David Liss is joining us today to talk about his novel, The Peculiarities. Here’s the publisher’s description:
All of his life, Thomas Thresher has been free of obligation and responsibility. But that is all over now. He is a twenty-three-year-old man whose best days are behind him. Thomas’s older brother Walter has trapped him in a tedious clerical job at the family bank in London, and Thomas is expected to wed a wealthy young woman in whom he has no interest.
But Thomas has more serious problems than those of a disaffected young man. There are irregularities at the bank he cannot explain. His childhood friend has mysteriously turned up dead. Worse, a verdant skin malady has infected him: leaves have begun sprouting on his skin. Thomas must conclude that it is due to the long-rumored Peculiarities. London’s famous grey fog has been concealing a rash of unnatural afflictions—and worse, the murderous Elegants.
As Thomas grows leafier, the conspiracies surrounding him become more apparent. He cannot determine whom to trust: his own family; his banking co-workers and superiors; the beautiful widow of his companion; the woman he is to marry. Perhaps a lycanthropic medium and the members of a secret occult society . . . including a strange man named Aleister Crowley.
What’s David’s favorite bit?
If you know anything about the history of the occult in the modern era, you’ve probably heard of Aleister Crowley. You might have heard that a contemporary newspaper called the “wickedest man alive,” or maybe you’ve read about his original tarot deck or his Thoth magical system. You might have seen his image on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s or rocked out to the Ozzy Osbourne song about him. There’s probably no better-known real-world practitioner of magic.
My novel The Peculiarities is drawn from my long-standing interest in historical magic – that is, magic as it was practiced by real people who believed that what they were doing had some demonstrable effect on the world. When I decided I wanted to write about the late 19th century revival of interest in magic, and in particular the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I knew that there was no way to avoid giving Aleister Crowley some kind of presence in the book.
My first impulse is always to avoid turning real people into characters. I’ve written historical fiction for most of my career, and I don’t like populating my books with names my readers are likely to know. The people, places, and ideas that are considered significant now are not always the ones that seemed most important then. There’s always been something a little distasteful to me about the historical novel set in ancient Greece, for example, in which a character says, “What a difficult problem. I have a good buddy named Socrates who can help us with this!” There were lots of other people who lived in ancient Greece, and probably a decent number of them were competent problem solvers. Novels that take readers on a guided tour of stuff they already know are missing out on a chance to show a more complex, interesting, and nuanced version of what we think the past might have been like.
On the other hand, sometimes a novel is set in a milieu in which it would make no sense to exclude certain historical figures. Some people simply loomed so large that they are unavoidable. That was the case for me with Aleister Crowley. I could not write about Victorian magic and the Golden Dawn without including him, so I dutifully read several biographies, which only confirmed my suspicion that he was brilliant, fascinating and a total asshole.
I have no problem with assholes in fiction. I love consuming and producing stories about difficult, even unlikable people. The awful characters may be what I like most about writing, in fact. I outlined the novel to include Crowley as a foil, a false mentor who leads my main character to make some terrible mistakes.
The problem was I had a little too much fun with Crowley. I didn’t want to change who he was, but at the same time, my enjoyment made the betrayals and acts of sabotage I had in mind feel wrong. For all his many faults, I realized, the historical Crowley was still extremely charismatic, and his charisma was getting in the way of his villainy.
No outline (of mine) survives first contact with the writing, and I began to think about ways to make better use of Crowley’s special brand of self-absorption. The end result was a character who means well but often his best intentions are thwarted by his sense of his own importance and his belief that he is always right. The character shifted from one I included in the novel out of a sense of historical duty to one of my favorite elements in the book.
David Liss is the author of fourteen novels, as well as numerous novellas, short stories, and comics. His previous books include A Conspiracy of Paper which was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2001 Barry, Macavity and Edgar Awards. The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember. He is also the author of the middle grade Randoms series. Many of Liss’s novels are currently being developed for television or film. He has worked on numerous comics projects, including Black Panther and Mystery Men for Marvel, The Spider and Green Hornet for Dynamite, and Angelica Tomorrow. Liss lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.