Archive for the ‘Feature Articles’ Category

Interviewing Celebrities

November 3, 2011

There comes a time in every journalist’s life where he has to interview someone rich, famous, successful, talented etc. and generally – apart from the “guess who I got to meet?” factor – it’s a pretty unenviable task.

(There is actually some practical advice at the bottom of this rambling article by the way, if that’s what you came looking for!).

My number came up earlier this year when, on the back of the Barcelona cocktails article – which I nailed – the editor of Easyjet Magazine called me and said he wanted me to go and interview Ferran Adria and sample the cuisine at El Bulli, arguably the world’s best restaurant of all time. Hahaha, I actually told the Editor I was pretty busy and I’d have to think about it… but of course I couldn’t resist the opportunity in the end… even if the food I was to eat was not the avant garde stuff that made Adria and El Bulli famous, but rather the staff or ‘family’ meal.

So up I go to Roses, hitching a ride with the photographer, her assistant (how much can a freelance photographer earn that they can afford an assistant for f@ck’s sake? One thing that pisses me off about travel writing is that the photographers always seem to get paid much more money than the writers, whose work takes far longer. And with the amount of photographers kicking around I really can’t believe there’s a skill shortage of snappers vs. talented writers), plus an interpreter. The interpreter spent most of the journey noisily filing her nails, and making sure we all understand how much better she knew Ferran than all of us (having worked with him before) and I half fancied she thought she should be writing the piece.  She also emphasised, as the photographer’s assistant proceeded to get us lost, how much he hated people being late. So I was more than a bit pissed off when she then insisted – with 5 mins before the interview was due to start – that we take a 25 minute break for a sandwich.

She was right. Adria was pissed off that we were late. When the photographer didn’t seem to know what the assignment was (we’d been invited to talk specifically about the Family Meal and she was supposed to be photographing the process) he got a whole lot more pissed off. And so it was that I finally sat down with an irritable Adria and the interpreter to start the piece. Adria turned out to be a complete nightmare to interview. He is a nice enough and respectful enough guy, but he clearly has no idea what a journalist wants from him… or doesn’t want to offer it… and getting anything vaguely quotable seemed almost impossible. We weren’t helped by the fact that I was terrified he would end the interview prematurely, on account of his bad mood, and I so I rushed through some of the most important questions on my list.  Things settled down after a while and we managed to get a bit of rapport going… but overall the exercise was a bit of nightmare trying to balance what a) Ferran and the publishers of his new cook book, the Family Meal, wanted to talk about and b) the Easyjet Editor wanted me to write about, all through the medium of a translator and with an irate subject with an aversion to concrete answers and a love of vague abstractisms.

Anyway the article got published this November, but it kind of sucks. Some ugly editing didn’t really help… I hate being edited! (But not quite as much as this guy;). Even if an article is flawed, adding new stuff in or changing things around always throws out the rhythm of the piece and 90% of times makes it worse.  Anyhow if you can be bothered you can go to the fancy online reader thingy at the EJ magazine site to read the piece…

So there you go. Celebrity interviews. Don’t do them! Ok do them, but just be prepared… here’s some advice for interviewing not just celebrities, but ordinary mortals as well:

a) Do your research! I scored some brownie points with Adria by at least having read all about him and going through the El Bulli website in detail (clearly most journalists he’d spoken to hadn’t!)

b) Know your assignment! Editors can be vague bastards at times, so pin them down about what they want. Obviously you should have a question list before you go. It helps to have the questions in a logical order and to memorise them, to minimize panicked flicking through notebooks.

c) Check your equipment at least two days before the interview. This means you have some time to repair/replace anything that doesn’t work, or buy batteries or whatever for your voice recorder (you should carry some spare anyhow! Once mine ran out mid-interview and I had to go back and do it all again… embarrassing and a complete waste of everyone’s time!).

d) Don’t be nervous. Who cares if they’re famous? They’re not saving the planet and you’re probably smarter than them anyway. Just look them in the eye and ask them the questions!

e) Let them talk about what they want. Never interrupt them if they’re on a roll, even if it feels irrelevant at the time. So many times I’ve been typing up a transcript only to hear myself stop someone talking at just the moment things start getting interesting, to steer them back on course. Let them go off course and bring them back when they run out of steam.

f) Turn up on time;)

Ok if you yourself have any more sagely pearls of wisdom on the art of interviewing then allow me to refer you to the comments section below…

My Reputation Precedes Me…

August 31, 2011

Apologies for the pretentious post title, but if I was inclined to feeling smug (which I might be if I wasn’t so poor. It’s hard to be smug when you are 33 and still can’t afford to pay off your student loans) then I might be doing just that now.

For this summer, rather than spend ages desperately coming up with new ideas about Barcelona and frantically polishing pitches to submit to the usually deaf inboxes of various impossible-to-contact editors, for a very welcome change they have been coming to me. It started with the Editor of Easyjet Magazine, who heard about me through my regular work with Ink (the media company that seemingly publish half of all budget airlines inflight magazines) contacting me and asking me to research a piece on Barcelona’s cocktail revolution. In fact the said revolution had pretty much passed me by up until now, but thankfully some research did reveal quite a few new places, most famously Albert Adria’s new venture 41 Degrees. And then continued when the Editor of Yeahbaby (also by Ink) asked me to pitch her some summer-themed stories. Hey pronto two feature article commissions and half the effort as usual as I hadn’t had to come up with five different pitches just to land one piece.

The cocktails article was particularly fun to write as it meant checking out some of the most exclusive and expensive places in town, and blagging quite a few free drinks en route. Luckily – after find this post online I was able to track down a knowledgeable and extremely polite gentleman by the name of Albert Montserrat, who kindly agreed to help with the article purely out of his love of cocktails (what a guy!). He promptly introduced me to Jordi Otero of Banker’s Bar – the city’s most prestigious bartender (and younger than me I might add), as well as taking me to Muti’s, a speakeasy cocktail bar known only to a lucky few. Anyway much merriment ensued and you can possibly track down the article here. (Unfortunately the Easyjet Magazine website keeps getting worse). Naturally I also used some of what I learned to bash out a handy text on the best cocktail bars in Barcelona for my own site.

The article that got commissioned in the end for Yeahbaby was about street parties or ‘festes majores’. Basically during summer every district in Barcelona has its own ‘Festa Major’ or Grand Festival, which is usually little more than 4-7 days of drinking on the street, live music, dancing and the odd street decoration. Cheap, authentic and fun for me they are definitely some of the best festivals in Barcelona (hint: La Merce is biggest and best!). I had to write it from memory, which is always tough, but luckily I had the good sense to make just a smattering of notes one year which I kept on my phone and miraculously still had. It’s good to have those first hand concrete details… personally I find them hard to replicate using my imagination alone (guess I’ll never make it as a novel writer after all!). To read the piece you’ll have to navigate their website’s tricky ‘magazine reader’ thingy. Good luck –

So there you go prospective travel writers. Get your foot in the door, build your expertise around a destination (or several destinations) and do a great job on every commission and after a while it seems the editors start to come to you… in fact since then Easyjet have come back to me and sent me up to El Bulli to interview none other than Ferran Adria… now that’s what being a travel journalist should be all about!

The Trouble With Skateboarding

September 27, 2010

As a travel writer it’s important to have flexible principles. For example, just a few months after I mocked the intellect of Barcelona’s skate community, I found myself pitching an article about the little cabrones for Ryanair magazine… There was a buck to be made after all.

If I thought that maybe confronting these misfits I would grow to love their ill-judged body ink and respect their determined pursuit to knock their own teeth out, then I was sorely mistaken. As it happened they were, for the most part bigger ****s than I was expecting. Starting with the bare-chested moron who took himself too seriously to help with the piece (although started trying to get in the back of photos the minute we found someone else), through to the pseudo-punk who thought he was much too cool as he abjectly failed to land any of kick flips outside the MACBA. I wasn’t too impressed with the skate shop attendant either who did his damned hardest to avoid help market his shop for free to millions of readers… they’re really not the brightest specimens (pl.?) in the species. Lucky I did meet one or two friendly and helpful folk who did something to redeem their sub culture and you can read about them here… (apologies for the dodgy online editing, not much I can do about that).

Anyway having just about cajoled enough ‘street riders’ into deigning to speak with me and have a photo done, I wrote and submitted the piece and started the several month waiting process to get paid. A couple of weeks before it was due to be published however the Editor emailled me up and said there was a big problem with the piece and I should contact him immediately. I foolishly mentioned in the article that skateboarding is in fact illegal in Barcelona and now the client – ie. Ryanair – were throwing a hissy fit in case they were seen to be encouraging illegal behaviour. I was shocked. It was skateboarding for f@ck’s sake, not drug taking. Then again, I could see their point too. Naturally the Editor was having babies because if he makes a bad call, as per the whole Easyjet debacle (where they ran a fashion shoot without permission at a holocaust memorial in Berlin) he could lose his job. In the end the fact that they had spent ages preparing a huge spread with photos illustrations and all meant the Editor went to special lengths to get the green light from the city… he phoned the tourist board and they confirmed, what we all knew, that well-behaved skateboarding is tolerated.

A bit of a scare because if they had pulled the article then they would have only paid me a so-called ‘kill fee’, or half the original commission. It’s probably against European law, but until some travel writer with enough money to pay a lawyer challenges this arrangement I’m sure it will long continue… as such travel writers don’t exist the magazines hold all the power.

It did get me thinking though, how many travel articles are in fact about illegal activities? From ruin bars in Hungary, to squat venues in Barcelona, or even guerilla gardening in London, some of the coolest trends often stray the wrong side of the law, even if they are largely tolerated by a society that probably has better things to do with its time than give a sh!t. Anyway it will make me think twice about what I pitch to who in future…

Candid Camera (Lomography in Barcelona)

February 13, 2010

One of the disadvantages in writing for bi-monthly publications is the long gaps that arise in between researching your article, writing/submitting it and then seeing it published. Why is this a problem? Well the obvious bugbear is that, if you only get paid on publication, it can lead to big cashflow issues! Whilst a smaller difficulty arises when there is a big gap between conducting the research and deadline day… for example by the time I’d finally got the go ahead for my piece on Lomo photography in Barcelona (some time in autumn 2009) I was having to stretch my memory several months to when I actually researched the piece (back to spring 2009) to recall vital info and set a credible scene. I do use a voice recorder to get the all-important quotes but carrying a notebook isn’t always practical and I do rely on memory for thoughts, impressions and details. Anyway I mention this as a caveat to aspiring travel writers: some ideas and articles will, whether you like it or not, take longer to materialise in published form than you’d ideally like, so try to be better prepared than I usually am to keep them fresh on ice!

Anyhow finally, a good nine months after I spent a very enjoyable weekend with Barcelona’s Lomography community, and four months after I submitted it to the editor, my article was published by Jetaway.

It looks better in print naturally, with a selection of mine and more talented Lomographers shots to accompany the piece! But anyway it was a great subject, and I think I just about did it justice!

This prodigious wait to see it in print did get me thinking that, much as I love both Jetaway and the editor, from a business point of view it does make more sense to submit ideas to monthly magazines first. Not only do they commission faster, get printed faster and therefore end up paying much faster, but there is less scope for things going wrong. If an article gets published a few weeks after it gets commissioned there is less chance of the article being canned because of some issue you have no control over… such as the airline going bust! It’s happened before, believe me.

Poetry Brothel – Barcelona

December 26, 2009

Got a lovely lead a couple of months ago and went straight to the editor of Ryanair Magazine as I knew he would snap this one up! Barcelona’s poetry brothel (the second in the world, the first having opened up in New York), works much like an ordinary brothel does (or at least how I imagine an ordinary brothel does;) except for instead of being led into a dark corner for some hanky panky you are led into a dark corner for some erotic reading by poetic putas… A really fantastically fun article to research and write – and one that gave me plenty of opportunities to exercise my beloved puns. Ladies of quill repute anyone? Anyway, it’s on planes right now so ask for a copy or head online.

I developed a crush on quite a few of the buxom bards so I may well pop back at my leisure… check out their blog for forthcoming events.

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

November 16, 2009

There are not many people who can say they drink vodka for a living, but I’m happy to report that this particular session on the sauce paid my bed and board for a week or two at least! An article on Polish vodka is probably not the most original pitch in the world (in fact I’d already written one for Wizzair Magazine in when I was working for Cracow Life), but it’s the type editors love because a) it’s a local product with lots of history and cultural impact b) it gives the writer plenty of scope for having fun!

I pitched this article with the headline ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ as a vodka tasting article centred around a night out in Krakow in which a bunch of English guys try, amongst other things, the famous Mad Dog (Wsciekly Pies) shot. In the end I went out with just one English guy and his girlfriend (who got cut out of the piece, as – although her company was very charming! – she didn’t have any quotes I wanted to use). Thankfully Simon proved to be not only a bit of a vodka connoisseur but came up with some brilliantly expressive tasting reactions (‘I’m getting burnt plastic’ and much more!)… Good man!

I nearly cried when the commissioning editor, Lucille from Jetaway magazine (who had raved about how much she loved the piece!) emailled me to say Jet2 had cancelled their Krakow route and she couldn’t run it (in these cases incidentally I would have been paid a kill fee – just half the original commission, but been free to sell the article elsewhere). However luckily Ryanair Magazine (published by the same company) also liked it and gave it a new home! Weyhey! Although the Editor did change the title to Sharp Shooters… which I’m not at all upset about if only because I love the Gangsta Cru.

So without further ado, here is the super Sharp Shooters/Mad Dogs & Englishmen… and I’d just like any editors out there know that I’m available for more vodka-related commissions…

Klezmer Musicians in Krakow

October 29, 2009

Earlier in the year I travelled back to my ex-home of Krakow Poland to write a couple of features that I had been commissioned to do by Jetaway. One was on Communist Tour, another a vodka article (which eventually got dropped as Jet2 stopped flying to Krakow… luckily Ryanair have picked it up and it should be published soon!). I was also lucky enough to get a third assignment with Wizzair, interviewing me old mucker Monsieur Trebacz about his free-wheeling life as a bike tour guide and part-time DJ.

Anyhow, in an attempt to make the trip yet more profitable I decided to take a chance and research an article that no one had commissioned but I hoped to sell to the broadsheets thus paving the way into the lucrative business of travel writing for newspapers… naturally this plan didn’t work, and I must say still a bit flummoxed on how to break into this market. By chance I have the email of the NY Times Travel Editor’s email and he told me that due to the economic crisis they weren’t commissioning any more articles, instead publishing the large backlog of stories they have gathering cyber dust in their inbox. This could of course have been a polite way of saying we’re not interested but it certainly tallies with the reports of newspapers under strain and slashing budgets (one my reason why I launched Urban Travel Blog).

Anyhow the upshot of all this is that I had a very well-researched 1500 word article on the modernisation of traditional Jewish klezmer folk music in Krakow which I had spent the best part of a week polishing kicking around on my desktop for six months. Shame really as it was a good ‘un… but what with my funky new concept of an online travel magazine now up-and-running I have handily provided myself with the perfect publishing platform. Ok, sadly no one is paying me just yet but with the digital revolution well underway who knows, self-publishing my articles may prove even more profitable than writing for other editors.

Hope you enjoy my encounters with ‘The New Klezmers of Krakow‘.

Cheese All That

October 13, 2009

My latest published article is a ‘People’ piece for Wizzair Magazine, in which I interviewed Spanish cheese expert Katherine McLaughlin, a 20-year Barcelona resident. I had chanced to go by her shop, Formatgeria La Seu, one day and we got talking and so I decided to pitch a piece about her interesting life/profession to the Editor. Naturally it didn’t turn out as smoothly as I had planned! My first error was not replacing the batteries in my digital recorder at the first sign they were low… you guessed it, we were a good 40 minutes into our conversation before I realised that for at least 25 of those we hadn’t been recording! It’s never the same when you try and go back over material and we pressed on, although barely had her phone stopped ringing than the customers started arriving and the interview was becoming increasingly disjointed. A further problem materialised when it came to picture time. Wizz had asked me for photos as part of my commission and, whereas I had managed to supply some natty shots with my compact Canon for a previous piece (interviewing a bike tour guide in Krakow), that had been outside and with an interviewee who I knew and was easier to direct. A reluctant model, no tripod and a mere 4.0 megapixels to work with the results were pedestrian. But with a bit of Photoshopping they just about turned out all right.

As for the text… well I typed up the transcript, but when I started working on the article I really felt it was lacking some fizz. In the end, rather than try and string out what I had, I called Katherine and she kindly agreed to do a second interview! This time around I got a great anecdote about her being chased by a bull in Galicia, as well as some better all round info. It was a bit of rescue job and I’ve definitely read better People pieces in Wizz, but a couple of lessons learnt at least. I think there’s always a bit of luck involved when your piece is heavily reliant on an interview with just one person, and – even though Katherine and I struck up a great rapport – you’re not always guaranteed that the information they impart is delivered in pithy quote-size chunks! In other words an interesting or pleasant conversation doesn’t directly correspond to great material for copy.

Anyhow you can judge for yourselves by reading the article here.

If you are in Barcelona and interested in Spanish cheeses then I can thoroughly recommend dropping in on Ms McLaughlin as she is a great no-nonsense Scotswoman who really knows her stuff on her specialist subject (farm house cheese). Her fare could make a good, if somewhat smelly, souvenir for the folks back home too!

Recycled Sounds for Easyjet Magazine

October 2, 2009

Ah, you wait months for an article to be published and then two crop up at once! Credit due to the Easyjet web content manager who could certainly teach their counterpart at Ryanair a thing or two about timely posting…

Recycled Sounds: Barcelona’s maestros of rubbish rhythms

As I mentioned in my previous blog post the idea for this article came from the same Time Out stub (thanks guys!) about recycling projects in Barcelona as the idea for Trashion Victims, and was particularly great from my perspective as it enabled me to get my first feature article with Easyjet Magazine… not a bad publication to be in with! The pitch for the article was little more than an interview with the band, Cabo San Roque (who are based in Barcelona); and whereas the editor was keen on the eco angle (the whole point being the band play with recycled instruments) it turns out that the recycling is done more from a practical than world-saving perspective. I don’t feel it detracts from the interest of the piece.

I must say the research could have gone a little more smoothly. The band’s manager, for some reason, invited me to a performance that was taking place at some kind of Catalan business event in a huge conference room full of suited and booted executive types (I was in my scruffy jeans and T-shirt). I had to sit through 2 hours of presentation in Catalan, alleviated with the odd video presentation and Coldplay soundtrack, before the performance – which lasted just 15-20 minutes – got underway. Luckily the band’s leader, Roger Aixut, was an extremely nice and interesting guy (he apologised for the strange set up) and we talked for a good 30 or 40 mins afterwards, whilst my digital recorder faithfully took notes. By the end it was a case of having too much, rather than too little material, but that’s always a nice problem to have (kind of like Fabio Capello deciding who to play on the right wing). The editor barely touched the piece at all (although reading the exorbitantly long second sentence, perhaps it would have been better if he had!), and generally I’m quite pleased with how it turned out.

Ok enough foreplay. I hope you enjoy the piece. I managed to squeeze in a couple of funnies – I was somewhat surprised the baguette didn’t get edited out. Read on!

Trashion Victims for Ryanair Magazine

September 30, 2009

Ryanair Magazine have finally updated their website, so I can proudly reveal my latest article, Trashion Victims: Recycled Chic in Barcelona, which has been on planes since mid-Sept. (I have no idea why Ryanair runs magazines from mid-month to mid-month, rather than simply ‘September’ ‘October’ etc, but there you go!).

I got the idea for the article from Time Out Guide to Barcelona 2007 edition, which had a short stub about various exciting recycling projects in the city (in fact from the same propitious stub I also got the lead for another article: ‘Recycled Sounds’, about Cabo San Roque band, which will be published shortly in Easyjet Magazine). After a bit of Internet research, I got in contact with a company called Demano, who luckily turned out to be the original recyclers of PVC posters in the city (these huge events posters are made out of expensive, durable plastic which was being buried at great expense to the environment, but which Demano turn into trendy bags – amongst other things). A very charming lady called Marcela Manrique invited me to their workshop so she could tell me more about the project – it was a lovely office in Poble Nou, full of trendy 20-late-somethings and I could have quite happily subscribed for a job there! But I won’t tell you what she had to say because it’s all in the article. After interviewing Marcela I nosed around town meeting the bizarre but brilliant Brazilian, Felipe McWallace, an artist and recyclomaniac, who supplied most of the article’s juicy quotes, as well as the affable Samuel Nualart and his partner who were working on a similar project to Demano but using original artists’ drawings on recycled canvasses – see Pinzat.

Once I’d gathered all the material I was put in contact with Barcelona-based photographer Susana Gellida (who thankfully spoke better English than my Spanish. We were able to talk and I was able to communicate my ideas to her – vital for getting images that match the story.) and I think she did a superb job of chronicling the piece in pictures. As bags are a tough subject to make visually exciting, I wasn’t surprised that the editor opted for shots mostly of Felipe with his dreadlocks and iconic sartorial style, outlandish customised bikes and chaotic junk-filled ‘laboratory’ (LABpukO on C/Palma de Sant Just). It meant a slight re-edit on the text, as the editor also wanted to start the piece with a quote from him (and you can certainly expect a post about a writer’s response to being edited soon in this blog!), but I think it came out really well.

Ok, I hope you enjoy the article, and please comment below with any feedback etc.

Oh and a quick post script! It seems I am sharing publishing honours in the magazine with my friend Steve Fallon, who I met when helping him with nightlife advice on Krakow for the Lonely Planet guide to Poland… (he really couldn’t have come to a better person;). Check out his amusing article describing just a few of the joys of being a travel writer.