Irving has that wonderful quote—"Nobody
lies more than an author writing autobiographical
fiction"—so I don't want to use the phrase
'autobiographical.' But you certainly seem to have
drawn more from your personal experiences for The
Yeah, that's definitely true. Of the
three books, Chocolate Jesus is a third-person
narrative; Going Postal and The Scoundrel
are first-person. Naturally—because you've
got the 'I' narrator—they sound more personal.
And I draw from my day-to-day existence more in
The Scoundrel than I did in Chocolate
Jesus, which was an invented story. But the
John Irving quote is right: if I just told my life
as it really is, it wouldn't be really exciting.
So even though the story springs from experiences
I have, it's definitely exaggerated, stretched out
for comic effect.
I hope so. Because some
of the situations that your main character finds
himself getting into in The Scoundrel are...how
shall we put this euphemistically? His quest (after
he has a relationship ended for him) is to get back
at the entire female sex by sleeping with as many
possible women as he can.
Yeah, that fairly sums it up. I wouldn't
quite say for the narrator that he wants to 'get
back' at them. But as you said, a serious, fairly
long relationship has ended, and he's decided you
know, this love thing is just not working. And
his buddies are telling him, Forget love. Just
sleep around. Love them and leave them. And
I thought: I have male friends, I'm male.
You hear this locker-room talk, and, you know, men
definitely talk the talk—they don't care
about women, they just want to hang out with the
boys and maybe have a girlfriend on the side, but
it's no big deal emotionally. And so my main
character kind of falls into this and says: yeah.
That's what I'll do. That'll wipe clean that love
affair that didn't work. And that is, as you
said, his quest. And whether he's successful at
it...well, I guess you'll have to read the book
to find out.
Your choice of title: The
Scoundrel. 'Scoundrel' is such an old-fashioned
word. Was that a deliberate choice?
Yes. It's more like an old-fashioned
Yeah. It seems like The
Rake's Progress or something like that out
of the eighteenth century.
Exactly. The only place you'd see it
nowadays is in romance novels. My editor had asked
if I had any ideas for covers, and I thought, Ah,
that'd be a great cover—a play on a Harlequin
romance. And I thought it fit the novel well,
because like you said, it's not a modern term, and
the narrator—does he really know what he's
doing? He doesn't even have the name quite right.
I can imagine the cover.
You're there in your chef's whites, big hat, kind
of rakishly off to the side. Maybe the buttons to
your jacket are being ripped open.
Yeah. Right. You always have to have
the shirt ripped open. And the woman swooning in
your arms. Actually, I was always a little uncomfortable
with the cover as it is, because as you say, it
shows a chef, and I work in a restaurant and we
don't wear those hats anymore. And I kept telling
the editor, "Take the hat off! We don't wear
those hats anymore!" And she kept saying, "Only
you chefs are going to know that. The public...that's
what their image is of a chef."
You've got to have that
big mushroom hat thing happening.
That just says: Chef! Yeah. It's
like shorthand for who the narrator is.
Is it safe to say that you
are the world's most successful chef novelist?
I don't know many, so...yeah. I guess
There are others writing
cookbooks and columns and reviews of food. But you're
the only novelist that I know of.
I don't know any, myself. I've worked
in a lot of restaurants, and the main thing we bump
into are aspiring models, actors, actresses and
screenwriters. But not too many novelists. So I
could be in my own little niche here.
And that was one thing I
was expecting in The Scoundrel: everybody
who wants to make a movie is in here. But you avoided
that cliché almost completely. You have a
few folks come through, just to flavor the stew
a little bit. But you took a harder course and went
with more developed characters.
I'm glad you thought that because I know
that's how I write. My process of writing is character-driven.
I have yet to sit down and say, Oh, I guess I
want to tell this story, and it's going to go from
A to B. I pretty much start writing characters.
And their coming to life drives the story. Going
Postal had a really good supporting cast. The
Scoundrel has some really good supporting characters.
There's a lot of stuff that never makes it into
the book that helps flesh it out for me. So I have
a better feel for who they are. That's what gets
me going in the writing process. I'm not so much
a page-turner type writer. It's more character and
You have a wonderful character
in The Scoundrel who goes to the Czech
Republic to teach and ends up even being more of
a scoundrel, more of a player, more of a swinger,
behind the former Iron Curtain.
He's the guy that kind of instigates
the narrator's doing it.
Right. That was such a rich
character. How many of us have known a guy who talked
us into doing one thing—Come on, get away
from the women. Come out with me. We'll go swing—and
then he ends up becoming snared into a relationship
and it's suddenly, Well, I can't come out now?
Exactly. I thought that would be a good
foil because the book wouldn't be successful if
it's simply a bunch of guys going around having
their way with women. A lot of guys talk the talk,
but deep down, what do they really want? Maybe it
is partly sex. But maybe there is a lot more
emotional support that they're not willing to admit
to their male friends—or maybe even to themselves.
And that's what The Scoundrel's narrator
Are your friends safe? Do
you find yourself looking at your friends and saying,
Now, how can I take this slice of personality and
put it over here and make a more rounded character?
Well, it's funny. When I got the two-book
deal after Going Postal, I made enough to
quick working in restaurants for a year. So I didn't
really have a work environment, and I could just
write. Then, last year, I went back to cooking.
But now people know I'm a novelist, and they're
always saying, "Oh, I just did something—that's
going to be in a book." I don't say it to them,
but a lot of times, I'm thinking, nine times out
of ten, you're just not weird enough.
Most people are too normal to make it into a book.
But I will do stuff like you mentioned. Sometimes,
you work with stock characters. There's a character
named Billy in Going Postal. He's a biker
dude. He was totally invented. But in California,
we know the biker dude. We've grown up with
that image. Sometimes, you draw a character from
a particular person. There was a guy I worked with,
for example, and I just took a few of his physical
characteristics—his hair and the fact that
he had a bad left eye. If you approached from his
left side, he would flinch because he couldn't see
you. And I took that. So sometimes you take little
physical things from somebody—an expression
of their mouth or some little quirk of theirs—and
then it grows into an invented character. But the
genesis is in a real person.
You've finished up your
contract with Berkley. So you're a free author again?
Yeah. I'm a free agent right now. Exactly.
Are you thinking now about
shopping around since you've been out there and
had some success with Going Postal?
Yeah, Going Postal had the most
success. Chocolate Jesus didn't sell quite
as much. Partly, it's because there's much more
attention, publicity-wise, for a first-time novel.
Sure. But you had an amazing
voice. We picked Going Postal as one of
the Top Ten novels the year it came out, and we
had a lot of fun with it. I remember a story that
aired on National Public Radio about a guy who was
suspended from work at the Library of Congress.
One of the reasons they suspended him was because
they found a copy of Going Postal in his
desk drawer. Apparently, they thought he was going
to freak out.
Yeah. A friend sent me a newspaper article
about it. It showed a picture of him holding the
You can't buy publicity
like that, can you?
I was hoping we could get on CNN or something.
But it didn't get quite that far. As far as what
I'm going to do next...you know, I'm not sure. I
sent some pages to Berkley, and they were unsure
about it because it really is a bottom-line business.
If The Scoundrel does well, maybe they'll
offer me a contract. But I have to admit I'm a little
tapped out. I wrote for close to ten years before
selling anything. I wrote a novel; it didn't sell.
I went back and wrote another one—which was
Going Postal. It took two and a half years
to write Going Postal. Once I sold that,
Berkley put me on an assembly line. Every book was
due the next year. So I wrote Chocolate Jesus
in about twelve months and then went through
the editing process. I wrote The Scoundrel in
about eight months.
Just like anything else, if you keep
writing, you get better. But I'm a little tapped
out from that deadline. On the one hand, I have
to write—it's something I have to do. But
on the other hand, I have to recharge my batteries.
My favorite authors don't do a book a year. And
the kind of books I write are fairly personal—a
lot of emotional energy goes into writing them.
So it's tough to keep knocking them out that quickly.
But I have a project percolating in my brain right
now, and I'll definitely send it to my agent.
What do you bring to your
writing from your cooking experiences as a chef?
There was a New York Times review
of The Scoundrel. They didn't really like
it that much, but the reviewer thought the best
parts were the restaurant descriptions. And I guess
part of it is, I know it, and I love food. It's
a very sensual, tactile thing—it touches all
the senses. So it's an easy thing for me to access
and write about. As far as the two different careers
are concerned, I think the only thing they have
in common is they're both creative.
Well, they're both about
creating a product to be consumed.
Right. Exactly. The main difference is
with cooking, you do it often. So when I go to work
tomorrow, I'll do two or three different dishes.
We'll sell thirty or forty or fifty of them, people
will eat it up, most people will like it, and then
it's done and over with. A book is huge—ten
months of creative effort go into it. But it has
its benefits. In half an hour, the meal's gone,
the plate comes back wiped clean, the dishwasher
sprays it off, runs it through the dishwasher and
it's a vague memory to anybody after a while. But
a book exists for years. I did a reading in Davis
the other day, and there was this eighteen-year-old
girl there with a dog-eared copy of Going Postal.
It was obvious that she'd been carrying it around
and had read it I don't know how many times, and
she wanted me to sign a new book. And I said, "Well,
let me sign that one." Because I was
so touched. I thought, Here's someone who really
cares. I've touched them, and the thing's important
to them, you know, not just for a day or two.
So it has a little more permanence, I guess.
It does, indeed. But I have
noticed that whenever I ride a bus and I have Going
Postal with me, people don't sit in that other
It's a good thing. So your
New York readers—
Yeah. Use it to get a little elbow room,
You're back to cooking in
restaurants. How do you find the time to write?
It's tough. I've been working full-time
for a little over a year. And in that time, I mostly
edited The Scoundrel—and I wrote about
forty pages of a fourth book, which I sent to Berkley.
I've always written at night. I've tried to work
in the morning, and I can't do it. I'm a night-time
writer. So the two clash that way—I write
at the same hours I cook. I don't think I could
do a book a year if I also have to work full-time.
Sometimes, I get off of work, and I'll sit down
and write until one or two in the morning. I think
maybe in the future, if I feel I really need the
time, I'll get a day job. Because I can cook during
the day, but I don't think I can write during the
I had a friend who wrote
a Western while working as a dishwasher. He said
he used to approach the dishwasher every night like
it was a gunfighter. And he played all the other
characters in his book. Do you ever find yourself
doing similar things when you're cooking?
That happens all the time—everywhere.
I'll be walking to the store thinking about it,
chopping stuff at work and thinking about it. When
it gets busy at work, during the rush, you're thinking
nothing. There's no room to even think about the
stuff you have to do. But yes, definitely: that's
what keeps me going a lot of times. Because while
I love cooking, I never felt that that was my calling.
That's why a quit a few years ago to try to write
a novel. Deep down, I wanted to give it a good shot.
In some ways, writing is kind of a security thing.
You know: I'm not just a guy working in a restaurant—as
honorable and creative as that is at times. Some
people have a wife and kids...I have my writing.
It keeps me excited.
What advice do you have
for the person who's working the restaurants now
or who's working the retail dead-end job or who's
out trimming trees or whatever it takes to make
a living, and they too have those ambitions of being
It's a question I get a lot at readings.
Usually at a reading, there are three groups of
people. There are the fans, there are the people
who just stumbled in, and then there are the people
who are aspiring writers. And many of them are hoping
to meet a writer and ask your question: "How
did you get published?" I tell them that I
struggled for years. I'd go in that room by myself
and tap away at night. After two or three years
of that, you start wondering, What the heck am
I doing? No one's ever going to read this. I'm insane.
But yet you keep doing it. And even once I was
published and I was going in the room and writing
something I knew was already sold, the process did
not change once I sat down. That doesn't change.
The only thing that can keep you going is your love
of doing it—and your need to do it. Because
a novel's a big undertaking. And for me, my heart
has to be in it or I can't do it. Even if the thing
is sold and it's going to get published no matter
what I write, my heart has to be in it. And that's
what I tell people. Even if everyone says, "No,
it's no good," and you get all those rejection
slips, if you enjoy doing it or you get something
out of it or you feel it's important, I think that's
the thing to do. Because I think that's the only
thing that can sustain you throughout the process:
an intrinsic love of the craft of writing.