Category Archives: WRITING

The man who wrote Kitchen Confidential

 

“And in that unforgettably sweet moment, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” that followed – first sex, first joint, first day in high school, first published book – I attained glory.”

So wrote Anthony Bourdain in the first chapter of his best-selling 2000 memoir about what it’s really like to work in New York restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

The news yesterday that he had died aged just 61 shocked me. But what shocked me even more was that it he had committed suicide. It seems he had hung himself.

He was found in his hotel room in the village of Kaysersberg in the Alsace region of France by friend and celebrity chef Eric Ripert.  The two of them were there to film a TV series.

Bourdain, like Keith Floyd, Marco Pierre White, Rick Stein and others, played a huge part in making cooking attractive and food, to quote Bourdain again, “something other than a substance one stuffed into one’s face when hungry – like filling up at a gas station”.

I must have read Kitchen Confidential a dozen times. It’s not just a fantastic book about what goes on in professional kitchens. It’s also brilliantly written. Indeed, that first chapter, where he travels to France as a child with his parents, is a masterclass in writing the opening to a memoir. He says so much in so few words and provides such sensual and evocative images.

After the phenomenal success of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain quit working as a chef and embarked on a writing and TV career.  He published follow-up books to Kitchen Confidential and also novels and made a string of TV shows, which often saw him in some far flung corner of the world eating sheep’s testicles or ants’ eggs.

I have to confess that I never found his TV programmes as engaging as those of Keith Floyd or Rick Stein. I felt Bourdain lacked their warmth and humour. I don’t think he was  a natural in front of the camera. Nevertheless, the programmes were hugely popular.

But it’s Kitchen Confidential I shall always remember him for. I end with another quote.  “They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s, while outside, in the nearly unmanned kitchen, orders spewed out of the chattering printer and were ignored.”

Another of my favourite writers died recently, Tom Wolfe. He was 88 and died of natural causes. The manner of Bourdain’s death is deeply sad. Despite all his success and, as he once said, being paid loads of money to travel around the world and do anything he wanted, away from the TV cameras, he must have been deeply troubled and in lots of emotional pain. Throughout much of his life he had battled with various demons. This demons hadn’t gone away, it seems.

Anthony Bourdain, rest in peace.

The Man Behind the Menu

My first novel, The Man Behind the Menu, will be published in the next few weeks.

It’s  a satire on the world of celebrity chefs and the often crazy London restaurant scene.

Writing it has been both hard and fun. It’s been hard because, like any first time novelist, you have to grapple with developing characters, creating a plot, coming up with sharp dialogue, and fleshing out your themes. At times, trying to master all these things has felt overwhelming, and more than once I was tempted to give up.

Yet there have been moments when writing it has been great fun when I’ve allowed my imagination to run riot and lampoon some of the aspects of celebrity culture and the hospitality business.

 

 

 

Too much media content

Am I the only person that feels we are being saturated with so much media? So much social media, so many apps, so much online news, so many web sites, podcasts, radio stations, music, Instagram photos. And then we have DVDs, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, video games…The list goes on. It can all feel overwhelming.

Writing in the latest edition of The Author, George Walkley, head of digital at Hachette, says that 1,000 news apps are published every day and over 50 hours of new video are uploaded to You Tube every second. That’s mind boggling!

And if you earn your living as an author, it’s depressing.  That book you have laboured over for months, put your heart and soul into , has to compete not just with other books, but with all this other content vying for people’s attention.

Walkley goes on, “Technology changes almost every aspect of consumption. Ofcom research shows that on average we spend more time consuming media than sleeping, made possible by ubiquitous access to smartphones and online content, and habitual multi-tasking.”

And the really scary thing is that the internet is still just a baby. What will it be like in ten years? Or even five years?

My own strategy for coping with all this content is to filter, to select what I’m interested in and not feel I have to access the latest this or that.  I’m not interested if something has “gone viral”, nor am I interested in the latest “You Tube sensation”.  These claims usually refer to something that is totally banal and will be forgotten a week later.

Yes, all this content can feel overwhelming, but we don’t have to be overwhelmed. We can choose.

Success can come late for authors

Frank McCourt: a late starter

Frank McCourt: a late starter

If you’re a writer, you dream of the day one of your books will become a best seller. You imagine when your phone never stops ringing with interview requests from journalists, TV producers asking you to appear on chat shows, agents wanting to sign you up.

But for the vast majority of writers this dream will remain just a dream. According to a report from the International Publishers Association, UK publishers released 184,000 new and revised titles in 2013. That’s a staggering amount.

With such a crowded market place, getting noticed and finding readers becomes harder. Only a small number of books become genuine best sellers and find there way into the front of Waterstone’s and on to the shelves of airport bookshops.

However, there is no definition on what constitutes a best seller. Does it mean a book that sells over 20,000 copies, 50,000, 100,000? I think some publishers play fast and loose with this term. It’s seen as a good marketing tool to get a book noticed.

When my biography of Pope Benedict XVI was published in 2005 I was disappointed that the print run was only 5,000. I thought that it would be far higher. The book sold out, but the publishers didn’t do a second print run. They knew that the book had a limited time span. Its moment had passed.

At the time, I didn’t think 5,000 copies was an impressive sales figure, but now I think it was pretty good. Many books don’t sell more than a few hundred copies. Some don’t make it to three figures.

So if you’ve been writing books for many years, as I have done, and have only achieved very modest success, you might be tempted as you move through middle age to think your chance of producing a best seller has gone.

But it might not have. Success for an author can come late in his or her career. For proof of this, look at Frank McCourt, whose memoir of his Irish childhood became a huge best seller, won him awards, and spawned an equally successful movie.

“In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a Johnny-come-lately, a new kid on the block,” he wrote in is introduction to his third memoir, Teacher Man. “My first book, Angela’s Ashes, was published when I was sixty-nine…I never expected Angela’s Ashes to attract any attention, but when it hit the best seller lists I became a media darling.”

McCourt is not the only author to make it big late in life. Raymond Chandler didn’t make it until he was 51 when he published his first novel, The Big Sleep. Richard Adams was also in his fifties when Watership Down came out. Flora Thompson was 63 when she published the first volume of her semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy. And Mary Wesley waited until she was 71 to publish her first novel for adults.

So us authors in middle age can still dream as we sit tapping away at our keyboard and struggling to put sentences together. The most unlikely books can sometimes become best sellers, as can the most unlikely people.

The challenge of self publishing

The Long Road Out of Town is now in one of Amazon's massive warehouses.

The Long Road Out of Town is now in one of Amazon’s massive warehouses.

 

It’s only when you self-publish a book that you realise all the work that has to go into making it available to readers. All my other books were taken care of by publishers. With The Long Road Out of Town I’ve had to do everything from hiring a copy editor and illustrator to finding a printer and undertaking all the sales and marketing work.

Sales and marketing have been the toughest part. After all the time I’ve spent trying to understand the nuts and bolts of the Amazon Advantage programme I should be an expert. But I’m not. I still find Amazon’s different sales programmes (Advantage, Advantage Professional, Pro Merchant, FBA, Vendor Central, Seller Central) very confusing.

What has surprised me is how much time all of this takes. I’ve spent most of this week sending out press releases, flagging up the book on Twitter and Facebook, and packing and posting copies of the book. After not long returning from a jiffy bag run at one of the discount shops in the high street, I’m shortly heading to the post office.

And now the book is making its way into the world, like a small child, you wonder how many people will be interested in it and whether those who buy it will think it’s any good.

I’m delighted there’s interest in the Wirksworth and Matlock area of Derbyshire, where I grew up. This is a part of England that hardly ever makes it into the pages of a memoir. I hope I’ve managed to evoke what it was like growing up there in the 1970s, well at least what it was like for me.

So, despite all the hard work involved in self-publishing, would I do it again? Yes. I’m about to start work on a memoir about my career in journalism.