Ropes & Gray counsel David Stewart has clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court, argued cases there and continues to file amicus briefs in high court cases. But the life of the writer is quickly consuming the life of the lawyer.
His fourth book, The Lincoln Deception, is a historical mystery released just this week about the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy to assassinate the president, in which a white doctor and a black newspaper publisher in 1900 try to uncover the explosive secret that conspirator Mary Surratt conveyed to prosecutor John Bingham before she was hanged. He is already at work on his fifth, a nonfiction work about James Madison that should hit the bookstands and online outlets during the second half of 2014.
His law practice inspired his first book, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution. He was working on a Supreme Court case when he read all 500-plus pages of Madison's notes from the Constitutional Convention and was mesmerized by the drama, both good and bad, within those pages.
His legal defense of Judge Walter Nixon during his impeachment trial in 1989 led Stewart to research another critical moment in the nation's history—the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. That research resulted in Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy.
And simple curiosity about what Aaron Burr did when left the vice presidency in 1804 drew Stewart into that unplumbed chapter in the nation's development and produced American Emperor, Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America.
Besides writing his own books, Stewart works to help promote the works of others. He is president of the Washington Independent Review of Books, an online book review.
With publication of The Lincoln Deception, Stewart switched gears from nonfiction to try his hand at fiction. Supreme Court Brief caught up with him during a break in his James Madison book project to speak with him about his dual career.
SCB: Have you always harbored the desire to write books or did it come later in life?
Stewart: To be honest, I practiced law for a long time with enthusiasm and energy but I got to a point where it just wasn't there. It was about 13 to 14 years ago that I decided to write. It took a while to figure out what. I started out trying fiction and that didn't go so well so I switched to nonfiction. My first book was on the Constitutional Convention.
Now I've sort of circled back. It's not something I wanted to do all my life. I really just sort of woke up one day and said, “Gee, I'd like to try it.” That and an indulgent spouse is how I was able to do it.
SCB: Has your legal training helped you in your writing career?
Stewart: Yes, in simple ways. As a trial lawyer, you take deadlines seriously so you get used to meeting deadlines. But more than that, as a lawyer you're always hearing in your head the answer, the counter to what you're saying. You're always looking for the hole. What am I not anticipating here? That voice is always on. When you're doing a book, it's a great voice. That when you're saying something about James Madison or Aaron Burr, I need to anticipate what I am missing. What is out there that I haven’t looked at? I think that training is really good.
To be honest, it helps with fiction too. With trial work in particular and appellate work too, you're engaged in storytelling. You take facts and put them together in the most compelling yet true version. When putting together the narrative of a fictional story, you want to do that too. It does put a premium on how do you structure this to draw the reader in—how do you explain behavior? That’s a lot of what trial lawyers do. Often in criminal defense work, the client has done something not too swift and you need to explain why. You need to deal with motivation. In historical books, too, you need to explain why someone has done something smart or stupid. It's really good preparation.
SCB: Since you are working on your fifth book, do you get much time to practice law? And what about a return to the Supreme Court?
Stewart: I still practice. I was a trial and appellate lawyer, and I really can't do that kind of work on the schedule I'm on. I do counseling with longtime clients. It varies time to time. A big month would be working 40 hours on law.
I enjoyed [the Supreme Court] a tremendous amount. I clerked there, too. I did an amicus brief last year in a casino riverboat case. I do have clients in the casino industry. But at this point, I haven't been on my feet in a courtroom in too long to imagine going back.
The way I'm working now, I can do this as long as I can stand it and as long as clients want me. I'm very lucky clients want me to help them. It's actually good for me to get out of this library and talk to people and deal with real problems and even go to a meeting. It gets me downtown. I get out of my sweats. It's worked so far.
SCB: How do you write? Is there a special place or time in which you feel most creative?
Stewart: I work at home. We've converted a bedroom. It's a great space. I wrote my first three books in a different space. When we converted the bedroom, I was terrified it would all dry up. Generally, with nonfiction, I tend not to outline too much because I know where the story is going. I'm following an event like the Constitutional Convention or an episode like Aaron Burr's western expedition. With the fiction, I needed an outline, and I had a very long and detailed outline. That was from previous experience and not being in control of the story, so I took a different approach. You don't stick to the outline entirely. but you know where you're going.
I've always enjoyed writing. I started as a newspaper reporter out of college before I went to law school. I had a formative experience where I complained one day I was blocked on a story and this editor looked at me and said, 'First you write the first word. Second, you write the second word.' It is a discipline you get used to. I don't tend to clutch. When working on a nonfiction book, I get very impatient to write. I find the research is the painful part. There are people who hate to stop researching and I don’t agree.
SCB: Do you have a favorite historical figure?
Stewart: There are so many. I'm a great fan of obscure people, people like Thaddeus Stevens and Gouverneur Morris. They made tremendous contributions but are not well remembered. That's one reason I want to write about Madison. He was a guy terribly important but, for a lot of reasons—being short, being quiet and bookish—he wasn't valued much then, even though his contributions were tremendous. Most of the great heroes of American history are pretty impressive people.
SCB: How are you approaching the Madison book?
Stewart: I didn't want to do cradle to grave. His unique quality was his ability to work well with others. I'm focusing on five of his partnerships—Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe and Dolly. He could check his ego at the door and really work with people without worrying about who got the credit. The book is in five sections dealing with each of those partnerships.
SCB: You also have devoted considerable effort to the work of other writers through the Washington Independent Review of Books. Tell us a little about that endeavor.
Stewart: There was an organization known as Washington Independent Writers for many years. I was on the board. They had an affiliated nonprofit which hadn’t done anything in 20 years. That board got embarrassed and resigned en masse and gave the organization back. I was asked to try to figure out what to do with it. Some of us sat around for a while and had bad ideas and then we had the idea to do online book reviews.
Book reviews are disappearing. The mainstream press doesn't do many today. We are losing bookstores. I love reading book reviews, even of books I'm never going to read. We thought this was something that maybe could work.
It has been about 2 1/2 years now and 800 or more reviews and hundreds of writers, largely volunteers. It has been terribly satisfying. We actually have a budget. We have to keep growing. A lot of people contribute time to make this a special place.
SCB: After the Madison book is done, do you have other book plans in mind?
Stewart: I'm going to be straddling this Madison book for a while, which is a lot of fun. To sell the novel [The Lincoln Deception], I had to agree to write a sequel. There will be more thrilling adventures of Jamie Fraser and Speed Cook.
I have to say the fiction is a bit more fun. Even though it's historical, you don’t have to write end notes and get citations right. You do get to make stuff up and use imagination more, and that is fun. There is an excitement to fiction which I'm enjoying. I'm going to write these two I have to write but I have no idea what's next.
It's satisfying. It's a different kind of financial reward to say the least, but that's okay.
Contact Marcia Coyle at email@example.com.