The College Fix senior reporter Christian Schneider recently added book author to his list of accomplishments. Here, he talks with Sarah Schutte about his book, 1916: The Blog, on topics ranging from character details to fascinating historical facts.
Sarah Schutte: If you had only one sentence in which to describe your book and its story, what would you say?
Christian Schneider: This is the elevator pitch. It’s basically “What if the Internet existed a century ago?” That’s how I pitched it on my website. If you spend a lot of time on the Internet, as I do, and you see how people see each other and treat each other, I started thinking, “Gosh, is this a modern convention, or would people have been this way if they had the Internet 100 years ago?” I started reading a newspaper from every day of the year in 1916 just trying to get examples for if somebody had a blog or Twitter feed, what would they be talking about 100 years ago?
SS: Did you start out to write a humorous book? And what type of humor would you classify it as?
CS: Yes, I thought I could make it funny just because the examples from back then are funny when you put them in the context of modern-day America, and there are so many different examples that translate that I think people would understand. I’ve been a columnist for a long time, and I’ve tried to use humor in my columns — to varying degrees of success — so I thought I could be humorous in the book. In terms of the type of humor it is, I like lighthearted, super-literate, witty types of humor. I’m a big P. G. Wodehouse fan — the Jeeves and Wooster books, things like that. I tried to make it light and airy and keep it moving.
SS: Were you worried that your humor might come across as too heavy-handed, or did you want it to be more obvious?
CS: I definitely didn’t want it to be too heavy-handed. Obviously there’s a lot of sarcasm, and I take some shots at modern conventions for sure, but for the most part, you can say a lot of things that you normally wouldn’t be able to say as long as you make it funny.
SS: What was the most difficult part of your book to get right?
CS: Definitely having a story line for the characters. When I first started writing the book, it was going to be simply about a guy writing a blog about things that happened in 1916, and essentially it would just be a novel of true fiction. Obviously, there wasn’t an Internet in 1916, but it’d be funny to take all these real examples and use them in the book. And so it was just joke after joke after joke, and people who read the first versions of it said to me, “Well, there’s actually got to be a story in there somewhere. It can’t just be these witty observations about what happened 100 years ago.” So I added a story. It’s almost a love story between the main character and one of his coworkers, and then he’s got another woman online, and he’s not exactly sure who she is or where she is.
I read more history than actual fiction, and I always thought to myself, “Well, fiction’s pretty easy to write. You can just make up whatever you want, and you don’t actually have to get things right.” But then as I started writing the fictional part of the story, the actual through-line, and it’s really hard! Things have to make sense, you have to connect one thing with another, and it has to all tie together. And so for me, that was the hardest part.
SS: What was your process for how you picked your characters’ names? Do any of them have a particular meaning associated with them?
CS: Sebastian is a name I’ve always really liked. Years ago, I liked the band Belle and Sebastian. I grew up in Virginia, so that was an easy name to use for one of the female characters. I also went and looked up a list of popular names from the year 1916 in the Census Bureau, and I think the name Virginia was in the top five at least. I just wanted a name that would be appropriate for the time. I tried to be as completely historically accurate as I could about a completely fictional book.
SS: My favorite quote from the book was: “Perhaps Congress should implement a system by which every newsman that talks about politics must pay a fee. If his prediction is wrong, he loses the money forever. If his prediction is right, the money paid in by those who predicted wrongly will be used to pay him.” Was this a suggestion you read somewhere, or something you came up with?
CS: This was something I thought of. I was writing this during the 2016 election, and I myself being a political writer was feeling I was making a lot of predictions that didn’t come true, especially when I said I didn’t think Donald Trump would ever become president. And so I thought, maybe there should be some system where people like writers actually have to put their money where they mouth is. Anybody can just spout off in a column, but if you have skin in the game, you might take extra time to learn about what you’re talking about. It was just an observation I had at the time. It would pretty much kill Twitter.
SS: I was listening to your interview with John Miller on The Bookmonger podcast, and you said you read a huge amount of newspapers from 1916 in preparation for this book. As a journalist today, what was it like to go reread all the old newspapers? Even if human nature hasn’t changed, has the writing style changed? If so, for better or worse?
CS: The writing style definitely has changed. The articles from then are a lot more stilted, and the language is a lot different. And that’s actually one of the things I tried to do in the book is to write it in a style that would’ve been more appropriate to the style of the day. Thing were written in a more elevated style back then. Some of the news articles don’t have bylines. So when a newspaper writes an actual story, you never know who wrote it. I think in today’s media society we have a lot of “celebrity reporters,” and I think sometimes those reporters try to go out on a limb to remain celebrities. Since the newspapers back then didn’t have bylines, the reporters didn’t have any need to sensationalize stories.
It was also funny to read stories from back then as they use code words for things that we would just talk about openly. At some point, there was a story about a man and a woman who had to go to prison because they left their shades up. And that’s all the story said. It’s clear what they were doing with the shades up that got them in trouble, but you couldn’t say that in an article back then.
SS: There wasn’t a lot of discernable character development in the protagonist, Sebastian. He seemed naïve throughout the story and yet oddly insightful about the politics of the day. Can you talk a little about his character and how you think people should understand him?
CS: Yes, I think he is clueless and naïve, but I think he’s well-meaning. One of the things that I worried about when I was first writing the book was, in modern day, having a character who was against women’s suffrage, would people read the book and ask: “What’s wrong with this guy?” But at the time, obviously there were a lot of people who were against women’s suffrage. And so the challenge was to make a character who might not have very popular opinions today but is still likeable. So I thought that the best way to do this is show that he’s just clueless and has no idea what he’s talking about. But still kind of a guy you’d want to root for. You’re right though, in terms of development, he doesn’t really develop a whole lot during the book. That was one of the driving forces behind the book, was the idea that when you like someone, how much you change yourself to get them to like you.
SS: Of all the news stories you read while prepping for this, which one do you wish you could’ve been there to report on and why?
CS: There’s a point at which Sebastian goes to the 1916 Republican convention in Chicago, and to me, that just would’ve been fascinating. That was back when the conventions actually picked the candidate. It wasn’t like today where it’s preordained who the candidate is going to be. You’d have five or six candidates there all fighting it out, and so you actually had fistfights on the floors, and in the hotels afterwards there were people getting into it. And there’s actually high drama as to what’s going to happen. In 1916, I think it actually made a big difference because we were just about to get into World War I, which set the stage for the rest of the century.
SS: In a chapter about a Woodrow Wilson speech, it said, “One entity not buying Wilson’s pledge is the life insurance industry. . . .” Is this true, and can you elaborate on it a bit?
CS: Yes, this is absolutely true. So at the time, Woodrow Wilson was saying we’re not going to go to war, and in fact, he ran on the pledge that he didn’t get us into World War I. But this goes back to what we were talking about before about putting your money where your mouth is. These people [insurance companies] could’ve lost a lot of money, so they started adding into life insurance policies that they wouldn’t cover death if you were to go to war. They kind of saw it coming, and so again the free-market system is able to discern things a lot more than politicians who are just trying to earn votes.
SS: Since you read a lot of history, did you already know a lot about the presidential candidates Hughes and Woodrow Wilson before you started writing this book?
CS: No. I knew very little about Charles Evans Hughes at all. I knew a little bit about Wilson just because I read books about World War I. But it was a lot of learning for me.
SS: And last question, of the two candidates pitted against one another throughout your book, whom would you have voted for, Hughes or Wilson?
CS: I feel like I would’ve been more of a Hughes guy. Most of the newspapers I read were the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune, both of whom were very pro-Hughes. People complain about “fake news” now, but back then, the newspapers were owned by wealthy businessmen who had political leanings of their own, and so most cities would have a pro-Wilson newspaper, and some would have a pro-Hughes paper. The Chicago Tribune, for three days after the election, was still saying that Hughes had won. The whole idea of newspapers being these nonpartisan arbiters of truth is actually a pretty modern phenomenon.