It’s All Storytelling: An Interview with Michael Pollan
By Pamela Demory
Writing on the Edge, November 1, 2006
Michael Pollan is, among other things, a writer, editor, gardener, and teacher. He spent 10 years as Executive Editor at Harpers Magazine (1984–94), is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and has published four books: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991), A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997), The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001), and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). Several of his essays have been published in Best American Essays and other anthologies. He’s received several awards for his journalism, including the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003, and the Reuters-I.U.C.N. Global Award for Environmental Journalism in 2000. Currently, he’s Knight Professor of Journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.
On a beautiful spring day in Berkeley I met with Mr. Pollan at his home. Sitting at a solid wooden table, overlooked by an intriguing painting of a tree–mostly trunk and branches (painted by his wife, Judith Belzer)–we drank green tea and chatted about writing.
WOE: Your educational background is in English literature–including a Master’s degree from Columbia. What led you to journalism, rather than, say, literary scholarship or fiction writing?
POLLAN: Well, I was on a path to become an academic in English. I got my Master’s degree and I was actually in the PhD program at Columbia. The way it works at Columbia is that doing your Master’s you have this very intensive, excellent year, when you get to write two Masters’ projects with anybody you want, and you get to work closely with your professors. So I had a great year studying American Studies-type things with Sacvan Bercovitch and Edward Said, and I was planning to get a PhD. But that summer I had this wonderful journalistic job working in a magazine called Channels–it’s long gone–that dealt with the television/computer revolution (this is in the early 80s). Because it was a bi-monthly, I was able to both write and edit, and I found I really enjoyed publishing and writing. I liked this job so much that I decided to hold onto it when I went back to school in the fall and try to do both–which lasted all of a couple of months. I was entering into that slough of graduate studies where I had to read The Faerie Queene and learn German–all the not-fun bits. This was also a very dismal time for a white male entering academia. I knew that I would be lucky to get a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma–that that’s what I had to look forward to. Nothing against Tulsa, Oklahoma–I’ve never been there–but I’d read enough to know that I didn’t want to live there. So I made a bet that I could do the kind of writing that I wanted to do, which in my mind was about American culture and nature, and that I could do it outside of academia, as a journalist. That was the bet. And I would do it by working in magazines, as an editor and as a writer. So lo and behold, here I am, back in academia.
WOE: You haven’t taught elsewhere?
POLLAN: I taught briefly right after college: one semester in a prep school–the Woodstock school–where I taught Journalism and Shakespeare. I had graduated from Bennington College in December (for complicated reasons), without a job and I got a call from a friend who was teaching there, who said the other English teacher had had a nervous breakdown and could I come fill in? I should have taken that as a sign–he had a nervous breakdown because it was a really dysfunctional place. So that was my trial by fire teaching and I didn’t do it again. But I knew I was interested in teaching and knew I would do it at some point. I backed into it through journalism. Which was not my plan at all.
WOE: What was it about that school that was so dysfunctional?
POLLAN: It was just very challenging and I was unprepared for it. I was working with students who were in some cases no more than three years younger than me. Many of the students there had already been tossed out of other prep schools, sometimes multiple times. Every time you get tossed out, you lose a year of school, so some of these students were getting a little long in the tooth. And these were very worldly kids. There were a lot of drugs on campus, too. I vividly remember teaching a class–it was a Shakespeare class–and it dawned on me that, except for the scholarship students, all the kids were tripping. They were just giddy, laughing uproariously–and I wasn’t being that funny. In one class, I remember that I came to suspect that my students weren’t doing the reading, and so I announced there would be a pop quiz. Jimmy Diaz looked up from where he was slouching in the corner and he said–to me–“Man, are you high or something?” So that was it–it was hard. I don’t have that problem here at Berkeley.
WOE: Do you think that your teaching influences your writing in any way?
POLLAN: Yes, the whole time I was working on The Omnivore’s Dilemma I was teaching a course called “Following the Food Chain.” Some of the trips I describe in the book were field trips we took–to Earthbound Farms, to Petaluma Poultry–and the conversations with students definitely had a bearing on my thinking through some of these ideas. We’ve sat in that classroom and debated foreign policy and GMOs, and the research I did for that class was very much the research I needed to do for the book. I mention my students in the Acknowledgements. I’ve taught the class three times now, and it’s been great fun to teach. Plus we eat very well. Every week a different student prepares a meal or a snack for us that tells a story. We’ve had everything from haggis, to Asian junk food, to a selection of mock meats–fake hot dogs, that sort of thing. So my teaching has definitely cross-pollinated with my writing.
WOE: What are the characteristic writing problems your students have? Is there anything you’re surprised by?
POLLAN: In the same way editing teaches you about writing, so does teaching. It forces you to be more self-conscious about what you’re doing. The main problems my students have are with how to structure a long piece and how to find a narrative in the midst of a sprawling subject. They’re working on complicated pieces and there’s a lot of exposition involved, a lot of issues involved, so you have to work to find the narrative. How do you situate yourself in the story? Once you decide you’re going to make yourself a presence in the story, how do you do it? You have to choose how to present yourself, which of your identities will work best. I’m very lucky; my students are great. Most of them have been out in the world for a while; many of them are professional writers–they’ve worked for newspapers. But they haven’t worked in the longer form–that’s what they come to me for–how to move from 800-word stories to 5000-word stories. So mostly what we work on is structure. But I also edit their prose. I edit at least one of their papers extensively. I think the only way you can learn is by having someone go through and show you how to edit your sentences. So I do that work. It’s very time-consuming and can be tedious. But I think it’s important. Sometimes I’m working on ridding their work of the passive voice. I think newspaper writing encourages the passive in a way because it implies a kind of neutrality. But often it indicates a failure in reporting; using the passive voice is a way around figuring out what caused what. So I work with them on that.
WOE: Did you have writing teachers in high school or college who inspired you?
POLLAN: I did. I had a couple of key teachers. I had one in eighth grade who got me interested in writing: Mrs. Zaslow, who was in my public junior high school. And then when I got to college at Bennington I had a brilliant writing teacher–two of them actually. One was Alan Cheuse who is a novelist and now teaches at George Mason University and is a book critic on NPR–I’m sure you’ve heard his book reviews. He was that rare teacher (I had him as a freshman and as a sophomore) who would actually edit, not just mark, your papers–show you how to fix your sentences. And seeing good editing marks on your manuscript is an incredibly useful educational experience and I know how hard it is, because I do it to my students, and how much easier it would be just to grade their papers. This teacher was remarkably dedicated and taught me a lot about writing. And then I worked with John Gardner, the novelist, who taught at Bennington also, another very good writing teacher. But I also learned a lot about writing during my ten years as executive editor at Harper’s Magazine. I didn’t write very much from 1984 to 1994, but I learned an awful lot watching other writers write, and I worked with really fine writers there. I had the privilege of editing Tom Wolfe, Stanley Elkin, Richard Ford–a whole bunch of really good writers. Watching how they revised, how they responded to editing was very instructive. Editing is a great way to learn how to write. I also learned by watching other editors at Harper’s who were better than I was, like Louis Lapham and Gerry Marzorati, who’s now at The Times. Gerry just had a real genius for form, how to structure an article. I think I really learned how to structure pieces at Harper’s. In fact, a lot of the way I write pieces comes out of the way we were doing it at Harper’s in the’80s, which is to say our journalism was always narrative, and it was usually based on a microcosm, rather than trying to be comprehensive, and there was usually a first person who would declare his or her interests somewhere near the beginning of the story. So that experience was really instrumental in my learning how to write.
WOE: Your literary background does come through in your writing, I think. Would you agree?
POLLAN: Well, look, it’s journalism because it’s reported and it’s contemporary and a lot of it appears in newspapers. But I just think writing is writing. And I use many tools when I write. I use some tools of the journalist. But I use tools of the historian; I use tools of the literary critic. When I walk through Whole Foods in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I use the tools of the literary critic and then I start using the tools of the investigative journalist and I use all the tools of the literary writer as well. Metaphor is very important to me. The most interesting nonfiction layers many different lenses. I don’t think the scientists have the last word, I don’t think the journalists have the last word, I don’t think the academics have the last word, I don’t even think the poets have the last word. But when you start piling them up–which I did I think most extensively in Botany of Desire (a book that has many perspectives and is more literary than this book)–I just think interesting things happen. You realize the limitations of each of those discourses and their strengths. On the subject of intoxication, for example, the scientists are just catching up to the poets.
WOE: I’m attracted to your books for their literary qualities: the narrative, the metaphors, the language. I read them for those qualities, as if they’re novels, and so I wondered if your books might attract more literary readers.
POLLAN: I think there’s some truth to that. Botany of Desire, I learned, was very widely read in book clubs. Book clubs mostly read fiction; they often have fights about it–“Oh, we don’t want to do that history, we don’t want to do that biography.” These are often women who are very committed to reading fiction and yet they’ve taken up Botany of Desire in great numbers. So I think people do tend to get that experience out of the book. Which is great, it’s incredibly gratifying. So, as I’ve said, I don’t see these really hard distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. That’s a dangerous thing for a journalist to say, but as reading experiences, it’s all storytelling, and nonfiction has the additional virtue of being true. There’s good information on top of everything else. Not that there isn’t also good information in fiction; some of the greatest journalism in the history of writing about food was fiction, too–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. So you can do it that way, too. I like writing for those readers. Absolutely. And satisfying their desires for a shapely story and metaphor and a kind of surprising perspective, too.
WOE: I’ve picked out a passage from Omnivore’s Dilemma that particularly struck me. Do you mind if I read it and ask you to comment on it? This is from the description of the McDonald’s meal: (One memorable childhood McDonald’s meal ended when our station wagon got rear-ended at a light, propelling my milk shake across the car in creamy white lariats.) I loved everything about fast food: the individual portions all wrapped up like presents . . . the familiar meaty perfume of the French fries filling the car; and the pleasingly sequenced bite into a burger–the soft, sweet roll, the crunchy pickle, the savory moistness of the meat. (111).
POLLAN: I often read that passage in bookstore readings. I was working very hard there to put the best possible face on fast food that I could. The thing is that we like it. We talk about it as this great unmitigated evil, but let’s face it, we like it. I also wanted to point out that it is comfort food to a lot of people, and that we grew up on it. So I wanted to evoke the good side of it, which is not something you hear that much about–especially from people like me. And I was probably hungry when I wrote it. There is also that phenomenon of the first bite that I was trying to recapture. A lot of research has gone into the pleasure of the first bite. The pleasure is on a rapidly diminishing curve–the engineers haven’t yet figured out how to sustain that pleasure.
WOE: I love the sound of that passage–all that alliteration.
POLLAN: Well, I didn’t do the alliteration purposely. I just work on the piece until it sounds right to my ear. The sound is very important to me. As I’m editing, I’m hearing it in my head, or sometimes I whisper it aloud to myself as I write. My ear is a very important part of how I write, as it is for any writer, really. And this is something that students sometimes have trouble with. You pick up any page of a student’s work and you know whether they have an ear for prose or not. The question is whether or not you can teach it. I would say, yes, to some extent, by encouraging students to read their prose out loud. You will hear an awkward sentence, and you will hear a beautiful sentence–if you have any kind of an ear at all. But some people are tone deaf to prose. And for those people there are plenty of venues for writing nonfiction that doesn’t need to be beautiful, nonfiction that you read purely for information. I depend on those kinds of books to write my books.
WOE: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your writing process. Just the nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff–for instance, how you get the words on the page.
POLLAN: Well, there are two phases; obviously, there’s the research phase and the writing phase. The whole time I’m researching I’m keeping one file open on my computer all the time, which is, essentially, my notebook. I do everything on the computer. I do very little by hand–I have atrocious handwriting. I can only read what I’ve written for about twenty-four hours after I write it and then it’s lost to me, and so I’ve been typing everything since I was in fifth grade–there’s a story behind that, too.
WOE: Oh, what’s that story?
POLLAN: In the fifth grade at the parent-teacher conference, Mr. Burgess told my mother that he was really concerned about me because my handwriting was so horrible that he feared I would never be able to communicate. He thought my education was fundamentally impaired. You remember how important penmanship was at one time–it was the be-all and end-all. So my mother, who was in many ways more clever than Mr. Burgess, said, “Well, what if he learns to type?” Mr. Burgess said, “Oh . . .?” So she bought me a typewriter, and I learned how to type, and from that time on, except for in-class assignments that I had to handwrite, I typed everything I submitted. The teachers were actually very impressed–they loved getting typed responses to their assignments.
WOE: So instead of your bad handwriting hindering your ability to communicate…
POLLAN: …it actually advanced it, yes! So, anyway, I type into the file any ideas that occur to me. Anything interesting I read, I’ll copy it in, highlights from interviews I do, I’ll copy it in, and I’ll try out sentences and I’ll try out leads and I’ll try out conclusions and I’ll make lists of points and reading lists and it’s kind of a big mess. Usually there are about fifty single-spaced pages of this before I really start writing. I notice that seems to be about the number where I’ve just had it up to here and it’s time to get serious. Somewhere in there is my lead, usually, and when I find it, I’ll start writing. Research is easier than the writing and more fun–it gets you out in the world and you get to read books and it doesn’t quite feel like work. But there’s a gathering sense of anxiety that you’re not really working and that it’s time to start working. Once I start writing I’m pretty disciplined, and I’ll sit down every day and do it from about 8:30 or 9:00 until lunch, and then maybe a couple of hours after that, depending on how well the morning’s gone. I finish the writing day by printing out what I’ve done that day, from the beginning again. And then I start the writing day editing all that, from the beginning, with a pen, going through it, marking it up, fixing it, and then putting the changes on. And as I get deep into a chapter or a piece, that editing process can take up a good chunk of the morning. I get to the end of that and then I push forward, another couple thousand words and start the process all over again. So the beginnings are edited, revised, rewritten countless times, but as I get deeper into the piece of course they’ve gotten less rewritten because I haven’t had as many days with the latter stages. So I don’t know–it might make sense to write a messier draft through, and I know a lot of writers who do that, who just don’t stop; they keep going and they feel a real tension between their creative and their critical side. I find that revision and writing is very much of a piece and I like to warm up by revising my sentences. That gets me back in the rhythm of it, reminds me where I am. I have a very poor memory, so the process of going back to the beginning every time reminds me of where I am, where I need to be. And I also do that old Hemingway trick at the end of any writing day of making a couple of notes about exactly where I’m going, never stopping at a hard place. So the beginning of the day is a kind of fun bit to write or a clear bit to write. There are parts of pieces you look forward to writing and there are parts of pieces you dread, so I always stop at a fun bit. That’s basically the routine until I get to the end, and by the time I get to the end I have a very clean draft. I’ll go through it again and then it’ll be ready to show to Judith, my wife, who reads everything and who is interested in a lot of the same things I am–landscape and nature and all that. She’s a great reader. And she’s a real reader. She doesn’t read because she’s in the business, like most people I know, she reads because she likes books. She mostly reads fiction–I’m one of the few non-fiction writers she ever reads–so she holds me to a high standard in terms of prose–not accuracy, but prose. So she’ll read it, I’ll make some more changes, and then it’s ready to go.
WOE: You talk about starting at the beginning and then moving to the end. So you must have a very clear idea of where it goes.
POLLAN: I have an outline, too.
WOE: Do you find yourself ever rearranging the organization in the middle?
POLLAN: Sometimes I’ll realize I shouldn’t give this away yet, I should hold this, and I’ll do various mid-course corrections along the way, but usually I’ll have a general sense of the line of the piece, that I’m trying to go from A to B. My outlines basically consist of arranging scenes and material in a certain order, and those are along a line–I call it the laundry line when I’m teaching. There’s a laundry line of this piece. Let’s say it’s the life story of a steer. I know that I have to cover when he’s born on the ranch, the day he goes to the feedlot, life on the feedlot, going to slaughter–I know those are the key elements on that laundry line. I then think, “Do I want to start on the ranch? Or do I want to start in the middle and then go back to the ranch?” That’s what I did in this case, because it’s often more interesting to start in the middle and go back to the beginning (a trick Homer taught us). And then once I know that laundry line, the basic simple arc that my pieces usually have, I figure out where on that laundry line I can hang the laundry of themes, of ideas. So when I’m on the feedlot I can talk about corn, when I’m on the ranch I can talk about grass and the history of ranching or whatever, and on the slaughterhouse I can talk about E. coli and foodborne illness. I’ve got the different things and I want to hang them, and I know that you can’t have too much laundry in any one place or it sags, so there’s a general sense of balance. So that’s what my outline will look like; although it’s consecutive on the page, it’s not actually across the page.
WOE: That reminds me of an image that you use somewhere in The Omnivore’s Dilemma–you draw a parallel between industrial processes and writing: industrial processes follow a clear, linear, hierarchical logic that is fairly easy to put into words, probably because words follow a similar logic: first this, then that; put this in here, and then out comes that. But the relationship between cows and chickens on this farm . . . takes the form of a loop rather than a line, and that makes it hard to know where to start, or how to distinguish between causes and effects, subjects and objects. To what extent was this distinction important in writing the book? Was the corn section easier to structure than the grass section?
POLLAN: It didn’t actually work out that way because with the industrial processes I had less personal narrative to work with, which I like to have, and it was very complex; there were many complex things to explain, such as agricultural policy, how you turn corn into corn syrup. It had a lot of things that were offstage that I hadn’t even witnessed so that was harder writing. So yes, there were difficulties in describing something as nonlinear as the farm that I go to at the end, but I had the narrative of my time there so that made it really easy. I had my week. That was my arc–Monday through Friday on the farm. There was an order in which I had to explain what went on there, and I had to tie that to the order of my week. Sometimes it was a bit of a stretch, but there was a logical process: you want the chickens alive before they’re dead. Luckily we slaughtered the chickens on Wednesday and not Monday. That’s what’s interesting about nonfiction–there’s always the pressure of reality pushing against the pressure of story. The pressure of story argues for its own order and way of telling things, but if it’s not true you can’t use it. I find that kind of dialectic very exciting and interesting, but there’s some wrestling that goes on. There’s always a neater way to tell a story than the way it actually happened.
WOE: That reminds me of the line by Robert Frost–he didn’t like free-verse poetry because it was like playing–
POLLAN: –tennis without a net. That’s exactly right. You do need to be pressing against something real, and I think it makes it a lot more interesting. Although certainly we know stories of writers who succumb to the seductions of a nice story, and I understand that temptation. It would always be nicer to have one character rather than three, in a given situation, and have each of them exemplify some important trend or idea, but in fact you didn’t find these things in one character, you found them in three, so you’ve got to introduce three characters, even though your editor is saying “This would be much better with one character.” And writers fall into that trap. It’s a very dangerous thing that can ruin your career.
WOE: When I taught “An Animal’s Place” in my sophomore class on “Style in the Essay,” the students were at first put off by the topic of the essay–they were afraid of being harangued about whether or not to eat meat–but after reading the essay, they were all won over–vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. How do you accomplish such a feat?
POLLAN: Well, for me, the key strategy is starting from a place of ignorance or naiveté, not starting from a place of authority or expertise. If you look at most of my pieces, they’re educations. They tell the story we always have available to us when we’re writing about anything: our education in the subject. I always start off as kind of an idiot, and gradually work towards a position of greater knowledge and authority on the subject. So I’m never lecturing to people, or if I am it’s not until the end when they’re already with me. What turns people off is somebody standing on a soapbox, saying, “Here, I’ve figured this out–let me tell you the truth.” Instead, I dramatize the process of acquiring the truth (if you can call it that). So that piece, which is a very abstract essay of ideas, starts off with a very broad sit-com premise: The first time I opened Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. So we’re in a steakhouse, we’re reading about animal rights–what’s going to win? The guy who wants to eat the steak? Or the guy who is writing the book telling him to stop? It’s very simple, and kind of funny, and there’s a suspense, and I haven’t worked it out. And you’re kind of rooting for me to be able to finish my steak. I know I am. So I think that’s what brings people in, that there’s no foregone conclusion, they don’t know where I’m going. Of course I know when I’m writing it, but in the process of writing it I’m recreating my state of ignorance or my state of uncertainty. A lot of my writing starts that way. You’ll see I’m the naive cattle rancher, I’m the guy who wants to be able to eat in the face of Peter Singer, I’m the guy who builds the house in the woods who doesn’t know how to build anything, so I write as an amateur, and I think that’s very winning to people. A lot of journalists write as experts, and academics write as experts, and I think that’s a turn-off to people. They want to think with you, they don’t want to be
WOE: That essay works very well to teach argument because readers get to see in a very direct way how you concede part of an argument or how you actually bring up the opposition.
POLLAN: Yeah, and the response, your argument, their argument back–it’s a ping-pong match, that whole story.
WOE: The other thing that you just alluded to–your creation of yourself as this kind of naive person who is learning things–is that the students are really drawn to the persona you create. It’s one of the things that I also talk about: to get them to see when they are writing in the first person they are actually constructing a persona, and that it is a construct.
POLLAN: That’s a really key point because people assume that there is a first person, and once you’ve decided to write in the first person that’s the only decision. But in fact it’s not. It’s the beginning of a series of decisions because we all have many different first persons we can write in. We are plural. I can write as a male, I can write as a father, I can write as a son, I can write as a Jew, I can write as someone who lives in Berkeley, I can write as a gardener, a meat eater, any number of different people–so it’s the most constructed thing in a piece of nonfiction. Janet Malcolm talks about this in The Journalist and the Murderer. She said “The I is always fiction.” I don’t know if it’s quite fiction. But it’s fiction in the sense that it’s selecting from a range of possibilities and excluding a whole bunch. I write in the first person most of the time, but I’ve written in many different first persons. They’re all true. But some emphasize some aspects of my personality and de-emphasize others. And some would not be recognizable to people who know me. But they’re nevertheless true. I work with this with my students too–it’s not enough to be in first person–what first person are you? You can be a first person as a journalist, you can be a student–figure out the character that you’re writing as. And as long as it’s based in reality, it’s fine. That’s a great tool because we have a freedom there that we don’t have in the collecting of information.
WOE: David Kamp in The New York Times Book Review writes that his one caveat about Omnivore is your tendency to be “too nice.” Do you think that’s true?
POLLAN: Gee, tough criticism. Well, look, I am a fairly nice guy in my writing but nevertheless if you talk to the people I’m writing about they’re often quite stunned. The person whom he thought I was too easy on–Gene Kahn–was deeply angered by what I wrote about, so I guess what he calls “niceness” I would call “subtlety.” Again, I really don’t want to tell people what to think. People want to be told what to think very often. People will often say to me, “Well, you wrote this whole book about what you should have for dinner, but you never tell me.” And I say, “Do you really want some journalist to tell you what you should have for dinner? I’m trying to give you the tools so you can think about it and come to your own conclusion.” I think I portray in that book a fairly devastating portrait of industrial organic agriculture. The president of Whole Foods certainly feels I did; he just issued this five-page single-spaced open letter to me, defending himself. Gene Kahn, I know, feels more or less the same way. So if it’s not tough enough for Mr. Kamp, you know, he’ll have a chance to publish his book next year.
WOE: I love the structure of your books–particularly Botany and Omnivore. How did you come up with the four-part idea for Botany? What made you choose those four plants? And were there other plants in the running?
POLLAN: There were; there were a lot of candidate plants. Originally, when I started, I thought I’d write about six or seven of them. But I had no idea the chapters would get so long. And along the way I kind of realized that I had figured out a form in which I could write these long chapters that went down deep, with all these breaks, so that they weren’t unrelenting, that you’d have a section of first-person narrative, and you’d have a section of history, with all this jump-cutting. It’s a very nonlinear book, and once I found that form, which I found terrific fun to work with, I felt I could write a 90-page chapter, which is what they were in typescript–or 100-page chapter–and it would be readable in a sitting, which is what any chapter should be. A pretty long sitting, but it wouldn’t feel relentless. So I decided I wanted to go deeper rather than wide in that book and that I could make my points with just four plants. But there were others that I considered doing. I thought about doing corn, I thought about doing the grape–tobacco would have been interesting. My principle of selection was certain desires I wanted to represent. I wanted Beauty, I wanted Intoxication, I wanted Control, I wanted Sweetness. Within that framework I could have gone in different ways, so it ended up coming down to the plants I had the strongest personal relationships with, the things I’d grown in my garden. That was a criterion. They’re all plants I had a direct engagement with in my garden. So that ruled out certain things as a matter of climate as much as anything else. I couldn’t do sugar–you can’t grow sugarcane in your garden–so I did apples instead. I was in New England when I wrote it, so some of the plants have a very New England focus. When it came to flowers, that was a tough call. Roses would have been fun to do, but I’d written about roses in Second Nature and I didn’t want to go over that ground again, and I knew tulips. I was writing during the dot-com boom, so tulipmania was in the air. That was a great example of a bubble economy. During the dot.com expansion there was a lot of talk about whether this was a bubble economy; everyone understood that Amazon wasn’t really worth five dollars a share, but if you bought the stock, you could make a lot of money. It was that sort of self-perpetuating thing that economists talk about as a bubble. And the history of that goes back to the tulipmania of the 18th century. Sometimes I write things because I can see the reading list that comes with that subject, and I want to read those books, and I want to learn that history, and so for the tulip, that’s what that was about. But it could have been otherwise. You know I’ve always thought, “God, I could think of four more I could do right now–I could do a sequel.” But I don’t think I want to do that.
WOE: So four was a good number. Does that relate to the choice of four meals in Omnivore’s Dilemma?
POLLAN: Well, actually I didn’t mean to do that. The book was supposed to have a three-part structure, and it does in a way. But the middle section divides in two, which became the point: that you couldn’t write about organic as one thing any more. I was trying to do a three-part structure in this book. I like books that have big chunks, whether they have chapters within those chunks or not. Why? I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a very good memory. I’m not someone who can keep a whole book in his head at a time–it’s enough to keep a section. I don’t know how people write biographies where they have to master an entire life and have to sit down at the beginning and write the whole thing. I would just lose it. In a way I’m an essayist more than I am a book writer, even though I write very long, sprawling essays. But my books don’t feel like collections of essays, and they’re not because they’re unified by some sort of overall scheme.
WOE: I’m interested in the relationship between your articles and your books–do you begin with an idea for a book and use the shorter form of magazine pieces to draft parts of the book? Or does the book idea come later?
POLLAN: Well, it depends. Usually I’m writing pieces as pieces and I’m not really thinking about a book. By the time I wrote “An Animal’s Place” I guess I knew I was going to write a book on food and that this would play some role in it, but I wasn’t sure what. And after the fact, I did go back and ask myself, Can I turn this into a chapter or not? Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t, especially with things you write for The Times; they’re written in a very different kind of tone or they end up with a different tone after the editing. It’s just a little too public, the voice that you use there–even when you’re writing personally–compared to the way I write in my books. So sometimes you think “Oh, I already have that chapter, I wrote it for The Times two years ago,” and then I start working on it and I realize, “Oh shit, it’s not gonna work. I have to start over. I have to rewrite this entirely.”
WOE: It seems you wrote quite a few articles that ended up in some form in Omnivore’s Dilemma.
POLLAN: Yes, in one form or another. Some of them I knew at the time would be in the book, like when I wrote about agricultural policy and obesity. I hadn’t written that part of the book yet, but I knew I’d be writing about this. The article was a sketch, a way of trying out the ideas. That was very hard mental work in the book, figuring out agricultural policy and its relationship to obesity. It was useful to get response to that, to figure out where I was right and wrong. So sometimes I’ll use The Times as a place to try out ideas–for example, “The Future of Food”–I used some stuff from that piece. But sometimes I write for them just because I owe them–I haven’t done anything for a while and they’re bugging me and I can give them something that I’m thinking about. So, yeah, I’ve been writing about food for The Times for five years, and some of what I’ve written I’ve been able to incorporate into the book and some of it I haven’t. If I write a good piece I like to preserve it between hard covers if there’s any way to do it. But often I have to rewrite it extensively.
WOE: I was wondering whom you see as your audience. Do you picture particular kinds of people?
POLLAN: I guess I have some idea in my head of a New York Times reader, someone who’s well-educated and generally well-informed but hasn’t thought really hard about the particular issue I’m working on. I’m very careful not to assume a lot of knowledge about the issue. I know I have a reader who’s curious but hasn’t probably focused on this in any kind of serious way. Often in the beginning of a piece, like when I wrote that piece on industrial organic, I evoke a consumer at the beginning, someone who has this basic sense that organic has got to be better and it’s worth spending the money, and they like the whole imagery that comes with it, but, gee, is it really better? And where does it come from? In a way, that’s my reader and I depict myself as that reader when I start out, to connect with that reader. You know, I’ve been writing about this subject for a while, and I know a lot about it and I know a lot of people who are very well informed about it, and sometimes I’m not quite as naive as I have to pretend to be when I’m starting out a piece like that. But again it goes back to that idea of not wanting to talk down to your reader. You do write differently for The Times, though lately I find I don’t have to change that much. I think it’s become a much more writer-friendly publication. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been writing there long enough and the audience knows me and the editors know me, so they cut me a lot of slack and I can write the way I want to, rather than in the more Times-ian voice that I used to use. So it’s a very comfortable place for me to write right now, it’s just great. One of my best friends is the editor Gerry Marzorati, and many of the other editors used to work for me at Harpers. I’ve been writing for some other magazines now–I just did a piece for Time, a piece for House and Garden, and a piece for Gourmet, and not to say anything against those magazines, but it’s really made me appreciate writing for The Times. You don’t think of The Times as being a writer’s magazine, but in many ways it is. The Times magazine, that is. And that’s very much to the credit of Gerry Marzorati and Adam Moss, the last two editors. It had a reputation for being a horrible place to write, a place where you’d get edited to death, edited by committee, go through many many drafts, and your pieces would come out looking nothing like they went in. That’s no longer true. And it’s not just me; I hear from other writers, too, that they gird themselves for this horrible editing process they’ve heard about and suddenly they emerge with a piece much like the one they wrote.
I know I can go further in a book than in an article–I can try my reader’s patience because they’ve made a commitment to me. In a book, if you really want to take a chance, do something that’s kind of wacky, you can do that. When you’re writing for The Times, you have the sense of a slightly more impatient reader, one who can go elsewhere–to another good article in that issue, or to another section, or they can put down the paper and do something else on their Sunday. But with a book reader, they’ve plunked down their twenty-five bucks and they’re with you–you can take them to stranger places.
WOE: I was wondering how scientists–biologists, botanists, people like that–respond to your work?
POLLAN: In the case of Botany of Desire the response has been gratifying; many botanists teach it, which is great–I can’t have gotten too many things wrong. Since I don’t really have any scientific training, that’s always a source of anxiety–that I get it right. You don’t get a lot of fact-checking in a book, so it’s really on you to make sure you’ve got it right. Sometimes I’ll give passages to people to vet who I know know more than I do. Several passages in Omnivore I gave to this biologist on campus–all the stuff about carbon-13 and C4 and corn’s photosynthetic properties, and he edited it quite extensively, because I had oversimplified certain things. I don’t have a strong scientific background and it’s ironic that I write about science, but the fact that I don’t allows me or forces me to be very careful when I’m learning about it and to seek help when I need it and not be so confident that “Oh, I understand photosynthesis.” I have some college biology textbooks in my library that I will consult because this information is not all at the tip of my tongue.
WOE: I was surprised to find that some of the ag researchers and animal scientists at UC Davis were skeptical about parts of your book. One of the animal scientists who’d reviewed The New York Times steer piece sent around an email pointing out what he saw as inaccuracies in the piece–and his tone was a bit testy–and in a faculty discussion group about the book, some of the ag researchers seemed to be skeptical about your conclusions. This sort of surprised me because I thought you’d written about it so clearly and treated the subject so even-handedly.
POLLAN: There are animal scientists whose career has been involved with helping cows to tolerate corn, and over time they’ve gotten better at it, using pharmaceuticals and genes. You know, we’re evolving this animal to tolerate corn. When we select from those cattle stud books, the parents for our cattle, we’re selecting ones that thrive on the feedlot, who marble well, who fatten up, and those are the ones that don’t get too sick when they eat corn. And they can take more corn without getting sick than they used to, and a lot of animal science at universities has been involved in this process of re-adapting the animal for the diet. So I can see why they would not be friendly to my reminding people that this is not the way it should be.
WOE: I felt that some people were being somewhat defensive.
POLLAN: I’m sure. I gave a talk about corn at Iowa State, which I’ve described as the University of Corn, and it was very interesting. I had a really big crowd, and at one point a group of about twenty-five people got up en masse and left. I learned later that it was some professor who just had his class walk out. They were just annoyed. You know, look, maybe I did get some things wrong. There are a few small things I got wrong in that account that I’ve changed since the book–for instance, the number of gallons of petroleum it takes to make a steer. I had used a number that I got from an ecologist at Cornell–David Pimentel–who is very well known in this area, but controversial, and his estimates are considered high, as are his estimates for the foolishness of ethanol. So I decided for the book that I would use the most generous estimates on the other side. You don’t want to give ammunition to your critics. So I reduced it from 284 gallons of oil to 75. It makes the same point. Either figure is astounding. But I challenge anybody to show me how in broad outline what I’m saying about cows and corn isn’t true. I would have changed it had I been persuaded. You know, I am writing against a whole world of animal science that’s busy adapting animals to suit our production system rather than changing our production system to suit animals, so there’s a natural tension there and I’m not surprised that they’d be critical.
WOE: I want to ask a couple of things about place. I had just finished reading A Place of My Own when I read that you’d moved to Berkeley. I felt this tremendous sense of loss–of that wonderful writing cabin.
POLLAN: You too!
WOE: I could hardly imagine you leaving behind that beautiful cabin.
POLLAN: I miss it, I miss it sorely. I still own it.
WOE: So do you get back there?
POLLAN: No, it’s rented. I go visit, to make sure the gardens aren’t falling apart, so I have some contact with it, and I know exactly who’s working in that building now. But this opportunity to come to Berkeley to teach was just too good to pass up, so we thought, “Well, we have to check this out.” We came here thinking we’d just try it for one or two years. We’re still here. Partly because it’s worked out so well for my son. He’s thriving here. He said the other day, “Dad, bringing me to Berkeley was the best thing you ever did for me!” So, it’s hard to go back. But we will at some point. I don’t feel nearly as rooted here as I did there. It takes awhile. And this is a rental house. We’re moving to another house that we bought, so I’ll be able to start a garden again. It’ll be a postage stamp compared to what I had in Connecticut, but it’ll be good. I’ve written about how foreign this landscape is and these plants and how difficult it is. It’s a huge adjustment.
WOE: The other books are so rooted in place, I would have thought that moving here would have really changed your writing.
POLLAN: Well, yes, Omnivore’s Dilemma has much less sense of place than the other three books; it’s a more rootless book, much more out in the world. Everything in the first three books came back to this one place in Connecticut, even though there are digressions out into the world. This book is out in the world. It comes back to the table at various points, but it doesn’t come back to my house or my yard. On the other hand, one of the reasons I was very attracted to move here was that I was launched on a book about food and this is ground zero for this revolution in food, so this seemed like a very good place to be. I’ve learned so much from being in Berkeley and meeting the farmers and the chefs here. I’ve gotten an education from being here about food that I would not have had on the east coast. I think it’s a better book for the fact that I’m living here, although I always have to be careful not to assume a Berkeley level of commitment to and knowledge about food from everybody else. This place is ridiculous.
WOE: Yes, this is a special place. So are you continuing to write about food?
POLLAN: So far I am. Since I’ve published Omnivore’s Dilemma I’ve written several pieces: I’ve done a guest column for The New York Times website over the last month–I wrote about eleven pieces for that, and I just did this piece on WalMart for The Times. Whether I’ll do another book on it, I don’t know. I usually wait about a year to decide what my next book will be; I try out some topics, see if I’m bored with the subject or still engaged. But I have more to say about food. The book is comprehensive in many ways, but there are certain things it didn’t do that I’d like to do in essays or articles–for example, talk about policy, which I haven’t really dealt with. There are implications in the book for policy, but not much discussion about the politics of changing the food system. I didn’t talk about the international context very much and that’s interesting to me The whole issue of whether organic can feed the world or not. There are still a bunch of questions that I’ve left undisturbed and I want to disturb now.