Laurel Zuckerman : What kind of a name is Gary Lee Kraut?
Gary Lee Kraut : Gary was a relatively common name to give boys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at least in New Jersey. Lee is my middle name, given to me in honor of my great uncle. Kraut is something I inherited from my father, along with a desire to be my own boss.
LZ: What is your favorite thing about winter in Paris?
GLK: Seeing the monuments and buildings through bare trees, the way people wipe the cold off their hands when they enter cafés, the wonderful down comforter that some friends gave me for my birthday two years ago, and knowing that spring comes next.
LZ: How did you get into writing travel guides?
GLK : Between the ages of 23 and 26 I traveled a lot in the U.S. and in Europe. It was during that time that I also started writing fiction. I then went to graduate school to study creative writing and received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Afterwards I worked as a journalist in suburban New York for two years. I then came to Paris for a prolonged visit to my sister who had been sent here by her company on a two-year mission. After she left I decided to stay a little longer and later that year I heard that the New York publisher William Morrow & Co. was looking to create a guidebook to France. I sent a proposal and within a month I had a contract to write a 400-500 page guide to France. I’ve since written five guidebooks, numerous articles, short stories, essays and song lyrics. I write in lots of different forms but I’m primarily a travel writer or travel journalist. Becoming a travel writer was neither planned nor calculated but it’s no surprise that my interest in writing and travel and Paris would lead me there.
LZ: Are you ever tempted to go back?
GLK : I go back frequently. I’m a big fan of revisiting.
GLK : I didn’t have the title “Paris Revisited” until well into writing that book. I wanted to convey the idea that it was a guidebook intended for readers and travelers who were prepared to go beyond the basics. Even though “Paris Revisited” was a fairly classic, if in-depth, guidebook, the more I thought about the idea of “revisiting” the more I was attracted to the various ways in which a place or culture or cuisine or people can be revisited or seen in a different light and how they or our points of view change over time.
That book had a companion website called “Paris Revisited,” www.ParisRevisited.com, which initially provided updates for the book but then took on a life of its own. But it was never my intent to limit my work to Paris, so in 2009 “Paris Revisited” was transformed into a full-fledged web magazine called “France Revisited,” www.FranceRevisited.com.
GLK : I’m interested in exploring all ways of visiting and revisiting place and culture, so even though my main focus will remain “France Revisited” I’m also now taking on the role of editor for two new Revisited projects: “USA Revisited” and “Europe Revisited.” Their respective sites will be officially launched this spring but since they’re being constructed “live” they’re already visible online at www.usarevisited.com and www.europerevisited.com.
Each of the revisited sites—USA, Europe and France—has a distinct approach. Whereas France Revisited is a travel and culture magazine that’s intended to be both informative and entertaining (or both practical and a good read), Europe Revisited has no pretense of providing practical information. Instead it will emphasize insights and experience relative to travel, touring and life and Europe.
USA Revisited is different from the two other sites in that it isn’t a travel site per se but instead a way of looking at the United States from abroad. The tag line says it all: “Americans abroad reflect on and revisit the United States.”
LZ: You recently re-launched France Revisited with a new format. Why?
GLK : For both editorial and technical reasons.
Editorially, the categories and sub-categories that were created for the prior version didn’t correspond well enough either to my interests as an editor and writer or to the approach of readers who visit the site or to the work of potential contributors.
And technically there were some problems with the prior version that couldn’t easily be resolved without a major overhaul. So the new format creates a flexible editorial space that’s relatively easy to manage from a technical point of view. There are far more beautiful sites out there but given the choice between budgeting for content and budgeting for technology we opted for content.
The new format also makes it easier to post a greater variety of work from contributing writers (there’s now even a poetry section) and photographers while creating clear advertising space.
Finally, having a new version made it easy to adapt the same structure to the two new sites “Europe Revisited” and “USA Revisited.”
LZ: What’s it like being both a writer and editor?
GLK : It can be a bit frustrating because like any writer I like to have stretches of time when I can focus my own writing. Nevertheless, being both a writer and editor has taught me a lot about all aspects of writing and publishing, and as an editor I’m able to help develop work that I wouldn’t be inclined or able to do on my own.
A writer can tell immediately if he’s dealing with an editor or editor-publisher who hasn’t done much writing on his own because that editor tends to get easily annoyed by work that doesn’t correspond to his immediate needs. He isn’t necessarily a bad editor but his inability to look at things from the point of view of the writer can contribute to an adversarial relationship.
Having said that, I’ve been surprised as an editor to see how many potential contributors fail to understand the work and needs of the editor. Some assume that I’ll publish whatever they send, and as a result they take it too personally when I don’t accept their work or ask them to rewrite it. That’s partially a question of payment—the less you pay, the more contributors think it’s unfair to ask for a rewrite and the more upsetting is for the contributor to have his work refused. However, the more experienced the writer, the more he’s willing to do what it takes to satisfy the editor if he actually wants that editor to publish his or her work.
A writer should indeed defend his or her position when it comes to ideas and fundamentals of an article but should also understand that the editor is looking at the article from the point of view of the publication as a whole. No one likes being rejected, but if you can’t take criticism or rejection then you shouldn’t submit anywhere.
LZ: What makes for good travel writing?
GLK : There are many different types of travel writing, from information-only writing to very personal writing. Each can be good in its own way.
The travel writing that I enjoy reading most tells an informative or evocative story. Information is easy because it’s so accessible. The tough part—the part where the writer comes in—is making an enjoyable read or a good story out of it, one that offers insights about the experience or place that’s being written about.
The first mistake that inexperienced writers make is to imagine that simply going someplace is enough to make for a travel article or travel essay. It isn’t. Going to Toulouse doesn’t mean that you can write a notable piece about Toulouse; going to a Monet exhibit doesn’t necessarily mean that you can explain Monet; eating in a 3-star restaurant and taking a picture of your vol-au-vent doesn’t mean that you can write a good food article.
The second mistake is to think that it’s your job to “sell” a destination. While it’s true that most publications want positive travel writing, good travel writing isn’t defined by how wonderful it makes a place seem but rather how it explains or bears witness or offers insights or recounts experience—and ideally all four. Good travel writing should lead somewhere rather than simply arrive somewhere.
LZ : When you get on your bike to come to an interview do you think: Oh boy, I’m going to die?
GLK : I generally think “I hope someone doesn’t steal my bike,” “I hope it doesn’t rain” and “I hope I’m not too sweaty.” I only think “Oh boy, I’m going to die” when the interview goes badly.
LZ : Is this a good place for a creative young person to write? Any advice?
GLK : Any place new can be stimulating for a creative writer as you see new things, meet new people, learn another language, and observe another culture. So in that sense Paris can be as good a place as any for a creative young person to write.
Newness always feels creative on a personal level, which is one reason why we travel. But the creative young writer needs to transform his or her impressions and experiences into text, and creating original text in a city like Paris, which is and has been the subject of so much writing and photography, is difficult.
You have only to read blogs to see how Paris has the potential to deaden creativity as so many bloggers get lulled into repeating clichés about food and cafés and Parisians. That’s because writers of all ages feel that they need to write about Paris—legendary, idealized, cliché Paris—rather than about the actions and conflicts and even individuals within it. Or when they do write about those things it’s often the same old story of the ingénue discovering life in Paris. I’m not saying that’s un-publishable or bad because publishers do indeed find their margin in that story, and some of it is in fact quite funny and well observed. But such stories are not necessarily the echo of a city that stimulates creativity.
So no, I wouldn’t say that Paris is an especially good place for a creative person to write. But it isn’t a bad place either. If any one single place were ideal for creative writers then we would all live there, in which case we would constantly be surrounded by other writers, which probably wouldn’t be very much fun.