David Liss seemed destined to become Professor David Liss. He earned a B.A. from Syracuse University, his M.A. from Georgia State University and a M.Phil from Columbia University. He earned a M.Phil from Columbia instead of a doctorate because he decided to pursue a career in writing instead of finishing his dissertation and becoming a Professor of Literature. Liss’ first book was A Conspiracy of Paper in 2000. Since then he has written several short stories, and six novels. His most recent book is The Twelfth Enchantment. In addition, Liss has recently taken the plunge into the world of comic books. He has written the one-shot, The Daring Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special, is the new ongoing writer for Black Panther, and is the writer for a miniseries titled Mystery Men.
Nicholas Yanes: You’ve been educated at some of the best universities in the country. How do you feel your education has influenced your writing style? On this note, do you feel a college education is needed for someone to become a professional writer?
David Liss: I’m all for education. While I never finished my Ph.D., I learned an incredible amount while pursuing it, and I don’t think I could have figured out how to put together a novel if I hadn’t built my critical thinking skills while trying to survive in one of the most competitive academic departments the world has ever known. So knowing more and pushing your capacity beyond what you thought you could do is great for any writer. That said, I know many brilliant people with no advanced degrees from any school, many more with degrees from less well-regarded schools, and, sadly, plenty of not-so-smart people with degrees from fantastic schools. So what matters is what you do, not where you go.
Yanes: Mike Carey – who writes X-Men: Legacy for Marvel Comics and The Unwritten for Vertigo/DC – went to Oxford for a degree in English. To determine which school produces better comic book writers, would you ever challenge him to a street fight or death match?
Liss: How about a script-off?
Yanes: You are an award winning bestselling author with multiple books under your belt. What do you feel separates a professional author from someone who claims that they want to write a novel, but never do?
Liss: When I was working on my first book, my mantra was: “Someone has to get published. It might as well be me.” I worked hard on my book, and I thought a lot about what it would have to be like in order to stand out, so I will readily admit that a great deal of labor and thought and persistence went into getting that first book contract. On the other hand, I also had incredible luck, and that doesn’t hurt too. I used to say that any good manuscript will eventually find a home if the author is strategic and persistent, but I honestly don’t know if that is true anymore. I sold my first book at a time when publishing was expanding. Now it is contracting. Would I be able to sell a first novel in today’s market? I have no idea.
Liss: I always seem to return to the 18th century. I’ve said in other interviews — so this is not original, but it is true — that the 18th century is like a fun house mirror version of our own times. We see ourselves as we are today, but so twisted and distorted as to be grotesque. It is endlessly fascinating to me.
Yanes: You are not only the new ongoing writer for Black Panther, you are also writing the miniseries, Mystery Men. After writing novels for so long, what made you want to jump into comic book industry? Were there any structural differences between the two mediums that you struggled with?
Liss: I started writing comics because I was asked! I’ve always been a comics fan, and so when I had a chance to do a one-shot with Marvel (Daring Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special) I was thrilled. I hoped it would lead to other things, and indeed it has. I love it when things work out. The most obvious adjustment I had to make in moving over to comics is that an issue can only be so long and have so many panels. In a novel, I can create the canvas that is right for the story, but in comics you have to make a story that works with the canvas. The hardest things for me were learning to be precise and concise (which has helped with my fiction writing) and how to always think visually.
Yanes: Starting with Reginald Hudlin’s “Who Is the Black Panther” and continuing with Jonathan Maberry’s Doomwar, Black Panther has had several years of amazing writers. What was it like to be handed such a popular character, and given the opportunity to take him in a new direction?
Liss: It’s an honor to get to participate in the legacy of this fantastic character, especially since when I took over, Black Panther was filling in for, and taking on the numbering of, Daredevil, so, in fact, I was working with the legacy of two fantastic characters. That is something of which I am always mindful. Working on one of these canonical characters makes us stewards as well as creators, and we always have to be respectful of what’s come before even when thinking of what we want to come next.
Yanes: I became interested in Mystery Men after I heard so many good things about it. What was your inspiration for this title? And given that Marvel already has several characters from the Golden Age, why did you want to create new superheroes?
Liss: The idea for the book, and to create new characters both came from the project’s editor, Bill Rosemann. Bill contacted me and asked if I was interested in writing a story set in the 1930s, with new characters but set in continuity. I thought the idea was awesome, and I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to get to create a new chapter in the history of the Marvel U. I got to re-work pulp archetypes with a contemporary Marvel sensibility, and that was nothing but fun. Bill and I had a number of conversations about what kinds of characters we wanted for the story, and we hashed out several ideas until we were both satisfied we’d managed to both pay homage to, and modernize, some of the Golden Age tropes.
Yanes: In addition to making a great comic, Mystery Men seems to be begging to made into a movie or videogame. Do you have any multimedia hopes for this series? Let’s be honest, Sarah Starr would make a cool toy.
Liss: Of course I’d love to see the characters live on in other media. So far no one has made an offers, but you never know.
Yanes: Without giving any spoilers, are there any plans for a Mystery Men sequel or spin-offs?
Liss: Right now there are no plans to continue with the (surviving?) characters. I would be thrilled to continue in this setting with what we’ve started in Mystery Men, so we’ll have to see what happens in the future.
Yanes: What are some projects you are currently working on fans should look out for?
Liss: Black Panther, of course. I have a novel out in August called The Twelfth Enchantment, which I like to think of as one of my historical financial thrillers meets Jane Austen meets urban fantasy. Later this year I’m publishing an illustrated novel with comics indie Radical called Sword of the Apocalypse, which is set during the Third Crusade. I have some other comics projects in various stages of development, but none have been announced, so I can’t speak of them here. But readers who want to follow me on Facebook or Twitter will hear about the latest developments before my parents do.