Congratulations on your nomination for the National
Book Critics Circle Award.
I’m thrilled by it.
you become interested in writing this book?
I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and part of my
scholarship is to write books. Having grown up in Michigan, I had long known
about the Kellogg family. One of the great field trips in the area around
Detroit was to the Kellogg’s factory to watch them make cereal. You got a box
of Frosted Flakes, which were and are great, and you got a Tony
the Tiger bowl. I still have the bowl.
was in medical school at the University of Michigan, there were many buildings
named after W.K. Kellogg, the little brother Will, who owned the cereal company
and had this giant foundation that did a lot of good, particularly on issues of
health, children and families. I also knew a little bit about John Harvey
Kellogg so I thought even then, 30 years ago, somebody ought to write a book
about these two fellows.
the founder of one of the most famous health spas for the rich and famous in
the late 1800s. He called his methods biologic living. But it was just the
opposite for the more successful of the two brothers, Will, the man behind the
Kellogg’s brand. As a writer, talk about the obstacles you faced in writing
about Will and how you tackled this challenge.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation owns the Will Kellogg papers. They
will not allow anyone to look at them unless they sign a release that allows
the communications officer to go through your manuscript before publication and
they can then delete anything they find offensive to the memory of their
founder. They’d take away my historian’s union card if I signed such a document
and my publishers weren’t excited about it either.
the great things about being an older historian: as you get older and you’ve
read more, you’ve made more connections. There’s only so many [historians] and
they all interact. I did what is called a reach around that led to other
archives with W.K. Kellogg’s letters to other people. He also was involved in
one of the longest running lawsuits in Michigan history. He and his brother
sued each other over who had the right to use the name Kellogg on their
products. There are hundreds of depositions and legal papers that are all part
of the public record where I could get a great sense of how Will spoke,
thought, and I could get a lot about his story because many of these
depositions were about how corn flakes were invented, his relationship with his
father, his brother and family. So I was very fortunate to be able to take a
detour and come in through the back door to document the Kellogg’s lives.
combative as the Kellogg brothers were, you credit both of them with inventing
corn flakes and dreaming up “the American pursuit of wellness.” Yet, neither
corn flakes nor the Kellogg’s name is synonymous with wellness, is it?
Corn flakes were originally a health food. It was originally
wheat flakes but corn was cheaper and also tasted better. The two of them
worked in an experimental kitchen. The doctor invented dozens of new foods,
including peanut butter. He also invented a lot of meat substitutes and grain
dishes and corn flakes. Will was instrumental in that. Will figured there were
a lot more healthy people who needed a quick, nutritious breakfast than there
were sick people who needed it for their digestion. That was one of the
doctor’s great concerns: digestion—normal bowel movements and not being
like half the people in America had a belly ache or were constipated in the
late 1800s. These were the foods they created for that. A lot of biologic
living, which the doctor prescribed at the sanitarium, were things that we
recognize today—exercise, spirituality, freeing yourself from worry, not eating
a ton of sugar, a vegetarian and grain based-diet, avoiding meats, alcohol or
caffeine—these are all things associated with wellness but we don’t credit Dr.
John Harvey Kellogg.
brothers were Seventh-Day Adventists, “a denomination predicting the imminent
end of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ,” but also visionaries
and risk takers weren’t they?
The doctor was handpicked by the founders of the denomination to
carry out the health aspect of the Seventh-Day Adventist. A big part of the
faith is not just the end of the world but also that the body is a temple, to
keep your body as healthy as possible for that advent and that included a lot
of the things I just mentioned. John ran what became the Battle Creek
Sanitarium. Will was not as deeply connected to the faith. Despite that, they
were both remarkable men who each had their own version of brilliance and
genius and insight.
The problem was they competed against one another as brothers
often do. Because John Harvey was eight years older than Will, John often
treated Will like the little brother. Even when Will worked for John at the
sanitarium, for almost 25 years, John treated him very badly, didn’t pay him
very well. He constantly disrespected or berated Will in front of others. The
sanatorium would not have run as well as it did nor any of the doctor’s side
businesses or as profitably as they did without Will’s business genius. They
fought a lot and competed a lot and I don’t think either one could see or
appreciate not only how brilliant the other brother was but how symbiotic their
relationship and success was.
Now that your book has been out for some time and it’s
been reviewed, would you do anything differently in writing The
I rarely look at a book once it’s finished because there’s a
million things I would find that I’d do differently. If you really practice the
craft of good writing and I hope I do, you’re always trying to find a way to
make a sentence more elegant, more persuasive, clearer to your reader. So
there’s always things that you would change.
This was a tough book to write because the span is one hundred
years, two brothers, and a million and one things that happened during their
lives and careers. You have to make decisions about what to include, what not
to include, how you develop a narrative arc and also how you sometimes have to
separate things. There’s a chapter on eugenics, for example, as opposed to
being part of the narrative because I thought [the book] really needed that to
be as clear as possible.
You’ve written nearly a dozen books and this one is somewhat of a
departure for you. Did this book change your writing? If so, how?
Every book, I think, helps make me a better writer. I love writing. I love
reading. I love thinking about how to tell stories. I do it whether I’m
lecturing or teaching, or with a patient. I’m taking their stories down,
figuring things out, and writing a book. So I hope I get better with each book
and I think I have.
This book stretched me quite a bit because it was on such a long
period of time. One of the first books I wrote, Quarantine! about
two epidemics in New York City in 1892 that were blamed on Russian-Jewish
immigrants happened in about a nine-month period and it took me seven years to
write. I really enjoy writing about epidemics because epidemics have
beginnings, middles, and ends. Unlike many other medical phenomenon, you know
when an epidemic strikes. Those earlier books got me thinking a great deal
about narratives and I’m a narrative historian. As my best teacher used to say,
“Don’t tell them so much as to show them.”
When you start a big book, it’s like being thrown in a deep lake
and you have all this paper and all these files and you’re looking at them and
trying to swim and make your way and you don’t really know where you’re going
until you know where you’re going. When I started writing about the Kelloggs,
it was going to be just about John Harvey Kellogg—that’s the book I pitched to
my editor. But it became very clear that I couldn’t just write about John
Harvey; that Will played an integral role in his life and vice versa. I love
writing about conflict. There’s conflict in every one of my books. People love
reading about other people’s conflicts.
Have you started your next book?
Yes, it’s going to be about the chase to discover DNA.