Joe Ray is a freelance food and travel writer and photographer based in Paris and Barcelona. For nearly a decade, he has reported and shot stories from Europe and around the globe, from writing about the best restaurants in Paris, to driving the length of Argentine Patagonia (on the dirt road known as Ruta 40), to having tea in the Sahara with a man named Abdou. He is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe‘s travel section, Agence France Presse Lifestyle, and the Asian editions of American Express magazines Centurion and Platinum. Stories from his blog “Eating The Motherland” also appear on “Simon Says” – with Le Figaro food critic Francois Simon – and on the Boston Globe‘s “Globetrotting”. He was named the 2009 Travel Journalist of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, is a certified Sherry Educator, a Knight of Cava and has successfully navigated the streets of Palermo by car.
How did you get started traveling?
Thirty years ago, my folks bought a shell of a cottage on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. We’d go to Rattlesnake Island every weekend from ice-out to Columbus Day and watch the sun go down framed by mountains and miles of open water. Later, I’d spend summers there, working jobs as a cook in the towns around the lake, and I learned a certain independence and a love for beautiful spaces. Now, I can’t stand being in an office – they make me feel like my soul is being sucked out through the ventilation system. I dry up if I’m not in a place that in I love.
How did you get started writing?
Slowly, then all at once. I had a series of jobs where I was always spending too much time writing when I should have been doing something else. My first piece, for the San Francisco Chronicle, came from experience I had trying out as a cook in three San Francisco restaurants. Later, I wrote a few stories for airline in-flight magazines (the editor was my ultimate frisbee team captain), and that gave me the idea that I’d like to do this for a living.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
A few things, starting with a leap of faith. About 10 years ago, with a handful of published stories to my name, I moved to Paris and decided I was a full-time journalist. It was crazy, but I’d been dreaming of living in France for years. I had no money, knew almost no one and spoke just enough French to squeak through an interview, but not having a safety net is a great motivator.
At about the same time, my friend Lylah Alphonse was the youngest editor at the Boston Globe and had been helping me polish the work I’d been doing for the in-flights. When I told her I was heading to Paris, she put me in touch with the foreign section editors and I ended up writing a story. The first one makes getting the second one easier, having two helps get the third. If you keep at it, editors get to know you and you start to have a few steady customers.
After a couple of years, I began specializing in food writing. I had been a cook in several restaurants across the United States and food was something that I could speak about knowledgeably. Many of these stories ended up in travel sections and combining food and travel became my niche. I love cooking and it’s easier to write when your heart is in it.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Doing something quickly in a place that’s new to me. I’m pretty good at finding good people and learning their connection to their home and what makes them tick, but it’s an organic process that takes time. If I’m going to do something in a short span, I’ll make sure it’s a very specific subject and know exactly who to talk to. I’d rather go to a place for a week or even months at a time, and if I’m lucky a local will show me what makes the place special for them – I was really fortunate in places like Sicily and Lisbon in this sense. Researching in a short amount of time is another ball of wax – sometimes you end up in front of the wrong person and can feel your story seeping away.
“Speed tourism” drives me crazy – What are you experiencing? What are you learning? Are you enjoying yourself or just ticking off a box on a list? I spent my senior year of college in Strasbourg, France and went with two friends to Italy for a week, but it turned into some sort of ‘run and gun’ tour where we were only spending a day or two in each place. We’d taken a hydrofoil out to Capri, found this amazing hilltop place to stay and had a dinner where I still remember everything I ate … and less than 24 hours later we were on the boat again heading up to Florence. I remember looking back at the island and thinking ‘Why didn’t I go see those cliffs?’
A day or two later they wanted to go to Venice and I said, “Have a nice time.”
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Staying in my chair and staying offline. I’m exponentially more productive when I’m somewhere without a connection, preferably without a computer; I write all rough drafts by hand.
After that, it’s getting my head back into the zone where it was while I was in the place I’m writing about. When I’m traveling in a country, I’ll get people to tell me about their favorite books and I’ll pick up a copy. Once I’m writing the story (usually back home), reading the book helps keep me in the right headspace. If I can’t do this, my goose is cooked.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
All of it. I lose a day or two every few months updating an Excel sheet that I use to figure out who owes me what then calling and emailing to harass them to pick up the checkbook. I also spend huge amounts of time blogging and doing the photo editing for both my blog and Simon Says – I love it, but it’s a lot of work. I’m updating my Web site and blog, which will both make them look much better and speed up the time needed to update them. I also wish I had an nth of the salesmanship that my father has. Selling stories is often harder than writing them.
Plus, being a photographer is a job unto itself.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’m afraid of the idea. If I start doing something else, I’m doing less of what I really want to do.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
It’s not always stuff that’s considered straight-up travel writing, rather writing that puts me in the place or inside the subject’s or the author’s head; I just read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the river crossing comes to mind right away. I’m big on food writers, especially M.F.K. Fisher, Jeffrey Steingarten and single-story doses of Jim Harrison. Confiding a culinary secret to me, Julia Child once whispered “Chicken Thighs” in my ear and Mastering The Art of French Cooking should be required reading for anyone interested in food.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Offer something that no one else can. For me, this was a mix of being in a place with less competition, writing about something I can speak knowledgeably about, and coming up with good ideas for stories.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
That feeling that you’re in the middle of something real, whether it’s an experience or a connection with the person in front of you; to capture a little part of that experience and convey it to someone else.
Above photo courtesy Joel Scheitler in Luxembourg