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Going Postal
Stephan Jaramillo
250 pages

Chocolate Jesus
Stephan Jaramillo
259 pages

The Scoundrel
Stephan Jaramillo
245 pages



The Wag Chats with
n Jarmillo

Stephan Jaramillo discusses the social impact of his first novel—Going Postaland tells us what it's like to be the world's most successful chef-novelist.

John 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 Scoundrel.

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: 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.

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: Your choice of title: The Scoundrel. 'Scoundrel' is such an old-fashioned word. Was that a deliberate choice?

Jaramillo: Yes. It's more like an old-fashioned literary term.

WAG: Yeah. It seems like The Rake's Progress or something like that out of the eighteenth century.

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: 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.

Jaramillo: 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."

WAG: You've got to have that big mushroom hat thing happening.

Jaramillo: That just says: Chef! Yeah. It's like shorthand for who the narrator is.

WAG: Is it safe to say that you are the world's most successful chef novelist?

Jaramillo: I don't know many, so...yeah. I guess so.

WAG: There are others writing cookbooks and columns and reviews of food. But you're the only novelist that I know of.

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: 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.

Jaramillo: 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 comedy.

WAG: 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.

Jaramillo: He's the guy that kind of instigates the narrator's doing it.

WAG: 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?

Jaramillo: 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 goes through.

WAG: 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?

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: You've finished up your contract with Berkley. So you're a free author again?

Jaramillo: Yeah. I'm a free agent right now. Exactly.

WAG: Are you thinking now about shopping around since you've been out there and had some success with Going Postal?

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: 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.

Jaramillo: Yeah. A friend sent me a newspaper article about it. It showed a picture of him holding the book up.

WAG: You can't buy publicity like that, can you?

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: Wow.

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: What do you bring to your writing from your cooking experiences as a chef?

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: Well, they're both about creating a product to be consumed.

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: 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 seat.

Jaramillo: Uh oh.

WAG: It's a good thing. So your New York readers—

Jaramillo: Yeah. Use it to get a little elbow room, there.

WAG: You're back to cooking in restaurants. How do you find the time to write?

Jaramillo: 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 day.

WAG: 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?

Jaramillo: 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.

WAG: 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 a writer?

Jaramillo: 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.

—Interview conducted by John Porter

Posted July 1, 1999


Stephan Jaramillo is a writer and chef who lives in Berkeley, California. His first novel, Going Postal, came out in 1997. His second, Chocolate Jesus, was released in the spring of 1998. His latest, The Scoundrel, appeared on May 1st of this year.



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