Friday, April 4, 2014

How a Food Journalist Becomes a Book Writer: The Award-Winning Journey of Steve Hoffman

Food writer Steve Hoffman can actually name the date, time and location when he got started:  It happened on June 27, 2012, at 12:30 PM, at Vincent, a French restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. 

His family was about to go back to France for an extended stay in the Languedoc region, and at the encouragement of his wife, Mary Jo, they invited Lee Dean, the Taste Editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, out for lunch. The Hoffmans were testing a new theory they called, "Do good work and put it where people can see it." 

Steve says he spent years keeping extensive journals during the family's travels abroad, sharing them with a select few friends and family members. This, he felt, was good work, but talking to Lee was the first step toward putting this writing where people could see it.
By the end of their lunch, Lee had invited Steve to submit a series of "Letters from France" to the Taste Section while they were in the Languedoc.

Suddenly Steve was not just a tax preparer, landlord, and real estate broker who hoped, someday, to write.  He was a writer with an assignment, a suggested word count, and three very specific deadlines. "I was a food writer," he says, "almost in spite of myself."

Eventually Steve's "Letters from France" won an AFJ (Association of Food Journalists) Award, and, most recently, the coveted Bert Greene Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.   
Now Steve has embarked on an even bigger project--writing a book about his experiences living with his family in this remote area of southern France.   

From Journalist to Author
Steve says his book idea came from his wife Mary Jo.  They were sitting in front of the fire, in the midst of the busiest part of Steve's tax season, when he was "least prepared to think about anything other than how to get through the next day."  On Lee Dean's recommendation, they had submitted "Letters from France" for a James Beard Journalism award (which he did not win in the end), and Mary Jo pointed out that if Steve did somehow end up as a finalist or a winner, he should really have a book proposal ready to present to the muckety-mucks in New York they'd meet while accepting the award.  

A book proposal, of course, presumed that there would be a book.  

"The logic was irrefutable," Steve says, "but it took me several days to ease into the idea that I might actually be someone who could write a book. I had just barely begun accepting that I was someone you could call a food writer."    

Working as a team, Mary Jo spent a weekend at my book-writing workshop at the Loft Literary Center, learning the art of storyboarding and helping Steve place his journalism pieces and essays on Languedoc into a possible structure.  They discovered it took more than food journalism to make a book, and along the way, a more personal story emerged--the challenges a family encounters when becoming part of a new culture.   

The time in France changed them, Steve says, and they experienced a wonderful and somewhat unusual welcome into the heart of the small wine-growing community where they lived--even helping with the vendage, or grape harvest, toward the end of their stay.  

As the book grew, Steve built the "inner story" thread of his growth and realizations about this community, what it meant to him and his family, and how it changed their lives.   

Writing a book isn't easy--much harder than short articles for a newspaper.  Winning the Bert Greene Award became "a huge source of encouragement and validation," Steve says.  "I wrote the winning article in a single day at the end of last summer, after months of daily writing practice while trying to complete my first draft of the book about France. Although the piece was not written for the book and may not appear in the book, it was written while I was in that late summer writing groove. It was an offshoot of good, daily writing practice, in my opinion, and an example of what abundance a creative habit can produce."  

Writing Routine--Getting in the Groove
Steve's year is divided into seasons. There is tax preparation season from January through April, "when all I do is eat, sleep, and prepare tax returns," he says. "Through the rest of the year, because I am self-employed, I can block off writing time from about 8:00 am to 12:00 noon, and schedule work around that daily time slot."

Steve describes his best working days as "Big Ship" days.  "Like an oceanliner, I am slow to start, slow to gather momentum, but then difficult to slow down once I get going. I like to get physically comfortable so I can sit for a long time if necessary."

He has done his best writing on the sunny terrace of the family's rented house in Languedoc "on the most comfortable chaise longue I've ever sat in."  He tried to recreate that atmosphere last summer while writing the first draft of the book. "I would sit on our deck or in the corner of our living room by the fire," he told me, "in a big comfortable chair."

His most productive days tend to be long days of writing, when there are no work appointments in the afternoon.

"I often struggle through the morning to find the right tone for a piece or a chapter," Steve says, "but then ease into my own voice with growing excitement and confidence. Often on these days, I am writing furiously to get it all down at the very end of an eight or ten hour session, with my laptop keyboard still clicking while I listen to dinner being prepped in the kitchen behind me."

"At the end of the best days," he says, "there's an ottoman under my feet and a side table to hold a glass of wine while I read the days' work to Mary Jo--and the kids if they are interested." 

To read Steve Hoffman's award-winning article, click here. To see more of his work and visit his website, click here.  To view Mary Jo's amazing photographs, which accompany all of Steve's work, click here.