By George Ebey
David Liss is the bestselling author of seven novels, including A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, and The Whiskey Rebels. He also currently writes the series Black Panther: The Man Without Fear and Mystery Men for Marvel comics.
His latest book, The Twelfth Enchantment, tells the story of Lucy Derrick, a young woman from Regency England of good breeding and poor finances: after the death of her father, she is forced to maintain a shabby dignity as an unwanted boarder with her unpleasant uncle, fending off marriage to the local mill owner, Mr. Olson. But her prospects of even that unwanted match are complicated by the appearance of a beautiful stricken man who appears on the family doorstep begging her not to marry Mr. Olson just as he collapses. This appearance seems to open the door to a series of increasingly strange occurrences surrounding Lucy. Soon it becomes clear that there is more at stake than her own happiness — and that she is caught between two forces, one ancient and one modern — and that the soul of her very country is at stake.
Your book is a historical thriller. Can you provide us with a general idea of the period and location that it is set in?
The book is set in Regency England, 1812 to be exactly and mostly in Nottingham and London.
What is it about this time and place that compelled you to use it as the background for your story?
There are a number of factors that drew me here. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a novel that was in communication with Jane Austen, but which deal with the economic and political issues that are absent, or at least at the margins of, her novels — the war with France, a series of devastating harvests resulting in food shortages and grain riots, an on-going economic recession, and, most importantly, changes in the labor market brought on by the industrial revolution. This novel incorporates elements of the supernatural — specifically folk and scholarly magic as actually practiced by people who actually believed it worked — and there’s really no better time to write about such beliefs since the early industrial revolution was a period of profound change. I wanted to write about a world that was on the verge of a major alteration, and England, at the beginning of industrialization and before the end of the Napoleonic Wars, works perfectly.
The book is set during the Luddite Uprising. Could you provide some background information for those who are unfamiliar with this event?
The Luddites (from whom we get our word for people who dislike technology) were traditional laborers — in the case of this novel, stocking weavers — who rose up against the factory owners who were destroying their ability — quite literally — to earn enough money to survive. Men who had earned a living through skilled labor, producing high-quality goods were suddenly out of work because they could not compete with the unskilled laborers who were producing inferior, but cheaper, goods. When the industrial revolution rolled in, it destroyed entire communities and ways of life. The Luddites were fighting back –somewhat haphazardly and ineffectively — by targeting the “mills” (factories) and mill-owners who they saw as the enemy.
You have written several novels set during various historical periods. During the course of your research have you ever come across any stories or facts that truly shocked or surprised you?
I don’t think there is any one devastating fact, but I am often shocked by the poverty, cruelty, and misery of in pre-industrial Europe. It is often hard to believe that people could endure what they did. Then, when you get to the industrial revolution, things get far, far worse. Obviously we enjoy a way of life today that previous centuries could not imagine. All but the poorest Americans live in greater luxury than most medieval kings, but to get here, a lot of people had to live lives that we can barely force ourselves to imagine.
Besides the obvious differences of time and setting, what do you believe audiences can get from a historical thriller that they can’t get from a contemporary set thriller?
From the perspective of thriller-writing craft, the historical thriller offers a whole set of tools to play with to create tension. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard contemporary thriller writers complain about technology — especially cell phones — since it makes it much easier to communicate, provide information, warnings, and so on. The past offers different conditions, far less communication, and much less safety. There was less infrastructure to protect ordinary people. In this case I can tell you that early 19th century England could be a very frightening place, and that makes it fertile ground for a thriller.
Just for fun. If you could meet just one historical figure, who would it be?
I have a great deal of affection for Henry Fielding, who helped pioneer the novel and the modern police force, was a brilliant legal mind, a wide-ranging intellectual, and a guy who could hang out and enjoy several bottles of wine (yes, several bottles!) while chatting with his friends. My kind of guy.
To learn more about David, please visit his website.