A long-time Bedford attorney whose love for creative writing began in high school has published his first novel. And it only took about 20 years to write it.
Stuart Liss is the author of The Fire This Time, which has been available since July. The name he uses on his fiction works, including more than 50 published short stories, is S. Frederick Liss.
Set over a 19-day span in April 1981, The Fire This Time is described by one reviewer as “a vivid, harrowing portrait of 20th-century Boston in all its brutal tribal schisms, made deadly by old secrets, old lies and old hatreds.”
If the title sounds somewhat familiar, it should. One of the classics of African-American literature, The Fire Next Time, was written by James Baldwin in 1963.
Liss, 75, grew up in New Bedford. He received an undergraduate degree from Amherst College and earned his J.D. at Columbia University School of Law. He also holds a master’s in fine arts from Emerson College.
Creative writing, he said, is “something I’ve been interested in for a long time.” Indeed, in his high school yearbook, a friend labeled Liss “our class’s Ernest Hemingway.” His first published short story was more than two decades later, in 1989 in The Worcester Review, a literary magazine.
A couple of years after receiving his law degree, Liss and his wife Judy moved to Bedford. They have three children and three grandchildren. Liss was a member of the Board of Trustees of Bedford Free Public Library for 25 years and also served on the town Finance Committee.
Work on The Fire This Time actually began when Liss submitted a series of scenes “with the intention of integrating them into a novel” during a Harvard Extension School fiction-writing workshop.
“This novel went through well over 20 drafts, and was written over a very long period of time,” he said. “I didn’t work on it every day; it evolved over more than 20 years. I would set it aside, work on other projects. I worked with two professional editors, which was very helpful.”
Since 2013, he has been practicing law out of a home office. “I intentionally limited my practice to longtime clients. When you reach a certain age, you shift what your priorities are.”
Writing fiction is a priority. “I’m in a position where I can spend more time on it than when I was actively practicing law. Then I would try to steal a couple of early morning hours, weekend hours. Now I have more time to devote to writing.”
Still, “Over the years I managed to publish over 50 short stories,” he continued. And that is an indicator of how many he actually wrote. “I still have an inventory. Each acceptance represents a lot of submissions,” he said, adding with a chuckle that he knows he is improving because “the rejections are getting more respectful.”
He talked about the transition from writing short stories to producing a novel. “You have to start thinking about long-range plot development – the long-story arc. A novel can be a multigenerational saga or two or three days, but novels that don’t cover more time tend to cover a short period in detail.”
“Then you have to think of character development, which in a novel is a much longer arc than a short story,” Liss continued. Characters change from beginning to end, and “the whole notion of an epiphany, so important in a short story, is not as critical in a novel because you have a long story character development arc. In a novel, an ‘epiphany’ can be a gradual accumulation of experiences over a period of time.”
“There are different styles in writing, and what is good for person A may be a disaster for person C,” Liss observed. “Some people make a complete outline of their novel and then sit down and write scene by scene. That approach does not work for me I tend to be more instinctive. When I start a project, I generally do not know where I going to end. More often than not the ending comes to me as part of the writing process. I discover it along the way.”
Liss said the question that launched The Fire This Time – the “kickstarter” — was: “What if there was a blood libel accusation in modern-day America?”
The events are fictional, but the context is historical. One of the premises of the story, he said, is “the veneer of civilization in Boston is very fragile and can be disrupted by something minor.
The times were marked by violent reactions to court-ordered school busing. The incident triggering that thought occurred on April 5, 1976, when a young Black attorney, Ted Landsmark, was attacked with a U.S. flag =wielded by white thugs on Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Stanley Foreman’s photo of the assault was seen around the world.
“I wanted to depict that period of time with some degree of accuracy and that’s where research comes in,” Liss explained. “You want to find details you can put into the story that can accurately reflect what it was like.”
As is often said, any resemblance of fictional characters to actual people is coincidental. “I didn’t take any individual that I know and put them in the novel. But I did take traits and give them to certain characters. That goes for some scenes as well, “The description of the wallpaper in the office of one attorney reflected a downtown law office with that kind of wallpaper,” Liss said, adding, “You pick up bits and pieces along the way.”
The author said his legal background played a role in his descriptions of courtroom scenes, as well as how the public defender dealt with issues.
The book has been available since mid-July, and the limitations foisted by the virus have been frustrating for exposure. “Someone like myself who not a brand name can’t do readings at bookstores or libraries the way we could before the pandemic,” Liss noted. The top tier can execute readings on Zoom, but “it’s really important for someone like myself to show up in person.”
He added that a couple of important book fairs have been canceled, including one where he was slated to be a panelist. “These were sales opportunities that are very important for first-timers.” He hopes conditions permit readings next year, as well as a return to the New York Book Fair.
The book is available directly from the publisher, Adelaide Books, or other online sources; Liss doesn’t expect to see it in bookstores for a while. An e-book version is available for purchase on his website, www.sfredericliss.com.
Since the novel was published, Liss has continued to write and submit short stories. In the fall, he pointed out, “literary magazines affiliated with universities reopen for submissions. September and October are timely for submissions.
Liss said it’s difficult for him to work on more than one writing project at a time. “It’s a question of concentration. I need to immerse myself. A thought will come to me out of the blue to help solve a problem.”
“Why do I write? Because it’s fun,” Liss asserted. “It’s fun, but it’s also very hard. Nothing can be more difficult than writing. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop writing.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763
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