How to become a travel writer/ food journalist interview with the author of Barolo, Matthew Gavin Frank.
Matthew Gavin Frank writes about food, he writes about wine. Matthew Gavin Frank travels, too. Combined together, he makes up his bean money as a traveling food journalist. He is also an author, his book, Barolo — a memoir of his season of grunt work in a vineyard in rural Italy — was just published by the University of Nebraska Press.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of “Barolo” (The University of Nebraska Press), a food memoir based on his illegal work in the Italian wine industry. His poetry manuscript, “Sagittarius Agitprop” is available from Black Lawrence Press. His poetry manuscript, “Warranty in Zulu” is forthcoming from Barrow Street Press. He is also the author of the chapbooks “Four Hours to Mpumalanga” (Pudding House Publications), a poetry sequence about his initial visit to his wife’s homeland in rural South Africa, and “Aardvark” (West Town Press), a poetry sequence that strangely engages the alphabet.Recent work appears in The New Republic, Field, Epoch, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, The Best Food Writing 2006, The Best Travel Writing (2008 and 2009), Creative Nonfiction, Gastronomica, Plate Magazine, and others. –http://matthewgfrank.com/
I wondered how he did it.
How does this guy manage to make a living off of eating, drinking wine, traveling, and writing?
So I asked him.
I was once told when I was a journalism student that if I wanted to make a living in the profession that I should write about food. As you can see, I did not heed my lessons — and now I’m blogging for nickels and pawning off on-spec articles for a penance — but you do write about food, and it seems as if you’ve made quite a successful niche for yourself. I am curious to find out how you came into food journalism and how you managed to blend it in with traveling?
I think I was always drawn to some sort of traveling. As a kid, I always went out of my way to find new shortcuts between places on my bicycle—a new park, patch of prairie, dogless backyard, junior high school track field penetrable only via a small opening in a chain link fence, stretch of train track. This was the early manifestation of the travel bug—which carries as its main symptom curiosity, the desire to snap oneself from a comfort zone. I loved the specific things that I’d find while taking such short-, and sometimes, long-cuts—these windows into an alternative way of living, the lives behind the windows. The glass shards of broken King Cobra 40-ouncers and BB-shot beer cans, the abandoned pair of blue jeans, the Bon Jovi cassette tape so sun blistered it wouldn’t play anymore, the tube of sexy red lipstick. Finding these hidden places and secret things in the neighborhood, as a kid, was as close to foreign travel as I could get then, and it woke in me that restless wanderlust.
Later, I spent over 15 years in the restaurant industry, a few of which were devoted to sommelier work. These shifts typically opened with extensive tastings and workshops with fellow winos. I was surrendering to new flavors and trying to make some sense of them, trying to uncover the words through which I could transfer such ephemeral experience. It’s my job as a writer to lend (hopefully relevant) concrete imagery to the ephemeral. But sometimes I can go overboard, and must dial these descriptions back. I remember once describing a sip of champagne as tasting like “Andromeda’s dirty sheets,” or a bite of celery as “an umbrella opening.” Yikes! My job as a taster, on the other hand, mostly consists of moaning.
What is the process that you go through when writing an article about traveling or food from start to finish? How to you select a location to travel to? Do you select the topics for your articles, or are they more or less assigned? What is your modus operandi, do you just walk around a new place looking for a story, or is everything set up in advance of your arrival?
To answer the last portion of the question: Oh, no! I’m notoriously horrible with foresight, and almost never is something set up in advance. When traveling, I talk to a lot of people. I eavesdrop, waiting, perhaps, for a story to reveal itself. I sit in one place for a while and observe—be it a café or bus stop or museum or library or pear orchard. Then, sometimes, I try to muster the courage to talk to them, perhaps insinuate myself into their lives. When I was living in Barolo, Italy, out of that tent for six months, I frequented certain butcher shops and restaurants and bakeries over and over again until the butcher or chef or baker started asking questions. One thing led to another and soon, I scored a number of apprenticeships. In Barolo, I stood out as this goofy, awkward American guy who, to many of the residents it seemed, was in need of some kind of mothering. People took me in. It was very fortunate. The residents of Barolo and I seemed to have our nodes aligned at the right time, and we formed an uncanny relationship—it was like finding a significant other, a lifelong lover.
What advice do you have for a person who aspires to go into travel journalism? Where should they get started? How should they start publishing their articles? Should they apply for regular work, or just write on spec until they have made a name for themselves?
Oh man, if there were a prescription, that would be fantastic. I can’t really provide advice with any measure of confidence—I’d feel too Buddha-on-the-mountain-toppy, which is a costume I don’t wear too well. I’ve heard from others that interning is a good way to start, but I didn’t go that route. All I can do is give an example of what worked for me: For instance, In Italy, I was able to stay as long as I did only by working and sleeping in that tent. I was paid in food and wine (supplemented with a very small stipend—enough for bus fare, bread, and the occasional truffle). I kept a very loose travel journal in a series of spiral notebooks purchased from the local tobacco shop, writing mostly in the evenings, at an outdoor table, with cold hands, because I didn’t have a bed then.
When my wife and I were later seduced, on a road trip around the States, by the desert Southwest, we pulled up stakes and, again, looked to our tent. We lived for the summer out of that Coleman Cimarron, camping for free along the ski valley road outside of Taos, New Mexico. We bought this environmentally-friendly soap and shampoo and bathed in the Hondo River, which was frigid, fed by melting snow running from the mountains. We dried off in this makeshift arena of lawn-and-leaf bags that we tied up in a circle of trees. Once a week, we would splurge, drive to the hostel in Arroyo Seco, pay the six bucks apiece and take a proper shower. After cooking breakfast on our propane stove, I would spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon accessing those Italy notebooks, and writing longhand at the picnic table in a new spiral notebook, while Louisa would hike in the mountains. Then, we’d go wait tables at night. This was how I wrote the first draft of BAROLO.
Eventually, I began submitting sections of the manuscript-in-progress to various publications I enjoyed reading and that may be a good fit for the work (sometimes preceded by query letter). I always had “regular” work throughout, and still do—from janitor, to busboy, to ice cream truck driver, to pool cleaner, to chef, to avant garde catering company owner… Today, I still supplement my writing life by teaching creative writing at a university here in Michigan. I suppose the most advice-y thing I can say is: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while.
What advice do you have for someone who aims to publish their first book about traveling? Do you recommend self-publishing or do you think it is better to try the old fashioned route of sending out manuscripts to publishers with a prayer attached?
If one is passionate about the work, the writing, the art of eating and traveling, there shouldn’t be any big rush. It’s an industry rife with rejection, yes, but also subjectivity. Eventually, if you work at your craft, hone it, evolve, solicit advice and accept some of it, and reject some of it, an editor somewhere, at some time, will like what you’re doing. Of course, before contacting agents or editors, do some research about them, and the things they like to see in a query letter (which should never exceed a page). Look to publish in small journals and magazines to get your name out there.
Oftentimes, there’s a process. These small publications—sometimes years-worth—typically precede a book publication. So I like the old fashioned route because there’s a measure of quality control there, however skewed and insular and clique-y at times. A writer should crave a discerning audience and their critique. It stimulates growth. Folks who run magazines, whether print or online, know this. I submitted a number of things to small non-paying journals (and still do…) before I ever tried to seek out an agent and an editor at a press, amassing closets full of rejection letters. But eventually, a few things began to hit. And then a few more. And those rejection letters make for wonderful, relatively clean-burning fires over which to cook your barbecue ribs.
BAROLO went through a series of revisions before it was published. If I rushed it, didn’t allow any time for digestion and reflection, and just went ahead and self-published it, the manuscript would have been lesser for it. And if one feels that they are writing something that is a little offbeat and un-commercial, there are a wealth of independent presses that love that kind of thing. NewPages.com is a great website to explore for this. You’re not alone. Writing, at a certain stage in the process, if it intends to supersede the diary, is not necessarily a lonely, “self” kind of thing. Going through a press, whether big or small, and an editor is a great way burst the work out of the confines of YOU. Most writing demands this feedback and dialogue and community and process, which the “self” part of “self-publishing” doesn’t always allow for. In this way, a piece can become its own entity, can have a life outside of the writer. That said: if self-publishing is the only way to get the work out there (it usually isn’t for the patient), it’s better than leaving the stack of pages in the underwear drawer, depending, of course, on the underwear. Many great writers have become successful in this way too.
Matthew Gavin Frank eats, drinks, and writes his way around the world. He gets paid, too. I was honored to have this opportunity to interview him about how an aspiring traveling writer could make a living in food/ travel journalism, or even publish a book of their own travel memoirs. In travel, it is always good to ask about the road ahead from those who have traveled before you — thank you, Matthew, for sharing your notes on how to tramp the trail of the professional travel writer.
For thoses interested in pursueing the work of Matthew Gavin Franck, his website is www.matthewgfrank.com. His new book, Barolo, can be purchased through the University of Nebraska link below or the Amazon affiliate product link to the left.