Q&A: Homesick Texan on Calling Herself a Writer

Jun 122012
 

Lisa Fain in her Manhattan kitchen. (Photo by Jan Cobb.)

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?

Fain's fried chicken. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fain.)

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.

Kolache in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fain)

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?

Evocative, unpretentious prose," says Ed Levine of Serious Eats.

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.]

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  42 Responses to “Q&A: Homesick Texan on Calling Herself a Writer”

  1. I hav so enjoyed following Lisa’s success and applaud her success even more after reading about her disciplined writing routine. She is a terrific role model for anyone who wants to be considered a serious food writer. Great interview – thanks.

    • My pleasure. I was thrilled to find out how disciplined she is as well. So much for that persistent stereotype that bloggers are not committed writers.

  2. “I wrote my proposal in two days, and she sold it in a day.” — well alrighty then!! that’s AMAZING!!!!

    Congrats on all your successes, Lisa…and I love that you have a strong, strong work ethic and let no grass grow under you and have to force yourself to stop and take a break. The world needs more people with drive & passion like you!

  3. This is really inspiring!

  4. Great interview and reminds me of a saying – attributed variously to Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Goldwyn or Gary Player – “The harder I work, the luckier I get”

    Any of them could (and may have) said it. Kudos to Lisa and her work ethic.

    • I haven’t heard that one, Pat, so I don’t know who said it. But it’s a great expression, kind of tongue in cheek.

  5. The way great ingredients add to a delicious dish, a great subject makes a great interview even better. Terrific piece, Dianne.

    • Thanks Gail! It’s always good to read about a writer’s process, I think. It helps me think about my own.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this interview. She seems down to earth and content, knows what she wants. I respect that. I am relieved to hear that she is ok with once a week post, and does not try to kill herself to put more posts out there just to increase the revenue. I dont even have ads on my blog and I can only do once a week blog post, I had felt guilty about it for a long time. Dont know why! I am at peace with it now and nice to hear the same from the others.

    • Oh good. I’m glad that her true nature came through.

      Listen, I do have an ad on my blog, but I don’t have Lisa’s huge traffic. I suppose I could blog twice a week and get a little more income, but a little more of “almost nothing” is still “almost nothing.”

  7. It’s always interesting to hear how successful food bloggers become successful. Getting up early and having a regular writing time every day sounds like a good start. I have been writing ‘morning pages’ (Julia Cameron’s The Artist Within’) for several years. It’s amazing how it clears the mind. Another great post, Dianne. Thank you.

    • Thank you for mentioning that book! I was trying to remember the name to ask Lisa about it, and it slipped my mind. So may people have been successful using her method.

  8. Lisa is an inspiration. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and Lisa proves that you ain’t gettin’ anywhere without believing in yourself and working hard and consistently. And I love that she posts once a week. Brava!

    • So true, Greg. All those self-doubts we wrestle with don’t do us any favors — they just get in the way. It’s one thing to work hard, and another to believe in yourself. They don’t always go together.

  9. She’s gets up and writes every day. For years. That’s the hallmark of a writer. That discipline plus talent plus a voice has given her well-earned success. Brava!

  10. Enjoyed this very much, encouraging and real. Thank you.

  11. I love that quote someone posted earlier: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” This interview’97and that quote’97inject a dose of reality into the la-la land that I sometimes visit.

    I’m so impressed that Lisa sits down every morning at 5 am (as a nightowl, I find this hour beyond obscene) and writes 1,000 words. That’s not a paragraph, folks. That’s work, and I’m sure some good stuff comes out of it. I need to take heed.

    Thanks for this interview, Dianne. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Lisa. Hope to see you back in Texas sometime soon. The weather was perfect last night, but the heat’s a-comin.

    • Hello Martha! Oh yes, we all visit la-la land from time to time. That’s why it’s nice to hear from someone so down-to-earth.

      Just for the uninitiated, 1000 words is 4 pages typed, double spaced.

      I remember reading Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, where he wrote about spending an entire morning writing one paragraph. (Then he would head to a cafe and drink all day, because his work was done.)

  12. Wow, I love this article. Great to see Lisa at home. Her refrigerator looks just like mine, covered 3/4 of the way with all kinds of fun memories. Thanks Lisa & Dianne.

    About 6 years ago, I wanted to learn how to make homemade tortillas. Why? I remember my Mom frying corn tortillas for tacos when I was little. We lived in San Diego and Mom taught herself how to make the tacos that were so popular in the area.

    Somewhere along the way, prepackaged, break-in-half-at-first-bite tortillas came along and made me hate tacos. I wanted to learn how to make “real” corn tortillas. I went to Google and typed “homemade tortillas.” Lisa’s post was the first result and I clicked the link.

    Not only did I learn how to make homemade tortillas, I also learned how to make cube steak and gravy, King Ranch casserole, puffy tacos, old-fashioned pie crust, and so many others.

    More importantly, through Lisa’s writing and storytelling, I found a part of myself that I’d lost and forgotten long ago. We are both Gemini. Her writing spoke to me on a very deep level, beyond the food. She served as an inspiration that will, down the road, be life changing for me.

    • A reduced rate of cipro order cheap thyroid.

      This is a lovely story, Eric. Thank you for commenting.

      What a difference six years makes. Now with Google’s new formatting requirements for recipes (which most food bloggers don’t use), when I typed “homemade tortillas” into the search box, top results came from Taste of Home, Tasty Kitchen (Pioneer Woman), and Allrecipes.com. No storytelling on those sites.

  13. An excellent interview Diane. I don’t have a desire to be an author but it was interesting to read how Lisa achieves her goals.

  14. She sounds like a real inspiration. I’m cuirous to see her blog.

  15. Dianne,

    Your posts consistently inspire me. However, this one spoke to me in a way that’s unequivocal and unique. Lisa is a talented artist who doesn’t take herself too seriously yet merrily skips along the road to continued success that was born from talent, focus, persistence, self confidence and hard work. In other words, Lisa’s success came the old-fashioned way. I admire Lisa and love her work.

    Bravo, Lisa! Bravo, Dianne!

  16. Wonderful interview and her honesty and work ethic actually come through in her words. And now I am comforted and reassured with my own hours spent writing although I should let Lisa inspire me and actually start focusing my writing better. She is right when she says that hard work and persistence (that old blood, sweat and tears) does pay off in the end, but I think having talent and a great story or idea help an awful lot. Thanks for a very informative interview, Dianne.

    • You’re welcome, Jamie. I’m with her that persistence is the most important thing. So many talented writers give up too early. I see it all the time. When you say focusing your writing better, do you mean the topic, or the time spent?

      • It seems that Lisa is able to sit down and write 1000 words on one topic, one continuous piece. I sit down and write 1000 words or more but have trouble focusing the energy and thought on only one piece or topic. I have four pieces going at once and hop back and forth. I need to start to channel Lisa.

  17. Have been waiting for an interview like this with Lisa. As a fellow homesick Texan, I always enjoy her stories of tradition, family and comfort. Having not lived in Texas for a long time now, every one of her posts makes me feel like I’m home again. Thanks Dianne for sharing more about Lisa.

    • You are most welcome, Sara. You must be part of her crowd of Homesick Texans, mixed in with those fascinated by her stories and delighted by her recipes.

      That reminds me. You know what I didn’t touch on? Her recipe writing skills. Many people have raved to me about the fabulous dishes in her book. Now I need to try some.

  18. I always enjoy all of your posts but this has been, by far, my favorite interview yet. Lisa seems like such a down to earth person who truly enjoys what she does. Thank you for yet another interview!

  19. 5am is pretty early to start writing! It seems like that’ consistency is the key to making a life of writing, cooking or any other self-motivated or started line of work. An inspiring interview, thank you for posting it.

    • My pleasure, Brian. Yes, 5 a.m. is too early for me too. And usually things don’t calm down enough until the afternoons, after I’ve read emails, answered comments on the blog, worked with clients, etc. Everybody’s different. What you point out is her consistency (and discipline) and that’s what’s most important in being a writer.

  20. Thank you for this – I so enjoyed reading about her work/process/cooking life. And I totally agree that hard work and persistence are perhaps even more important than talent – though she is quite talented as well, and I hope she knows that (at least a little bit!)!

    • Well, she’s probably too modest to bring that up, but her book is selling like gangbusters and I have heard many raves about her recipes.

  21. […] Jacob, who writes not about food so much as about food writing, interviewed Fain about her daily writing routine, the differences between writing a blog and writing a cookbook, and […]

  22. Great interview! Coincidentally, I have just been immersing myself in Lisa’s blog (for about the third time). I went searching for something basic, like enchilada sauce and got sucked in by all the stories and recipes. She’s a professional in the best sense of the word, approaching the job of her blog the same way she would if she were still working in the corporate world. So, go Lisa, and keep feeding us non-Texans, too.

    • Thank you. Isn’t it fun to get sucked into a blog like that? I always enjoy it. Of course, the part where you realize you’ve just blown a half hour and you’re behind on something, maybe that’s not so great.

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