Conversation with Tom Vitale, Part 2

By Karen

Continuing my chat with Tom Vitale, author of In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, published October 5. Tom filled me in on one aspect of Bourdain’s career that no one ever seemed to ask him about…

Anthony Bourdain’s Creative Process

CW: I’ve always been fascinated by writers’ habits. When Tony wrote at home, he worked first thing in the morning. With the volume he constantly put out, I was surprised when you told me he was a two-fingered typist. The documentary Roadrunner showed him in action a few times…

Tony’s early writing in his NYC apartment (from old unfinished documentary footage used in Roadrunner)
Years later, his typing technique hadn’t improved

CW: Since Tony always knew he’d have to write a voiceover, or edit one, did he write when he traveled? Did he carry a notebook for taking notes? How did he collect his material?

TV: He did have a notebook. A couple times he asked me to procure one for him when we were on shoots. He liked black Moleskins and would use whatever ballpoint or gel pen was handy.

All his writing was handwritten in first draft, always early in the morning, as far as I know, or late at night. Sometimes those times were the same.

Voiceover scripts we had to print out for him, regardless of where we were. He would rewrite them longhand, either on the script or in a notebook, and retype them. He was always very fast unless he didn’t like it and rewrote and typed the whole thing. It was a laborious process he’d go through, even when he had the electronic file.

CW: In the Hong Kong episode, when I first saw that now-classic shot of him sitting on the ferry with a notebook, I went, “Aha! He’s writing!”

Tony scribbles his now (in)famous “Asia” lines in what appears to be an unlined Moleskin with a black gel pen.

TV: He was really a big notebook guy.

CW: Did he ever write in airports during layovers or on planes?

TV: No, I wouldn’t see it that much. I think he needed to be in a zone, some kind of private space without distraction.

CW: I never saw him talk about his writing process.

TV: We had a lot of conversations about writing, because it was up to me when I was the director and the editors to write discretionary shit for the shows. He would tell us things over and over again. One was this “Kill your darlings” thing he’d learned from his writing teacher. Something about hacking up your favorite piece with a bleeding axe because it’s probably too over the top.

He also said that if you write 10 pages and two are even usable, that’s a really good day.

CW: So, you usually did the rough draft for his voiceovers.

TV: Yes, and our scripts he’d return then required a lot of editing. He’d turn a sentence into a paragraph. Sometimes the whole paragraph worked because his writing was so wonderful, and so was his delivery reading it.

But generally, his writing required quite a bit of work. He would make a powerful joke or statement and keep going with it, which then had to be edited for length. That was painful, because it was all really good.

I’m dyslexic myself and have trouble spelling. I imagine Tony must have been somewhat similar because his rewrites were horribly misspelled, with very strange grammar. He didn’t really worry about grammar, at least when he turned things around fast. Sentences would go on for paragraphs.

CW: When he recorded voiceovers, did he just read his script through, or was he watching a rough cut while doing it? From what you’re telling me, he didn’t make any effort to match what he said with the final footage.

TV: Quite often, he would do the exact opposite. He would watch a cut, put it away, and then write. They were very disconnected. He definitely was not writing to the cut. We either had to change what he’d written, or recut to film to match what he had written.

CW: Wow. Now I’m amazed that the finished episodes always meshed so beautifully.

Tom, I think you’ve got enough untold stories for another book. I came up with a title for you. Tony wrote Medium Raw. Your next book could be Raw, but Well Done. Feel free to use that.

TV: I was with him when he was writing Medium Raw. That was a horrible time for him, a lot of pressure. He saw it as a follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, and he was convinced he couldn’t live up to that. He suffered from writer’s block.

CW: I totally understand writer’s block. I started this blog in 2007, after publishing How to Work Like a CAT. Publishers expected authors to do our own marketing, and probably still do. But once I started blogging, it took so much out of me, writing for publication ceased. I’ve got half-baked book projects all over the house now.

I think Tony began doing so many interviews and putting out so much content, it dried up his well and sapped his creativity, too. You sit down to write and realize “I got nothing left.”

TV: That’s the sense I got from Hungry Ghost (title of Tony’s as-yet-unpublished manuscript). That writing was stuff he had not shared yet. It was a new thing to write about, very different, so he wouldn’t have had that problem.

CW: He found another vein to tap into that he hadn’t already used up.

During COVID, which I didn’t expect to drag on so long, I posted seven days a week for 142 days straight. That attracted a group of regular commenters, which was rewarding while it lasted. But the effort burned me out even more than I thought possible.

TV: Tony struggled with the blog posts he had to write for each episode, and it was exhausting for him. It’s hard to keep going at that speed.

CW: Sadly, he didn’t.

BONUS: Roadrunner the documentary came out on DVD October 12, and our own Tony B. was waiting. He hopped up on the TV stand during the first scenes and gave me this rare opportunity to catch him with his namesake…

“OK, you can tell me the truth. Who’s got the most animal magnetism?”

13 Responses to Conversation with Tom Vitale, Part 2

  1. Bob says:

    Great conversation, I’m glad you had a chance to talk with Tom one on one.

  2. catsworking says:

    Thanks, Bob. Still got some interesting stuff to post as I can get to it.

  3. Alison says:

    Thanks I am enjoying this journey immensely along with more than a tinge of wistfulness.

  4. Mary Hunter says:

    Interesting post. Love love love the picture of the two Tony’s!!

  5. catsworking says:

    Mary and Alison, thank you! My Tony is taking it that you think he has the most animal magnetism. (They share a need for affirmation, although both would deny it.)

  6. Juan says:

    Karen,

    Great interview. I actually saw Tom Vitale and Helen Cho backstage at the Denver Hunger Tour show. They were standing off to the side while Tony signed books.

    Tony had them sitting about 10 rows back during the show also. I am on chapter 4 of Tom’s book. I wanted to approach Tom and Helen and say hello, but I thought it might be odd having a complete stranger approach them and causally address them by their first name. I asked Tony what they were doing there. I honestly thought they were shooting an episode in Denver. He stated that he liked bringing them along for the ride.

  7. catsworking says:

    Juan, thanks for sharing that story. Tom never mentioned to me that he went on any of Tony’s tours. It seems odd that he or Helen would, but Tony said being on the road like that was lonely, so they would have been welcome company.

    UPDATE: Tom Vitale just confirmed that he and Helen were in Denver for that gig. Tom was in town visiting a relative and flew back to New York on the private jet that Tony was provided when he did his speaking tours.

  8. Donna says:

    Mary beat me to it,but I love the two Tony’s as well

  9. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    Thanks a lot for part 2 of the interview. Much appreciated.

  10. catsworking says:

    Alison, apologies for taking so long to approve your comment. I didn’t realize I had one hanging in the queue.

  11. Juan says:

    Karen,

    As I make my way through Tom’s book, I can’t help but think this is his Heart of Darkness, or Apocalypse Now. Tom is Marlow/Capt Willard and Tony is 100 percent Kurtz. No knock on Tony…..Kurtz is the most interesting character in the book and movie.

    Glad Tom confirmed my Denver story for you.

    God Bless,

    Juan

  12. catsworking says:

    Juan, unfortunately, I’ve never read or seen either work, so the references are lost on me, but somebody here will get them.

    When I asked Tom about being in Denver, I wasn’t trying to confirm your story (I believed you) but wondering if Tony ever brought people along on tour. I don’t know how Helen happened to be there. I didn’t ask. I remember Tony talking about how lonely those tours were for him. Sorry if it came across as suspicion.

    I imagine it felt weird for him to be staying in hotels all over this country, so close (relatively) to home, but yet still on the road. And no crew during the day as company.

  13. Juan says:

    Karen,

    No suspicion at all on my part. I was just glad you were able to get in touch with Tom, so that he could confirm that Tony would in fact bring his crew along during his shows.

    I imagine it would have been incredibly lonely for Tony being on the road by himself. At least with a few of his crew members Tony would have somebody to bs and have meals with. I can’t say I blame him for having them tag along.

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