|David O. Stewart|
David O. Stewart's most recent book, American Emperor, is a biography of Aaron Burr. He also has written The Summer of 1787, about the U.S. constitution, and Impeached, about the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. He also is a lawyer, and is the founder of The Washington Independent Review of Books.
Q: What drew you to Aaron Burr?
A: Simply put, Burr was a vice president like no other. Two qualities especially appealed to me: his sheer audacity, and the mystery surrounding his Western expedition in 1806-07, which is the core of American Emperor.
For audacity, start with the election of 1800, when he finished in an electoral-college deadlock with the ostensible head of his ticket, Thomas Jefferson, and did not withdraw in Jefferson’s favor until the House of Representatives had also deadlocked for thirty-five ballots through a weeklong crisis. Four years later, offended by remarks by Alexander Hamilton, he demanded satisfaction on the dueling ground and took it. Though Burr was the sitting vice president, two states promptly indicted him for murder. Then he set off on his Western expedition and – after electrifying the West for months – ended up on trial for treason before Chief Justice John Marshall, facing the gallows if he was convicted. As a fictional character, Burr would be entirely implausible. What more could a writer ask for?
The mystery surrounding the Western expedition was also a huge draw. Two hundred years later, distinguished historians still disagree about Burr’s goals and intentions. He was unquestionably preparing a private invasion of Mexico and Florida, which is pretty interesting to start with. Did he plan to annex them to the United States? To set up his own empire? To incite insurrection among the French-speaking residents of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory? To invite secession by the then-western states and territories of Kentucky, Tennessee, and so on? Tracking down and sifting that evidence was a fascinating challenge.
Q: Were there specific things you learned about Burr in the course of your research that surprised you?
A: The most surprising part of the research came from the journal he kept while in Europe between 1808 and 1812, as he tried to persuade the British and then the French to underwrite an expedition to “liberate” the American colonies of Spain. Suddenly I was inside the mind of this man of mystery and discovered a remarkable person. I could easily understand why people liked him and followed him. He was interested in everything – science, mechanical contraptions, literature, government, philosophy, and women. Especially women. The journal reveals him as charming, self-deprecating, witty, frustrated, endlessly ambitious, and desperately lonely.
Q: How has your work as a lawyer affected your writing career?
A: Trial lawyers and authors have to organize a tremendous volume of material and create a narrative that both respects the evidence and illuminates the events at issue. Both are story-telling of a particularly demanding sort. When I am writing history or fiction, I often hear in my own mind the counter-arguments to any point I am making – just as I would when writing a legal brief or outlining closing argument. Why put the evidence together that way? Maybe the story should be told through a different character? Would another interpretation makes as much sense, or more? Do I believe the goals and motives espoused by a witness or by an historical actor? Trying cases is great discipline for a writer. In court, there is nothing more humbling than to have the other side point out something you have overlooked, or how your logic breaks down. Once you have experienced that, you never want to do so again. When writing, I am haunted by an imaginary adversary, poking into the murky corners of my narrative, pulling out the drawers and exclaiming over my stupidity.
Q: Your first novel, The Lincoln Deception, about the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, is coming out next September. Can you tell us more about it, and whether you’ll continue writing novels or return to nonfiction?
A: The Lincoln Deception grows out of an historical event that has been almost entirely ignored (my favorite kind). John Bingham prosecuted Booth’s co-conspirators after Booth’s death. When Bingham was on his own deathbed in 1900, he is reported to have said that one of the co-conspirators, Mary Surratt, told him a secret that would destroy the republic if it became known. He then said he would take the secret to his grave. Then he died. The novel’s protagonist, Bingham’s doctor, becomes obsessed with finding out what that secret is, a process that involves unearthing numerous skeletons about the Lincoln assassination.
And, yes, I will continue writing novels and return to nonfiction. My contract with Kensington Books is for two novels, so I have another one on the schedule, which is in an inchoate form in the back of my mind. Before taking that on, though, I must finish a book on James Madison for Simon & Schuster, which concentrates on the principal partnerships of his extraordinarily productive life – with Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, and (of course) with Dolley. Madison seems to me like the Zelig of the American Founding: he’s always there, but no one notices him. You know, he was awfully short and sort of quiet. But he was at the center of the Constitutional Convention, wrote the best of the Federalist Papers, led the ratification of the Constitution, is almost single-handedly responsible for the Bill of Rights, helped set up the new government, created the first opposition political party in our history, and was our first war president in the War of 1812. How did he do all of that? I think the key was not only his intelligence and political talents, but also his gift for working with others – a talent in short supply then, and ever since.
I don’t allow myself to think about what I will do after those two books...
Q: Your son is also a writer. Have the two of you ever considered collaborating on a book?
A: My son Matt is a novelist whose first book, The French Revolution, won some terrific notices. We did concoct a scheme for a father-son collaboration based on an ambitious cycling trip from Warsaw, Poland, to Odessa on the Black Sea. My Jewish grandfather emigrated from the Warsaw area and my grandmother from Odessa, so we thought we could write an account of our journey through Eastern Europe, our experiences with cycling, our genealogical investigations, and (unavoidably) ourselves. We went in the summer of 2008 and it turned out to be an amazing, demanding, and challenging trip. We made great progress in tracing Polish forebears and none at all in the Ukraine. We took about three weeks to ride more than 800 miles, with some great adventures and some epic blowups; riding 100 miles with the temperature over 100 degrees will sour the sweetest disposition. As Matt has said, he had to stop so often for me to catch up that his experience was more like 800 one-mile rides. When it came time to write the book, though, I’m the one who clutched. It involved writing about myself and the people closest to me – my parents, wife, sisters, children – which was uncomfortable. I find it much easier to tell other people’s stories, not my own. I encouraged Matt to write it himself, but he went on to finish his novel. Maybe someday...
Q: You have said that you started The Washington Independent Review of Books to help fill a void left by fewer book reviews in newspapers. How is that project going, and what do you see as the future for book reviews?
A: It’s been a great ride. We launched in February 2011 and our traffic has quadrupled since then. We post new content every weekday, and we have a stellar group of volunteers who keep it humming (no one is paid!): Josh Trapani, Joye Shepherd, Susan Green, Becky Meloan, Liz Robelen, Harriet Dwinell, Diana Parsell, and many, many more. We have found great reviewers from among prominent authors and from among people who are just starting a writing career. As for the future of book reviews, there are millions of people who want to read them but will not be served by the print media in the future. (Though who knows the future of the print media, anyway? Sic semper Newsweek?) That’s what led us to start The Independent.
Q: Anything else you think we should know?
A: Heavens, no.
Interview with Deborah Kalb