Interview: David Liss, author of The Day of Atonement

I’m a longtime fan of David Liss’s work, and to my utter delight, he agreed to answer a few of my questions about his newest book, THE DAY OF ATONEMENT (I loved it), and much more. Please give him a warm welcome!

davidlissDavid, I’m so thrilled about THE DAY OF ATONEMENT, and Benjamin Weaver even makes a brief appearance. What inspired you to write a book about the Inquisition’s influence in Portugal?
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there’s a major historical event that happens in the last third of the book, and this is something I’ve always been fascinated by. It’s an event that shows up in both the history and the literature of the period, and it’s one of those things that’s been on my mind since my days in graduate school.

I’d had the idea that I might write about 18th century Lisbon for some time, and when I started doing some preliminary reading, I became absolutely fascinated by the cultural landscape – an empire on the verge of collapse; a distracted and self-indulgent ruling class; the presence of foreign merchants who run the nation’s economy; and, of course, the last powerful Inquisition in Europe – a medieval throwback in the age of enlightenment – which has become a twisted version of its original incarnation, which was never so pretty to begin with. That’s just a long way of saying I loved the social, political, and economic turmoil, which struck me as a great backdrop for just about any kind of story, but a revenge story in particular.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most interesting, or surprising things you learned?
Lisbon, as it was in the 18th century, does not exist today (again, I obliquely refer to the last act of the novel), and getting a sense of the physical city at the time was my greatest challenge. Of course, I spent a lot of time reading, but this time and place are not well documented. I went through all the scholarly material I could find, and I read a number of memoirs written by English merchants in 18th century Lisbon. Finally, I took a research trip, where I had a lot of help from local experts and museums. I always save the visit to the physical space until I have a solid draft of a book, otherwise I don’t know what to look for, or even what I’m looking at. In this case, I went around trying to find plausible locations where certain events I wanted to happen could happen.

dayofatonementWhat do you enjoy most about writing, and writing historical fiction in particular?
Writing historical fiction always feels a lot like writing fantasy to me – a genre I enjoy reading, but I have never been able to get my head around writing. I think that may be because in fantasy, anything is possible. In historical fiction, there are hard and immutable limitations on what can and cannot happen, and within those boundaries, you can create another world. Like in fantasy, there is a lot of world-building to be done, and when writing about a period before film and recordings, a lot of guess work goes into it. I guess this is all another way of saying that the thrill of invention and story-telling, which is at the heart of all fiction, I find magnified when working on historical fiction.

What is your writing process like?
I am a morning person, almost pathologically so. These days I get up at four to write pretty much every day. I’m at my most creative in the early hours, and I always have a hard time focusing after about noon, no matter what time I get up. I tend to write first drafts very quickly, and they serve as massive outlines. In those drafts I figure out which character and plot elements are working or stumbling, and then I spend a lot of time revising, fleshing out details, polishing voice, and so on.

I adore your novels, and your ability to transport readers to another place in time entirely is a gift, but what do you look for in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
Thanks so much! As a reader, I most often put books down if I don’t like the narrative voice. I am really attracted to novels driven by voice and character, which is tough because I love novels with interesting and transporting settings, and the books that can put all those things together are somewhat rare. I lose interest in a book generally when I lose interest in the characters. I don’t have to like the characters – in fact, I tend to love books with unlikable characters – but I do have to care what happens to them. As soon as I feel a novel is just about puppets moving through an interesting backdrop, it becomes a chore.

What are a few of your favorite authors or novels?
I just got tagged on social media to produce a list of books that influenced me, so I’m going to post in my answer here, with a few I neglected added on: Persuasion by Jane Austen. Post Office by Charles Bukowski, A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Amelia by Henry Fielding, Paranoia by Joe Finder, Bodies Electric by Colin Harrison, The Stand by Stephen King, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Moist by Mark Haskell Smith, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.

If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
I love that question, but it’s so hard to answer. I really wish I could get completely absorbed by novels the way I could as a kid. Nothing will ever be as diverting as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was when I was a teenager. Unfortunately, my reading tends to be a little more predatory these days. I read for enjoyment, of course, but I am also always asking myself what I’m getting out of the book, what I’m learning from it, and how reading it will help with my work. That said, I read A Game of Thrones when I was on tour for my first novel, itself a kind of surreal experience, and it felt like the most absorbing and engrossing thing I’d read in ages. I reread it recently, and I still think it’s brilliantly constructed, but it’s always better if you don’t know what’s coming.

What’s one thing that you know now that you’d wished you’d known when you started writing? What’s one of the best pieces of advice on writing that you’ve ever gotten, or would give to an aspiring writer?
I feel like for much of my career I’ve looked at other writers and felt like I should be more like that. It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with being the writer I am, focusing on the things I like to write about and that I hope I do well, but I know I do better than certain other elements that some other writers may excel at. So, I guess I wished I’d learned earlier to be comfortable in my own skin and pursue the material that interests me most.

The best piece of advice for writers that I know of, and the one I always give when I teach a class or a workshop, is that plot is character – that stories are only interesting if the reader cares about the characters to whom they are happening. So many aspiring writers are waiting for the perfect or most original idea, but no matter how great the starting point, in the end it’s only window dressing. A brilliant setting or concept or twist no one has ever thought of is worthless without interesting characters, and the most overworked material in the history of narrative feels fresh with the right characters and voice.

When you’re not writing, and you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Does drinking wine count? After work and family, there really isn’t a lot of time left over for stamp collecting. On the other hand, I get paid to make up cool stories, so I don’t know that writers need diversions in the same way as people who don’t get to create for a living. I make time almost every day for exercise, which I enjoy, and I like to cook. I love traveling, both for work and for vacation, and I never do as much of it as I wish I could. That said, a few weeks ago I was sitting in the dark on a weekend morning with a good book, a hot cup of coffee, and an obese cat on my lap, and I felt like that was pretty much height of contentment.

What’s next for you, this year and beyond?
Right now I’m releasing an creator-owned comics miniseries called Angelica Tomorrow, which I would love more people to check out. Next year, I’ll be releasing the first volume of a science fiction series for young readers called Randoms. I had an insane amount of fun writing it, and I’m very eager to get it out into the world. Other than that, I have a few shorter projects brewing, and I need to get started with my next adult novel, which is going to be a big change for me, even if I don’t know what that means yet exactly.

Keep up with David: Website | Twitter

Sebastião Raposa is only thirteen when his parents are unjustly imprisoned, never to be seen again, and he is forced to flee Portugal lest he too fall victim to the Inquisition. But ten years in exile only serve to whet his appetite for vengeance. Returning at last to Lisbon, in the guise of English businessman Sebastian Foxx, he is no longer a frightened boy but a dangerous man tormented by violent impulses. Haunted by the specter of all he has lost—including his exquisite first love—Foxx is determined to right old wrongs by punishing an unforgivable enemy with unrelenting fury.

Well schooled by his benefactor, the notorious bounty hunter Benjamin Weaver, in the use of wits, fists, and a variety of weapons, Foxx stalks the ruthless Inquisitor priest Pedro Azinheiro. But in a city ruled by terror and treachery, where money and information can buy power and trump any law, no enemy should be underestimated and no ally can be trusted. Having risked everything, and once again under the watchful eye of the Inquisition, Foxx finds his plans unraveling as he becomes drawn into the struggles of old friends—and new enemies—none of whom, like Lisbon itself, are what they seem.

Compelled to play a game of deception and greed, Sebastian Foxx will find himself befriended, betrayed, tempted by desire, and tormented by personal turmoil. And when a twist of fate turns his carefully laid plans to chaos, he will be forced to choose between surrendering to bloodlust or serving the cause of mercy.


  1. Excellent interview with pertinent and fascinating questions. David Liss is an incredible novelist, and the one thing a reader can count on in his work is scholarly genius. Not only does his scrupulous research show, but his mastery of the essence of fiction writing is superlative. Thank you for this interview, from a loyal Liss fan and writer aspiring to come close to a fraction of his intellectual accomplishment.

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