Interview from FOREWORD Magazine
When did you start reading, and what did you like to read as a kid?
I don't know how old I was when I began to read; only that I can't remember not being able to read. As a child, Grimm's Fairy Tales was a constant treasure. So were the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series - my introduction to the notion that a book could be a mystery, a kind of puzzle that I could solve by reading. At eleven, I found Peyton Place in my mother's closet, read it (at eleven, this book was also a mystery to me, just another kind), and then the nuns had a collective heart attack when I brought the book to school. I went back to mysteries I could understand. For years (even after I grasped the "mysteries" in Peyton Place) my favorite sleuth was John D. McDonald's character, Travis Magee. I still have the original paperbacks.
When you were growing up did you have books in your home?
Hundreds. Maybe thousands. So many that we used stacks of books as end tables. Reading was my chief entertainment and that of my sisters, perhaps because my younger brothers kept the TV set broken faster than it could be repaired. But really, the entire family read. My biggest problem was hiding whatever book I was reading so my sisters wouldn't grab it before I'd finished.
When did you think about becoming a writer? Was there someone who got you interested in writing?
Reading books got me interested in writing them. Later, I skipped school during most of my senior year of high school (yes, I still graduated) in order to spend time working crew at the old Gallery Circle Theater in the French Quarter, which was mounting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Tennessee Williams, who was living in New Orleans at the time, would sometimes hang out with us at the theatre.) Seeing the poetry of words come to life was a remarkable experience, and made me certain I wanted to be a writer, but I just wasn't sure I had the talent. I was lured into advertising by the simple but appealing notion of a regular paycheck. I had a fine time in advertising. For years and years. Then one of our clients, the owners of Arnaud's restaurant, asked me to write a cookbook (and history) of this 80-year old New Orleans institution. Short copy for an ad campaign was one thing. Writing a 224-page book was another story. I bit anyway.
How do you write? Do you have a daily routine?
I'm deadline-motivated. I go to sleep fretting over what I need to write the next day. Early morning and late evening are my best (make that "my least interrupted") times for writing. However, in my case, there's another aspect to writing these books. Because the budgets didn't allow for as much photography as I like, I decided to be my own photographer. It's still writing and still just as hard - sometimes harder - but it's writing with pictures instead of words. Thank god for the photographer friends who were so generous with help and advice.
What's good about it?
I like planning a book. I like writing one. I especially like the good friends who are already successful authors, and who are graciously there for me with reality checks, and moral support, and contacts.
What do you hate about it?
Finishing a book tears me up. I continue thinking about how it should have been - and could have been - better. Any particular story to tell concerning the writing of this book? It's the same story again and again. Most people who write cookbooks love to eat. This includes me. It's the best and worst part of the job. First I cooked (and ate) my way through Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook, then New Orleans Classic Desserts, and then New Orleans Classic Seafood, and now I'm in the middle of New Orleans Classic Canapés and Hors d'Oerves. My secret: elastic waists on everything I wear.
What is some good advice that you've received concerning writing? What's some advice that you could offer young writers?
As a copywriter, I learned that a blank page was the enemy, and would get you fired. The same rules apply to longer formats and a blank screen. Get something down, then rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.
How did you find the publisher for this book?
Arnaud's intended to self-publish the Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook, but Pelican Publishing heard about the project, asked for a look at the book, which was still in progress, and made an offer. Following the successful launch of that book, I proposed the New Orleans Classic series. Pelican said yes. What has your experience as an author been like? Frankly, it's been somewhat surreal. Arnaud's Restaurant Cookbook came out just before Katrina did. So my experience as a new author was entirely interwoven with my experience as a citizen of New Orleans. A book is a small thing compared to a hurricane, especially one that's left such a huge hole in the heart of my city and all who live here, and all who don't live here, but still love her. Katrina changed so many lives, mine included. For one thing, it kept me humble. For another, it brought the realization that if I didn't try to do what I loved now, I might never get the chance. I decided to go for it and - at the same time - try to do my small part to remind people everywhere how special this place is; thus, the New Orleans Classic series.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm writing and shooting the next two books in the New Orleans Classic series, and working on another "large" cookbook. I'm also taking a stab at writing a mystery. At last. Too much to take on at once? Probably, but I enjoy working on more than one thing at a time, an old ad-biz habit, I suppose.
What are you reading?
Today? Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick. Yesterday was Sue Grafton's T is for Trespass. Tomorrow I'll re-read Linda Ellerbee's Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table.