Q&A With Steven Ujifusa

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Q&A With Steven Ujifusa

Today I have the pleasure of doing this Q&A with historian & author Steven Ujifusa. Steven’s books include A Man And His Ship, Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship & his most recent book, The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I. Publishers Weekly called Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I, “one of the best books of the year” when it was released on November 21st 2023. Steven has also appeared on National Public Radio, CBS Morning Radio & numerous media outlets!

Q: Steven, would you please give a brief description of each of your books, starting off with your recent release The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I? 

A: The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I can be described as the sequel to Fiddler on the Roof.  Fleeing czarist persecution, the Jewish milkman Tevye and his family leave the Russian shtetl of Anatevka for America.  We don’t know how he and his family got to America.  My book peels back the onion on a story that, for the descendants of the 2.5 million Jews who left the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1914, is often shrouded in a code of silence.  They sold everything they owned and said goodbye to everyone they knew, all to flee violence and military conscription.  It was a gamble and involved a 5,000-mile journey over land and sea that involved illegal border crossings, railroad trips in sealed trains, and transatlantic crossings in the airless bottoms of grand luxury liners.  The logistics of this complicated and profitable business were facilities by three men: Albert Ballin, the German-Jewish leader of the Hamburg-America Line; J.P. Morgan, the banker and shipping magnate who tried to monopolize the immigrant trade; and Jacob Schiff, the investment banker and philanthropist who gave away tens of millions of his fortune to help Jews escape Russia and settle in the United States.  This story of mass immigration is especially relevant in today’s landscape, as is rising antisemitism worldwide. 


Barons of the Sea: And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship was released in 2018.  What started out as a story about the Boston master clipper ship builder Donald McKay grew into a story of dynastic global capitalism.  The owners of the swift, beautiful mid-19th century clipper ships were the Jeff Bezos of their time, using new technology and more than a little ruthlessness to transport goods such as tea, opium, and silk from one side of the earth to the other.  Among the leaders of these tight-knit group of American businessmen was Warren Delano II, FDR’s maternal grandfather. The book also gets to the roots of America’s complicated and often fraught relationship with China. 

My first book was A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Question to Build the SS United States.  It was published in 2012.   As my first attempt at narrative fiction, I wanted to start off with what I knew best, namely the story of the great transatlantic liners, and single pivotal figure, William Francis Gibbs, who overcame many obstacles to design the greatest and fastest of them all.   The SS United States, completed in 1952, was the culmination of a dream, and was an American mid-century Gesamtkunstwerk, a seamless blend of aesthetics and engineering. For 17 years, the ship ruled the lucrative and prestigious North Atlantic passenger route.  But the arrival of jet travel made her obsolete. The book was a story of drive and will, about Gibbs’s pursuit of excellence in the face of misfortune and societal disapproval. He flouted the strict conventions of his upper-class Philadelphia childhood (his father lost all his money) to get where he wanted to be, and to build the ship of dreams.  

Each book was an education for me. My first book was about how to pursue a dream. The second was about how to make a fortune.  The third was about how to change the world. 

Q: Are you currently writing your fourth nonfiction book? If it’s not too early to discuss it, what is the historical topic about this time? 

A:  I have a couple of ideas, but I’d prefer to keep them private right now.  I’m also working on several projects for my communications company Tradewinds History LLC, which produces corporate, family, and house histories. 

Q: I love history and I know you obviously love history. Where did your love of history come from and what made you choose to become a historian & author as your career choices?

A: Love of history runs deep in my family.  My father was a book editor for many years and had studied American history in graduate school.  My mother’s family has numerous academics, most notably my uncle, a retired professor of Russian history and literature at Johns Hopkins.  My late maternal grandmother was a fabulous storyteller.  She introduced me to history by telling me the story of the Titanic when I was a child.  From that starting point, I have studied not just maritime history, but also biography, urban history, and architecture.  After college, I was tempted to go into academia, but I realized that not only was the job market brutal, but also that the current academic environment detests narrative history as too “popular.” I think that is a shame.  There is a huge hunger among the American reading public for good storytelling, and if we can’t educate our society about history in an engaging (and ultimately empathetic) way, we are in deep trouble as a modern liberal democracy.  I also made some attempts to work in the traditional business sector, but the call of history was simply too strong for me to fight. It was like killing off part of my soul.  I also believed that it was safer to avoid my love of writing out of sheer practical concerns.  I have now realized it is a lot riskier to do something you hate than to avoid something you love.  Going to a place like Harvard these days makes you more, rather than less, risk averse, especially when exposed to lucrative (read: socially acceptable) opportunities off the bat.  I had no business being at Bear Stearns as an undergraduate history major back in 2001.  I jumped ship, and at the time, it felt stupid. Over twenty years later, I can quote Mel Brooks and say,
“I’m here and they are not!” Not to say that I haven’t had my own share of false starts and failures as a writer.   I’ve learned the hard way more than a few times.  You must be tough to survive. Life can kick you in the pants, no matter how much you plan. Now, my philosophy is that to succeed as an independent artist, one must be unsentimental and clear-headed about blending art and commerce.  If Bach and Mozart had to do it, so do the rest of us mere mortals.  Unlike the former, I only have two children to support. Not twenty!

My father said to me growing up that at the end of the day, we are all just a bunch of farmers trying to make our crops grow.  Beware of anyone who acts like they have it all figured out, either as a “master of the universe” or an “oracle.”  As a child in Wyoming, he grew up attending both the local Methodist church and the Buddhist temple in Denver.  Attached to the latter was a famed Buddhist priest, whose favorite aphorism was, “Where there is gratitude, there is civilization.”  My maternal grandmother, who faced a lot of loss and hardship in life, would also like to remind us that “every day is a gift.”  Whether things are going well or poorly, I try to take both of those family sayings to heart every day. 

Q: How long did you have to go to college to pursue such an impressive career? What advice would you give anyone wanting to pursue being a historian and author as you have done? 

A:  I did four years at Harvard in history and did a two-year master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.  During my undergraduate years, I was exposed to some truly fabulous professors, who blended scholarship with tremendous speaking ability.  Among them was the late Dr. William Gienapp, whose shy demeanor would drop away as soon as he ascended the podium and lectured about Jacksonian America, Lincoln, or American baseball.  We were taught how to write well, stand up in front of an audience, and field tough questions.  Harvard in the late 1990s still had a strong “Old World” glow, populated by professors whose offices were stacked floor-to-ceiling with books and expounded about the differences between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft.  

As mentioned above, I considered pursuing a Ph.D. in history, but was dissuaded by my undergraduate thesis advisor due to the brutal job market.  It’s even worse today.  What a strange paradox that America’s top universities have never been wealthier, but never more miserly than paying the people who do the bulk of the true mission of higher education: teaching.  I am forever in his debt for encouraging me to take the non-linear career path.  I’ve felt that I’ve become a much better historian learning about the human experience out in the “real world.”  History is just as much about everyday human psychology as it is “narratives,” “structures,” and “theories.”  There are no easy answers, and one must tell a good story while having the intellectual humility to come to grips that your original, dearly held theory might indeed be wrong. That being said, I would advise any young person wanting to become an independent historian and author to find a practical way to support oneself, to learn the basics of finance, and entrepreneurship (especially accounting, negotiation, and contracts!), and to take risks early, when responsibilities are light.  

I am a believer in what Scott Galloway of NYU Stern recently said: Don’t do what you are passionate about. Do what you’re good at.  It’s all about competitive advantage. I had a knack for history and writing and didn’t in finance.  I’m glad I’ve taken finance classes in graduate school at Penn, as it has given me the practical grounding necessary to found Tradewinds History LLC and write histories of corporations.  The trick is using my knowledge of human nature and finance to tell good stories, whether in my trade books or on commission.

Find your tribe while also minding your individual soul. Surround yourself with a group of smart, ambitious, and kind friends who will support you in good times and bad.  Fellow writers of course, but also people from a variety of other fields.  I have a group of writer friends in New York who I meet up with once every few months, but my broader group of friends includes attorneys, physicians, academics, teachers, and carpenters.

Also, find a mentor.  For Barons of the Sea, that person was Llewellyn “Louie” Howland III, an old school Yankee book editor who blended a sharp, irreverent wit with intense literary discipline.  When I hit a creative brick wall with that book in 2015, it was he who suggested I reverse engineer my book about clipper ships into a dynastic story about New England families such as his and the Delanos.  I called him my “clipper ship rabbi.” 

Above all, find a partner who will encourage and push you to keep going.  Being a solo operator in any field is tough, and you need to have someone who can get you out of your own head at the end of the day.   My wife is an emergency room physician, and she deals with life and death every day.  Not only is she hyper organized, but also provides much needed perspective. 

Q: What is the research & writing process when writing your nonfiction books? 

A: I write up a proposal, in which I conduct a lot of preliminary research to show my agent and publisher that I have a historical case.  Once the ink is dried on the contract, I get to work researching.  I do start with an outline, but I research whatever strikes my fancy on a particular day.   All my books have involved extensive document-based research.  For A Man and His Ship, I traveled to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport New, Virginia, the home of all the construction correspondence for the SS United States.   For Barons of the Sea, I spent many hours combing through ledger books and letters at Harvard Business School’s China trade collection. And for The Last Ships from Hamburg, I hired translators to help me sift through thousands of pages of documents in the Hamburg-American Line archive in Hamburg, Germany.  I was lucky to be put in touch with Claus G. Budelmann, the retired co-owner of Berenberg Bank in Hamburg, who picked up the phone and granted me access to both the Hamburg-America Line archives and to the Warburg Archives. 

Also, I’ve interviewed many people who are connected to my books, either directly or through descent. Although the oral tradition must be double-checked, it can lead to remarkable findings. Among those who I interviewed for The Last Ships from Hamburg was Albert Ballin’s great-grandson (by adoption) Heinz Hueber, whose family had preserved all Ballin’s letters.  This was a miracle, as the Nazis did everything in their power to eradicate Ballin’s legacy in Hamburg during the 1930s and 40s.  To meet him, I traveled to Austria in the fall of 2021. Without Heinz’s papers, I could not have written the book. Among the documents included was the eulogy that the banker Max Warburg gave for Albert Ballin, who had died just two days before Germany surrendered to the Allied Powers in November 1918:

Restless, always striving forward, he set his goals ever higher. His own advantage was uninteresting to him. How often did he turn down positions that could have brought him even more power––he always stayed faithful to his original task and to his faith, which he never denied, despite––or more properly said because of—the hostility he encountered. The way that he fought for the position of the Hamburg-America line for Germany and for Hamburg’s benefit can only be described as fearless and he faced every difficulty in the process. He saw the unhappy ending of this war in advance.

It still brings tears to my eyes. 

I then write the book manuscript in chunks, sometimes linearly, and sometimes depending on what I want to write about that day.  Usually, the manuscript is too long, and then I have to work with my editors to make sure it fits the word limit, usually 120,000-130,000 words for a standard non-fiction trade book.  I also share the manuscript with experts who have taken the time to work with me during the writing process, to make sure I get the technical stuff correct.  In the case of Barons of the Sea, I had to get the seal of approval from W. H. Bunting, author of Live Yankees and one of the deans of the American age of sail. Sailing ship knowledge is a very arcane field, but the people who do know about it are very persnickety and I didn’t grow up a sailor.  I can’t stand heights, either!  Sure, it’s great to get acclaim from the New York Times, but as a matter of respect it is important that older experts in your field sign off on your work. 

If you are doing the right work, the right people will find you and want to help!

Q: How does a topic that you want to write about come to you? How long did it take to write each of your books?

A:   I feel each book is a natural progression, springing from an idea or even a sentence from the previous one.  For The Last Ships from Hamburg, the idea came about in the fall of 2018, when my wife and I were having pizza at Clarksville in West Philadelphia. We were seated next to two professors from Swarthmore College, one of whom taught German and was from Hamburg.  I then mentioned Albert Ballin, who I had mentioned in A Man and His Ship, and the German professor said, “We love Albert Ballin in Hamburg!”    We then discussed Albert Ballin’s role as general director of HAPAG, and how between 1881 and 1914 he helped facilitate Jewish mass immigration to America. When the professors paid their checks, my wife turned to me and said, “Maybe he should be the subject of your next book!”  Within a few months, I had drafted a proposal and had sold it to HarperCollins. 

Each book took about 5 years, from the selling of the proposal to final publication.  Although I’m the project lead, I’m supported by a whole network of people to whom I’m very grateful.  Not just my fabulous agent Becky Sweren at Aevitas Creative, but also editors, copywriters, and publicists.  I couldn’t have gotten these books done without their dedication and attention to detail. 

Q: How does it feel knowing that Publishers Weekly called Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I, “one of the best books of the year” when it was released last November?

A: It was a wonderful feeling. What mattered even more were the kind words I got from family, friends, and ordinary readers.  This book is about antisemitism in 19th century czarist Russia and anti-immigration feelings in America. These issues have particular resonance in these very troubled times. We are seeing many of the same ancient (and scary) tropes about Jews and immigrants emerging both on the far-left and the far-right of the political spectrum in the West.  America is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But compared to the system of government known by most people throughout history (fascist dictatorship, French absolute monarchy, Soviet communism), the constitutional republic that we have inherited is a precious gift, one that has cost many lives to preserve.  My hope is that The Last Ships from Hamburg will cause people to pause about the rhetoric now being tossed about and think, wait, we’ve been here before. Extremist politics, lack of nuance/empathy, and misplaced idealism can and do lead to death, scapegoating, shame, and perdition.  I wrote The Last Ships from Hamburg as a tribute to my ancestors and to over 100 million Americans who can trace their ancestry back to Ellis Island. Given the statistics, I know that if my great-grandparents did not come to America in 1895, they almost certainly would not have survived Hitler’s death squads that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.   And I wouldn’t be here. 

Most immigrants who come to this country today want the same things as immigrants in the past: a better life for them and their children.  Success in America often is an intergenerational process, and for most, that first generation is hard.  We have to be mindful of the past before we gleefully tear it down to build something new from scratch.  That leads to Robespierre, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, and many other authoritarians who are the antithesis of the American constitutional republic, the Bill of Rights, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  Is bloodshed worth preserving this republic?  In the case of the Civil War to destroy slavery or World War II to crush the Axis Powers, yes.  But war is always hell.  In addition to the military campaign, a leader has to convince and win over, and as Lincoln said, “appeal to the better angels of our nature.” And that usually takes time. 

Q: What’s it like having appeared on National Public Radio, CBS Morning Radio & numerous media outlets? 

A:  I find media appearances a lot of fun. It’s also just part of being in the business sphere. To quote Gilbert & Sullivan: “Your merits you‘re bound to enhance, You must stir it and stump it, And blow your own trumpet, Or, trust me, you haven’t a chance!”

Q: I know many authors who, after a long time of writing historical nonfiction, then dabble with writing historical fiction while not giving up writing nonfiction. Would you ever try writing historical fiction? Why or why not?

A: At this stage in my career, I’ve realized that after years of experimentation and work, it’s best I build on what I’m good at rather than totally changing genres.  I’ve joked with friends that perhaps I should write trashy historical romance novels under a pen name to earn some extra cash!  In all seriousness, if the opportunity presents itself, I’m up for a challenge, so long as it doesn’t confuse my readers. I have learned a ton about human nature over the past two decades, and a good story remains a good story, no matter when or where it is set.