I am delighted to share my conversation with middle-grade and bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis. Kenneth is well known for his book of Don’t Know Much About® History and other books in the Don’t Know Much About® series, but on this occasion, we focused on his most recent book, More Deadly than the War, which was published in May 2018.
I wanted to talk with Kenneth about his book because it commemorates the 100 years of one of the most devastating historic events that have affected the entire population of the planet. More Deadly than the War turned out to be a fascinating story that is about much more than just how a deadly disease killed millions of people.
What is More Deadly than War about?
The book is about the Spanish flu, the worst disease outbreak in modern history, which happened 100 years ago. The stories and voices of the people caught in this chaotic period in history tell us about what it was like to live in a time much like a zombie apocalypse scenario. This worldwide epidemic coincided with the last year of World War I, and the consequences of this coincidence were so dramatic that the entire world almost stood still. Corpses were piling up in hospitals. Doctors had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what to do. Business and life in general slowed down to a crawl. People were terrified and blaming each other. I found most terrifying that it can happen again.
If the Spanish flu had so much influence on world history, why most people don’t know much about it?
One hundred million people around the world didn’t make it. There were 675,000 Americans who did not survive the Spanish flu. To put it in perspective, more Americans died from the flu in about one year than all the U.S. soldiers who died fighting in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. One of the reasons this story was forgotten is because many people thought that it was so terrible, so awful and tragic that they didn’t want to think about it, or talk about it, or write about it. They just wanted to forget it.
You were not deterred to tell this story. What inspired you to write this book?
In a way, writing this book was a lucky accident. My editor had a bad cold, and mentioned that her grandmother had died of the Spanish flu and that she knew very little about this worldwide epidemic. I began researching and found an amazing story that connected science – the flu – and history – World War I – in more ways than I had anticipated.
This was a detective story because I had so many questions I wanted to answer about it. Where did this flu come from? How did it affect so many people? How did it affect the war? How did the war influence the spread of the flu? I discovered that all these things were completely interconnected and for me it was very important to show those connections. When you look back in history, you find that disease has been incredibly important in every phase of civilization, but we tend to push it to the side. “That’s science, that’s not history,” some people say.
Without giving anything away, tell us, of all the things you learned when you were doing research for this book, what surprised you the most?
It surprised me to learn the tremendous consequences the Spanish flu had on the war, and the influence the war had on the Spanish flu. As a historian, I understood the causes of World War I, how dreadful the fighting was, and why America eventually got involved. But, I really didn’t understand the enormous effect that this pandemic also had on the war and that the two of them went together.
What else will readers discover in More Deadly than War?
Readers will discover how a real, end-of-the-world scenario can happen when two major powerful events come together; in this case a serious, easily spread disease and a merciless war. These catastrophic events transformed the world and taught us important lessons. The real reason we study history is to make sense of the world and to learn from it both the mistakes we made and what we got right.
For instance, in 1918 there was a lot of propaganda, the ultimate form of fake news. In World War I, Germany was the enemy to the U.S. Propaganda made Americans think that the Germans were causing the flu pandemic by poisoning the water or medications, which was not true. So, the idea that fear, ignorance and propaganda can influence what we think and how we behave, is an important part of this story.
Let’s learn about you a little bit. How did you become an author?
For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed reading both fiction and nonfiction books. I have always been very interested in biographies and history because they are about what real people did.
In middle school, I was stronger in English and history, not surprisingly, than I was in math or science, and I always enjoyed writing. Even though I loved to read and write, I never had the idea that I could be a writer. Fortunately, I was put in a position later on where I realized that I could do what I loved, to do research and to write and to talk about it, and actually make a living from it.
Becoming a writer was more of a lucky accident than evolution of my part. I was half way through college where I was a liberal arts and English major. I thought that I was in a track to become a teacher because I have always enjoyed being in front of a classroom speaking to a group of people, sharing information. But, then, I took some time off from college to work in a bookstore. Someone I was working with read some of the articles I had written for the college newspaper and she said, “You should be writing books, not selling them.”
That woman was so smart I married her. True story. My wife and I have worked together very closely for more than 40 years. She is a journalist and editor, a publisher in her own right, and our careers have been built completely around the book business and our love of books and the impact that they can have on people. And that is such an important idea. It’s wonderful to read books for pleasure or to escape to another world, but books also can shape who we are as people, our attitudes, and our lives. They also can change the world. I think that the highest calling for a writer is to fulfill a mission to bring people very important messages, and I hope that in my own way my books have done that.
Well, More Deadly than War has certainly opened my eyes about how a deadly combination disease and war can be, and I hope this amazing story can help us all prevent such a thing from happening again. Thank you very much for your time!