Talking with David Liss, author of 'The Ethical Assassin'
By Edward Nawotka
David Liss got his first taste of the book business as a teenage door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in Florida. Flogging high-priced knowledge, apparently, was the perfect starter job for a would-be professor: After attending Syracuse for his bachelor's degree and Georgia State for his master's , Liss enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia, where he worked on a thesis about how, in his words, "the mid-18th-century novel reflects and shapes the emergence of the modern idea of personal finance."
He abandoned the thesis after writing his first novel, "A Conspiracy of Paper," a brainy thriller about Benjamin Weaver, a freelance debt collector who investigates the death of his father amid financial foment in early 18th-century London. It won a 2001 Edgar Award for best first mystery novel by an American writer and was followed by another historical thriller, 2003's "The Coffee Trader," and a sequel, 2004's "A Spectacle of Corruption."
Last week, Ballantine published Liss' first contemporary thriller, "The Ethical Assassin." The year is 1985; the place, Jacksonville, Fla. Wang Chung is on the radio and "Miami Vice" is the show of the moment. Lemuel Altick is a 17-year-old who — you guessed it — sells encyclopedias door-to-door to raise money so he can attend Columbia. He's working a trailer park when two of his customers are killed by an erudite hipster assassin. Soon, the killer has recruited Lem to help him undermine the operations at a local hog farm, which is a front for police and political corruption.
Liss has always woven big ideas into his books and this one is no different. In addition to serving up a twisty mystery, he offers disquisitions on Marxism, food politics and the morality of murder.
We spoke to him by phone from his home in San Antonio, where he moved in 2001 to follow his wife, an English professor at Trinity University.
Austin American-Statesman: Was writing a contemporary novel easier than writing a historical novel?
David Liss: Since I could draw on my own memories of what it was like to be alive in 1985, there wasn't as much research to do. One of the things I worked on in my historical novels was figuring out how people thought in the past. Human subjectivity was different in the 17th and 18th centuries, but I know what things are like today, minus a couple of decades.
Does the book draw on your own experiences selling encyclopedias door-to-door?
Yes, minus the drugs and murder. The world of door-to-door sales is pretty much dead, but it is a part of American history. I thought for years that encyclopedia sales would be a great setting for a book. The period in which I set the book was pretty much the last moment in which it was common. A rising sense of vulnerability and the Internet have conspired to do away with it. I say that somewhat wistfully. It was something unique and bizarre.
The character of the assassin is an animal rights activist who makes a strong argument for the ethical treatment of animals. Did you set out to make the book so polemical?
I wanted to write a book that would make people think about animal rights. It's not possible to convert many people to your view in a novel, especially if it's a polemic. The reader will feel preached to and you won't feel happy. So I had to put the animal rights position in the mouth of an iffy character, a charismatic wacko. It's difficult to take him on face value. His existence challenges norms.
For the record, where do you stand on this issue?
People who eat meat should be set on fire. No, I'm not serious. I do think the animal rights movement is correct and the treatment of animals is a major problem. I feel we have certain assumed ideas or behaviors that we've allowed to go unquestioned, especially in commercial industries for food or the testing of products. I feel that all the assumptions should be questioned.
Do you worry about the reaction of meat-eating readers?
My experience with making public statements about animal rights has been limited, but unpleasant. Starbucks had a program where they recruited celebrities, writers, musicians to put quotes on their cups. The quote I used was an animal rights quote. I got a lot of hate mail from it and not the "I disagree with your point of view" kind of hate mail either.
Austinites can be a bit smug about our literary culture. How about San Antonio?
For a town to be literary you need a critical mass for writers and readers. A friend of mine pointed out recently that San Antonio has more professional basketball players than writers. Not being around a lot of other writers isn't a problem for my creativity, but it is nice to be around people who understand what you do.