In his new horror-infused historical fantasy novel The Peculiarities (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer David Liss presents a version of Victorian London if magic was real, and a real problem…for some. In the following email interview, Liss discusses what inspired and influenced this fantastic tale.
To begin, what is The Peculiarities about, and when and where does it take place?
The novel is set late Victorian London, during a time when there was a resurgence in popular interest in the occult. In the world of this novel, magic has actually started to work in noticeable and weird ways. And there’s a class element, because the negative effects of magic are hurting the underclasses much more overtly. People are transforming into various creature, giving birth to rabbits, and being stalked by mysterious beings.
Where did you get the idea for The Peculiarities?
I have a longstanding interest in historical magic as it was practiced by real people who believed that what they were doing was effective. The late 19th century has always been especially interesting to me, and I’ve thought about doing something with it before, but I never really had an angle on a story that appealed to me. But I finally came up with an approach that excited me, so I dove in.
And is there a reason the lead character, Thomas, works in a bank as opposed to an office or a book store or maybe a place that sells plants and fertilizer and stuff?
I’m not sure what the fertilizer store scene looked like in late 19th-century England, though now that you mention it, I’m automatically interested. But I’ve written about financial history before, and when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my next book, I had the idea of writing about banking and I also was thinking about writing about the occult, so I more or less combined the two concepts. There’s also a real tradition of texts about the drudgery of office clerks, and I thought it would be fun to wade into those waters. I think I especially liked the idea of combining the fantastical with the banal.
It sounds like The Peculiarities is a supernatural mystery, though the mystery is about what’s happening to Thomas, not who he killed or anything criminal. Is that how you’d describe it?
The book is a mystery only in the most basic way most narratives are. There are things going on that the characters don’t understand, and they want to learn how to take control of their lives. There are lots of secrets that get uncovered, though, and I drop plenty of big surprises, but that’s usually how I construct stories no matter what genre I’m working in.
In terms of genre, I’d feel more comfortable calling it historical fantasy, but there are also horror elements.
The Peculiarities is not your first novel; not by a long shot. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on The Peculiarities, but not on anything else you’ve written?
I reread some of my favorite novels from around the period when The Peculiarities takes place before and during the writing. I read lots of Trollope in particular, but I also reread John Galsworthy and George Gissing, but I can’t absolutely guarantee their books haven’t influenced other things I’ve written. This time, though, I was actively looking for material to emulate, especially expressions, idioms, food, and period artifacts. I would sometimes come across a description of a character doing something ordinary and think, “Oh, that’s a cool period detail. I should have somebody in my book do that.”
And how about non-literary influences; was The Peculiarities influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I was consciously emulating other media, but it’s hard to imagine that there’s no lingering affect from any of the Doctor Who stories I’ve seen set in the period — and there are plenty. With some of the creepier scenes, I’m sure I reached for visual references when I was trying to figure out how to make things scary, but I can’t remember any instances of thinking that I wanted something like a particular movie or television show.
On the flipside of that, do you think The Peculiarities could work as a movie, show, or game?
In general, I think books make bad source materials for television or film because those are inherently visual media and novels usually operate on a very different level.
That said, I still actively work with my film agent to sell rights to my books, so I’m absolutely not against adaptation — just mindful of the challenges. My novels are often very idea-focused, and it’s hard to visually represent things like probability theory or shifts in financial markets, but The Peculiarities is much more visual than a lot of my books, and the ideas I’m playing with would, in my humble opinion, look pretty great on screen. Fighting pits where the combatants have lobster claws instead of hands? I figure that should work well on film. I’m generally more interested in seeing my work adapted for television than for film since I think it’s very hard to adapt a lengthy novel into 90-120 minutes of narrative.
If someone wanted to make The Peculiarities into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Thomas and the other main characters?
I don’t do a great job of keeping up with a lot of TV and film, so I’m terrible with speculative casting.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Peculiarities, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
The Twelfth Enchantment is the most similar, since it has fantasy elements, but I’ve written a lot of straight historical fiction, which I always think is closely related to fantasy. You have similar elements of world-building and transporting readers to other times, so I guess I’d say that readers should just look at the description of the different books and see what seems appealing.