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Great Food & Travel Writer Influences


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#1 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 08:00 PM

During the Round Table Ellen Shapiro asked a question about great food & travel writers who had influenced Robb and the panel. Robb answered at some length, but said he could go on and on...so perhaps he will here. And we didn't get to hear from Ellen herself or Russ Parsons, so I hope you two will fill us in on those who have influenced you and in what ways. And John Whiting mentioned John Thorne, but any others you care to point out as important to you as key influences?

#2 russ parsons

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Posted 10 February 2004 - 10:20 PM

boy, that's a real tough one since i try to be influenced by everyone and no one. it took a brief but embarrassing infatuation with the mfk fisher style to learn that lesson. when i think about the writers who have influenced me most, they're the people i've actually worked with. right now, i'd credit charlie perry, who taught me to apply to food writing the kind of intellectual rigor that is expected in other fields, and ruth reichl, who taught me not to be afraid to go beyond the obvious story. i've also learned a tremendous amount from my buddy matt kramer, who thinks he's a wine writer (but so much more), and merle haggard, who remains the shining example of how to write a simple sentence that works.

#3 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 12:44 AM

I grew up in a working-class family without the means to travel much beyond the annual trip where the whole family piled into our old Checker station-wagon and we drove out to the Grand Canyon. In order to travel overseas, I saved my babysitting money, I worked at Crazy Eddie's selling microwave ovens, and I sold chains-by-the-inch from a shopping-mall jewelry kiosk. So I've always been acutely aware of the economic aspect of travel -- it's not something I ever took for granted. I was always looking to get bang for my buck, but I also had a strong interest in the anthropological aspects of travel -- so going around Europe with a backpack wasn't the experience I was after.

Arthur Frommer was the one who put it all together for me. His Arthur Frommer's New World of Travel was one of the most influential books I've ever read, not so much because of its style as for what it taught: that you can travel well and cheaply, yet get a far better cultural experience than those who stay in fancy hotels. Arthur was really the first significant author to publicize homestays, overlanding, volunteer vacations, cooperative camping, and the like . . . and I did them all.

After two marketing jobs in book publishing (at Random House and Simon & Schuster, where I was manager of academic marketing), I took time off to travel through about 15 countries in Africa and to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. When I got home, I wrote to Arthur Frommer and told him about the influence he had had on my life and the way I travel. At that time, he was just launching his magazine, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, and he hired me to be on staff. That was when I went from being a traveler to being a travel writer.

Ultimately, working as a magazine editor and staff writer wasn't for me, so now I occasionally freelance for Arthur but I mostly work on books (my most recent book, about buying furniture in North Carolina, is based on an article I did for Budget Travel) and travel in between in the hopes of placing freelance travel pieces here and there. But my time at Budget Travel really established the framework for what I wanted to do with my travel writing career: I wanted to inspire people to travel in unusual, active, interesting ways -- much as Robb Walsh does, coming from a somewhat different direction.

Stylistically, nobody has had more influence on me than Mark Twain. Not that I try to emulate his writing, and not that I could, but his powers of observation and irreverent outlook as displayed in, for example, The Innocents Abroad, were tremendously helpful in showing me the possibilities. One of my ambitions is to do a real-time travel blog from a ship, using the satellite Internet connections that are now available. It actually may happen next year.

Possibly more than anything else, though, I'm influenced by children's books. I devour them. There's a purity of voice, language, and concept in the best children's books that is more sophisticated than much of what passes for grown-up writing. Those who write children's books need to be extremely careful about how they view and discuss reality, because kids are totally unforgiving in that regard. They won't overlook flaws. I've actually written a book about children's book publishing, and as a result people often ask me if I've written children's books. Which is a bit like asking a restaurant reviewer if he went to cooking school: it's not exactly the relevant qualification. But though I don't write children's books, I like to think they inform my style in that I always try just to tell it like it is. You can't fool kids.

I read widely in the food press but haven't found many food writers who have made it into my top tier of influences. Calvin Trillin might be the only one, if you consider him to be a food writer. For me at least, I enjoy his other writing more. Like Twain, he's such a keen observer. For me, it's all about observation.

I hope everybody -- not just those on the panel, not just those who write for a living -- will answer this question. Maybe it will help me figure out what to read on my next vacation!
Ellen Shapiro
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#4 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 02:19 PM

Ellen -- Thanks for your unique perspective. What about other fine travel writers in addition to Mr. Clemens -- many if not most who write about travel deal with food, farms, fishing, hunting, cooking and eating as part of that. All of such writing I would see as potentially relevant influences.

Russ -- I think both the imitation and the embarrassment are a fairly common path for most writers. Imitation is a powerful way of learning as a step in developing your own style as a writer. Actually, it's common in most arts, crafts, sciences and other professions. You try on different voices, keep a little bit of this, throw out that, and end up with something that is you.

John Whiting -- I asked in my first post, and still wonder, if you are aware of any other significant influences, in addition to John Thorne?


And for everyone -- what about any influences from fiction and poetry?

#5 John Whiting

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Posted 14 February 2004 - 12:32 PM

The writers I come back to most often are those whose company is like a good dinner in which the conversation predominates over the food. John Thorne, Waverley Root, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, A.J. Liebling, John & Karen Hess – they are all writers whose eyes and ears are as observant as their palates.

So far as fiction and poetry are concerned, I’m naturally drawn to the writers I spent most time over at university, as both undergrad and graduate – poets Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams; novelists Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover; critics Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Rexroth, Hugh Kenner. They were all writers who declared their literary independence from England as definitively as their forebears had asserted their political independence.
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#6 Jonathan Day

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Posted 14 February 2004 - 12:54 PM

Possibly more than anything else, though, I'm influenced by children's books. I devour them. There's a purity of voice, language, and concept in the best children's books that is more sophisticated than much of what passes for grown-up writing. Those who write children's books need to be extremely careful about how they view and discuss reality, because kids are totally unforgiving in that regard. They won't overlook flaws. I've actually written a book about children's book publishing, and as a result people often ask me if I've written children's books. Which is a bit like asking a restaurant reviewer if he went to cooking school: it's not exactly the relevant qualification. But though I don't write children's books, I like to think they inform my style in that I always try just to tell it like it is. You can't fool kids.

That was a treat to read, and I agree 100%. There are a few adult writers who give themselves to the story the way that the best childrens' writers do (E Nesbit and P L Travers come to mind) but very few. I would put Robertson Davies on this list, and of course Mark Twain. It's a short list, though.

Michael Ruhlman's food writing has some of this quality for me, though his style isn't always as clean as it could be. And I love Elizabeth David's writing, though there is a coyness about it that can grate. John Thorne definitely. I enjoy reading John and Karen Hess, but somewhat in the same way it can be fun to read "train wreck" threads on eGullet: sooner or later, you know that they are going to rip into someone: Claiborne, Pepin, Julia Child ...
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#7 John Whiting

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 03:32 AM

Children’s literature as a separate genre is only a couple of hundred years old, as recent in fact as the invention of childhood itself. In primitive societies children were required to reach maturity as early as they were physically capable of doing so; nature’s intentions (if any) may be surmised from the age at which humans are capable of productive intercourse.

The Dutch psychologist J. H. van den Berg puts it succinctly: “Pedagogic manuscripts of the past do not contain anything on the nature of the relationship between old and young.” Early maturation was the inevitable result of children having no choices to make as to the direction their lives would take; girls became wives, boys did what their fathers had done, so that what we call childhood was simply a period of apprenticeship. We see this today in war-torn societies in which options disappear and young children use small arms as skillfully as their elders.

In modern society, the right of choice has been capitalized to the point where every narrow band of childhood and adolescence has a whole industry attached to it which sells dedicated products. Children’s books are as carefully age-targetted as clothes and popular culture; teachers are given bibliographies telling them which titles should be introduced at each grade.

Concomitant with this worship of childhood has been the artifical postponement of maturity and even a regression into a state of mind in which good and evil may be clearly delineated. Much of today’s most popular literature consists of books nominally addressed to children but really aimed at adults who are desperate to have their world shifted back into an ethically simplified prehistory. The film industry has moved massively in this direction. Even Presidential campaigns are conducted at this level.
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#8 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 06:15 AM

Not that there's anything wrong with that! :laugh:

Many forms of literature are relatively new as separate genres: the novel comes to mind as the most prominent example, and of course food writing itself is a new category. There is even a small amount of food writing targeted at children, such as the wonderful books by Grace Lin: Dim Sum for Everyone, and The Ugly Vegetables. I'd love to see more of that. It's also interesting that much of ancient literature -- e.g., Aesop's fables, Gilgamesh, even the Odyssey -- is often categorized as children's literature today, probably because of its didactic nature. The current adult penchant for children's literature may very well exist because of the dearth of great, colorful, didactic literature in the adult category.

For the record: I'm in favor of childhood. :raz:
Ellen Shapiro
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