PW: Your new novel, The Coffee Trader, will confirm your expertise in a new subgenre: historical thrillers that revolve around financial manipulation. Did you always intend to specialize in this genre, or did the success of A Conspiracy of Paper inspire you to find other historical incidents to dramatize in fiction?
David Liss: I'm probably less interested in money and business than I am in intrigue and conniving—and the business world is a great breeding ground for shady behavior. When I was in graduate school studying 18th-century literature and culture and their relationship to finance, I was always interested in the Netherlands of the 17th century, mostly because the 18th-century English always had one eye on the 17th-century Dutch. Being a full-time novelist gave me a chance to dive into that world. And since a great deal of what made the 17th-century Dutch so interesting was their new modes of doing business, another book about business made sense to me.
PW: Your books are unusually timely, given the current Enron-type scandals and the malaise of the stock market. Can you claim to be prescient?
DL: I can claim to be lucky. You can make the argument that The Coffee Trader is timely, but I think the real question is, will people want to read about investment fraud during a period when their finances have taken a hit because of investment fraud? But come to think of it, the best thing people can do to make themselves feel better is to read my book.
PW: What awakened your interest in historical thrillers?
DL: When I [first] decided to write a novel, I thought I'd figure out some way to turn my dissertation research on 18th-century British finance into a piece of fiction. It seemed to me that the best way to make readers care about finance was to make it central to some kind of suspenseful plot.
PW: How did you go about researching The Coffee Trader?
DL: Haphazardly. I wasn't even sure what I wanted to write about when I started. Very little was coming to me until I was going through Fernand Braudel's wonderful three-volume history on capitalism and came across a single sentence about the emergence of monopolies. I immediately said, "That's what I want to write about!" I thought I'd focus on a commodity just then emerging. The best choices were chocolate and coffee. I went at first with chocolate, but after a couple of drafts I realized that people expect books about chocolate to be sensual and erotic. I was more interested in writing something tense and manic. Coffee then seemed to me the obvious way to go. Once I had a pretty solid draft, I went to Amsterdam to look at physical spaces, get a better sense of the city's layout, architecture, etc.
PW: Apparently you intend to brew 17th-century coffee during your book tour. Will it taste like sludge?
DL: Only if I make a mistake when I prepare it. If I do everything right, it should taste a whole lot worse than sludge. But it's an educational experience, so bottoms up.