Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, WORLD TRAVEL: AN IRREVERANT GUIDE

Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, WORLD TRAVEL: AN IRREVERANT GUIDE

“I was left with an outline and a mission and the question of, ‘Do I continue with this thing?’ What does it mean to write a book with somebody who was so well-known and so beloved and who is no longer here?” Zibby is joined by Laurie Woolever, assistant to the late Anthony Bourdain and co-writer of their new atlas guide, World Travel. Laurie talks with Zibby about what the world was like in Bourdain’s orbit, how their guide manages to capture all of his irreverence, and the mark he’s left behind on the global culinary community.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Laurie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by you and the late Anthony Bourdain. Thanks for coming on.

Laurie Woolever: Of course. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I know you wrote in the book about the beginning of the project, the one smoke-filled conversation you had about it with Anthony before he passed away. Can you explain to listeners how this project started and what made you continue it?

Laurie: Tony and I had written a cookbook together previously called Appetites. That was published in 2016. We had a really good working relationship. I was his assistant, but this was a separate thing from that. We really worked well together. I was able to fill in the places that he needed filling in. Of course, he had his incredible charisma and incredible platform. He was a really busy guy, so he needed collaborators in any of his projects to bring them to fruition. Coming from that place, in 2017 he said, “Let’s do another project.” We came up with this idea for World Travel being sort of an atlas to the world through his perspective and all of the experience that he had for almost twenty years traveling for television. It took us close to a year to get everything lined up and ready to work. His schedule being what it was and publishing industry contracts, all of this stuff, it just took a long time. We were finally ready to get to work in earnest in the spring of 2018. We sat down. I had come into this meeting with a list of every place he had ever been in the world and some sense of what he had done there. We went through this list and decided which of those places would make good chapters for the book. They were some of his favorite places. There were also some places that he really loved that didn’t make it into the book for various reasons. These were places that we knew we could do substantial chapters on.

He was brilliant, as usual. He had such a gift of recall. Maybe there was a place he hadn’t been in ten years, and he could say, “Oh, yeah, let’s make sure we do that bar and that place that has the hot dogs outside the bar.” His level of recall was astonishing for somebody who had seen so much of the world. That was about an hour conversation. I taped it. I had it transcribed. That became the blueprint for this book. Then he had a number of shoots to complete after that point. This was in, maybe, March. He was shooting all the way up through the end of June. He was in Indonesia. He was in Texas. He was all over the place. I started to map out my strategy for getting the structure of this up so that he could then fill in his essential voice. Then unfortunately, that became the only meeting that we had about this book because, as you know, he died in June of 2018. I was left with an outline and a mission and the question of, do I continue with this thing? What does it mean to write a book with somebody who was so well-known and so beloved and who is no longer here? After a couple of difficult months of thinking about it, talking to his agent who’s also my agent, and consulting with his estate, we decided to move forward to see if we couldn’t figure out a way to take all of the wonderful work that Tony left behind, all of the writing in his books, the writing he did for television, the just hilarious and off-the-cuff things that he would say on television, if we could take all of that and make it into something new. That’s what became this book, World Travel.

Zibby: Wow. To your point in the middle of that, what you were saying about the local places that he visited and that he remembered so well, I loved how you had mentioned in here that his attention on those places often completely changed what happened with them. Obviously, it was up to the owners to decide what to do with that, if they turned it into something for good or if it just ruined them, the extra attention. Tell me a little bit about the effect of his picking one of those local places.

Laurie: In the intro to the book, I call it the Bourdain effect. In many cases, it took a place that was an obscure little restaurant or bar or chicken shack on the beach and shone a very bright spotlight on it. Then suddenly, travelers going to that place knew that this was the place that Tony had been to. It became kind of a pilgrimage for people to check out. In some cases, it could be tremendous. It could mean the difference between a business going under or staying open and a huge boost. Then in some cases, it could change the character of a place. Maybe they see they’ve got double the business. Well, let’s move our prices up a little bit. Let’s get some more tables in here. I don’t blame anybody for doing what they need to do to keep their business thriving. Let me be clear about that. Then there’s pictures of Tony on the wall. It can change the character of a place to go from a sleepy little place that’s got this great thing that the locals know about and they feel comfortable going to a place where there’s lines out the door and you’re kind of hustled in, hustled out. You don’t feel that same kind of authentic love that you might have felt when it was under the radar. It can be a very unpredictable thing.

In the time that they were making the show, when the producers would approach a business, there were plenty of places that said, “No, thank you. We appreciate the consideration, but we just don’t want what we know sometimes happens. That’s not who we are. We’re not prepared to change in that way.” It was an individual choice for businessowners. Sometimes it just was sort of out of your control. When we were planning the book, there were some places in Rome that Tony hadn’t been to in ten or fifteen years, but he loved them from the early 2000s and wanted to include them. When I myself went to Rome to follow up and see what was going on with these places, the person that took me around who was also Tony’s fixer in Rome said, “You know what? These places have really changed for that very reason. It’s kind of a tourist circus now. It’s not that warm, friendly atmosphere and just a perfect bowl of pasta anymore, so maybe let’s look at some other places.” It happens. Like any brush with fame and attention, it has to be managed. At some point, it gets out of your control.

Zibby: I know there’s so much attention that gets paid to grief among friends, grief among loved ones, but there is this whole layer of people, especially right now — I can’t call him Tony because I didn’t know him. Anthony’s loss came before this. Losing people that you work with, which is a different relationship because people are not often able to say, I loved him even though I just worked with him, but there is this affection and comradery and real closeness, sometimes far more than somebody who’s in your family when you work with someone on day-to-day basis. What has your experience been like with that loss? Have you found people in similar work-loss relationships? I feel like there needs to be a whole book on work colleague loss. It’s its own animal, I would think.

Laurie: You’re absolutely right. I didn’t lose a family member. I would say I lost a friend. Tony was my boss, but he made friendships with everyone that he worked with. Basically, I would say he was my organizing principle. I was in constant contact with him a lot of the time. I knew where he was all the time. Then of course, we had written this book together. We were preparing to write a second book. There was a tremendous sense of loss. I had an enormous amount of affection for him. I’d gotten to know him really well over the ten years that I was his assistant. The grief was profound in a different way, like you said, than it would be for a family member, but no less real, even more so, I think, for the people who made television with him because they were truly the ones that spent a lot of face-to-face time with him on planes, in production vans, on sets, in hotel bars afterwards. A lot of these guys had really made their lives about the show, sometimes to the exclusion of having their own families. It just demanded that kind of commitment. I think they really loved it.

Between the production crew and myself and Tony’s publishing partners, there were a lot of us that were experiencing a similar shock and grief. We found strength in each other. It’s interesting, I haven’t talked to other people who have had this. It feels like such a singular thing. I suppose none of us are that unique when it comes to grief. It would be interesting to explore what happens. I was doing an interview a few weeks ago. Somebody asked, “What do you do when your boss dies and you have this very close one-on-one relationship? Do you apply for unemployment?” In my case, I didn’t have the structure of, “Well, the job goes on,” because the job was Tony. There were a lot of layers to processing and trying to figure out what comes next. Again, that was the case with everyone that was in this inner circle of, our professional lives have just changed irreparably forever. How do we move on? What’s our next step? It’s been very different across the board.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for your loss, I should say. I’m very, very sorry for you and the whole team and everything. Such a lovely honor to keep doing this book, which by the way is in and of itself, this is just a really, useful, great book to have regardless. Any place I’m going to go — you have this whole selection even on LA and Chateau Marmont. He’s so funny about some of the things he says. I’m like, this is getting a little X-rated here on some of this.

Laurie: Yes.

Zibby: Right? I was like, I can’t believe they put this in. I’m obviously not going to read it now. Even just to look at different places, I’m like, now if I go to Macau, now I’ll know where to go. Here I’ll be in Osaka. The book itself is super useful and everything. I find the backstory of it, it just adds to the allure of it. What do you think attracted everyone to him to begin with? What was it like to work with someone who was so, A, in the public eye, but B, such a personality in and of himself? How do you manage that? You said guiding principle, which is so interesting. How do you do that well?

Laurie: To answer the first question, I think that the reason people wanted to work with him and were drawn to that is because of a couple reasons. He was incredibly charismatic. This is true throughout his life. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people that knew him from a very young age all the way through. There’s this very consistent observation and narrative that he just was incredibly charismatic. He was able to get you excited about whatever it was that was going on. He made things sound more fun and exciting and glamorous than maybe they really were. You were very willing to get on board with that enthusiasm. He was a tremendous storyteller. He was so funny. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time watching his shows or reading his books. He was just magnetic in that way. Then also, he was a very good collaborator. He knew that he had a vision. He had things that he wanted to do. He knew that he couldn’t do it alone. He was very appreciative of other people’s talents and other people’s hard work and was very willing to recognize it, was very willing to pull everyone along on the journey.

In my case, he knew I was a writer. I was hired as his assistant. I had had a baby. I wanted to work part time. I had been working as a magazine editor. I needed something that was a little less intense so that I could be home with my son. He understood that. He also knew that I wasn’t going to be happy forever making restaurant reservations and making sure the car service showed on time, and so he started giving me opportunities to ghostwrite, to do some line editing for the books that he was publishing on his own imprint, and then eventually to do the cookbook. That was my experience. That was the way that he was throughout. If he saw somebody that had a talent and that wanted to get better and move up in the world, he was very generous about helping people find good opportunities to do that. That’s not a given in a lot of creative endeavors. Then he had a really high standard of making really good work. I think it’s incredibly rewarding for editors, producers, directors, myself as a writer and editor to work with somebody who really demanded a high standard and who put a lot of value on that. It wasn’t just about turning out thirty mediocre shows in a year. It was about making sixteen really excellent short films, basically, or ten or fewer, let’s say five really wonderful titles a year on his imprint versus twenty-five kind of shlocky whatevers that might move in the mass market. Those were some of the reasons why it was just such a pleasure and an honor to work with him.

Zibby: You guys are doing another collaboration. Isn’t there another book coming? What is that one called?

Laurie: Yes. There’s another one coming out in October that’s called Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography. That is a telling of his story through the people that knew him throughout his entire life. It’s everyone from his now late mother who I was able to interview shortly after his death, and his brother, his daughter who’s a teenager, his first wife Nancy, his wife Ottavia, people he knew in high school, people he knew in college and in his early days as a cook in New York, publishing colleagues, lots and lots of television colleagues, interesting people he met along the way, big names from CNN, and musicians and fellow writers and just this really interesting mix of, I think it’s about ninety-one people I spoke with who tell their memories and their recollections of Tony. I put it together in this narrative format. I thought I knew everything about this guy. I worked so closely with him. I knew where he was and what he was doing and what was on the horizon. In every single one of these interviews, I learned something new about him. Of course, when you’re a big public figure and a storyteller like Tony, you do sort of curate your own myth. We all read so much of his story in Kitchen Confidential, the book that sort of broke him out. You think that’s the whole story. Of course, there’s always more from somebody else’s perspective and things that you don’t include in your story because they don’t necessarily serve the narrative. I got a lot of that and have a better understanding of who he was throughout his life, what his patterns were, what his motivations were. I think people who were left with a lot of questions about Tony will find some answers in that book. That comes out in October.

Zibby: Did you record those, the auditory history? Will there be an auditory component to the book?

Laurie: There will be an audiobook, but it won’t, unfortunately, be all of the people speaking in their own voices. The logistics of making that product just didn’t line up with what we wanted to do. It will be primarily a written book. I’m flattering myself here, but I liken it to Studs Terkel’s Working. Although, those were discrete interviews, one per chapter. Mine is chapters that are themed chronologically with different voices depending on when people knew him, at what time in his life. I guess it’s closer in spirit to, I know there was a recent Mike Nichols oral history. There was a great oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s a range of voices telling their stories.

Zibby: It would still be neat to do a limited-edition podcast with some of the clips, in your spare time.

Laurie: Absolutely.

Zibby: How old is your son now? Three? No.

Laurie: He is twelve now.

Zibby: He’s twelve, oh, my gosh, so you’ve been working with him for a long time.

Laurie: I started working with Tony in 2009. My son was less than a year old. He may come wandering back behind me here. He’s taller than me. He has a little mustache now.

Zibby: That happened to my son. I was like, all right, where is the razor? Come on.

Laurie: We’re working on that.

Zibby: Aside from your work with all of his work, as a writer yourself, do you see bigger projects in the — not bigger. These are huge projects. That’s the wrong word. Scratch that from the record. Other projects coming down the line, has he inspired you to go off and pursue something maybe unrelated? What do you have planned?

Laurie: I definitely want to continue being a writer. That’s something that I’ve always wanted since a very young age. It was only in the last few years that I’ve been able to pursue that to the exclusion of other work. It is not easy to support oneself as a writer. I know I’ve been very, very lucky with the projects that I’ve had because of Tony. I want to continue that. I am going to be working on a cookbook collaboration with a chef. I’ve got my own collection of essays that I’m working on that I hope to publish. We’ll see what else. Tony really set the example that there are so many possibilities. Just because you didn’t start on a certain path in your twenties, you can make a big change. You can make big leaps and achieve great things. I’m in my mid-forties now. That’s how old Tony was when he published Kitchen Confidential. There’s a kind of synchronicity there. I’m hoping to follow his path and continue to make creative work, to do writing in whatever format, television, film, books. I like this life. It’s a very sad circumstance that got me to the place of being just a writer, but I’d like to honor his legacy and his example by continuing it.

Zibby: There is no just a writer. That’s like saying just a mother. No, no, no, this is not one of those things. I have, by the way, this Medium publication called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. If you want to submit an essay there at any time, we would love it. Keep that in your back pocket, just so you know.

Laurie: Great, absolutely.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Laurie: I think it’s really important to have a consistent writing practice. That is advice that I heard myself for years and did not listen to. Only now do I have the maturity or the hindsight or just the necessary structure to do it. It has been such a gift to understand that I have to sit down every day. I don’t have to sit down all day. I don’t have to write brilliant work every day, but I do have to sit down every day and give myself whatever amount of time I can to keep honing my craft and keep moving it forward. It doesn’t get better if it stays in your head. It’s got to get onto the paper. This is not ground-breaking advice. I know plenty of writers give that advice. Again, it was advice that I wasn’t ready or willing to accept and try out. I think that’s just very, very important. The writing doesn’t get better unless you’re putting your raw thoughts on the paper and refining and refining and refining. It’s poignant, I think about how many great writers there are in the world and how sometimes it doesn’t — what am I trying to say? I got very, very lucky with timing, with the people that I met, with the circumstances. I was able to do this book. I’ve got another book coming out. I think about all of the writers who have so much talent — there’s so much noise in the world; there’s so much static in the world — that won’t necessarily get the platform and get the attention, so I guess it has to be about the satisfaction of the work and not necessarily the pursuit of the attention and huge sales and all of that. It’s something that I have to remind myself every day. The book is doing really well. I’m getting a lot of attention now. In a month, the world is going to move on. I’m still going to be a writer. I have to find some inspiration that’s not about public validation. It’s a lesson I try and learn a little bit every day because it’s easy to get caught up in all of the excitement.

Zibby: I love that you said it doesn’t get any better if it stays in your head. I know you said that’s advice people give a lot, but nobody says it quite that way. I think that’s why it’s so neat to ask everybody this question. It’s so true. You can’t be a better writer just thinking about it. No matter how you go through a sentence or think about it before you write, you have to just get it — anyway, I loved how you said that. That’s great. This is great. Thank you for this book. I can’t wait for the oral history. That sounds amazing and powerful and moving. If anyone were to pass away, you are the ideal person. Just to have someone there upholding your memory, using your words, it’s such a gift what you’ve given to his legacy. It’s just amazing. It can’t be easy with having the inspiration and having that light go off midway through. The perseverance and everything, I have so much respect. That’s all.

Laurie: Thank you. That’s very kind of you.

Zibby: Thank you, Laurie. Best of luck. Send us an essay.

Laurie: Okay, I will. Thanks.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Laurie: Bye.

Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, WORLD TRAVEL

WORLD TRAVEL: AN IRREVERANT GUIDE by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever

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