“Find the Story Only You Can Write,” says Carolynn Carreño

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Freelance writer and cookbook collaborator Carolynn Carreño, with her beloved dog Rufus. Do you notice that, like her advice, this photograph tells a story that is uniquely hers?

A brainy freelance writer, high-end cookbook collaborator,  and three-time James Beard journalism award nominee, Carolynn Carreño blogs  atCarolynn Carreno.wordpress.com and the Huffington PostI tracked her down for this frank and wide-ranging interview about food writing and her own path to success: 

Q. You come across in your bio and writing as a totally food obsessed person.  Did your  writing come from that obsession?

A. Definitely. I had no intention of being a food writer. I started before blogs, and being a food writer was for stuffy old men who worked for Gourmet. I couldn’t relate to a lot of food writing because I thought it was for people who travelled and stayed at fancy hotels.

I was writing mostly for Seventeen magazine, lots of personal essays. Food started to make its way into my stories, through my family. Then I pitched a story about my dad, who had a restaurant, to Colman Andrews at Saveur. He got back to me 13 months later.  He said he was interested in this idea, and he had some questions for me. I came into his office to discuss it.

I got a James Beard nomination for that, and it led to other people calling me to do stories. I started cooking, and I turned everything I made into a 500-word story for the Los Angeles Times magazine. My style was anecdotal, centered on a recipe.

The only writer I tried to copy was Joan Didion. I was blown away by The White Album and her distinct voice. I hoped to be vague and drifty like her. I met her one time in a restaurant and she’s like a little bird. I realized I couldn’t write like this person who weighed half my weight and talks in an almost inaudible voice. I realized I had to write like me.

Q. It’s probably a cliché to say that your freelance and blog writing is very passionate. How do you get that across?

A. People tell me my writing sounds so familiar and intimate, like you were talking to me. I don’t have any self-consciousness as a writer. I didn’t take writing classes. I was able to wing it and let a magazine editor formulate an idea into a magazine story. I just write like I talk.

It’s astonishing how hard that is for other people. A lot of people put on their writer voice. Authors I’m working with will send me a couple of paragraphs they want to put into their book, but it doesn’t sound anything like them. If I have any gifts it’s a natural ear for the rhythm of language. I can hear exactly how other people talk, so maybe that’s what makes me good at writing cookbooks for other people.

I also don’t have any fear. I own my thoughts, and I don’t care what other people think. So many people are so diplomatic, but the truth is a beautiful thing, and it’s all we have.

 Q. What does it take to become a regular writer for Saveur? I read your features for years.

A. Well I’m no longer a regular writer and I don’t even know if I could get them on the phone again. Your editor leaves and the person who believes in you is gone and suddenly you’re starting all over again. What it took back then was having ideas. The person with the best idea wins.

It’s important to always be aware of the stories only you can write. For example, who else has a dad with a restaurant in Tijuana? So I wrote about fish tacos, a native food in my small town.

But things have changed. There aren’t a lot of places to send your story to now. I haven’t been freelancing for the last several years because I’ve been working on cookbooks. Now I’m ready to embark on it again. Martha Stewart magazine has  one Saveur-esque story. O magazine has a personal food narrative. I’ve tried with Bon Appetit and it has not been successful.

Q. Your freelance stories often start out with a personal anecdote: ending up in the kitchen at a party in New York, a look back at a city where you used to live, and your run-in with a Genoan waiter. How important is that, to add a personal touch?

A. To me, food is not very interesting in itself. I don’t want to talk about food all the time, unless we’re talking about food politics, a family memory, or something you made. But to write a story about watermelon, I definitely would rather get into the story in a personal way. That’s what makes food great. There has to be smells coming from the kitchen and a little bit of chaos and everything coming together.

Q. When you lived in New York, did it make a difference for your career?

 A. Definitely. I talked my way into Colman Andrew’s office at Saveur. I worked at the Union Square greenmarket and met an editor there. You can go out to lunch with editors. They’re always at parties. People remember you and think of you.

Q. Let’s talk about your cookbook collaborations, of which there are many. How did it come about that you wrote the Mozza cookbook and even got a byline?

A. I would never do it without a byline. I had written Nancy’s previous book because I had recently moved to Los Angeles in 2003 and we have the same agent, Janis Donnaud. Janis hooked us up and then Nancy I became good friends. I was staying at her house in Italy when we decided to do the book together. We had lunch together and we came up with the title for the next book. We texted it to our agent and she said, “Who thought of it?” We both did. 

Q. Who tested all the recipes?

A. Me and a couple of people who worked with me. I would go into the restaurant armed with a scale, cups and spoons and a computer. I would get the recipe out of Matt and write it intricately, and sometimes test the recipe myself or give it to one person or interns working for me in my kitchen. I needed to know they could follow the recipe.

I don’t like testing recipes. It’s not fun like cooking. So I’ve decided I will hire out all my recipe testing for my future books. I don’t mind doing the second test, to work out any kinks. I like to pick what I’m making and when.  With the Mozza book, I had to make everything and drive it to the restaurant. Fortunately I lived four blocks away. But that was not fun for me, to have someone inspect my recipes.

Q. What was it like to work with the notoriously prickly Kenny Shopsin, and how did that collaboration come about?

A. It was wonderful. He and I did not get into a single fight. He did kick out a friend of mine once. And then I waited until my friend was no longer in sight and I started bawling, and then Kenny said, “Gee, if I knew the effect my behavior had on people, maybe I wouldn’t be such an asshole.” That was the only prickly moment. He installed our own phone line (at the restaurant) and he would say “Hi honey bunny,” like I was one of his daughters.

I got the collaboration through my agent. She asked if I’d ever been kicked out. She figured that was the most important thing. We met at Shopsin’s and Kenny and I really liked each other. If I like someone’s cooking I’m so passionate about what they’re doing they should hire me, because it’s like I’m about to have his baby.

Q. Why do you say Colman Andrews is the best food writer there is?

A. I wrote that years ago. He did something so unique at Saveur, with (co-founder) Dorothy Kalins. What made me pitch my story about my father is that Colman’s stories are so human. It wasn’t about being fancy, even though Colman knows all those French chefs and has eaten about all those places in Paris and Barcelona.

But when he talked about food, he was really talking about life, life at the table. He legitimized things like writing about quesadillas at a truck stop in Texas. He didn’t think everything had to be at the highest level.

Q. What other food writers do you admire?

A. I like Dana Goodyear’s choice of stories for the New Yorker, and how she came to them. Jeff Gordiner at the New York Times. Pete Wells has a great voice. So few writers have a distinct voice.  Gabrielle Hamilton, you can’t forget her. Her stories are quite lovely, the way she puts them together is lyrical, evocative and pretty. I feel like Calvin Trillin’s food writing was his best writing.  I used to love Laurie Colwin.

Q. What advice do you have for food writers who want to crack the big food magazines and food sections?

A. Find the story that only you can write.  Write it really well and hire someone to edit it for you before you send it off.

Q. Why?

A. Because you don’t know what you’re doing. Even if you’re sending a query, I would send it to two friends to make sure it’s a perfect query.

 (Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.) 

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    • diannejacob says

      It’s rare to find a writer who’s such a great speaker as well. She lives close to you, Liz, in Los Angeles. In the meantime you can follow her on Twitter. @carolynncarreno

  1. says

    Thank you for the inspiring interview, Dianne. Great to meet someone who is so grounded and fearless. “Find the story only you can write” is terrific advice. I’m putting that on a polka-dotted post-it above my desk. Happy new year!

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, the only hard part is finding a home for it. But it makes a lot of sense. Happy New Year to you, Anna. Hope to see you soon.

  2. says

    You obviously do your research very well beforehand, making the interview wonderful. I agree about writing the story only you can write; that’s exactly what I’m trying to focus on.

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you Karen. I need to get a good sense of someone to come up with meaningful questions, and I like to pack the interview with lots of links so people can read more if they like. Good luck with your writing.

  3. says

    What an inspiring interview! YES, I agree, that the story is infinitely more interesting when it is highly personal.The flavors, textures and aromas can only be described to a point. The details dancing around “life at the table” are what makes the storycome alive.
    I was once advised to read my own writing out loud. It is a great way to find the problems and to determine if it feels flat or lifeless (heaven forbid!)

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you, Liz.

      Reading work aloud is standard writing advice, but it’s amazing how powerful it is to actually do it. You know when your tongue trips up that there’s something to fix.

      I used to think that food writing focused on describing the food, but it is really about telling a story where food is just one of the characters.

  4. says

    This interview was just what I needed today. For years, I didn’t write a word, because I feared judgment or people peering into my soul. Blogging has helped me branch out, but often I’ve hit the publish button with sweaty palms. I have so much more to write, as soon as I can unpeel the fear layers and get the sass out.

    • diannejacob says

      Fear is a big part of writing for me too. It keeps me from producing more, even after all these years.

      Have you ever thought about joining a writing group? I did so this year, and it has helped me because I have to produce work regularly. And people enjoy what I write. That’s a bonus.

  5. says

    Great interview Dianne. Thanks so much- I love that line, “write the story only you can tell.” It’s easier said than done but I keep trying. Writers like Carolynn motivate me to dig deeper and learn more so I can write better. Thanks for all the links. I wasn’t familiar with Carolynn but I’ll follow her and read her work now.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Melissa. Lately Carolynn’s been busy collaborating on cookbooks, so the links are to earlier freelance essays. I hope she’ll get back in that game.

  6. says

    Thanks for an interesting, inspiring interview Dianne. One of my goals for the New Year is to write more personally, more creatively. I am so bent on teaching, guiding, helping people learn and encouraging them to get into the kitchen and try…it does not leave much room for story. I try and add a bit of story. ButI really wonder about that. If readers come to my site to learn, who cares about “me”? I read blogs where people write so much about their kids, their dogs, their life, and that is fine, to a point…then I click away. TMI. Then it’s just where is the recipe, how did you do it and would I make this or does it inspire me. Any thoughts on how to open up a bit? How to add more personal story? Team up with Carolynn and come to LA to do a workshop on more creative, personal writing. Actually, please do it in Orange County, not LA!

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Sally! I would love to come to Orange County to teach. You’d have to help me set it up. I don’t know about Caroline and if she’s interested in that sort of thing.

      People do care about “you,” but that doesn’t mean you’re going to change your blog to be about your life. I just looked at your last post and it’s very professional and thorough. But maybe you can fit in a little more about yourself, once in a while. Not a whole piece but about your connection to a food. Maybe you first ate it on your honeymoon, or it’s something your grandmother made, or you took a class and fell in love with a technique or ingredient. These are small things that don’t take up the whole post. I think that is your concern.

  7. says

    I’ve read several comments from fiction writers in writer’s forums who insinuate, if not outright say, fiction writing is more creative and challenging than non-fiction. I kindly remark (in my head), “Go on wit cho bad self.” Displaying your heart and soul on paper is hard, gut-wrenching, risky and most beautiful. Three cheers to non-fiction writers willing to share themselves with the world. As usual, great post!

    • diannejacob says

      I don’t know that I agree either, Jackie. Both nonfiction and fiction are difficult to do well. I second your internal response!

  8. Babs Hogan says

    I like this quote from your interview: “But when he talked about food, he was really talking about life, life at the table.”

    As a non-chef, a non-cook, and a person who lacks motivation to spend time in the kitchen, I find food writers fascinating. I’ve read your book and several others, and am intrigued with people who are passionate about food. Something has clicked. A bell has rung. I’m interested in the food writer’s stories, not so much about the food.

    I’m learning so much from you and your colleagues. As the quote suggests: food brings us together to talk about life. Even outsiders like me can appreciate its extraordinary value.

    Thanks Dianne. Happy New Year!

    • diannejacob says

      Babs, you are exactly right. It’s about the story. That’s what hooks you in and makes you love food writing without being a chef or cook. I hope you have time to read Caroline’s stories as they are magnificent.

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