David Liss’s Secret History of America’s First Market Crash

When I met David Liss in mid-October to talk about his new novel, The Whiskey Rebels, the stock market had just been through its first set of freefalls—a weird week, as we discussed during the brief period before my video recorders battery died, to be publishing a historical novel about an attempt to force the collapse of American finanical markets during George Washington’s administration. I asked Liss if he had heard about the conspiracy theories, which former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had floated on his new talk show, that 2008’s financial crises might be the result of a similar plot. “I don’t think it’s possible,” he said firmly. “It’s the most completely clueless theory I’ve heard.”

“It took a certain amount of work to make the markets as unregulated and crazy [now] as they were in the late 19th century,” he continued. “What really made it possible then was the small parameters of the market.” It would have been easy for a few people at a few banks to inflict serious damage on the emerging American economy, he explained. What makes his novel so brilliant is not just that he comes up with an explanation that makes sense given what we know of the real American history, but that he layers in a fictional drama that makes his scenario compelling as well as plausible.

But when he began reading about the Founding Fathers in late 2004, he said, “it really had more to do with my own sense of political disillusionment” than with any literary ambition. It was only when he noticed himself circling around the Bank of the United States, the Panic of 1792, and the Whiskey Rebellion that he was thinking of a book.

Liss’s interest in historical suspense began when he was a grad student at Columbia, working on a dissertation about the simultaneous rise of the novel in 18th-century British literature and the development of modern notions of money—the ways in which people’s financial selves became integrated into their personalities. Add the ambivalence of noir fiction—his first protagonist, Benjamin Weaver in A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, was compared favorably to a 17th-century Philip Marlowe, while Ethan Saunders of The Whiskey Rebels felt to me like an early American Mike Hammer—and you’ve got some great stories. “I like writing about morally ambiguous characters,” Liss elaborated. “And the American history we learn in high school never captures just how paranoid the political environment was at the time.” From the perspective of the mastermind behind the plot Saunders stumbles onto and is compelled to thwart, Liss continued, the scheme to crash the markets and ruin the nascent plutocrats might just be accelerating an inevitable result.

While providing a plausible backstory for a real early American crisis, Liss brings the real-life figures into the narrative, including Alexander Hamilton and a memorable cameo from Washington. The descriptive copy of the back of my galley mentioned Thomas Jefferson as well, but he never showed up in the novel, so I asked Liss about the discrepancy. “The book was too big,” he admitted, “and his presence was more about his being in the story than integral to the plot. I felt that it would work without him.” That pruning process also led to the elimination of a third narrator, a government operative who is now seen strictly through Saunders’s perspective in the final version.

Next year, Liss will unveil a third novel about Benjamin Weaver. And after that? “I have no rules,” he said. “I’ve been pretty lucky in that, for the most part, [Random House] let me do whatever I want to do.”

24 November 2008 | interviews |