David Lebovitz: How Writing a Book is Different than a Blog

Apr 012014
 
Food blogger and cookbook author David Lebovitz. (All photos by Ed Anderson.)

Food blogger and cookbook author David Lebovitz. (All photos by Ed Anderson.)

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?

My-Paris-Kitchen2

David’s new book, My Paris Kitchen.

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.

Cherry tomato crostini with homemade herbed goat cheese

Cherry Tomato Crostini with Homemade Herbed Goat Cheese

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.

salted butter caramel choc mousse

Salted Butter Caramel Chocolate Mousse

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.

Lemon-pistachio Israeli couscous

Lemon-Pistachio Israeli Couscous

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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  43 Responses to “David Lebovitz: How Writing a Book is Different than a Blog”

  1. I have fallen in love with David all over again. Great interview.

  2. Ah, Dianne. Once again you have shared a conversation with us, asking David just the right questions, letting us feel we are at the cafe table with you. Elegant, personal, and illuminating, as always. Thank you.

  3. What a lovely interview – thanks Dianne and David! I’ve always found David to be the ideal match of accessible and professional, which has kept me going back to his blog for years. I can always count on being humored and schooled.

    • Yes, that is a good way to put it, Yasmeen — a combination of being humored and schooled. Perfect!

  4. Loved this interview. He is such a breath of fresh air and his viewpoint on social media and blogs is just what we need instead of obsessing with stats and numbers of followers. Just be authentic and live your life. The rest will follow.
    I heart David Lebovitz! And I need to get his book, pronto.

    • Thank you, Magda. Keep in mind that he is a very hard worker and super talented. So he has been extremely successful just being himself.

      • Great point. Many great cooks/writers/bloggers/photographers don’t have talent at that level.

        I loved this interview and David is so accessible across the board.

        I think you saved the best photo for last! I could eat that Lemon-Pistachio Israeli Couscous for breakfast.

        Happy Monday morning Dianne.

  5. I love what David says about his approach to social media, as I have had a love/hate relationship with the need to have a social media presence since I started writing professionally. Often it feels like such a waste of time. And yet, when someone posts something heartfelt, real and useful, I can see it’s value. David’s humor is what always stands out in his posts.

    Thanks Dianne for a great interview!

    • Annie, my thoughts exactly on David’s social media philosophy. I was just going to say that, too!

      • Apparently it is such a relief to read his philosophy, instead of berating ourselves for not being better at it. I can relate to that too.

    • I just couldn’t help asking him that last question, and it has resonated for people, both here and on Twitter. I think everyone has a love/hate relationship with social media. I hardly ever know what to say. David, on the other hand, seems to always have something to say.

  6. As someone who has lived in France for a gazillion years (and many of them in Paris), I love that David doesn’t romanticize either the city or the people, yet doses the reality with humor. He writes about a France I actually recognize. The photos of these dishes are gorgeous and I am looking forward to reading the stories and seeing what he cooked up for the book! Very good interview!

    • Well thank you Jamie. So as another American living in France, you can validate his experiences, eh? I like the part about the boiled eggs board. Good to know that he is not making this stuff up.

  7. The interview just cemented why I follow his blog and why I have (and use) his books. Lovely interview. The ending remarks on use of social media just sang to my heart.

  8. I can’t wait to get the new book. I love stories; that’s what makes life and a recipe more interesting and personal. I love that you mention writing like you talk. That’s what I do-just don’t know any other way. If the photographs on this post are any indication of the photos in the book, they are gorgeous; my photography is still so lacking, heck, I use my cell phone. This photos are like smellavision. Best wishes for a successful tour and publication.

    • Yes, I have the book and I can vouch for the fact that the photos are this gorgeous! I was kind of surprised that David didn’t take them, but certainly not disappointed, and I can see his point. Re writing like you talk, he must talk in more than one style, because the blog and the book are a little different. ;-)

      I use my cell phone for photos also. For my blog, I think it’s good enough. I was also a photographer earlier in my career so I feel comfortable with composition.

  9. I gifted myself with a copy of The Sweet Life in Paris last year, and it looks like I’ll be treating myself again soon to David’s latest book. He’s such an engaging writer. I’m so pleased to have read your interview with him!

  10. Such a great interview. Thanks for sharing! :)

  11. Honesty is the best part of this interview. I especially liked David’s take on social media. We need more people like him, who take things at his own pace and just enjoys the journey rather than constantly worrying about numbers and popularity. :-)

    Siri

    • Indeed. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game, which is no win. There’s always someone doing better than we are, and then we get upset about not doing enough. None of this sounds like a worthwhile expenditure of energy.

  12. Diane and David, thank you for this most interesting interview. Words of wisdom indeed. Much appreciated.

  13. Thank you for posting this interview, I have read it with great interest. I am in the process of writing my book which has in characters counting, more stories than recipes – coming from a historic point of view. I find it daunting and scary and some days I am so scared I can’t even work on the book. I know my fear is my perfectionism. I want it all to be perfect, for that I mean I want all the historic background to be correct which is a big task, investigating, checking sources and all those things. On top of all that, as a graphic designer, my publisher kindly allowed me to design and layout the book, and as I’m also a photographer, I am also doing the photography, all for which I am payed – luckily. But this makes the book an even more scary project. I am always happy to hear that I am not alone in finding this a hard job. But of course I am so grateful that I am able to write my book.

    • Good lord, Regula, you are doing everything! No wonder it is a daunting task. I have problems with perfectionism too. That’s what’s good about a deadline. It comes and you have to be finished. Best of luck.

  14. Thank you Dianne for a very educative interview. I too, just like Regula, am working on my cookbook and I’m doing everything. But I have let go of being a perfectionist, lol. It’s too stressful. It’s my first cookbook, so any information regarding the experience is helping me a lot. I’m also finishing your “Will Write for Food” book and I’m going to publish my book myself, which I know it’s going to be a lot of work, specially doing my own promotion…Just the thought of it makes me tired already. Lol.

    • I think David struggled with perfectionism too. We all must have it! Yes, the thing about self-publishing is that you have to learn all the parts and presumably master them, which is too much for most people. Best of luck.

  15. I so loved this interview. I have always enjoyed reading accompanying stories to a recipe. It gives them a much more defined time and place for me. I too look forward to finding and reading his new cookbook. :-)

  16. Great interview Dianne. I agree with David re his blog voice being different to his book voice – not that I’ve written a book! However, I’m doing a course at the moment where I’m required to turn my 400-500 word blog posts into 1000 stories. Hardest thing I’ve ever done as it changes the mood of the writing completely. But it’s great for stretching oneself. cheers

    • You have to write 1000 stories? Or do you mean 1000 words? That would change the mood of the writing as well. It’s always good to stretch yourself, even though it’s a bit scary.

    • You have to write 1000 stories? Or do you mean 1000 words? That would change the mood of the writing as well. It’s always good to stretch yourself, even though it’s a bit scary.

  17. What a great read. So many smart questions, as we would expect from a food writing authority. Really enjoyed this!

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