like, whoa, could we get a better quote for a book than that? It sounds amazing.
Victoria in London, which to me is such a fascinating... it's a fascinating society to try to understand, to try to understand who these people were. What Victorian society really was because we are presented with such romanticized, sterilized views of it. And this is sounds like something amazing and something that really meets the mark of what we're just talking about, which is getting rid of the boundaries, getting rid of the categories, not thinking about staying in your proverbial lane, but just doing the thing you're doing. So, just give a little bit of a background on how this book came to be? What got you to the concept of the ideas behind into and why London?
David Liss: Well, so one of the things I've always been interested in since I was a teenager is historical magic, as it was practiced by real people who really lived, who really believed that what they were doing was having an impact in the world. So not stylized movie magic or Harry Potter magic, but people who really believed they were doing something when they cast spells or engaged in rituals. And to that end, I was always interested in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was this order of magicians in late Victorian London was part of an occult revival. And what was interesting about them was that they took basically the Western magical tradition and tried to, rather than obscure everything the way historical magicians usually wrote their material down or kept records, was to make it as obscure and as hard to understand as possible and to have lots of blind alleys, so the uninitiated would not be able to figure out what was truth and what was fiction.
The Golden Dawn really tried to systematize what was known to work and create essentially a school of magic where any lay person could come in, go through these series of courses and become a practicing magician. And I thought, I'd always wanted to take a deep dive into the Golden Dawn and figure out what was it like to be part of this movement. And I was researching it for this novel, I had the idea of, well, what if this stuff worked? And I wanted to take a Golden Dawn magic seriously and build a novel around that. And of course it's very low wadded magic by what we're used to from film. So a lot of it was kind of impressionistic, trying to make some sort of spiritual connection with something from another realm, astro projection, summoning demons, which maybe meant like noticing a particular flicker in the fire when you're casting these incantations.
But I nevertheless wanted to really lean into it and to... imagine if this stuff worked, if you really could change the circumstances of your life, even just a little by practicing this kind of magic, how would that change the world around us? And I built it out from there. There were elements of Victorian society that I was very interested in. On my father's side, we're Anglo Jews and my ancestors had just come over to England around the time the novel takes place. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about Jewish society at the time, but I also wanted to talk about how these organizations worked and how they functioned in society, and then throw in a lot of bizarre elements and really kind of lean into the fantastical elements.
Ashley Rindsberg: It sounds amazing. And the connection to Anglo Jewelry is also a fascinating one. It's an interesting history, a history of a country that threw the Jews out in the 12th century, and then in the 19th century had effectively a Jewish prime minister during Victoria, the literal Victorian age. And yeah, it's a very rich history, I think about Daniel Delronda as such, you know, this fascination with the Jew. And of course, Benjamin Israeli, who himself was a novelist, the Prime Minister of England, who came from Jewish family, his name is Israeli, and he was a novelist and his writing was a lot about the intersection of Jewish experience and the English nation. So I think that there's a lot there to be unpacked in that, but also the concept of magic.
Because when we think about magic from the perspective of people living in a modern secular society and a science-based society, it sounds to us like literal hocus-pocus, like something that you wouldn't think of more than you would consider Santa Claus or the tooth fairy to be real. But when you think again back to the Jewish tradition, and when we're reading, for example, about Moses interacting with Pharaoh and producing these miracles, and then Pharaoh's magicians producing the same miracles or the same wonders they weren't miracles, but the magic was considered real in that tradition. And even by the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, magic is considered to be a real thing. In the Jewish tradition and a tradition that is at least in part rational. And that's an interesting idea because it shows you what magic really signifies, which is what kind of universe are we living in?
Are we living in a universe in which there is more than the here and now? Is it a material universe or is there a spiritual component as well? And that's the question it really brings up. And I think that's what keeps people connected to that concept of magic of the spiritual realm, the spirit realm, ghosts and all that kind of stuff, because you think yourself, maybe there is more. But how did you approach it? Did you come thinking through a lens of the faith or through a secular science-based world view?
David Liss: Well, I always try and approach these things, when I'm writing historical fiction as the people who lived in that moment would have perceived them. And Jewish magic was a lot in my mind because it is a big part of the Golden Dawns tradition. It leaned very heavily on classical magic from ancient Greece and capitalistic magic. Those were two big elements. I thought a lot about for a project I've written about that moment in the Torah with Moses, because by most reasonable definitions, that was not magic that either the Egyptian magicians performed or Moses, those were miracles because magic can only do what things that can be done. So you can make somebody fall in love with you with magic because people fall in love, or you can make money with magic because people make money, but you can't turn a staff into a snake because that doesn't happen. And that's the kind of interaction in the world that can only happen through a deity, a changing the laws of the universe.
Magic usually works within the laws of the universe. It purports to broaden and widen what is known and give you the tools to act reliably and repeatably with these tools. And that's what Victorian magicians wanted to do. There was this idea in the Victorian period that science had reached the point where there was nothing more to discover that we now knew almost everything there was to be known and that therefore religion would be dead. And the occult revival was a response to that, saying, no, there's so much more to the universe than we can perceive with our sensory apparatus, that human eyes and ears don't tell us everything that's there. And that there are these secret methods of interacting with what we cannot perceive, that work that are governed by the same laws as physics and chemistry. And we can gain access to these things by doing these things, even if we don't understand why or how they work.
Ashley Rindberg: Yeah, I feel like where we're looking today, it parallels that era and their view on knowledge. Where today, we just intuitively as individuals sense that we have mastered the universe, at least knowledge of it, where that is so far from the truth, even from a scientific standpoint. But I think the reason we feel that way is because we have left no room for real questioning of what else might be beyond the material. We have cut out the discussion, at least in the west about any non-material conception of the universe and our place, in it of existence, which is a really strange place to be in the world. The famous saying about God being dead. And maybe when he said it, it wasn't yet true, but it feels certainly true today where it's just not a part of our world whatsoever. We're in the Victorian period, I imagine, I don't know, but I imagine it very much was. It very much was an assumption that we live in as spiritual world that has a physical manifestation, which again is a Jewish idea of the world.
Ashley Rindberg: And it's also the world that Emmanuel can't envisioned when he talked about the limits of knowledge, where he's saying, "Yes, we can have near perfect knowledge of the physical realm, but beyond that, we don't know the noumenon, but the noumenon is out there. And I feel like that's what's been left out of the picture in the world we live in today. We have not allowed for any possibility of even what's beyond our knowledge. If it's not within the realm of our knowledge for us, it can't possibly exist.
David Liss: Yeah. I completely agree. And I think that's what so interested me about magic in this period is that what these Victorians understood is something that we've forgotten, which is that our senses do have limits that and that we can ask questions and maybe get answers. But, what about the questions that our senses don't allow us to ask? What is there that we don't even think of to wonder about? Because our questions are limited by what we can understand by what we can see. But human intelligence is not the maximum intelligence possible, and it's not the only kind of intelligence possible. And we always make the mistake of thinking that our brains somehow are mirrors of the universe rather than interpreters of the universe.
Ashley Rindsberg: Right, right, rather than in some ways, byproducts of the universe or product of the universe. We have this notion that we've mastered this thing with our minds, but we are a creature of this thing, whatever that thing might be, whether it's just a physical universe or a spiritual universe or anything else. And I think again, that's what we have forgotten. That's a fundamental humility to think that I am a creature. And back to the Jewish tradition; when you think about the importance of the Sabbath and ask yourself, why is it so important? What does it matter that the whole religion places so much emphasis on this one day? And the point that I've sort of arrived at is that it's a day to remember that you're a creature, a product of creator, you have been created somehow or another. And that's the thing we seem to also from a moral standpoint, completely have forgotten in our culture is, is a culture of me. It's the culture of me and me alone. And that's antithetical to being, to seeing oneself as a creature because then you realize there is the other, there's the I and the thou.
I think to bring it all back to the book, this is why it's so enriching to connect with these ideas through a story that brings them to you. I think that's the last real piece of this is to say these ideas are fascinating, but when you connect them with them on an emotional level, because someone has put it into a story that's enthralling and rich and alive, then the ideas become a part of you where I think most of us wouldn't be out there doing the three, four months of reading about 17th Century Amsterdam. And again, just to me the value of storytelling is to be able to impart a sense of those ideas, a feeling of them, a flavor for them, which is more than you could even get in some cases by studying the ideas themselves.
David Liss: Yeah. That's a transformative power of narrative I think. I always like to say that I do the boring reading so that you don't have to, that I wade through a lot of material that can be very dry. And then I find what's the human element, what is the the character story that can bring these complicated idea to life and to show contemporary readers why these past worlds or these past ideas could be interesting and meaningful. And again, it's always through the prism of character and what characters want, what they don't want, what they're afraid of, what they aspire to, and that's what gives story power.
Ashley Rindsberg: A hundred percent. And I always kind of say a writer of any kind, a good writer of any kind is like a cow, where a cow condenses the nutrients of tons and tons of grass into flesh. And a good writer would do that with the material that he's grazing for months or years on, and gradually he's helping us put it all into flesh that's easier and better to consume for us. And I think that's exactly what's happening. So just before we wrap up, like, you've got this great book out the Peculiarities, I think everyone listening should absolutely at very, very least go check out that cover because it's awesome.
David Liss: It's actually one of my favorite book covers of anything I've written. I think they did a wonderful job with it.
Ashley Rindsberg: They really did. And that is Tachyon Publications.
David Liss: Yes.
Ashley Rindsberg: And what's next? I'm sure there's a period of promotion and getting the word out about this book, but you're talking about, you've done some comics, which is really cool. It's a genre and a format that I absolutely love. Are you continuing into the next book? Do you roll straight into another book or are you working in comics or is there anything else that's going on?
David Liss: So I recently finished a novel, which I've sent to my agent and we'll see what happens with that.
Ashley Rindsberg: Amazing.
David Liss: It's a bit of a weird project. I decided I wanted to write a Jewish epic fantasy that may be I'm starting to be a little bit concerned. It might be too Zionist for the current market, so we'll see what happens. I'm in the process right now of formulating what I'm going to do next. I'm just going to depend on in large part and how this book does in the market. Not working on any comics at the moment. I'm the lead writer on a video game called Lines of the Sacred Suns. And that's sort of my big side project at the moment, and that will be coming out sometime next year. Well, say what else, so I'm usually able to dig up something.
Ashley Rindsberg: Amazing. So last question is what are you reading and what might you recommend others to read?
David Liss: So I just finished a novel and it is an unfortunate element of the ebook reading experience that I cannot read novels and not remember who wrote them. I just finished a novel called the Very Nice Box. It has two authors whose names I cannot remember, but it's easily the best thing I've read this year. It's a story of a woman who is a product engineer at a company that's very much like Ikea and how a new boss comes to this company and just overturns her life. But it's just stylistically wonderful. It's really very brilliant and clever and witty and just the delight to read, so I highly recommend it.
Ashley Rindsberg: Great. We will link to it. I'm seeing Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett, The Very Nice Box.
David Liss: Yes, them.
Ashley Rindsberg: That sounds very interesting. So thank you, David Liss. I really appreciate it. It's great to get to know you to hear about your story. I'm going to be buying the Peculiarities right now, actually. It's going to take two weeks for the book to get to Israel because especially today with the shipping jams around the world, but I'll be waiting for it. In the mean I am reading Benjamin Weaver and loving it. And again, just thank you for coming on.
David Liss: Well, thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Ashley Rindsberg: Thanks.