Writing books is both a struggle and a joy. That was David Lebovitz’s experience for his latest cookbook, My Paris Kitchen. It’s full of stories of his life in Paris, with gorgeous photos for classic and modern recipes. I caught up with David on email, to ask about his writing process and philosophy:
Q. Why did you want a book with so many stories? The recipes often have a story in front of the headnote! That’s a lot of work.
A. We all spend so much time online, madly scrolling through things and clicking around, that I’ve realized how much I miss sitting in a chair (or curling up in bed), with a book. The idea of My Paris Kitchen was to present a personalized picture of Paris. I like telling stories and the story of the book is how I cook and shop in Paris, which – of course – includes recipes.
Writing recipes has become harder. With the immediate feedback of a blog, I’ve realized that if there is any possible question left unanswered in a recipe, someone will ask it. However no one wants a seven page recipe for butter cookies, so you can’t include every variation and tip; it’s whittling a recipe down, so it works as best as it can, that is the challenge.
Every recipe has a story attached and my mind thinks in unusual ways. Folks often wonder how I can begin writing a recipe for a custard-filled tart with going to a nude French beach in San Tropez. (Although someday, I should make a book of the editorial comments my editors have left in the sidebars of my manuscripts. Their reactions to some of the stuff I turn in are pretty funny.)
Q. We talked a few times, while you were writing the book, about how you struggled, rewriting parts many times. Why was this book so difficult?
A. Writing about yourself is a challenge. I’m open and I like to talk about everything, from the amazing bakeries to the mundane, like the mind-numbing paperwork. That’s what life is about.
So I struggled trying to tell the story of Paris, at least my life in it, with honesty and openness, poking fun of my goofs and gaffes, as well as those of others. People hold Paris in high regard and while it deserves the accolades, I like the more absurd sides of life in France too. I wanted to mix them all together, to present an honest picture, while keeping it all upbeat and fun for me and readers.
Q. You are an accomplished photographer. Why did you not take the photos for the book?
A. I gently proposed that to my publisher at the start, and Ten Speed nixed that idea pronto. I was okay with it, because frankly, taking and editing all those photos is a lot of work. Plus I value the work of professional photographers, so I was happy to let someone who does that for a living take care of it, so I could concentrate on the recipes and writing the stories. (That said, I do take pictures of everything that I am cooking and put them on a Flickr page, so I — and readers — can refer to them later on. It’s not possible to show every recipe, technique, and step in a book. But I can do it there.)
After I saw the cookbook My Sweet Mexico, I wanted the photographer, Ed Anderson to shoot my book, because I knew he would be good at getting the nitty-gritty on the pages: the flour-dusted countertops at bakeries, the faded bistros with hunched-over waiters, the expansive boulevards and the river Seine in Paris. And he’s particularly good at getting shots of crisp ends, dark chocolates, and vibrant herbs that make French cuisine so universally appealing, in his photographs.
Another thing about having a photographer to work with you is that they bring something else to the project. It’s nice to look at the city and my food through someone else’s eyes. The first day I met Ed, he was so laid-back (and I’m so energetic) I wasn’t sure if it would work. But we complimented each other and got along great. When we got into my kitchen and started shooting the book, it was a pleasure to see how he saw my cooking through his lens.
Q. Your voice is different in the book than in the blog. Did you write it differently, or is it the result of an edit? If the former, why did you want it that way?
A. I always think that books should be written different than blogs, with a more timeless voice. If you look at old blog posts, as I sometimes do, they are a bit wilder and unrestrained. I don’t feel that way when I read my older books because they’re written in a somewhat different voice.
But even though many food bloggers are trying to do showcase blogs, with Pinterest-worthy pictures, I still like the fact that you can pretty much go wild on a blog, without an editor hovering over you, telling you that you can’t write about a spider attack in a recipe for ice cream (true story), or that a story about becoming physically excited about a recipe is perhaps “too much.”
I’ve always had to push back gently with editors. They don’t like it when I use contractions, or a word like “Er…” in a headnote. But I do feel that you should write like you talk in both a book and a blog. And I felt like the book was saying something a little more important than my blog and the voice needed to be more upstanding. Also people who read my blog know that if I write something silly that I observe about Paris or Parisians, that it’s often balanced with something more serious in another post. Whereas people who pick up the book might not know the longer backstory behind it. So I was trying to be slightly more magnanimous, while still keeping it funny and lighthearted.
A blog is an online diary so the voice will be friendlier, and more immediate. Our voices change over time and I want to be able to pick up My Paris Kitchen in ten years and look at it as a mature, balanced story of my life and my cooking, at a certain place in time.
Q. Even though the voice is a little different, your sense of humor comes through, writing about les happy hours in bars at predawn hours, your dislike of whole wheat bagels, and how everything probably tastes smoked to Parisians. How do you get the humor down on the page?
A. It begins with honesty, and just being real and relatable. Comedians like Wanda Sykes and Jerry Seinfeld talk about everyday situations that are kinda wacky. I find the same absurdities. So when I walk into a café for a coffee and a croissant in the morning, and find people lined up at the bar, pulling back a few glasses of wine to start the day, I find it a cultural oddity. (Although a few days, I’ve been tempted.)
In another case, I learned that there is an official organization in France that certifies who makes the best hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes the material just writes itself.
Q. You’ve got a heck of a promotion schedule. Are you trying anything different than the last time?
A. Many years ago, I used to do cooking school tours, which meant teaching demonstration or hands-on cooking classes in the evenings. My day would begin at 6 a.m., gulping down coffee from that little pot in the hotel room’s bathroom, standing in long lines at airports, arriving and setting up a three-hour demonstration, cooking an entire dessert menu, then going back to my hotel room to collapse in bed, then waking up the next day at 6 a.m. to do it again. Whew!
I’m older now and I can’t do that anymore. (In fact, just talking about it wipes me out.) Nowadays, I like to meet people, so I’m going to do events where I can chat with people, participate in question-and-answer sessions, and preside over dinners (with a demonstration of certain dishes), in a more relaxed environment. I have to leave extra time for photos now, because folks are so into taking snapshots and sharing them, which is fine.
Q. I know this is a different topic, but you have an amazing number of Twitter followers. What is your secret?
A. Twitter has become a blur of links and #s, and as much as people think it helps “spread the word” and drive traffic, I think people just scroll right past all those things. I only occasionally link to things, and very rarely use hashtags.
Honesty and sincerity are always the best policies if you are trying to attract people (unless you’re a douchebag, then you’re better off keeping that under wraps). When I read articles about “social media strategy,” I want to crawl up into a little ball and cry. If that’s how people think their time is best spent, that’s fine.
Friends and followers do want to know when I have a new recipe on my site, or when I’m appearing somewhere. But I’m more into having fun, and chatting with people, or sharing things that I truly find interesting rather than trying to build numbers. As I’ve said before, I could simply post pictures of croissants and macarons all day and get a lot more followers, but making and eating them is not my entire life.
I try to keep all my social media streams as naturally flowing as possible. Because life is no fun if you’re doing what you think you should be doing, rather than what you truly want to be doing.
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