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…
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!”
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…