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Knowledge Base .: Meet The Author .: General Non-Fiction .: Leon Hesser Author of The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norm Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger Interviewed

Leon Hesser Author of The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norm Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger Interviewed

Author: Leon Hesser

ISBN: 1903754906 


Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of is pleased to have as our guest, Leon Hesser, Ph.D author of The Man Who Fed the World.


Good day Leon and thanks for participating in our interview.


Leon, please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.


I grew up on a farm, Norm, in Indiana during the Great Depression.  After two years as a teenage soldier in the Pacific in World War II, I married and we farmed until I was 30.  My wife convinced me to sell the farm business and enter Purdue University as a freshman. 

It was so much easier than farming that I stayed on and got three degrees.  In 1966, I went to Pakistan as Foreign Service Officer in charge of the U.S government’s technical assistance to help increase food production.  I met and helped Norman Borlaug introduce the high-yielding wheat varieties that he had developed in Mexico as a Rockefeller Foundation scientist.  In four years, with his technology, Pakistan doubled its wheat production.  Dr. Borlaug was hailed as Father of the Green Revolution and, in 1970, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  I transferred to Washington DC in 1973 and became director of worldwide programs to increase food production in developing countries.


Why did you feel compelled to write The Man Who Fed the World? : What are your hopes for this book? How has the feedback been so far?

My main reason for writing the biography of Norman Borlaug was so that more people in the world, especially in the USA, would know about him and his wonderful accomplishments.  He has been better known in other countries than in the U.S.  The book has just been released, but reviews and comments so far have been extremely positive.


Is there an underlying message in your book? If so, please elaborate.


I think there are two important messages in the book, Norm.  First, I think Dr. Borlaug’s accomplishments demonstrate the potential power of one person.  That should be a challenge to each of us to try to help improve world conditions – we cannot all win a Nobel prize, but we can each make a difference.  The other important point is to convey that Dr. Borlaug’s dream is to have more young people become interested and excited about food and agriculture sciences and related disciplines, so that they can have the satisfaction of helping relieve hunger and poverty in the world.


How was it like when you first met Dr. Norman Borlaug? What impressed you most about him?


When I first met Dr. Borlaug in Pakistan in 1966, I was impressed by his humbleness and down-to-earth manner, even though he was an extremely accomplished scientist.  He had the demeanor of an Iowa farmer, and we quickly struck up a personal friendship.  At the same time, he was quite articulate and obviously brilliant.  My colleagues and I on the technical assistance team in Pakistan were seeking technology that would help increase food production; Dr. Borlaug, his seed varieties and his technology were the answer to our dreams. 


What kind of research did you do to write this book?


Because I had followed his career closely since meeting him in Pakistan, I already knew much about his life and accomplishments.  But to prepare myself to write the story of his life, I read stacks of books – some that I obtained through interlibrary loan and many that now adorn my personal library. 

Several of the books, Dr. Borlaug suggested to me as background, such as a history of the Rockefeller Foundation; a book about Henry Wallace, who convinced the Rockefeller Foundation in 1941 that they should take up the challenge of relieving hunger in Mexico; background on Africa; and many others.  I read nearly all of Dr. Borlaug’s many articles and publications, which are listed in the bibliography of the book.  I did a lot of research on the Internet.  And I met with Dr. Borlaug to go over the manuscript carefully on three different occasions.  On one of these, I met and became acquainted with his entire family, and what a remarkable family it is.


What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?


Actually, writing the book was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things I have ever done.  Dr. Borlaug’s life makes such a fascinating story.  But the fact that he was so interested in having the story told that he was willing to meet with me three different times for four to five days each time, while we went over the manuscript, made it a pleasant task.  I can think of nothing that I would really call a challenge.


Is Dr. Borlaug still active today?


Absolutely.  He still travels to other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, each year.  In 2005 he made three trips to Africa and one each to India and Argentina.  About two months ago, I called him at his base in Mexico to ask how things were going.  He said, “I’m leaving Tuesday for Manila, where I am to make a speech at the Asian Development Bank.  Then, I fly to Tokyo to make a speech.” 

I waited about ten days or so, thinking that he should be back in Mexico.  I called and asked his secretary if he were back yet.  She said, “Yes, he came back over he weekend; he was in the office Monday.  Then he left on Tuesday for Nigeria.”  Among other things, at age 92, he still serves each fall semester, as he has for the last twenty years, as Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University.  What a man!


Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections?


Yes, Norm, I have a number of rejection slips, which I understand is usual in this business.  I did query perhaps a dozen agents, some of whom expressed interest in the story, but who ultimately said it didn’t quite match their portfolio.  I also sent proposals to a few large publishers.  An editor in one of the big New York City publishers expressed interest, but ultimately his “committee” voted against it.  In this whole process, I was advised by more than one person that the Borlaug story would better be handled by a small to medium-sized publisher; that they would be more inclined to keep it in print longer than the big publishers.  I queried a few of these, including Durban House, who expressed high interest and said they would keep it in print for a long time.  We made a deal.


 In your acknowledgements you mention you attended a writer’s retreat in Maui. How important is it for aspiring writers to participate in retreats or conferences?


I was perhaps 90 percent finished with the manuscript when I went to Maui.  That was the first such retreat that I had attended.  For me it was quite valuable.  At the end of the week, because of the interaction with others in the group, I had a better “hook” for the first chapter, and a new title, The Man Who Fed the World.  I also acquired information about the publishing industry that proved helpful.  My impression was that virtually everyone who participated in the retreat enjoyed it and gained from it.


Although you are not leaving us just yet, how do you want us to remember Leon Hesser?


If you had asked me that question two years ago, Norm, I would likely have said that I would like to be remembered as one who did a bit to help relieve hunger in the world – one who went from an Indiana farm to the world stage.  Today, however, I think I would be pleased to be remembered as one who helped make the world more aware of Norman Borlaug and his remarkable life and accomplishments. 


Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?


Let me just say, Norm, that I am blessed with a wonderful family.  My wife, Florence, and I retired to Naples, Florida in the year 2000.  We celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary in August 2006.  Florence has been a wonderful companion and mother.  We have a son, a daughter, and four beautiful and talented granddaughters.  Who could ask for more?


Thanks once again and good luck with your book.

The above interview was conducted by:  NORM GOLDMAN:  Editor of Bookpleasures. CLICK TO VIEW MORE OF   Norm Goldman's Reviews    

To read Norm's Review of the book CLICK HERE

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