Today we're excited to chat with Kenneth C. Davis, author of More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War. Read on for more about Kenneth and his book, plus a giveaway!
Meet Kenneth C. Davis!
From bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis comes a fascinating account of the Spanish influenza pandemic 100 years after it first swept the world in 1918.
"Davis deftly juggles compelling storytelling, gruesome details, and historical context. More Deadly Than War reads like a terrifying dystopian novel―that happens to be true." ―Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb and Undefeated
With 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of the worst disease outbreak in modern history, the story of the Spanish flu is more relevant today than ever. This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I―and how it could happen again. Complete with photographs, period documents, modern research, and firsthand reports by medical professionals and survivors, this book provides capitvating insight into a catastrophe that transformed America in the early twentieth century.
A Chat with Kenneth C. Davis:
1. What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
I have always been intrigued by the stories that the schoolbooks leave out. Going back to my first history book for adults written in 1990 –Don’t Know Much About History— and right up to my most recent book for younger readers – In the Shadow of Liberty— I have made it my goal to tell untold tales and try to uncover hidden history. The tale of the Spanish Flu and its connections to the First World War is a perfect example of the kind of remarkable true story I like to tell. The most deadly epidemic since the Black Plague of the Middle Ages –coming in the midst of a global war—was largely ignored by both history books and fiction writers. When an editor mentioned a grandmother lost to the Spanish flu, we were off. I wanted to learn more about what killed an extraordinary number of Americans, and as many as one hundred million people around the world, in a little more than a year –and what that meant to the nation and the world. The timing seems right since the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu is in 2018 and we will mark the end of World War I on November 11—once called “Armistice Day” and now Veteran’s Day.
2. Who is your favorite character in the book?
This isn’t a novel. There are no heroes and villains in the conventional sense. But I suppose the answer is that the Spanish flu itself is the most interesting character. If this was a mystery or a thriller, you would have a murderer on the loose, with many people trying to track down the killer and stop the carnage. And the carnage was extraordinary –like something out of a zombie movie. Young men in army bases turning blue and choking on their own body fluids. Whole families infected, with the dead laying in front yards. People who attended patriotic parades one day dropping on the streets the next. In many cities across America, everyone was required to wear masks to fend off this mysterious murderer. But there was no way to lock the door against this faceless killer – who gets away after doing enormous damage.
3. Which came first, the title or the book?
For me, the story idea always comes first, and the title usually follows much later. But I hit on this title early on, even as I outlined the book. I knew that the Spanish flu had killed many more people than had died fighting in the war –an estimated 100 million flu deaths against some 20 million wartime deaths —and I wanted the title to convey a central theme in the book: throughout history, deadly germs and killer diseases have been far more lethal to humanity than all the wars combined. The Spanish flu, which wiped out whole villages in places from the South Pacific to Arctic Alaska, is one of the most extraordinary examples of that fact.
4. What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?
That’s a difficult question, because as the writer, all the scenes fit together. But the chapter about World War I commences with young men in wartime France, many of them teenagers, waiting anxiously in the trenches for the whistle that sends them “over the top.” In the face of machine gun fire, they race across “No Man’s Land,” a field pitted with dead horses and fallen soldiers, only to get past barbed wire and then start fighting hand-to-hand. To me, that is a striking scene because it conveys the horror of what World War I was for the average soldier – the mix of anticipation, fear, and ruthless fighting— and that many of them were very young men. But I also like the story of a young man named Walt who wants to enlist in the army but joins the Ambulance Corps instead before getting sick. (He lives but I won’t say what happens!) Or a young reporter named Katherine who wants to become a Red Cross nurse. Before joining, she falls sick with a very high fever. She is near death, and the hospitals are filled, when her frightened landlady tries to put her out of the boarding house. Will she make it? Again, I won’t say more —no spoilers!
5. Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a writer from then to now?
If by “the beginning,” you mean my career, that’s a long time. I have been writing for more than thirty years! My first book Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, came out in 1984. But whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, I think the most important thing to learn is the importance of story. The best kind of writing always conveys a strong sense of a compelling narrative. We human beings are storytellers—we have been telling each other tales since the beginning of human history –from Gilgamesh, the Trojan war, and Bible stories of floods and wars. Alongside that, as a writer of history, I’ve learned and relearned the critical lesson of checking your facts and your sources. One important piece of the story told in this book is how misinformation and propaganda—“Fake news,” we might call it today—played a role in the spread of the Spanish flu while the war was on. Early on in America, the sickness was blamed on German spies poisoning the water or spreading chemicals. That is an important lesson for everyone these days.
6. What do you like most about the cover of the book?
I love the fact that this cover, showing two young boys wearing gauze masks, humanizes this story. We can talk about what this deadly epidemic meant in terms of statistics, casualties, scientific research, and the politics of war. But when you see those two young faces covered by those masks, they present the perfect symbol of the dreadful human cost of this largely futile effort to control a killer, which made orphans of many thousands of children.
7. What was your favorite book in 2017?
I love photography. In fact, I went back to school and took a course in documentary and narrative photography last fall. So I was very taken by Eyes of the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, about photojournalists Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and modern photojournalism. I haven’t read much YA fiction of late, but in adult fiction I have been swept up by Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories in Interpreter of Maladies and her nonfiction book about learning to speak and write in Italian, In Other Words. I am studying Italian at a community college in New York so that book spoke to me. And I am also deeply absorbed by the work of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, including My Brilliant Friend and The Days of Abandonment, which is most definitely not YA material.
8. Is there anything that you would like to add?
There is so much emphasis placed on young adult fiction these days –and so much wonderful fiction being published for young readers. But I feel that we nonfiction writers tend to get overlooked. Nonfiction helps make better readers and, in this time of concern about truth, documented nonfiction plays an important role in making young people more aware of history and its connection to the present. It can certainly support the notion that we need to make citizens who can think for themselves –which is the real point of school. I would add that while my books are billed as “Young Adult,” I write in much the same way for all readers—no “dumbing down.” There are a great many “Old Adults” who can profit from reading “Young Adult” books.
9. Which part of the writing process do you enjoy more: Drafting or Revising?
You left out research! That is a part I greatly enjoy –which may elicit groans from some students who say they “hate” research. But to me it is like solving a mystery –looking for the clues that unlock a riddle. Or better yet, providing the unexpected surprise. That’s how I learned many years ago that Christopher Columbus thought that the world was shaped like pear –a story I told in Don’t Know Much About Geography. And in this new book, for instance, I didn’t know when I began my research that Franklin D. Roosevelt nearly died from the Spanish flu in 1918. How history might have changed if he had not survived. But I prefer the drafting and writing to the revision stages. After all, like most writers, I usually think what I have written is perfect. Why would I need to revise it? Then I have an editor or two, a copy editor, and a fact checker prove me wrong. It is a group effort in the end.
10. What would you say is your superpower?
I never really felt like much of a superhero. But I’ll say, “Unending curiosity.” It did not kill the cat, but curiosity and an inquiring mind can push us to do new things and make great discoveries.
11. Is there an organization or cause that is close to your heart?
That’s easy –the public library. I am a child of the public library. I lived in a town that did not have a bookstore. Luckily, my mother often took me to the public library and we had a Bookmobile stop nearby once a week. I learned to read, and perhaps became a writer without knowing it, because of the wonderful Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Public Library. It was one of those Andrew Carnegie gifts to America and it looked more like a Greek temple than a public building. For me, going to the library was a sort of sacred ritual, and the books I borrowed there shaped me, both as a person and as a writer. I continue to use the New York Public Library nearly every single day of the week!
12. What’s up next for you?
I have many book ideas and history is filled with more extraordinary untold tales. But at the moment, I am busy doing virtual visits to classrooms to talk to students and teachers. I think it is especially important to engage young people in understanding history –about the costs of our freedom, the fragility of democracy, and the power of individuals to change the world. We recently watched thousands of very empowered young people make an enormous statement with the National Walkout on March 14. I think that they have learned some history lessons and put them to use. So I hope to provide more of those valuable history lessons. But for more on that question, I have to say, “Watch this space.”
More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War
By: Kenneth C. Davis
Release Date: May 15, 2018