Saturday, February 16, 2019

Q&A with Skip Desjardin

Skip Desjardin is the author of the new book September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series. He has worked in television for many years and now works for Google. He lives in Connecticut.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on September 1918 in your new book?

A: I’m a big fan of novelist Dennis Lehane, and I read his book The Given Day, which was set in Boston in 1919. It featured two characters that caught my imagination.

One was Babe Ruth, but as a young man, a great athlete, not the fat old guy we’re used to seeing from newsreels later in his career. The other was Calvin Coolidge, whom we think about far ore as president than as governor of Massachusetts.

The book refers often to events the previous year, like the World Series and the Spanish Flu epidemic. As a baseball fan, I wondered why the World Series was played in September instead of October. I also wondered why anyone would go out to see baseball games at the exact time that being in a crowd could literally kill you. 

As I looked into both the questions, I began to discover all the amazing things that happened in that single month. I was struck by how so many of the major issues of the era — the World War, women’s suffrage, the rise of the labor movement, shifting political fortunes — were all connected in some way to Boston.  That’s when I first thought there might be a book in all of this!

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: The confluence of events was the biggest surprise, and became the impetus for diving deep into the research. Two tools were key to learning about and telling this story.

First was Google Books, which is an under-appreciated resource. They’ve scanned and digitized millions of books and made them available online. It uncovered books I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed, and saved me from traveling around the country to find actual copies in libraries.

The other is the archive of the six daily newspapers that were in circulation in Boston a hundred years ago.  Reading them now gives you such a vivid picture of life back then, from major world events to the mundane daily activities of people in that time. 

Q: You begin the book with an excerpt from Amy Lowell's poem "September 1918." Why did you choose to include that?

A: I loved the way Lowell’s poem kind of foretells my own efforts. “Some day there will be no war,” she wrote. “Then I shall take out this afternoon and turn it in my fingers.” I felt this was what I was doing in writing the book — taking the events of that month and later, with the distance of perspective, examining it in a new way.

Q: One hundred years later, what do you see as the legacy of September 1918?

A: The parts of the book that deal with the influenza epidemic have the most to tell us about today. The medical profession and the government thought they were prepared for a crisis, but they weren’t. The exact right doctors were in the precise place to identify and fight the infection, and yet they were helpless to stop it.

Now, with all the advances in science over the past century, we feel we’re equipped to handle a crisis as well. But the reality is that nature is almost always more powerful than we give it credit for being, and society is as vulnerable today in many ways as it was then. 

Also, the efforts by the government to hide reality for political reasons has chilling parallels today as well. Steps taken by politicians in September 1918 to protect themselves, their positions and their reputations led to more people falling ill and dying. I fear that has not changed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I like looking at sports events in a wider cultural context, the way I did with the Red Sox 1918 World Series in this book. So, I’m always on the lookout for stories that reflect a larger truth. 

It took me seven years to complete September 1918, but I’ve already got a couple of possible topics that may help us understand a bigger picture. The research will eventually tell me whether or not they turn into another book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I work for Google, so I understand the lure of instant availability of knowledge. Having answers at our fingertips is great, but we also need to know what questions to ask.

For that, it’s critical to understand context. History often provides that context, so it worries me that we’re increasingly consuming knowledge in bite-sized portions rather than sumptuous meals.

I hope that telling historic stories with relevance to today’s world will spur some people to want to learn more — the way I did when I read Dennis Lehane’s novel and discovered the amazing events of September 1918.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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