Prick with a Fork | Review & Author Interview

Today is a special post for my 2015 Reading Challenge because I not only got to read a brand new memoir, Prick with a Fork, ahead of time (thanks to Allen & Unwin for the advanced copy) but I also had the chance to interview the author Larissa Dubecki about her process for writing the book and what it's like to transition from journalism into book publishing.

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Prick with a Fork (the best book title ever) is being released today, August 26, 2015. It's the first book by food critic and journalist Larissa Dubecki, who has work published in The Age (where she was the chief critic for six years), Time OutGourmet Traveller and Guardian Australia. Dubecki's memoir isn't about her years as a food critic, though. Instead, Prick with a Fork is 300 pages of hilarious, dark, and twisted tales of working for ten years as a waiter.

I have to preface this by saying that the reason I picked up this book was because of its premise. I have also worked for ten years as a server (what most Americans call it now -- utterly PC). Dubecki actually has a good point about the title of "waiter" in her novel:

I don't like the term waitress. It's only jobs looked down upon as frivolous that get the gender stick waved at them. Waiter, waitress. Why don't we distinguish between doctor and doctoress? Because we don't want to distract them from the business of saving lives, that's why.

And in her interview with me, she pointed out: "Everything seems devalued when you gender a profession. It's a way of saying it’s not as worthwhile a job as something that is more gender neutral."

Throughout Prick (yes, I'm shortening it to that -- still good), Dubecki tells all about the different facets of the food industry in brutal, no-holds-barred prose chock full of humor and sarcasm. It's clear from moment one that she's a journalist because the opening lines to her chapters, and even sections within the chapters, are engrossing and sharp. Examples include:

  • "The woman and her three lovely daughters have arrived at the Juice Out like the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse or something similarly biblical. Like locusts. Or boils."

  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged that 'CONFIRMED: POO IN ICE-CREAM' is not a desirable headline for anyone in the restaurant game."

  • "Contrary to all admissible evidence, people continue to think it's a good idea to take children to restaurants."

The number of times I laughed out loud and said "YES" in this book is uncountable. Funny enough, Dubecki told me that the #1 question she's gotten from friends who've read the book is, "Is it all true?"

Me: Maybe it’s harder for people to believe if they’ve never worked in the food industry. Because for me, there was nothing in there that surprised me.

Larissa: Maybe that’s the thing, yeah. If you haven’t experienced the horrors of hospitality, you would be surprised by it, but anybody who has actually donned the apron and dealt with psychopathic chefs knows where I’m coming from.

Absolutely. I know exactly where she's coming from. Prick also includes several anecdotes by other people who have worked in the industry, sprinkled throughout the memoir like questionable seasoning. I say questionable only because you never know if they will make you a little sick to your stomach, outraged, or overcome with fits of laughter. You just have to read each one to see.

From almost killing a stripper with a wayward steak knife to being fired by her own boyfriend, Dubecki doesn't shy away from telling the ugly truth, even if it's about herself. It's what makes Prick an especially honest, even compassionate, look into the food industry and into the lives of servers that we might never even think about when it's been 40 minutes since we ordered and our food is still nowhere in sight.

If you are or ever have been a server, you will enjoy a certain feeling of camaraderie in this book. And if that job has miraculously never appeared on your resume, then you NEED this book to realize what the average waiter goes through every working day. It might actually make you a better person, at least to the staff.

I asked Larissa some questions about writing memoir, whether she was nervous about how it would be received by the people she talks about, and whether writing your memories can be an affordable replacement for a psychiatrist.

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Me: What gave you the idea to write Prick with a Fork and how long did it take you to get all those stories together?

Larissa: Over the years, there were stories I kept coming back to. You know how you have your favorite dinner party stories? These waitering stories cracked my friends up, and I always thought to myself, God that would make a really great book. So many people have been waiters in their youth, so I was hoping to strike a chord with plenty of other people who struggled with the job when they were putting themselves through university or late high school. I was just going off the premise of writing about what you know, especially when you’re trying to get your foot in the publishing world’s door.

Me: What was it like trying to get it published? Was it pretty easy because you already had the profile to support you?

Larissa: I consider myself very lucky. It was a pretty pain-free process. I contacted a few publishers who were aware of my work and it was fairly straightforward. I supplied a couple of chapters, signed with Allen & Unwin, and then it was just six months of pretty much full-time writing and dredging up all these memories, which was kind of hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

Me: So I've always wondered with regard to memoir, how much of it can you really remember and how much needs to be sort of 'filling in the gaps', especially as far as dialogue goes?

Larissa: It’s amazing to me how much things came back. A lot of the action of the book took place 20 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Some of the worst stories, I can still remember blow-by-blow accounts of what happened. So yeah, I didn’t feel that there was any great fictionalizing of the story. I do remember distinct things that people said to me, like the girl telling me she was reading a book by Bulgakov and saying, "You wouldn’t have heard of him."

During the six-month writing process, it was amazing how many things I had forgotten about started resurfacing. It was like I was lying on the [therapist's] couch for six months and all of this stuff was bubbling out.

Me: So would you say it was pretty therapeutic then?

Larissa: In a really weird way, yes. I realized that I was carrying around a lot of anger about things that I had encountered and it was really good to just get it all out there. Now I just feel calm and at peace with it. And you know, I got a book out of it, so hurray! I’ve never been a diary keeper and I was thinking the whole time I was writing, oh God if I had just kept a journal of this time, how much better the book would have been! So it’s actually made me start keeping a journal now, not that my life is half as interesting now that I’m just this boring mother of two small children and mortgage. But you know, hopefully there will be some interesting stuff that I manage to scribble down in the near future.

Me: So is it a different feeling knowing that this book is coming out compared to say, publishing an article you're really excited about?

Larissa: Absolutely. Journalism is all about obfuscation; it’s about hiding the author, and in my later years as a critic, it was different because criticism by its very nature is subjective. But this is a whole different kettle of fish. This is just me and a whole lot of very, very personal stuff. I think I’ll feel a lot better when it’s out in the world because at the moment it’s just this waiting game and it's kind of killing me.

I don’t want my mum to read it. I tried to warn her: Mum, there’s some stuff in there you’re really not going to like. But I don’t think she quite understood what I was getting it, so she’s just going to have to see for herself because I'm not sitting her down to tell her.

It’s very raw, it’s nerve-wracking, but hey I’m the one who made the pact with the devil to tell the world about my personal shit, so I’ve just gotta cop it basically. Just waiting to see how it will be received, to see if people will say, “Oh, Larissa’s encouraging drug abuse,” or “Larissa’s encouraging young people to take up smoking and drinking.” That kind of plays on my mind at 3am a little bit, but all you can do is send it off to the world. You can’t really control how it’s received.

Me: You use a lot of real names in the book. I know that this is a constant discussion with memoir and biography, about whether you’ll offend people. Is that a concern with your book?

Larissa: For the sake of the book, a lot of names were changed. I asked my nearest and dearest if they wouldn’t mind being identified. Most of the names of the restaurants and cafes where I worked have been changed and plenty of the Christian names as well. We obviously had the defamation lawyers go through it pretty thoroughly. I don’t want anyone getting upset.

Me: Were there any stories you couldn’t tell that you wanted to?

Larissa: Yeah, there’s one in particular that I was just dying to use, but we couldn’t see a way through it because I’d probably be kneecapped. Maybe it can be published in 20 years’ time. We’ll reprint a very special edition with this story in it, but for the moment it’s really not worth it. It was a bit frustrating, but for the greater good, it was important to let it go.

Me: So did you start by putting a lot of stuff in and then taking it out, or did you have a little that you then added to?

Larissa: I started off with a pretty rough outline and I had all these memories bubbling to the surface, like I said. I ended up going harder than I thought I would. You know I thought I’d just be telling funny waitering tales, but then at some stages I felt like was I writing a feminist polemic, and then other stages I felt I was rattling the cage about restaurant criticism in this country.

It wound up a lot stronger and more vehement and possibly more angry than I anticipated at the start. The way I pitched it to the publisher was possibly more anodyne than the finished product, but nonetheless the publisher really liked it. At the time of writing, I felt like censoring myself but then I thought: look, just write the book you want to read. I had to sort of steel myself to put some of the material in it, but I think I made the right call by telling myself to be brave with it.

Me: Finally, what advice would you give to writers who are trying to ‘make it’?

Larissa: I count myself extremely lucky because journalism opened the door for me, having that profile. There’s quite a number of new voices in journalism these days, like in Guardian Australia and HuffPost. Getting published works in those would be a very good idea so that you can say you have a profile. Journalism pretty much taught me how to write. There’s that age-old debate about can you be taught to be a writer or do you have to be born with it? I used to fall vehemently on the side of you have to be born with it. However, I look back on my scribblings when I was in my twenties and dreaming of being a novelist and it’s absolutely cringe-worthy. I have learned how to write by being a journalist and editing other people’s copy because that helped me see what works and what doesn’t work. I think if I hadn’t become a journalist, I never would have become a writer. Discipline and being given a brief helps you learn how to write and how to communicate.

Me: Fantastic advice. Thank you so much and good luck with the launch!

You can follow Larissa Dubecki on Twitter at @LarissaDubecki and buy her book here and many other places.