For four years in the late 1990s, my wife, children and I lived in Hong Kong. I was working as an internal lawyer for an American financial firm; our home was a beautiful (but small) apartment on the south side of Hong Kong island, perched high above the South China Sea. From our apartment window we could look down upon the American Club, where my wife played a lot of tennis and my children learned to swim. It was a busy life but a good one.
One evening I was sitting in our apartment, reading a book about the American Civil War. What happened next is best related as dialogue, although there was no one else in the room at the time.
Stahr: “This book was not very well done; even I could have done better.”
Voice: “If you really think that, Stahr, why don’t you do it?”
Stahr: “Do what?”
Voice: “Write a book on American history.”
Stahr: “Don’t be ridiculous: I do not have the training to do that: I am just a lawyer, not a historian.”
Voice: “Don’t be ridiculous: you have taken lots of history courses, done research in the Library of Congress, read hundreds of history books, even the footnotes.”
Stahr: “But I don’t have time: I have a full-time job and I travel a lot.”
Voice: “What better time to do some preliminary reading than while you travel?”
Stahr: “OK, let me think about a possible topic.”
I remember at least two topics that I considered in the weeks which followed. One was Civil War prisons: I was intrigued by the comment in James McPherson’s book Battle Cry of Freedom that “Civil War prisons and the prisoner exchange question badly need a modern historian.” Another was Gouverneur Morris: I noticed a similar comment about Morris in Richard Bernstein’s great book Are We to Be a Nation?
I started reading about Morris, a fascinating figure, author of the immortal words “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.” I decided that one easy thing to read would be biographies of some of Morris’s best friends: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Robert Livingston.
Libraries were just starting to put their catalogs online, and I used these catalogs to look for a biography of Jay. The most recent full-length book I could find was Frank Monaghan’s biography from 1935. Using on online used-book service, also just getting started at this time, I bought a used copy of Monaghan’s book. As I read, there was another bit of dialogue.
Starr: “Monaghan’s book on Jay is not very good; even I could do better.”
Voice: “Then why don’t you research and write a biography of Jay?”
Stahr: “But what about Gouverneur Morris?”
Voice: “Look, Morris is colorful, with his romantic affairs and his wooden leg, but he is not anywhere near as important as Jay. Jay needs a biography and you could write it.”
Stahr: “OK, I will try.”
By the time we returned from Hong Kong to the United States, at the very end of 1998, I had decided to attempt a life of Jay. My plan was that I would take a year off, do all the research, and then do the writing while working in some kind of legal job in Washington. I did not have an agent or a publisher, but I thought I could sort out those details later.
“Man plans, God laughs.” Two things happened to my plan. First, it became clear that a year would not suffice for the research on Jay; it was going to take a long time to read and digest all the material I was finding. Second, Emerging Markets Partnership, a private equity firm based in Washington, was interested in hiring me to work on their Asian legal issues. I started work with EMP in March 1999, resolved to keep reading about Jay on nights and weekends.
A few years later, perhaps it was 2003, I told the senior people at EMP Global that I needed more time to research and write. We worked out a part-time arrangement, allowing me to work one week for EMP and then one week on Jay. I will be forever grateful to EMP for its flexibility, for this gave me the time to do the research, especially in New York City, and also gave me the legal work I needed to pay the bills. My part-time status lasted for about one year, but by the end of that time I was more or less done with research outside of Washington.