The Bookish Life: Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain rolled up his right sleeve to show off his tattoo — not of a beating cobra heart or other adventure from his Travel Channel show “No Reservations. It comes from a book, Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer,” which describes a coin Montaigne had struck. Bourdain explains that the coin, and the tattoo, bear the 16th century essayist’s “personal motto, basically, ‘I suspend judgment’ in ancient Greek.”
Bourdain, known for devouring food and travel, is an equally avid reader. He was reading before he entered kindergarten, has maintained a lifelong passion for books and in 2000 hit the bestseller list with his candid memoir, “Kitchen Confidential.” This month, Ecco, part of HarperCollins, announced that it will create an imprint for Bourdain, putting out four to six books a year that he brings to the publisher. What’s his title? “I’m not sure. I should ask for business cards,” he said, sitting down on a recent drizzly afternoon inManhattan.
What made you want to jump into publishing?
I was asked if I’d be interested in having my own imprint at Ecco with [publisher] Dan Halpern; that’s really all I needed to hear. I never imagined it to be my fast track to publishing magnate-hood. I’m at the point in my life and my career where I’ve been really lucky to collaborate with people who I really like. I’m writing with David Simon [on “Treme”], I’m doing a comic book with Vertigo, and I have a long, very happy professional and personal relationship with Halpern; he’s a very interesting guy with very eclectic taste. Do I want to collaborate with Dan Halpern picking books? Giving opportunity to authors I’m passionate about, new authors as well as reprinting stuff I feel is completely neglected? Oh, yeah.
I heard you were interested in republishing the work of essayists.
I read a lot of essayists, I love essayists, I love essays. I’m a huge Joan Didion fan, I’m a huge Montaigne fan. It might be unlikely in the extreme that I’ll be able to reprint Orwell, but given the opportunity, I sure would. To me, there are certain books and authors that I feel evangelical about. And there have been in the past a number of authors, not just chefs but also authors, who I have really believed in and I have hectored my agent into taking on, or pestered Dan [Halpern] until he published them, and that was very satisfying to me. To do it in an official capacity is deeply, personally satisfying.
I have a wide range of interests: I love music, comic books, crime fiction, nonfiction, history. I like cool stuff, and given the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of somebody who I can feel smart enough to have recognized, great.
How did you decide to start writing?
I’ve never written anything that hasn’t been published. I was never sitting in a garret struggling over an unpublished manuscript. I had an opportunity to write two crime novels for hire; I did. They landed with a dull thud at the time (they do very nicely now). I’d written a piece [about working in a restaurant kitchen] for the New York Press — I figured I’d get 100 bucks and a shot at getting printed. But my editor there, Sam Sifton, couldn’t get it in. Week after week, we kept getting bumped. Out of frustration and drunken rage, I sent it to the New Yorker.
A few weeks later, I get a call from [New Yorker editor] David Remnick saying, “We’re going to print your article,” and then it was overnight — suddenly I had a book deal [for “Kitchen Confidential”].
Do you think reading helped feed your writing?
I come from a house filled with books. I had very good English teachers in high school. I was something of a reading prodigy when I was a little kid. When I was in kindergarten, I stole my parents’ copy of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” [the 1955 analytical book for adults]. It angered] me that they would have such a book, and I read the whole thing. I was reading way ahead of my grade level for all of grammar school and beyond. I read very quickly. I read a lot. I read widely. It is a pleasure for me, a passion.
How do you read when working on your Travel Network show?
Because I am likely to be spending more time than I’d like to in airports or airport floors, I load a lot of stuff onto my iPad. I prefer print — in a perfect world, I would be able to fondle and smell the book as well as read it. I will drag a big, fat one around if necessary. I was dragging Mark Twain’s autobiography around. It’s huge!
I’m very inspired by the success of Lucky Peach [McSweeney’s new food magazine]. It was daylight madness: It went absolutely against the current thinking, which is print is dead, particularly glossy magazines. They do a 200-page periodical with no advertising, and it sold like crazy. There is a reading public, just as there is a television public out there, that’s smarter than they’re given credit for. There are a lot of people out there with an appetite for good, cool stuff. That’s encouraging.
Where else do you expect to look for stories?
There are [writers] who I adore, who I think are really important and who will be important down the road but have not been identified as such by publishers here. Exciting work, stuff that has never been translated, underpublished or unpublished authors. I come across a very interesting group of people in my travels. Not that anything will necessarily come of this — [on the show] we’ve worked with a really interesting group of security people, all of whom are from the more secret divisions of the British military. When they’re not looking after us in hot zones, they are off doing very interesting odd jobs, often at really interesting points in history. As Special Forces tend to be, they are highly literate, really intelligent, with a lot of interesting friends. Just sitting around a campfire with those guys, you hear about 10 people with incredible stories, maybe one of them will have an incredible voice too.
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