QUESTION: Are you Jewish?
ANSWER: Yes. This question is the one I am most frequently asked. I figured I should answer it first.
Q: Why do you write historical fiction?
A: It just sort of happened that way. I started working on my first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, while I was writing my doctoral dissertation on 18th century British literature and culture. I knew the period very well, and I thought it would be fun to write about it. But I don’t have any particular commitment to historical fiction.
Q: Did you finish your dissertation?
A: This question is the one I am probably asked most frequently after the Jewish question. No, I didn’t finish. I started writing my first novel more or less as a way of dealing with the fact that I felt the dissertation wasn’t going anywhere. In the process I discovered that I like writing fiction a lot more than I liked academic writing.
Q: But don’t you feel kind of, you know, bad about that?
A: Not at all. I’d quit again if I could.
Q: But you did all that work. I don’t understand.
A: I think this maybe is your issue.
Q: Fine, Whatever. So, your new book, The Whiskey Rebels, is set in late 18th century America. Why the shift away from Europe?
A: It just happened that way. I became interested in the Founders and the Federalist period, not for a book project, but just for myself. I never thought that I would want to write a novel set in this time, but the more I read, the more interested I became, when I started to read about the Panic of 1792, I started thinking of characters and stories. So I ran with it.
Q: Why, exactly, did your interest in writing a novel in this period surprise you?
A: I think that, like a lot of Americans, I had some serious misconceptions about the Founders and about the period. I imagined the period as bloodless and stodgy, and I suppose I imagined the Founders themselves no more animated than they seem in their portraits. I discovered that the period was vibrant, brutal, colorful and more exciting than I would have believed. In school, we tend to learn about the Revolution and the founding of the country as though they are inevitabilities, but nothing could be further from the truth. I think the thing that drew me to the period as a novelistic setting was how uncertain everyone was that the country would, or even should, succeed.
Q: Do you think the novel would appeal to readers who are not interested, or think they are not interested, in the period?
A: Everyone loves a softball question. Why, yes, I do. Novels, in the end, are about characters, and The Whiskey Rebels is primarily about two characters who, though they both fervent believers in the American experiment, have seen everything they care about destroyed in its wake. Now one is on a path of redemption, the other revenge.
Q: Okay, moving on. Why do you live in San Antonio?
A: My wife is a university professor in San Antonio.
Q: Fine. Enough of the touchy feely stuff. How can I become a published novelist?
A: Write a novel. Once that is done, you have to get an agent. I recommend picking up a book that’s published each year called The Guide to Literary Agents. It lists all the agents in the country, their submission guidelines, etc. It also has lots of good advice on how to approach, and so forth. Follow this advice, for it is good.
Q: I don’t want to write a novel, but I have a really great idea for one. Would you like to hear it?
A: It is very kind of you to offer, but no thank you. Novelists are always asked where they get their ideas, but the truth is that ideas are cheap. It is the rare day that goes by, and the non-existent week, in which I don’t have an idea for a new book. The hard part about a novel is not the original idea, but the plot, the characters, the tone, the voice, the pacing and all those other little things that make it come together.
Q: But it’s a really good idea, and I’m sure in my case you’d like to make an exception.
A: I think you ought to write that book yourself, since you’re so enthusiastic about the idea and all.
Q: I have written a book, smart guy. Will you show it to your agent or your editor for me?
A: I would like to be able to help everyone who needs help, but the truth is that I can’t recommend a book I haven’t read, and if I were to read all the manuscripts people ask me to read, I’d have no time for writing, research and, dare I even mention it, pleasure reading.
Q: The Ethical Assassin isn’t historical fiction, right?
A: Yes, it is my first non-historical novel. At least it is not seriously historical. It is set in the mid-1980s, set in and around a Florida trailer park, and concerns the animal rights movement and Marxian political philosophy.
Q: Are you a vegetarian?
A: Yes. I’ve made this decision on ethical grounds. Animals may be delicious, but I find it hard to participate in the kind of torture that happens on an industrial level. I strongly urge all of my meat-eating readers to learn more about factory farms and the ways in which animals are treated and to make decisions about what to eat based on this knowledge rather than on habit and taste.
Q: You sound so preachy. Isn’t what people eat a matter of personal choice?
A: No, boxers or briefs is a choice. Whether or not to participate in unspeakable cruelty, environmental catastrophe and a brewing health crisis of unspeakable proportions is a bit more serious.
Q: I don’t know. . .
A: If you wish to discuss this matter further, feel free to e-mail me with your questions.
Q: It is very generous of you to be willing to take the time to speak with your readers about these matters. Truly, you are a remarkable human being.
A: Very kind of you to say so.
Q: Now. moving on. I understand you grew up in Florida.
A: That’s right. You are very well informed.
Q: How did you like it?
A: It was hot, and there were too many beaches. It is, however, populated by numerous species of poisonous reptiles, and even some poisonous amphibians, and that keeps life interesting.
Q: Will there be another Benjamin Weaver novel?
A: Yes. The Devil’s Company is about the British East India Company and the 18th century origins of the modern corporation. It wiill be published on July 7, 2009.
Q: I don’t like that I had to wait so long for the third Benjamin Weaver novel.
A: That’s not really a question, is it? More like a statement.
Q: Excuse me. How come I had to wait so long for the third Benjamin Weaver novel?
A: I am but a leaf adrift upon the untamed waves of the publishing industry. Do not judge me. Only wish me well.
Q: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
A: That’s also not a question.
Q: You’re tough.