Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writers Talk with Lana Bortolot

Happy Thursday to you!  I’m so pleased to announce that after a month-long hiatus, Writers Talk is back—& we’re celebrating its return by interviewing a special writer & a special friend, New York City journalist Lana Bortolot.

My association with Lana Bortolot dates back to the early 1980s when we were both studying English literature at the University of Vermont.  Lana moved on from studies of Henry James, Geoffery Chaucer et al. to work in a Washington, DC law firm, but on to study journalism & obtained her masters degree from New York University by way of Virginia Commonwealth University.  Lana is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and amNewYork, where she covers arts & culture, & urban affairs as well as other travel/lifestyle magazines. She specializes in historic preservation & community development, wine & travel, especially in regions where grapes grow (she is someone who gives her passport a regular & thorough workout).

I know Lana as someone with a dry & incisive wit, deep passions & an equally deep sense of integrity.  All these characteristics come to thefore in her writing, which is consistently crisp, clear & inviting to the imagination as her words take the reader to exotic locales—whether those locales exist on the shores of the Adriatic or the sidewalks of Astoria.  I’m very pleased to bring a journalist’s perspective to the Writers Talk series & even more pleased that the journalist is my dear friend, Lana Bortolot.

Please check out the companion Writers Talk blog for a piece Lana contributed to the Wall Street Journal (published in the Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2011
—here's a link to the article on the WSJ site, where you can watch a super slideshow the Journal put together for the piece), & you can also check out more of her writing, as well as find back stories for her reporting on Lana’s excellent blog. & now—here’s Lana:

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

I wrote my first short story when I was nine years old and that’s when I thought I would be a writer. I didn’t write anything again until a few poems in college after a heartbreak. When those poems were dwarfed by the more brilliant writer in my life, I didn’t pick up again on writing until I went to grad school for journalism about 10 years later. But it took a while to figure out what to write because I was never interested in a news beat: I fancied myself a features writer. Which, of course, is in high demand and pays quite a lot. As I’ve evolved as a journalist, I found I could cover news stories in a humanistic way—and even incorporate those elements of creative non-fiction to which I’d always been attracted. People don’t think news stories are crafted. But that’s not true. And when I realized that, I evolved from being a journalist to being a writer.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

While living in Italy, I wrote a number of travel essays for newspapers and guidebooks and I always remembered what Zinsser said about travel writing, which pertains to much writing: “The writer must keep a tight rein on your subjective self … and keep an objective eye on the reader.”

So, my approach was experiential: what did it feel like to be in a place and why? Was it mystical or romantic because of history? Some sense of loss or abandonment? Why would a reader forsake the better-known sites to come to this one and what were the rewards? Those were always the questions I had to answer before I pursued some folly of a story. Those details have to be significant to someone other than me. Once I articulated the experience of being there, I went back and inserted the facts that were the backbone of the story. The goal: make the story serviceable, imaginative and free of cliché.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)

I’m on deadline for everything I produce, and it’s a pretty clean relationship: my editors assign and I deliver. But now, with the onslaught of social media and the necessity of engaging in that as a form of self-promotion, I spend a lot more time thinking about how I can extend the story beyond my assigned word count. Having a blog, for instance, allows me to write the back story. And it also allows me to deliver uncluttered copy to my primary publisher, usually a newspaper, knowing I can explore related ideas or segues into a blog. It’s a lot more work—sometimes writing the story twice—but it also gives me license to combine experiential writing with more candid observations outside traditional journalism.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

I have made a vow to never become involved with another writer. So, while I have no competition, I also have no support. Oh well.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

I find journalists fairly supportive of each other because there’s enough room for everyone to find a niche and thrive. So, there’s a lot of room to be admiring, supportive and congratulatory. Maybe that’s because NYC, where I live, is so huge, there are a million stories and a million opportunities to succeed. And when things are bad, we all bitch about the same thing, and that’s strangely bonding. About half the time I write about wine, which is a much smaller community. Still, I find my wine-writer colleagues friendly and willing to share sources and ideas. Maybe it’s because wine journalism is such a social vocation?

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

I think I have a memoir in me somewhere. I would like to try writing in longer, more descriptive form that doesn’t bow to the ecomony of words. But, I am also very happy in my current urban-affairs reporting gig, which allows me to pursue under-the-radar stories, and I’d like to develop that more. Technology is causing us to lose so many human stories; that kind of journalism helps preserve them.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?
A cello: long and deeply thought. Not easy to get into, but, I think, with an unexpected reward at the end.

Image of Ms Bortolot in the Writers Talk graphic is from a photo by Uschi Becker.


  1. Great interview. I especially liked the thoughts about shaping news/feature stories and the insights from travel writing: “The writer must keep a tight rein on your subjective self … and keep an objective eye on the reader.”
    I wonder how much of that is true for other kinds of writing - to some degree should it hold for all kinds of writing? (you don't want to get too swamped in the self, but need also to observe the world, try to see it also as your readers might and definitely how your characters would see it)

  2. Hi HKatz: I do think journalism & some forms of expository writing focus on the reader & try to put the subjective self in the backseat in a way that a poet or some kinds of fiction writers would not. But of course, it seems to me that in any form of writing the subjective self is going to come across, sometimes less, sometimes more.

    I agree: Lana did a wonderful job with the interview. Thanks for stopping by & commenting!


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