This week on The Trip podcast: Writer Matt Goulding on his city, his life, and his work.
A warehouse toward the edge of Barcelona. On the loading dock they smoke cigarettes sprinkled with hash, and drink beers from plastic cups. Inside, a hundred or so people stand toward the stage, nodding thoughtfully to a mashup hiphop and acid jazz. Beards, knit hats, urban scarfs. This is a early-aughts reunion episode, starting with this concert, the one-night revival of long-dormant open-mic series from years ago in Barcelona. One of the MCs who used to frequent those nights years and years ago is back on the mic. It’s Matt Goulding, who still calls Barcelona home, and is still writing, is writing, at least part of the time, as my partner and co-founder at Roads & Kingdoms.
I’ve had a lot of drinks and a lot of conversations with Matt over the years—it’s the chief economic activity of Roads & Kingdoms. So we had, for this episode in my rental apartment in the Gothic Quarter, a lot of options. What we ended up drinking—a porrón of white wine—and what we ended up talking about—how to be a writer—seemed just about perfect to me.
Ultimately what we’re talking about is drinking wine from a great height.
Nathan Thornburgh: Tell me what we have to drink here.
Matt Goulding: Well, that bottle we just popped is called Xarel-lo, a white wine from Catalonia. So this is a good guy, poured into the porrón—that great glass wine receptacle with that narrow nose that you pour in the classic style of the old Spanish working in the fields. Whether red or white wine, an easy way to pass it around amongst colleagues in the middle of the day, wet your whistle and keep going after it, that was the idea. And it’s mid-hipster moment in the U.S, I believe.
Thornburgh: When you got Jose leading the way on Instagram with his porrón skills.
Goulding: That’s right. Mostly José Andrés is to blame and his Mercado in New York, where they’re doing porrón debauchery daily. But here in Barcelona there are a few beacons who have held the light throughout the years, and one of those is La Plata, which you know well.
Thornburgh: This amazing bar where we shot with Anthony Bourdain back in the day.
Goulding: It’s a little place that just does a handful of things—a little fried fish, a little tomato salad, and a porrón of white or red wine. I’m not audacious enough to go with the red. It stains.
Thornburgh: Ultimately what we’re talking about is drinking wine from a great height.
Goulding: That’s the idea. And so, of course it’s supposed to be a convenient vessel, especially communally speaking, where you can pass it around amongst friends or colleagues. But more and more, the idea with the porrón these days is to lift it from the greatest possible height with the least amount of effort in the most blasé attitude possible, full extension of the arm, and then you narrow that little entry point with your lips until it all but disappears and all you have is just a very narrow stream of wine bouncing off of your teeth. That’s the ultimate goal here.
Thornburgh: Food in this town is obviously a big draw, but the writer’s life is also one of the great things about being here. So where do you write, how do you write, how did you get into that rhythm, and how important is this place to it?
Matt Goulding: Great question. I think I originally thought that I was going to write in this R&K office next to the Born market. And it is a beautiful office, and I loved my six-minute stroll through old Barcelona to this office. So the idea of walking down the street to this beautiful neighborhood to an incredibly quiet and lovely office with a nice view as a writer, it just seems that’s why you come to Europe, right? This is it. And they couldn’t paint it better. The truth is that I never wrote a meaningful word in that office in six or seven years of have taking up a desk there. Something about the mixture of how quiet it was and how nice the views were, everything just seemed to be sabotaging me in ways that a too perfect writing desk can be almost restricting.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing.
Goulding: From my standpoint at least, that’s how it works. And so I found over the years that I need to be around white noise, that environmental noise that’s very easy to find in this city. And at least for the longest time, there was no culture of working in bars or cafes here. You didn’t see those Mac warriors heading out in droves to take over the first place with decent Wi-Fi. And in fact, the place I found was a place called Satan’s Coffee Shop in the middle of the Gothic Quarter run by my buddy Marcos, really good guy who loved to mess with the customers by saying basically “absolutely no Wi-Fi, no decaf, no kids, no fun, no anything.” That was his trademark. And I apologized him very early on and I barely knew him, and just said, “Listen, I’m sorry, this is a total buzz killer for you and the clientele here. I can take my dumb laptop somewhere else.” And I think he thought about it for a while and was like, “Yeah, I want you to, but let’s just see how this thing plays out.” And I ended up writing all three of the books that we published with Tony—Rice Noodle Fish and Grape Olive Pig and Pasta Pane Vino—on one stool and one corner of Satan’s Coffee Shop there in the middle of the Gothic Quarter.
Thornburgh: Are you more motivated to write by fear or joy?
Goulding: I would say as a healthy mixture of the two. The fear is that I’m not advancing, I’m not getting better, and if I’m stagnant or if I’m just plateauing and I’m 38 years old, then what the hell am I doing on this rock? That’s always a persistent, low-level but very present fear that I’m just entertaining and metabolizing.
Thornburgh: That’s dark.
Goulding: We all have some version of that, I suppose, especially in a business as narcissistic as writing.
Thornburgh: All is wrapped up in who you are.
Goulding: Totally. You cannot possibly separate that for a second. Even if you write in the third person and you’re distant from your work. It’s all our view of the world, that we’re proposing to the world in ways that we feel are meaningful or are necessary and, God knows if either of those things are words that I would use to describe what I write, but nevertheless I do it.
Thornburgh: Where does editing come into the process for you after you write something? What percentage of your time is going back over the things that you write?
Goulding: I have a horrible process. I think that’s a terribly unhealthy way to write, which I think is entirely enabled by being able to use computers and the way that we do now. So that maybe I’ll write the lede, I’ll start with a sentence or two to just know where this whole story starts with. It used to be very like scene-based and maybe a quote. That was always the way I thought it was easiest to pull someone into a story, but over the years I’ve moved away from that and just try to find something a little bit broader, or something a little bit more far spanning, but regardless, coming down with that first idea that you feel like is going to hook someone in. And then at that point you had this jumble of ideas in your head that you’ve already been stewing on during the reporting process, that you’ve already been thinking about, because these are things that you think about this while you’re taking on the task of trying to put them down into words. And for me it never follows in a linear fashion. I’ve never written a story, certainly not a book from A to Z. It’s more from A to R to M to Q to Z to B.
And it’s something about, I think, our culture of distraction. I think for me personally it’s harder to just dedicate one sentence after the next in one clean, linear fashion, versus find those best nuggets of wisdom and those best combinations of words and syllables and vomiting them out wherever they may fall, and leaving blank spaces between them, and then working my way back to slowly stitch them together.
Thornburgh: What’s the hardest part of that process for you to get into? Is it to realize that you have a small blank space from a totally different time?
Goulding: It’s two things. I think one is, the hardest part initially is realizing that you have to be super sharp with transitions, because you’ve just created these little islands of words and ideas, and they’ve got to fit together in a way that feels entirely natural as if they just came out in one single thought. That one is really tough. And the other part about it is I think that I personally leave the hardest decisions for last minute. A lot of writers do this, but usually you come to a crossroads and you know that this next sentence, next paragraph has to address this very large nuanced idea. Do I choose a metaphor here? Do I go directly at it? Am I using someone’s quote? And I leave those things on the side because I’m not ready to tussle with them. And it’s a lazy way of pushing things off into the end. And so what I ended up with is a story that’s 90% written in terms of the quantity of words, but 80% of the actual muscle is still there for me to wrestle with.
Thinking of the writers of yore, when they sat down with a loose leaf of paper and a quill and just attacked it from start to finish, or a typewriter, that there was more cogent singular direction in their writing than would be in the writing of somebody who is using a MacBook as if it were just some wide open map for you to travel the world with.
I was a creative writing major at UCLA and you always hear this: Kill your babies, don’t be too protective of individual turns of phrase or individual ideas, that you always have to willing to work in the greater service of the story by being efficient, by being really clear-eyed about the words you put down. And so in some ways that really flies in the face of that idea. My first job, my first real editing job, coming out of a few little freelance jobs and I was in my early twenties, was as an editor at Men’s Health. It’s a magazine that’s entirely focused on service, where every sentence, every paragraph, has to be constructed in a way that could conceivably improve the life of the reader. And the second that you veer from that path for some stylistic flourish, it’s just pure ego that’s getting in the way. And I worked with a lot of really smart service editors who would just absolutely tattoo my copy, just blistering edits that were really tough to get over.
Thornburgh: I can imagine a lot of shit would get left on the floor of that show.
All writing needs to do one of two things. It needs to tell you new information, or it needs to be beautiful, and only the best writing does both.
Goulding: Most of my prose, but you learn about the economy of words and how to be extra efficient, how to say a lot with a little.You learn all this things. But the other job that I had had just before that, where I was an intern at Harper’s magazine, and it was this august literary magazine, the oldest continuously run magazine in the U.S. and Lewis Lapham, who is a legendary editor of Harper’s, was on his way out. But I had the chance to transcribe his work.
He always dictated all of his work in this old recording machine. And one of the interns would be lucky every week to be tapped to dictate Lewis Lapham’s Editor’s Note for every issue, and what you listened to, what you heard on these tapes was just a stylist just working out the cadence and the rhythm of language. Yes, he was saying big things, particularly in these years, talking about the Bush administration and the erosion of American ideals and things that we’re talking about in these days as well.
There was an editor at Harper’s at the time, I think his name was Ben Metcalf, also an incredible writer and a legendary editor, I was lucky to have a couple evenings out having some Martinis with him, and he just said, “Listen, all writing needs to do one of two things. It needs to tell you new information, or it needs to be beautiful, and only the best writing does both.”
And it seems pretty self-evident, but when you think about it that way, it really hits home. And so when you sit down to write something, you’re either going for one or the other, or you’re going for both. And I feel like, to give ourselves all a shot at something that’s approaching greatness, we’ve got to be going for both.
Thornburgh: How quickly did you make enemies at Men’s Health when you walked in with that quote.
Goulding: Oh my God. They were just like, forget everything you heard from those pretentious assholes on Fifth Avenue or on Broadway.
Goulding: This was it. They had to deprogram me.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing.
Goulding: And then I left Men’s Health, and I reprogrammed myself to find some fusion thereof—a little bit of that service efficiency and hopefully some of that stylish beauty that guys like Lewis really embodied in all of his work. And I think somewhere in there, especially with the books that we’ve done over the years—you and me and Bourdain and our partner Doug—we try to find that. You’re giving someone something to learn along the way, but it’s always got to be packaged in the type of sentences and types of paragraphs that just make you want to keep reading. Of course, that’s the goal. I would say to any aspiring writer, do it out loud, do it in front of a mirror, do it in front of your girlfriend, do it in front of your peers, whatever it is to, because you will always hear the false note. And the false note might not be a bad word. It may just be the way that that word falls in the context of a larger sentence. I really believe that personally, and I think there’s a lot writing schools that tell you to always get rid of anything that’s excess, that words and the sentences should be stripped down to their bare essentials, whether it’s like a lean muscular prose of Hemingway or the lean muscular prose of men’s health.
Carolyn See, a legendary California novelist who passed away recently, an amazing woman, taught me a lot about writing. But the most important thing that ever happened was that after all these tortured short stories where I was trying to imitate one writer or another one, which we’re all doing, I think, when we start out, I finally just wrote a story about food, about a Thanksgiving meal that had spontaneously come together in my last year in college. It was a fictionalized version of this meal, and she pulled me aside after class and she was like, “From now on, just write about food, just do that.”
And that was the best piece of advice I got. Of course, I took that with a grain of salt because I always thought, “Okay, food is this very narrow little niche and it’s not literary enough, it’s not important enough.” Even though part of my whole thing has always been it is that important and it’s this very necessary cultural staple and all of that, but in the back of my mind, I always thought eventually I’m going to get away from food and to get back to the real writing. And that was something I had in the back of my mind, as if most of the stuff was just catnip to make a living.
Carolyn was a big fan of the thoughtful handwritten note. One of her first lessons in this workshop was exactly that, the thoughtful handwritten note—and this was back in 2002, when emails, of course were popular, but it wasn’t the world of communication that we’re in today, where there’s WhatsApp and i-Messages and even email feels overly formal oftentimes today. She was just saying, “Listen, everybody out there, from the greatest writer who you admire to a chef, to a TV star, like everybody likes to have feedback. Everybody likes to be contacted, which is a thoughtful reflection of what they do. And so your first task as students in my class is to write five thoughtful handwritten notes and send them out by the end of the week to people that you admire.”
And I did that and I sent one to Alice Waters, the founder and personality and spirit behind Chez Panisse, which is this redefining California culinary institution that really shaped the way that Americans ate throughout the eighties and nineties and still to this day. And I wrote to her, “Mrs. Waters, thank you for all that you’ve done…” And crafted it very carefully and sent her probably 300 words of handwritten gibberish, because I write like a three-year-old.
Thornburgh: Fact. Monstrous handwriting.
Goulding: And much to Carolyn See’s vision and her wisdom, I got a letter back from her saying, “Thank you so much, this is really sweet and touching, and I can see that you’re into food and into the writing world. If there’s ever anything that you think might be interesting for us or anything that I could do, just let me know.”
Thornburgh: Jesus Christ.
Goulding: And that was it. And I think out of the five that I sent, I probably had three or four of those responses.
Thornburgh: And these were all from people, I assume like Alices, she can’t go around thinking that people don’t respect her. She’s a fucking legend.
Goulding: She’s a total legend.
Thornburgh: And she knows she’s a legend, but it’s so crazy that, just to receive a handwritten note cuts through the general pats on the back.
Goulding: It really does. It certainly does in a way that an email or a DM does not. Even though, I’m sure if you get a DM from somebody who’s a big fan of The Trip, it’s touching and you respond to them, but you’re right, at Alice’s level, you know what the public opinion of you is. And so it takes something as intimate as a handwritten letter to really cut through all that noise. I think more today than ever, that is a tool for people who are trying to break in somewhere. It’s just to be that direct. But not necessarily sending out any specific asks, but just making contact, opening up some doors.