David O. Stewart is the author of the new mystery novel The Wilson Deception. His other books include the mystery The Lincoln Deception and the nonfiction works Madison's Gift and American Emperor. A longtime trial and appellate lawyer, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and American Heritage. He is the president of the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Q: Why did you decide to bring back your characters Jamie Fraser and Speed Cook in The Wilson Deception?
A: The immediate response is a simple one: I had a contractual obligation to write a second Fraser/Cook novel. It turns out that when publishers look at mystery/thriller manuscripts, there first question is: “Is this a series”? To which the only acceptable answer is, “Yes.”
You can trace this phenomenon from the Sherlock Holmes stories through Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout), and up to the Harry Bosch series (Michael Connelly). So I gave that answer and assumed the duty to write a second installment.
But there are more complicated features at work. At the end of a novel, the central characters may have life challenges still before them that warrant exploration, and there may be depths that can be developed through additional episodes in the character’s life.
I enjoyed the opportunity to consider how my two protagonists – the white Dr. Fraser and Cook, an African-American ex-ballplayer – changed and stayed the same through the 19 years between the setting of their first book (The Lincoln Deception) and this book.
An extra wrinkle was that I concluded that they wouldn’t have seen each other for 19 years, so they really are rediscovering each other at a very different stage in their lives. They’ve aged from mid-to-late 30s to mid-to-late 50s, which was fascinating to work through.
Q: How did you choose the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as the book's setting?
A: I couldn’t resist it! Fiction writers are always urged to “raise the stakes” in their stories – to make the risks and tension in the story so great that readers won’t dare stop reading the book.
There have been few moments in human history when the stakes were higher than at the Paris Peace Conference. So much of our last century has been molded by the decisions and blunders made by the flawed, sometimes arrogant people who made that peace – the rise of Nazism, World War II, the birth of Israel, the continuing chaos in the Middle East, strife in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. All have their roots in 1919.
Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: For historical fiction, I try to read widely from the accounts of the public events that are involved. If there are specific public figures to be portrayed – in this book, Woodrow Wilson is a major character – I look at photos and film, since a person’s facial expressions, carriage and body language are so powerful. I also listen to any available recordings to try to appreciate speech patterns and the sound of the voices.
Finally, I read novels written during the relevant era to get some sense of word usage, syntax, and the ideas on people’s minds. For this book, I read contemporary novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos.
And then I also have to figure out the era’s automobiles and clothes and the utensils of daily life, subjects for which the Internet is an incredibly useful tool.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: There were two great surprises, which became important parts of my story. First, that during the Peace Conference President Wilson came to rely more and more heavily on a 25-year-old former spy named Allen Dulles (yes, the future head of the Central Intelligence Agency), whose uncle was Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing.
Nothing like having a spy next to the president! Dulles became a real hub of the story, and I was able to use him to make connections between key characters in the historical story and my fictional characters.
The second surprise was that after the Allies had hammered out the peace terms for Germany, the German government refused to sign them. That created quite an extraordinary crisis, one which became a pivot for the novel.
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Woodrow Wilson?
A: Wilson was a highly idealistic and moralistic person, the son of a Presbyterian preacher who loved to sing hymns. Surviving photographs tend to emphasize the grim, somewhat constipated side of his character.
But he also was a vigorous fellow who liked women a lot and relished telling bad jokes and reciting limericks. I tried to convey a more complex picture of him.
Q: When you mix historical figures and fictional creations, how much do you stick to the actual facts?
A: The basic events of history, the basic traits of historical figures – I respect all of those. In The Wilson Deception, the sequence of the peace negotiations provides the timeframe for the story and I follow it very closely.
The assassination attempt on French Premier Georges Clemenceau, the death of British diplomat Mark Sykes (architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement carving up the Middle East), and President Wilson’s health crises are all based in fact and happen in the story when they happened in history.
Of course, when the historical figures interact with my fictional creations, the rules change. Certainly the conversations and actions of the fictional characters are my own invention, though they should be consistent with the known traits of the historical figures and the events of the time. In short, no vampires.
Q: What are you working on now? Will there be a sequel to The Wilson Deception?
A: Such a great question! Yes. I have completed a manuscript of The Babe Ruth Deception, which is set in New York City in 1920-21, the first two years that the Babe was with the Yanks, two seasons during which he simply reinvented baseball by inserting the thrills of the home run.
The time and place provided a great window on the first years of the deranged social experiment of Prohibition, the rise of radical terrorism, the growth of organized crime, plus the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series and how it might have spilled over onto Babe Ruth. It was a hoot to work on.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with David O. Stewart, please click here.