Woolever started working with Bourdain for his “Les Halles Cookbook,” published in 2004, in which the chef and budding TV host described her as “the lone professional in a monkey house. The book could never have been done without her.” She returned to Bourdain’s employ in 2009 and worked with him right up to his death. Aside from the travel guide, in which she had to rely largely on old shows and transcripts, Woolever has another book in the works, “Bourdain: The Oral Biography,” scheduled to publish this fall.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How people should use “World Travel” until they feel safe to get on an airplane again?
A: A lot of people really loved what Tony did with his writing and with television and were never going to be travelers in that way. But they were able to learn about the world through his travel and storytelling, and I think this book fits that need. Then for people who have traveled quite a bit and are feeling nostalgic for that travel, there’s something sort of pleasurable about reading Tony’s experiences. I say this in the introduction: The book is not a comprehensive guide to the world.
Q: The book is almost as much a compendium of Tony’s observations as it is a travel guide, sort of like “The Incomplete Anthony Bourdain.” That idea is reinforced by the way the book is printed. All of Tony’s words are boldfaced for easy reference.
A: When you’re watching the shows, he’s such a brilliant writer and so brilliant on his feet, and so much of that would go by so quickly as you’re watching the beautiful visuals and the cinematography. So to have the words that he carefully chose, to have them in this format, I think it is a different experience altogether.
Q: I’m curious about the conversation that you had with Tony that served as the blueprint for the book. What was the gist of what he wanted to do?
A: One of our early inspirations for how we wanted the book to feel, beyond just being things that Tony loved or things that were weird, was the “Atlas Obscura” book. That’s a really beautiful book and has maybe one or two attractions from every place in the world. So, you know, there’s plenty of stuff in the book that isn’t weird, that’s very middle of the road.
Q: How did the book evolve as you went along in the process?
A: On the day we had this conversation, he wasn’t recalling a lot about Lebanon. And, of course, anyone who followed him knows that Lebanon was hugely important to him. He and his crew were caught in a war there in 2006. He went back twice, and it was a place that he loved. Were he around, he would have said, “Listen, we got to do Lebanon,” but I kind of let it go in the service of finishing the whole thing. Then someone from the publisher said, “You have to include Lebanon,” and so I did go back and make a Lebanon chapter. I know that, were he around for this process, it would be a very different book. There would have been much more original writing from him.
Q: Did you come away with new or different insights on Tony as you were reviewing his shows and transcripts?
A: It was interesting to bounce around different time periods — to see him be very young, in his mid-40s and just starting out and the nervousness, and then the next hour watching something from 2017, where he has all this experience and this deeper kind of gravitas. It’s like looking at a photo album of your kid when, day-to-day, you don’t see the changes but then you look and you realize how this person has grown and evolved over the years. It was really striking to see how much, like any of us, he changed over the course of close to 20 years on television.
Q: What was it like emotionally for you to go through all that?
A: It was a very lonely endeavor, save for all of the conversations I got to have with people who knew Tony. But, you know, we were all grieving. So it was hard, but I’m really glad that I had a project. Had Tony died and the chapter of my life working with, and for, him ended right there, that would have been a much harder thing than to have this book, and the next book, to kind of slowly disengage from that life of working with him.
Q: Was working on the book, in a way, a grieving process for you?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I was very lucky to have this opportunity, not only to continue to support myself, but also to do so in a way that allowed me to really appreciate who Tony was, the work that he did, his humor. Things that I think I appreciated when he was alive and I was kind of steeped in his everything, but you kind of take for granted. So there was no reason for me, when Tony was alive, to sit down and re-watch a bunch of episodes and read transcripts. He was there.
Q: What has life been like for you without him around?
A: It feels like a much smaller life, in some ways, a smaller world in part because I’ve just been home writing these books. So things are quieter just because he was a force field of energy, and that’s not here. I don’t mind it. I mean, I would take the excitement back. I would take it all back if Tony were still around. But that’s not a possibility.
Q: So the other book that you’re working on, can you talk about it?
W: It’s called “Bourdain: The Oral Biography.” It is exactly that: an oral biography of Tony’s life. I started it at the same time that I really started in earnest on the travel book, interviewing people from all aspects of his life, about 100 interviews, and taking parts of those interviews to tell the story of Tony. Many people’s story of Tony, from the time he was a little kid, all the way through to the end of his life.
Q: How do you think Tony would have withstood life during the pandemic?
A: It would have been really interesting to see him forced to stay in one place for at least a few months, which was very much not his style. My hope is that he would have written something great. You know, he had so many interests and he did so much reading and research, and one thing he was really interested in was medical oddities. He wrote a whole book about Typhoid Mary.
It sort of kills me that he didn’t survive. As horrible as a pandemic is for so many people, I wish he had had the opportunity to safely live through a global pandemic. I think he would have had a lot to say about it. He was outspoken about politics and people and behavior and things going on in the restaurant world. I would have loved to hear what he would have said about the way people are behaving in all of this.