Welcome to the five hundred and fourteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with food writer and private chef Isabel Hood. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Isabel. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Isabel: I live in Birdham, a village on Chichester Harbour, in what I trust will be our “final” home, a semi-detached old lock-keeper’s cottage. We bought it eleven years ago, and it has taken us seven years to redo it and modernise it, with the garden being completed just two weeks ago. It has taken a huge amount of effort and commitment – real blood, sweat and tears! – and neither my husband nor I have any intention of ever moving out.
The UK, however, is not my “native soil”. I was blessed to grow up in Mexico, a land of luminous skies and rainbows, of snow-capped volcanoes and cascades of scarlet bougainvillea, of dazzling beaches and torrential downpours! – and some of the most fabulous food in the world, which is what led me into food writing. I had my own catering business in London, which I ran for 16 years, and then we decided to move to the country in the late 1990s. I obviously could not take my clients with me as travelling backwards and forwards to London did not seem viable.
Our first house was rented and the kitchen inadequate for outside catering so I decided to get a job to keep me going until we had bought our own home – which I had hoped would have a decent kitchen so that I could start building up a new catering business. Things did not work out according to plan and it is only very recently that my utterly unmodernised and well below current regulations kitchen has been brought up to scratch. I ended up working in the travel industry for a number of years and my days of involvement in my great passion, food, just slipped further and further away.
The thought of writing about food drifted in and out of my mind, not only as a link to one of the most important areas in my life but also as a creative outlet. It was in 2003 that things finally started to come together. I returned to Mexico for the first time in a quarter of a century, to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary with my husband – and I experienced the most extraordinary catharsis, as I reconnected with my roots and realised that I had not felt “at home” since I had left Mexico in my late teens. I was also thrilled to rediscover its food, and on my return to the UK, I wrote a book on Mexican cookery. I received rejection after rejection from publishers, along with many compliments on style, writing, angle, etc. I kept hearing “there is no market for it”, and “Mexican food is not popular in this country”.
While I was marketing the Mexican proposal, I wrote a second book, about cooking for two. My husband and I married relatively late and chose not to have a family so all our home cooking is for two people – and we found ourselves constantly struggling to adapt recipes for 4 or 6, often with very unsatisfactory results. I did some research on the internet and found that households of just one or two people were the fastest growing section of the British population…. I called the book Pas de Deux, i.e. a dance step for two, and gave the different chapters dancing titles: Quickstep, Foxtrot and Waltz, to illustrate fast, not so fast and decidedly time-consuming recipes. My husband came up with a far more clever title, and RePas de Deux, i.e. a meal for two, started doing the rounds of the publishers. I struck lucky with W Foulsham, who rejected my Mexican book but accepted my second proposal, and Just The Two of Us – Entertaining Each Other was published in 2006. Repas de Deux was deemed too “tricksy” a name, and I suspect they were right to change it.
With a published cookery book under my belt, I tried again with my Mexican manuscript and finally, frustrated and worn out not both by the rejections and the lack of even a reply, I decided to go down the self-publishing route, and Chilli and Chocolate – Stars of the Mexican cocina came out in 2008.
By now I had finally managed to get back into food by leaving employment and becoming a freelance private chef – and I was seriously bitten by the food writing bug. I put together a third proposal and found myself a literary agent. While we did not succeed in our search for a publisher for this proposal, my agent did receive an enquiry from a publisher who was looking for a vegan food specialist. While I am not in fact a vegan, I have eaten a preponderantly vegan diet for most of my adult life – I have found from experience that it suits me and provides me with great energy and vitality – and so Vegan Cookbook The Essential Guide came into being in November 2011.
I have been the Mexican Food Editor of an internet magazine called BellaOnline The Voice of Women since February 2010. Bella is the second largest women’s website in the world and I contribute a weekly article. I have to do an enormous amount of research, even though I already consider myself a Mexican specialist and boy have I learned a lot about Mexican food! The writing of the weekly article is only one side of it, as there is a lot of interaction with readers via a forum and by e-mail.
A proposal for a fourth book is currently being marketed to publishers by my agent, and I am keeping my fingers very tightly crossed that I will soon have another fascinating project to absorb me.
Morgen: My lodger is from Mexico and I get treated to her home cuisine occasionally, it’s lovely. Your writing is clearly food-related, have you considered other genres?
Isabel: Food is my greatest passion and suffuses every corner of my life so it is unlikely that I will ever move into another genre, or ever tire of cooking, eating and writing about food. But you never know – at least one well-known food writer has become a novelist.
Morgen: Many celebrities have. Do you write under a pseudonym?
Isabel: No, I am and always will be Isabel Hood, food writer and private chef.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Isabel: More than I care to count. But I always remind myself that Jack Canfield, author of multi-million dollar bestseller “The Success Principles”, received 130 rejections before he found a publisher for his first book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and would simply say to himself: Next! every time he received a rejection. Chicken Soup went on to sell millions and has been translated into 39 languages. I think the most frustrating letter of rejection is the template one which does not apply to you, your book or your subject. I remember receiving a rejection for Chilli and Chocolate which informed me that the publisher was looking for something far more original and unusual and which had not been covered before. I made a point of visiting a bookshop to see what their most recent cookery book was about: “The Food of Italy”…..
Morgen: I have a writing colleague who has 40+ submissions out at once so when one comes back rejected it dulls the ‘pain’. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Isabel: Sadly not. I did submit Just The Two of Us and Chilli and Chocolate for the Guild of Food Writers’ awards but was unsuccessful.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Isabel: I do, but they are not vital as I have heard of one very successful food writer who does not use an agent. Some authors do strike lucky with a publisher who continues to publish them. And certainly having an agent is no guarantee whatsoever of getting published. But food writing is horrendously competitive, and without an agent, one needs to be prepared to put a lot of time, effort, and money into the process of finding a publisher. An agent has valuable connections and can usually ensure that the manuscript at least gets seen by the right person, even if the result is a rejection. Mine is also an extremely important sounding board and source of advice, as she knows the publishing world inside out.
Morgen: Agents obviously have contacts but as you say many an author has managed well without one. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Isabel: Vegan Cookbook The Essential Guide is available as a paperback and an eBook, which was the publisher’s choice. I have been strenuously encouraged by various people to do the same with Chilli and Chocolate, and I suspect I will go down that route once all the current paper stock is gone as I would not want it to go out of print and eBooks are an excellent way of keeping a book “alive”. I do not have any kind of Kindle and my vast collection of cookery books is all paper – they are dog-eared and splattered with oil, wine, soup and goodness knows what else, full of my scribbled notes about the recipe and ideas for other dishes, easy to leaf through, consult, enjoy and delve into; somehow an eBook is just not the same.
Morgen: That is the advantage of paper, as you obviously wouldn’t want to let a Kindle near ‘goodness knows what else,’. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Isabel: Publishers supposedly do some marketing but as soon as a book has come out, they are onto their next publication and other titles are forgotten and left behind. I suspect this is particularly true for cookery books, which bookshops only stock for a maximum of six months, unless it turns out to be a bestseller. Even my local bookshop no longer stocks Just The Two of Us and Chilli and Chocolate, in spite of the fact that I am a local writer. I sent copies of Chilli and Chocolate to the BBC and got a radio interview; and then managed to interest the producer in Just The Two of Us. So when Vegan Cookbook came out last winter, I sent a copy to my contact who passed it on to another producer, who invited me onto her show, and now I am appearing on a monthly basis – wasn’t that lucky?! My books have also been featured in my local newspaper, The Chichester Observer, which has published some of my articles. I use my three books as my business card and distribute them to all my clients and their friends, and basically take copies of the books wherever I go, in case anybody is interested.
Morgen: I didn’t know that there was literally a shelf-life for cookery books. You’d think unless they were seasonal that it wouldn’t matter. Congratulations on your BBC appearances – they are generally a very supportive organisation (their writers’ room is great for scriptwriters). Do you have a favourite of your books?
Isabel: I am immensely proud of all three of my cookery books, and have a particularly soft spot for the Mexican one – but Just The Two of Us was my first born and is extremely personal, as it is dedicated to my husband who played a big part in it, both in the creation itself and as a specific feature of the book: he is “The Saturday Night Porker”!
Morgen: <laughs> Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Isabel: No. As mentioned above, RePas de Deux became Just The Two of Us; and I had called the vegan one Vegan Vie, but this was changed to Vegan Cookbook The Essential Guide. I reckon that publishers know their job and their market and if they feel that the author’s title will impede the success of the book, I am happy to accept their decision, even if I feel that their title is utterly uninspiring.
Morgen: You would hope that they do. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Isabel: My agent is currently marketing a proposal for a fourth cookery book to publishers, so my fingers are as crossed as can be.
Morgen: Mine too. Do let me know. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s (chef’s) block?
Isabel: The private chef side of my work has to take priority as it is what brings in the money, so I write when I can. Sometimes I have quite a lengthy period of available time, on other occasions or at certain times of the year I may not write at all for several weeks. I get writer’s block on a regular basis and then I have to discipline myself to get on with it and just write anything, even if I know it is bad or incorrect or not particularly interesting or irrelevant. I remind myself that I will come back to it in due course and improve it, and this gets me back into the flow.
Morgen: Do you plan your books, or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Isabel: For a cookery book, one needs to decide what aspect of food to focus on and then from which angle to approach it.
Morgen: Do your books need editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Isabel: There is always editing to be done. Once the first draft is written, I need to go over it time and again, tweaking it, playing around with it, approaching something in a different way – there always seems to be a means of enriching, of clarifying, of expanding. Certainly my writing must be improving as I progress, but my priority at the start is to get it all down on paper as it were, knowing that I can then change it as much as is necessary until I am happy with it.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Isabel: A huge amount! I feel that as a food writer I have a responsibility to ensure that my recipes work and are clear, and that any information I give is correct.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Isabel: No, I think they will all see the light of day in one form or another. I have written a number of articles as well as proposals for cookery books which have not found a publisher, but the ideas, text, information, recipes etc. always seem to find a home elsewhere, even years down the line, in a book or article which does, or eventually will get, published. It is never a waste of time.
Morgen: Absolutely. If nothing else, it’s all practice. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Isabel: Sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time – but then I get to spend countless creative, magical hours in the kitchen, bringing my writing and ideas to life.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Isabel: Get on with it and write, write, write. Do it seriously. Keep coming up with ideas, and have unshakeable faith that you will succeed, however long it takes – and it will probably take a long time and a huge amount of effort! But most importantly, have fun and enjoy it.
Morgen: I do. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook?
Isabel: So long as they have good appetites and truly enjoy food, anybody is welcome at my table. In fact, when we lived in London and I ran my catering company, my husband and I used to test recipes – only ever other people’s in those pre-food writing days – on Saturdays. I obviously could not try recipes out on my clients as that would be a sure road to catastrophe, so I spent a lot of time – and money! – choosing and testing recipes. We would cook at least 8 or 9 different dishes and then invite people round to help us not only eat it all but also judge it. We made it clear to them that they were allowed to criticise as much as they wanted and that all feedback was welcome. We don’t do that any more as most of my private chef work is at the weekend, so we test sporadically whenever there is time – and needless to say, if I am in the middle of writing a cookery book, we test my recipes time and again until we are confident anyone can cook them, or until we give up on them and discard them.
Morgen: What a shame I don’t live nearer – I’d gladly critique. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Isabel: Eat, drink and be merry!
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Isabel: As mentioned above, I have been appearing on a monthly basis on a BBC radio show called You and Your Food which is tremendous fun – so far I have covered my own cookery books, as well as be talking about other food-related subjects – asparagus, chillies, strawberries, BBQs, apples, whatever. I am also interested in demonstrating: I have demonstrated at The Fiery Food Festival in Brighton and I really enjoy the whole process, the “live” feeling so I hope to do some more in the future.
I have recently being helping a small start-out company to develop recipes for Mexican sauces which is an exciting project.
Morgen: How wonderful. I love helping start-outs (authors, websites, shops)… and I love Brighton. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Isabel: Cooking is my passion, both my career and my hobby so I do tend to spend a lot of my spare time in the kitchen. But I also love country walking and sailing, going to the cinema, the arts generally (my husband is an architect and an artist so some of this has rubbed off), entertaining – we are doing a lot of that at the moment to catch up on all the years when our house was not fit to receive guests.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Isabel: I have only recently discovered the LinkedIn Writers’ Network, which is of course where I found you! I don’t really have the time to do a lot of internet surfing looking for relevant websites – there are just so many of them out there nowadays and it is very difficult to assess what they can offer.
Morgen: Yay for LinkedIn. It’s a great tool and I put my shoutouts on there when I’d almost run out of interviewees and was very quickly swamped, to the point actually where I’ve just pulled it as I’m booked 8 months in advance and emails have been getting in the way of my own writing so not fair on anyone. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Isabel: I joined LinkedIn at a friend’s suggestion recently but have not really had time to study it and see how I might benefit from it. But since I found your blog there, it has already started to do its job. I am not on Facebook or Twitter or anything like that. I don’t frankly know much about them but my feeling is that they are far too general, wide and all-encompassing to be of specific use. LinkedIn however does have a specifically professional focus. I do sometimes wonder though whether I am missing opportunities by not following up on this kind of thing.
Morgen: They are very time-consuming, although fun in small doses. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Isabel: It is a field which has become horrendously competitive and publishers are under ever increasing economic pressure and finding it more and more difficult to make a profit. This obviously means that they are very careful in their choice of what to publish and what not. A book by a celebrity chef is bound to sell tens if not hundreds of thousands of copies, however badly written and however unreliable the recipes may be, while a book by a little known food writer is a huge risk. A publisher once told me that they needed to sell a minimum of 15,000 copies of a cookery book to make it worth their while.
Isabel: However, people will always read, and hopefully always cook, so there will always be opportunities and possibilities.
Morgen: Cooking has become far more popular in recent months and hopefully made people eat better. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Isabel: I recently had a very lovely website designed for me: www.isabelhood.com
And my Mexican articles on BellaOnline can be found on: www.bellaonline.com/site/mexicanfood
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Isabel: Any of your readers who are chilli lovers might be interested in this link: http://www.fieryfoodsuk.co.uk/content/Events – I’ll be doing cookery demonstrations
Morgen: I’m sure my lodger would be. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Isabel: No, but I would like to thank you for interviewing me and for your interest in my books.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, Isabel thank you for joining me.
I then invited Isabel to include an extract of her writing…
“This book is about Mexican food as I remember it; it is about my deeply personal, very nostalgic, journey back to the food of my childhood; and it is also about my understanding and modern interpretation of Mexican food. I have structured the book around five specific foods which, for me, represent the very heart of Mexico’s glorious cuisine, its quintessential, dominant ingredients and flavours. Many will disagree with me, but then this is my Mexican food, my Mexico, mi México lindo y querido, the Mexico which comes alive in my kitchen every time I prepare a tomato salsa, scented with fresh coriander and heady with chilli; or a mole, deep and rich with chocolate and spices; or a simple dish of black beans flavoured with cumin and bacon. As I cook and breathe in the intoxicating aromas, I can close my eyes and be instantly transported to the little street stall by the bus station in Tuxtla Gutierrez where we bought tortas filled with huevos a la mexicana just before dawn; or to a fonda in Guanajuato – just three rickety tables under a tattered awning and a memorable quesadilla of chorizo and strips of poblanochilli; or the courtyard garden of the old colonial palace in Mérida where we ate a simple roast chicken with a mango and avocado salsa under a jacaranda tree in full bloom. And as, in my mind’s eye, I wander along the aisles of the indoor market in Oaxaca, past huge woven baskets of dried chillies and piles of plantains, papayas and guavas, I hear the marchantas, the stall holders, calling out: “que se va llevar”, “what will you take”.
I then invited Isabel to include a synopsis of her latest book…
Cast aside any thought of denying yourself gastronomic pleasure and wearing a culinary hair shirt – any visions of brown rice, brown lentils and even browner nut roast – any pre-conceptions about deprivation and emptiness – and enter the charismatic and flamboyant world of vegan cookery, with its endless spectrum of flavours, textures, scents and colours. In Vegan Cookbook The Essential Guide, food writer and private chef, Isabel Hood, sets out to prove that the glass, far from being half empty, is full to the brim, full to overflowing with mouth watering possibilities and a way of eating which is limited only by our imaginations. Whether you are a fully fledged vegan, a beginner just dipping your toes into the water, or an omnivore simply looking to broaden your diet, this collection of vegan recipes will introduce you to a whole new world of exciting dishes based on fruit and vegetables, pulses and grains, nuts and seeds, pungent herbs and warm aromatic spices – prepare to be DAZZLED!
Isabel Hood blames her cosmopolitan childhood and upbringing for her fascination with food and her deep interest in the cuisines of the world. She grew up in Mexico and was educated at an international school with fellow pupils from virtually every country on earth – as a result, she has been steeped in intensely flavoured, palate-tingling, aromatic cooking all her life and exposed to foreign culinary influences from a very early age. This has encouraged her to seek adventure in the kitchen (which has always been her favourite room in the house!) and in the food traditions and cultures of other nationalities. Through her culinary voyages, Isabel has developed a two-pronged personal approach to cooking: food which brings joy and pleasure, and also supports dynamic health and vitality. Her areas of speciality and particular interest are vegan cookery and the cuisines of Mexico, France, southern Europe and the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Near and Middle East.
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