Yet she has won six Bert Greene Awards for Food Journalism, five awards from the Association of Food Journalists, four James Beard Awards, and two awards for best writer from Les Dames Escoffier and the Louis Roederer International Wine Writing Award.
At the 2003 World Food Media Awards, MacLean beat out 1,000 other writers to win the award. And don’t even get me started on how many awards her first book (Red, White, and Drunk All Over) won, including World’s Best Drink Writer from Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. (She’s working on a second book of more travel adventures, to be published in 2012.)
Natalie MacLean is the writer to beat. And chances are, you won’t be successful.
Here’s a little background: She studied English literature at Oxford University and earned a Masters in Business Administration in Ontario, Canada. While on maternity leave from a high-tech marketing position, Maclean started writing freelance articles about wine for magazines, and then sent them out as emails, the start of a wine newsletter. Today, her free e-newsletter has a circulation of more than 100,000, and she has written for more than 60 publications.
We met years ago when she endorsed my book, Will Write for Food, on her website. After she won the MFK Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing from Les Dames Escoffier, I called MacLean at home in Ottawa, Canada, to interview her about food writing technique:
Q: What is it like to write from Ottawa, not exactly known as the food and wine capital of North America? Do you travel all the time, or do you find that you can drink and write just fine from home, thank you?
A: Ottawa is terrific for the work ethic because nothing happens here. There are very few road tours by wine councils and vintners. When they do a cross-country tour, Ottawa is not on their list. I live a boring, happy, productive life, staying behind the computer with bunny slippers on.
Q: You’ve beat out some amazing competition for awards, including wine guru Robert Parker and the Washington Post’s Jane Black. While you’re a sensational writer, you are self-taught, with neither a journalism nor an English degree. How did you learn to write?
A: I was a marketing manager and web evangelist. People are not going to wait for your inspirational muse. You have to tell story quickly, get rid of what you don’t need, and try to entertain, because it’s a competitive market.
If you do something long enough and you keep plugging away at it you do get better at it, just from sheer effort. I started writing in 1999, I was nominated for a Beard in 2001, and then I won starting in 2002. That’s ages.
When I was a competitive highland dancer, I put myself in the middle of the class to get picked on by teachers. I like to ask for feedback. Now I work with 10 to 15 editors, and they give feedback. Some feedback comes from friends and family because I make them read my stuff.
I spend a lot of time admiring and reading other writers like Jeffrey Steingarten, Alan Richman, and John T. Edge. (Later she mentioned M.F.K. Fisher, Dorothy Parker, and Colette, for her wine writing.) It informs your voice and style if you’re trying to figure out what they’re doing. Sometimes I read their work out loud and think it’s beautifully constructed. I pay attention to techniques, like the mock-heroic technique. They make it seem ridiculously easy and monstrously adventurous. I love that juxtaposition.
For example, Alan and a kid go to a restaurant (see Le Petit Gourmet). I like the simplicity of his sentences and yet they are so honest, like “The kid won’t go far.” You don’t need to be flowery. It’s the impact. I’m interested in parsimony. How might I use that technique and make it my own.
Q: What is your process when writing an essay?
A: I go overboard on research. It’s a way of procrastinating because the tough part is writing. I get exposed to ideas, phrases, tidbits.
It’s like painting. I know the perfect seagull in the corner. Or I know where the lighthouse is going to go. I start putting the pieces on the canvas and keep trying to put them together. I want a beautiful piece. It’s a pastiche. I edit, edit, edit. I’m a messy, disorganized writer, but a better editor.
I feel like I’m in a wrestling match when I start writing. I can’t get a grip, then eventually we slip, and I’m on top of the thing. I struggle with the angel, I feel like this thing is trying to crush me. Then I feel like I’ve flipped it over. At that point I know I’m in control. Then it’s just edit, edit, edit.
Q. When you think about creating an essay that might win an award, do you write it almost exclusively for your website? Why?
A. I love longer pieces of 2,000 to 4000 words. Few outlets publishing that anymore. I love the flow that happens with a sustained piece. Those are the most satisfying.
I write them for the website because there aren’t a lot of outlets. If they’re good enough, I remove them from the site and expand on them for a book, where I can give the essays a second life.
Q: What is the single most important advice you have for writers who dream of being half as successful as you?
A: You have to have to have interest and desire. Beyond that, it’s just hard work, plugging away on it, being willing to not give up on something, to be there until you’re really ready to give it away to the world.
Most people give up on most things way too early. I was a dancer for 17 years. I practiced three hours per day for dances that were 3 minutes long, perfecting each movement. You need mental discipline and focus. It’s so rewarding when you have it. I’m willing to wait for it each time, no matter how long it takes.
You have to want it so much you’re willing to be uncomfortable and tired. But you’re willing to keep going because in the end there’s something inside you that makes you hum.
Q: Do you think your sense of humor and easygoing approach to wine gives you an edge?
A: I think the fact that I’m neurotic really helps. I’m so worried about everything. Something about always being not quite sure of my place in the world makes me uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable makes me hypersensitive to my environment. Also it makes for good input into the story.
I’m sure I’d be a worse writer if I were more balanced. I don’t need to be miserable, but I’m always feeling like there’s something incomplete, always striving to get closure, but I never get it.
It’s when I write that I figure out how I think about the experience. The happiness is in organizing the experience later. I can’t imagine doing anything else, yet I’m also completely bothered by it.
Q: Are too many wine and food writers obsessed with adjectives?
A. Yes! They’re struggling with how to strap a subjective experience in words. When you’re dealing with something sensory, you have to put words into it. I’m getting less purple as the years go on. I try to take out adjectives when I edit. I’m focusing less and less on describing wine and more on the people. Their dialog moves the story ahead.
Q. Why don’t you try to write for the New Yorker or the Atlantic?
A: I once pitched the New Yorker; I had some nice feedback about the writing.
I’m just so busy. I have my magazine columns, my mobile apps, the website, the newsletter, the new book. I like the freedom of putting my work on my site the way I want to. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak. I like being a horse without a saddle, just galloping the fields. That’s what you do when you have your own website.
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Readers, your reward for getting to the end of this interview is a chance to read one of MacLean’s award-winning essays. Go to this Les Dames D’Escoffier International website and type the word dames in the white box.
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