David Downie is a native San Franciscan who moved to Paris in the 1980s and divides his time between France and Italy. His travel, food and arts features have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Gastronomica,the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, and the Sunday Times of London. He’s is the author of two thrillers — most recently Paris City of Night — and a dozen nonfiction books. Among them are Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, reissued in 2011 by Broadway Books in the prestigious “Armchair Traveler” series. Called “perhaps the most evocative American book about Paris since A Moveable Feast,” by travel-writing legend Jan Morris, it includes photographs of Paris by Alison Harris and a foreword by Diane Johnson. Also new for 2011 is Quiet Corners of Rome, a handsome illustrated travel book with short sketches by Downie and photos by Harris. It celebrates more than sixty of the most beautiful, tranquil, and often hidden places in the Eternal City. Downie’s three Food Wine Terroir Guides continue to garner critical acclaim and a worldwide readership. Cooking the Roman Way was selected as among the best cookbooks of the year by the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is now available as an e-book.
How did you get started traveling?
I’m an accidental, perhaps even a reluctant traveler: I generally don’t enjoy the actual transportation phase of travel, especially flying. Once upon a time, when I first was diagnosed with travel fever, I loved everything — the lousy airplane food, the take-offs and landings, especially in a DC-3, the overnight train journeys where sleep deprivation was the watchword. Blame my parents: my father edited the leisure section of the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1950s and 60s, before there was an official “travel” section. We did a lot of domestic traveling, usually to test-drive new cars or campers. Then in the mid-1960s my mother, an eccentric Italian woman now in her 80s, decided it was time to move the family back to Italy, her country of origin. So I became an overnight Italian, and discovered that wonderful, crazy place by car and train, as we moved up and down the peninsula, rejected by one set of relatives after another. I loved the journey, the movement, the newness, the fact that what I saw, smelled and tasted was so utterly different from what I’d known in San Francisco. I’ve never been able to stand still since, and actually become very uncomfortable and agitated if I stay more than a few weeks in one place.
How did you get started writing?
In the early 1980s my first novel was roundly rejected by New York publishers. I had no money left, I was living in a maid’s room in Paris, and I had to make ends meet. So I began working as a translator and freelance writer. I picked up a series of small assignments, and spun them into bigger and bigger assignments. And here I am, twenty years later, still living in Paris, not in a maid’s room, but still making my living as a freelancer. I’ve published half a dozen books on cooking and travel. Oh, of course I lied to get my first magazine assignment. I told the editor of a now-defunct magazine that I’d written many articles, but didn’t happen to have any copies of them, and would he allow me to write a piece on spec? He did. That was life in pre-computer days.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I’m still waiting for a real break, or a breakthrough, I suppose I should say. But that’s unfair. I guess my break came in the late 1980s when I got the job to translate and contribute to a series of guide books for a French company called Gault et Millau. I learned all there was to know at the time about the French restaurant scene. I also did their Italy guide, and learned a lot in general. Guidebooks are great for cutting teeth. I used the Gault et Millau experience to get other jobs. But I didn’t get into the glossy magazine racket until I managed to convince an editor that I’d been behind several feature pieces published in his magazine by a well-known New York writer. In fact I’d researched and in part written the stories, and could prove it.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Wherever you go, people like to give you the “good news” story. The “truth”, such as it is, doesn’t feature high on the lists of restaurateurs, hoteliers, guides, tourist officers, PR agents and such like. I listen to the “official” version then go out and decide for myself. There’s a wonderful expression in Italian: bisogna sentire tutte le campane. Literally, it means you really ought to listen to all the bells as they ring in all the churches. Everyone, not just Italians, has his favorite church tower, literally and metaphorically. In the end, as a fact-gatherer and checker, it’s up to you to make sure what you report corresponds to your best guess of reality and the “truth”.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I think I’ve answered the research question above: how to get a clear picture of reality. Add to that, the difficulty of getting interviews with certain people, famous and not. Some people simply do not wish to be interviewed or quoted. Some businesses do not want to provide information, usually because they have something to hide, but sometimes because the owner is paranoid. Industrial espionage is a big problem these days. Chefs often don’t want to give you a recipe, or they give you one that doesn’t work. The Italians and French in particular are terrified of the tax man, so they’re capable to denying you access to all sorts of places, people and things. The writing process is the challenge, a constant challenge. The lede (or lead, for the uninitiated) is key, for me, to getting the piece underway. Once I’ve got that first paragraph I can go forward. Sometimes I go back and toss out the paragraph, in fact I often do that. But I’ve just got to get it down. I know other writers who have to write all the dialogue first, or the descriptive material. But for me it’s the lede. And remember the Who, Why, Where, When and How — in whatever order it works best for you. You need to answer those five questions up front, in early paragraphs, preferably in the first graf.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
The biggest challenge for a freelancer living abroad, and earning his living in America, is to keep in close touch with the men and women commissioning the articles or books and signing the checks. I’m unusual in that I have no hatred for editors; my father was an excellent editor. I sometimes edit work for others. We all need editors. They are individuals. Some are wonderful, others are tyrannical, many are frustrated writers. All have budgetary constraints, and their jobs sometimes ride on the quality of your work. Finances are difficult, yes, but then they would be, wouldn’t they, for everyone? I try to keep my overhead low. It’s the only way to survive as a freelancer. Keep it low but don’t become a junket junkie or PR whore — your bad reputation will catch up with you. And never sign your rights away for a buck. Fight to keep the rights to what you write — your work is your stock in trade. Promotion is a huge challenge. We could all do with a PR flak. However, you’ll find that you are your own best drum-beater, horn-blower and so forth. Don’t ever depend on professional PR folks to do the whole job. View them as assistants in the struggle to get name recognition for your product. You are your product.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’ve translated books and reports, and done some interpreting. Right now I’m starting to supplement my incoming by giving high-end private tours of Paris. But my income has long been, and I assume will continue to be generated by my writing. I’m not, by the way, a “travel writer”. I’m a writer, period. I’ve published a crime novel. My agent is shopping around a thriller I’ve managed to write between assignments. All writing, as long as it’s honest and doesn’t involve telling lies for Big Business, is legit if you ask me.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I am not a habitual reader of travel books. I read books, period. Classics. Literature. Of course the Illiad and the Odyssey are travel books, aren’t they? And isn’t Dante’s Divine Comedy ultimately a travel book? Doctor Zhivago? Dostoevsky’s White Nights, Lawrence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy — right on up through Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare or Celine’s Long voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)— I could go on and on. In terms of straight travel, I still love Jan Morris’ Venice — a fabulous piece of work. Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines is brilliant and moving. Lawrence Durrell’s quirky, odd Sicilian Carousel is another — black humor throughout. Bruce Chatwin was an extremely talented writer, who happened to write essays and other works involving travel. I would recommend anything he wrote. My vision is less clear when it comes to recent travel books. I’m allergic to flippancy, am not cynical despite the current mood engendered by our political debacles, and the commercial quality of so much travel writing these days I find terribly off putting.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
If you listen to that advice, and if anyone can convince you to not become a writer, well, you shouldn’t even attempt to take on the challenge. It’s a hard life. The pay is ridiculously bad. You are less free than you think — mainsteam magazines and newspapers are published for a profit, not to indulge the creativity of contributors. Writing is a job. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either a rare genius or a fool. Oh, and be prepared to work for months, sometimes years, without earning a thing on your writing. If you still want to write, no one will be able to stop you and sooner or later— and it might be later — you’ll get into print and possibly make a living one day.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Meeting people. That sounds trite. It isn’t. You meet wonderful and awful types everywhere. If they were all wonderful wouldn’t life be dull? The nastiest, meanest types are often the most interesting. That goes for your fellow professionals: writers, PR flaks, editors, publishers. A motley crew. When I write about food I often wind up liking the growers, the farmers, the ranchers best of all, and the craftspeople, the artisans, the people actually doing things, and not just telling others what to do and how to do it. And I wonder, what am I doing? Shouldn’t I be producing something useful, or is it enough to write about those who are and, in a small way, contribute to their success?
[originally posted August 1, 2006; bio updated on March 27, 2011]