People hardly ever recognize Lisa Fain by name. But once she tells them her blog and book name, Homesick Texan, she’s blown her cover, suddenly a superstar.
Fain is a seventh-generation Texan who lives in New York City, hence the motivation for starting her blog. She is also the author of The Homesick Texan Cookbook, published last fall, and her writing has appeared in Saveur, Edible Austin and on SeriousEats.com. Her blog was named one of the top 50 food blogs in the world by the Times of London and the Best Regional Food Blog by Saveur.
During a recent conversation, she said she starts writing every day at 5 a.m. I wanted to know more:
Q. Tell me how your writing career led to the blog.
A. I graduated with a degree in English in 1991, and there were no jobs for anybody. I interned at the Houston Press and worked at Houston Metropolitan magazine as an editorial assistant. Then I worked for a textbook publisher for a while.
I always wanted to live in New York, and I moved here to write catalog copy for a bookstore. I thought I wanted to be a Young Adult novelist, but that didn’t go anywhere. I had some money saved up so I quit my job to write full-time, but I became a personal assistant to an author. I got a job at a business trade magazine called PR Week as a copy editor. I went to Advertising Age for 10 years, ending up as an assistant managing editor. It was more of a managerial role. Now I work full-time on my blog.
Q. How did you decide to focus on cooking?
A. I had always cooked. When I moved to New York at age 25, it had everything except Texas food. I moved here with a bunch of Texans and we tried all these Mexican restaurants, but the food was really awful. That’s when I began cooking Texas food so I could recreate that communal gathering over food that we loved. I also introduced it to my non-Texan friends.
Q. And photography?
A. I got my first camera in 2000, and I travel a lot, so I was always taking pictures of my food. Blogging was a great way to capture all my passions. I started the blog in 2006 when I got my first digital camera.
Q. Let’s talk more about writing. You told me that you start at 5 a.m.
A. I get up at 5 a.m. in the summer and at 6 a.m. in the winter. I love to be up before anyone else, just me and my coffee and my computer.
I try to write 1000 words. If I’m working on a project, I’ll write more. It’s just stream of consciousness. Sometimes I will get a blog post out of it, or a book proposal. The first paragraph will be about whatever, but from there I’ll launch into a story or a topical diatribe. They often become my headnotes and stories.
The recipe writing happens when I’m cooking. My schedule is write, then interact with the world at 9 a.m., then I go to the store , and then cook. I write and take photos in the afternoon, and wind down around 5-5:30 p.m.
I have to make myself quit. I seldom take days off. But I don’t feel like I’m working because it’s such a joy. Every day I wake up grateful that I get to do this.
Q. How did you know to start this daily writing?
A. I took a class once where the instructor said you should get up and start writing every day. I do it with a fresh mind. Otherwise I get distracted easily, where I go on line and start talking with people.
I’ve been doing this for years, since 1995. Before the computer I was writing in notebooks.
Q. Yes! I saw those notebooks in a photo by Penny de Los Santos and meant to ask you about them. When did you know you were a writer?
A. Calling myself a writer feels still kind of funny. The manager of the local bookstore said I could call myself a writer after my book was named a New York Times notable book.
Q. How would you describe your voice?
A. I’m a bad person to talk to about this, because I don’t really think about it. I just do it. And I reckon it’s the way I talk. I’m a little folksy.
Q. When did the blog stop being a hobby?
A. Two years ago when I got my book deal. Around spring 2007, literary agents started getting in touch with me, and that blew my mind. So I started meeting with agents, and I never really met one I felt comfortable working with.
They wanted me to write a memoir, but I had no desire. I just felt there was no value. I said I wanted to write a cookbook. They said, “You’re not on TV, no one would ever buy it.” Everyone said the same thing for three years. But I had a good job and I got satisfaction from the blog. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t trying to become a full-time food writer.
Then in 2010 I met an agent. She was from Houston, Brettne Bloom. She was Luisa Weiss’s agent. She was the first agent who thought it was great that I wanted to write a cookbook. I wrote my proposal in two days, and she sold it in a day.
Q. Fantastic. How was writing the cookbook different than writing the blog?
A. If anything, it wasn’t difficult in terms of recipe creation, because I’m less of an adapter and more about making up my own stuff. I can be a bit long-winded on the blog, but with a cookbook you can only say so much. So that was a challenge. But afer working for magazines and being responsible for getting out a whole magazine ever week, I knew how to pace myself. I had a really short deadline, from June to December, because they wanted to get it out the following fall.
So that’s all I did. I quit my job, and I was antisocial, because I knew I had to get this done.
Q. How did publishing a cookbook change you?
A. Now I can call myself a writer! I feel like I’m kind of the same, but I have this piece of work I’m really proud of. I don’t feel different, but people perceive me differently. When you’re just a food blogger, some people think that’s cool but once you become an author, there’s a whole different level of respect people have for you. It’s externally validating.
I don’t walk around saying, “I’m an author.” Even though my book has my name on it, people don’t know who I am. Even when I go to events in Texas, they don’t know me. They know the Homesick Texan.
Q. So how do you make money now?
A. A combination of things. I don’t live off one income stream. There’s money from ads on the blog, money from the book deal, and savings.
Q. Do you have any desire to make your blog more of a moneymaker?
A. It seems like you have to post a lot more to make money from ads. I’m kinda cool with posting once a week. I’m a bad blogger for corporations because I don’t do sponsored posts, and I don’t go on junkets. It’s because I worked for publications where you don’t do that.
I’m okay financially right now, so I don’t have to think about it. I have a rent-controlled apartment and enough to do the things I want to do.
Q. What advice would you give to food bloggers about how to monetize?
A. I have ads on my blog, but that’s it. I’m not the right person to ask. Most people can’t make a living as a blogger. If you want to make it as a food writer, Amanda Hesser’s article was great.
Q. What advice would you give about being a writer?
A. From a writing perspective, I don’t own a TV. If you want to be serious as a writer, it’s important to read every day, good magazines like the New Yorker. It’s important to write every day at the same time. You sit in front of the computer and your body just knows you have to write. Hard work and persistence always trump talent. If I had given up when I was 27 and nobody wanted my stupid YA book’85 You can’t give up.
Q. Are you going to write a Young Adult book now?
A. I actually have an idea about a novel I want to write.
[Disclosure: Links to an affiliate program mean I could earn as much as several cents if you click through.]