Novelist David Liss On Jane Austen, The Industrial Revolution, And Magic And Social Change

Novelist David Liss likes to send his heroes up against sweeping forces of societal change, whether Jewish boxer-turned-detective Benjamin Weaver is running up against the rise of the stock market and paper money in books like A Conspiracy of Paper and The Spectacle of Corruption or Ethan Saunders is investigating the circumstances surrounding the founding of the Bank of America in The Whiskey Rebels. In his newest book, The Twelfth Enchantment, Lucy Derrick, a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to some of Jane Austen’s most famous heroines, finds her community and her life under threat by the rise of the Industrial Revolution. And Lucy learns that she has the magical talent to stand against some of the more destructive forces at work behind the rise of England’s mills. We spoke about writing political fiction, Austen’s secondary characters, and magic as a social get-out-of-jail-free card. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve written mostly straight historical fiction in the past. How did you decide to make the switch to fantasy?

I’ve always loved genre fiction, and at some point, I knew that I wanted to do something like this. It might be more accurate to say did I decide I wasn’t going to write genre fiction? I got started on a different track…I was in grad school and I decided I want to write a novel. I went with the old adage that you should write what you know. What I knew was 18th century Britain, so what I decided I would do is write a novel based on my dissertation research. For whatever reason, I decided to play it straight and not doing anything paranormal with that book. I’ve always been resistant to being pigeon-holed and being told that because this was the kind of novel I’d written, this was the kind of novel I had to keep writing. I’ve been able to get away with it so far.

Well, even though The Twelfth Enchanment is a fantasy novel, it’s deeply engaged with social issues. It’s always fascinating to me that Austen’s novels, which are very brittle and funny about class, aren’t really engaged with larger social issues.

[There were] two different things I wanted to do. One, which I wrote about in io9, was magic as it was understood in the period. The other thing was I was really interested in was what you were talking about, the narrow view of the Jane Austen novel. She was living in and writing about a period that was going through an incredible economic upheaval that rarely in any way creeps into her books, and then only in the most oblique ways. That was where I began. In terms of the character’s evolution, I guess what I would say is I’m very resistant to writing characters who are contemporary people who happen to be living in the past. I wanted to write about someone who felt to me like a realistic 19th-century character with a realistic set of 19th-century worldviews and interests. To have her start out as someone who is conscious of and aware of and active about these issues never felt realistic to me. Her evolution from apathy to interest I always felt needed to happen in the book, rather than to be introduced to his woman who is a social activist.

It’s always seemed to me like reformers in that era were people who could afford to be engaged, or who had no choice but to be.

There are a few different avenues a woman could take to being socially engaged, but they were all against the grain. You could have somebody like the Dutchess of Devonshire who is very politically aware, but she’s coming from a position of extreme wealth and privilege and riding on the shoulders of male power…Even though she was noted and celebrated for that, she was also regarded as freakish. There was no safe neutral place for woman to be involved in or even aware of social movements…These were not necessarily dangerous waters but they were uncomfortable waters especially for young women. England is becoming, at this point, much more conservative than it had been for most of the 18th century. There is a post-French Revolution reaction to license and liberty and the Jacobin breakdown of social order. England responds by becoming much more conservative and buttoned-up and proper.

It’s as if something as powerful as magic is required for someone as protected as Lucy to get engaged.

Magic acts, how do I want to put it, as a kind of social get out of jail free card in the novel. Very early on, I was doing an interview about this novel, and I noted that Lucy uses magic to get from Nottingham to London and the person thought I meant she teleported or flew through the air. I explained that she uses magic to get on a coach. Doing things like traveling if you have no one to chaperone you was impossible. Magic acts as a liberator for her, and for me, as well. It does provide a degree of license that sort of evolved naturally as I was writing the book. She goes off with [Jonas] Morrison, [Lucy’s former beau] and with [Lord] Byron [who lives in Lucy’s neighborhood] in ways that she never would have beforehand.

But magic also serves to reinforce the social order to a certain extent. It turns out the mills have magic supporting them.

I didn’t want to write a book that suggested that magic good/technology bad. And that was a little bit tricky because at this time in history, technology is pretty much unambiguously bad except for the small number of capitalists who are benefiting from it. You do have the voice of people like Morrison who argue that England has to participate or it’s going to be left behind. As I began to work on the industrial revolution, it became a kind of moral puzzle box for me. We live in this era that has benefited from the Industrial Revolution, and we live with a kind of luxury and plenty that even all but the poorest of Americans live with a kind of sensuousness that was unimagined by medieval kings. But in order to get to this point, a lot of people had to suffer in really terrible ways.

The arc of the novel feels a great deal like Pride and Prejudice: you start out with a heroine who meets a man she doesn’t like, there are meaningful long walks on country roads, you have meddling members of the nobility. Was that an intentional design?

Once I started playing around with these other Austen archetypes or Austen character types, it was obviously fun to tweak them a little bit and to take liberties with them. In some ways, I found it restricting, because I realized…the book was working along this classic Austen plot, and I’d done this intentionally with the suitor who seems like a nice guy turning out to be the bad guy and the bad guy turning out to be the good guy, and I realized I’m kind of stuck with this, it can only end one way, and predictably so…One of the things I do find frustrating about Austen is how shallow some of her secondary characters are when her primary characters are so rich.

Lydia Bennet exists as a way for us to admire Elizabeth for not being that way and for being better than she is and also being non-judgemental. She laments that her sister causes such grief to her family but she never says, “Lydia is such a stupid slut.” Her restraint makes her seem like a better person than we are. Right from the beginning where I knew I wanted the main character to be someone who had been Lydia Bennet when she was younger, someone who ran away when she was younger, I knew that must have been a real decision, not just an animalistic impulse. I sometime feel like I live in a bubble where everyone is reasonable, and there are a lot of unreasonable people out there.

Speaking of reasonableness, your characters tend to come up against major social change and compromise, rather than achieving major victories.

Compromise never feels like a satisfying conclusion to a story, but there’s only so much you can do to stem the tide of real social movements…You can’t have a character say, “I will single-handedly stop the onslaught of unregulated capitalism,” because no one actually did that…You must know Firefly. So do you remember in the film, Serenity, at the end, where they defeat the evil corporations by disseminating the truth of what they were up to? When I first saw the movie, it seemed like a satisfying ending to me. Then I saw it a few years later with a friend, several years into the Bush administration, and I thought, simply disseminating the truth doesn’t mean anything. How many times had I looked at the headlines and said this administration is done? It has no effect. The idea that I can do this thing that is right and good and therefore stop this evil juggernaut is not really valid to me. If evil is embodied in a single person or group of people, it can be stopped. But if evil is embodied in a cultural or economic shift, it’s essentially unstoppable. The best we can do is mitigate it.

I do feel like I’m in this lucky position where I can write something and people will read it, and I feel like I should say something that’s probably worth saying…I feel like it’s something worth saying, and one more person saying it is better. I feel like I have to have something to say as well as a cool story…I’m not really sure that non-fiction has any more impact anyhow. It’s just another voice out there. I think fiction can have a larger impact than non-fiction because it can reach people who might not wish to hear the message you have to say, though I’ve often found that people don’t really hear the message if they don’t want to…I get emails from stock traders all the time who say, “I love your book! You really show how we do things around here,” not recognizing that I’m being critical.