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Arts Writing for Godot

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Author David Liss wouldnt eat a chicken any more than wed eat his cat

San Antonio author David Liss isnt trying to one-up anybody, but, so far, hes not too impressed by Texas cockroaches. Believe me, you dont call these cockroaches, he says. These are little tiny bugs. In Florida, they put saddles on them.

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David Liss
On September 8, Gemini Ink will present Liss with its Award of Literary Excellence at the annual INKstravaganza literary gala and benefit fundraiser `See Word on the Street, in this issue of the Current`. The native Floridian will read from his forthcoming novel, The Ethical Assassin, a murder mystery set in his home state involving a young door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, an animal-rights extremist, a meth-addicted formerly conjoined twin, and, of course, a bad cop.

Of his formative years in Florida, a place he describes as bleakly anti-intellectual and materialistic, Liss says, I always understood I did not want to be there. Yet, for The Ethical Assassin, he returns to the peninsula, treading through not only the dark underbelly of Florida but also his own humorous, slightly seedy past.

That wasnt necessarily his intention. The book began as an exploration of animal rights and the meat industry. Liss has been a vegetarian for many years, since an epiphany he had at Columbia while living with his brown tabby, Godot. I reached the conclusion that he had feelings, preferences, and a completely unfathomable internal life, he says. If I just felt like cutting off his leg, that would be wrong. And the animals I was eating were just like this cat, I just didnt know them.

Liss says he tried to remain neutral while he was researching the book. I began with the idea that I would be open to being converted to a meat eater if the `meat industry` had a better argument. I ended up becoming a vegan.

His research led Liss to conclude that, unless you raise the animal yourself, there is no way to guarantee its treatment: Even the animals raised for their product. If you are buying free-range game hens, the males in those populations are brutally killed. On the health side of the argument, he says, factory-raised livestock is pumped full of antibiotics, which contribute to resistant strains of bacteria. If we are meat eaters, we are getting low-level doses every day, and, frankly, I think it would be unfair for me to die in the coming plague, which I had nothing to do with.

I would be open to being converted to a meat eater if the `meat industry` had a better argument. I ended up becoming a vegan.

David Liss

Hes being flip, but he admits that in its first iteration, the book became a rant. There were scenes where I felt my readers were going to hate me, that they were being accused of being terrible people.

Liss rewrote the book, centering it on Lem Altick, a character loosely based on his own experiences as a college student selling encyclopedias door-to-door in Florida. Was he a good salesman? Yes, he admits, but it was a brilliant pitch, not innate talent, that propelled him to success. The young Liss would wheedle his way in the door with an education survey, softening buyers into the habit of saying yes with questions such as, Do you think its good when your child learns? As he was leaving, hed mention a new product: They were the kind of people his company wanted to place it with, but he could only tell them about it if they were interested. You get them to commit to if you stay or go, so theyre obligated to buy something. It worked incredibly well and I felt like a terrible human being, but I made a lot of money quickly.

Not all of Liss characters are based on him, but good people dabbling in terrible behavior is a theme throughout his books. I like writing about good characters who are bested by their flaws, Liss says. And bad characters who have some redeeming quality. It is so boring to read about characters who are morally unconflicted.

By Susan Pagani


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