Ep 77 Beware of vanity publishers, tech tools for writers, Stop Capitalising Everything, what literary agents want to see, and how long it takes to write an article. Meet food critic and Writer in Residence Larissa Dubecki, author of the memoir “Prick with a Fork”.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 77 of So you want to be a writer: What literary agents want to see before signing you, cool tech tools for writers, Stop Capitalising Everything, beware of vanity publishers, and some of the best advice from writing veteran Stephen King. Meet food critic and Writer in Residence Larissa Dubecki, author of the hilarious memoir Prick with a Fork, find out how long it takes to write an article, and more!

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Show Notes

What literary agents want to see before signing with a writer

10 tech tools for writers

Beware of vanity publishers

21 pieces of writing advice from Stephen King

Writer in Residence 

Author Larissa Dubecki wearing a white three-quarter sleeve length top, holding a glass of champagne, sitting at a table in front of a grey brick wallLarissa Dubecki

Larissa Dubecki has been a restaurant critic and food writer for the past ten years, including six years as chief critic for The Age newspaper and The Age Good Food Guide. Her work has also appeared in Gourmet Traveller and Guardian Australia, and she currently writes a weekly restaurant column for Time Out.

She has appeared on MasterChef a number of times, and has been a judge on Iron Chef Australia. From 1991 to 2002 she was also a very bad waitress.

Find Larissa on Twitter

Allen and Unwin on Twitter

Working Writer’s Tip

How long does it take you to write an article?

Answered in the podcast!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview transcript

Valerie          

Larissa, thanks for joining us today.

 

Larissa

Thank you.

 

Valerie          

For readers who haven’t read Prick with a Fork yet, and the tagline is, “The world’s worst waitress spills the beans,” what can you tell us about it?

 

Larissa

Prick with a Fork is a memoir, I’m calling it a black comedy gonzo memoir, actually. It’s about the ten years I spent as a really horrible waitress back in my 20s and early 30s, before I went and became a food writer.

 

Valerie          

You say you’ve become a food writer, have you always wanted to be a food writer? Is that something that you thought of or even knew existed when you were a child?

 

Larissa

Not whatsoever. And that’s not something that I ever thought about when I was waitressing, it was something that came about weirdly and organically after the whole waitressing thing, when I did a news cadetship at The Age newspaper back in 2000. The aim was to be a political journalist. I went through all of the news rounds, like you do when you’re a cadet, and I did state politics and police and chased ambulances for a while. But, I gradually realized that my real passion in life was feature writing.

 

My husband, being a complete hospitality tragic, he was the one who sort of pushed me to go and ask if I could start some reviewing for The Good Food Guide that The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald still publish every year.

 

The editor was very kind, to take pity on a green horn. It just snowballed from there. I started off getting the lowest entry-level restaurants to review, and they liked my work and every year I would get better and better restaurants and more and more of them. It really just took on a life of its own until eventually it became my bread and butter, so to speak.

 

Valerie

Were you into food, though? You said your husband was a hospitality tragic, but were you a foodie? Are you interested in cooking or anything like that? Are you into food?

 

Larissa

I picked it up by osmosis, when I met Ben 17 years ago, I ate two-minute noodles and vegemite toast pretty much full time. I was a vegetarian as well. One of those sort of pale and undernourished vegetarians who don’t eat the right things. So, it’s been quite funny, I’ve learned so much about food. Now I adore it. I’m just the world’s most ridiculous glutton. But, yeah, it was a very steep learning curve for a while there.

 

Valerie

Are you still vegetarian?

 

Larissa

No! No way! I took meat up again pretty quickly, I have to say. I had been a vegetarian for 14 years and after I met Ben I decided to use my canine teeth again.

 

Valerie

You were a waitress for 10 years, was it after the waitressing period you decided to apply for a cadetship at Fairfax?

 

Larissa

The two actually overlapped. I’ve been waitressing my way through university where I did an arts and law degree, and then a post-grad journalism. I was even still waitressing when I was doing my cadetship at The Age, because being a real glass half empty kind of mentality I kept thinking, “Well, if this journalism caper doesn’t work out I need a little bit of fall back.” So I did my week at The Age and on Saturday night I would go and put on my apron again and work at this gastro pub in Melbourne.

 

Valerie

You started doing food reviews and then getting higher up the food reviewing ladder, so to speak, a lot of people find writing about food challenging, because they think that there’s only so many ways you can describe a mushroom, or enyoke or whatever. What are your tips for people to make food writing unique?

 

Larissa

It’s actually a really tricky one. I think food writing is one of the most difficult genres you can tackle, because you’re trying to convey to the audience an incredibly subjective experience, which is the stuff that you’re putting in your mouth, chewing and swallowing. I still find it absurd sometimes, I’ll be sitting at my computer trying to think of how to describe yet another panna cotta, the shadow will pass over me and I will have to go and lie down for a while until I get my equilibrium back, because it just seems so weird.

 

The English language is incredibly ill-equipped to describe food. Other languages are better. I read a great essay by, I think it was A. A. Gill about how German has some fantastic words, adjectives to describe food, and in English we’re stuck with these horrible things like moist and succulent. I mean you really can’t use words like that, because they’re clichéd and they’re horrible.

 

I guess the way I eventually started approaching food writing was to, just to try and write it as entertainingly as possible and to try and create metaphors and crazy similes, and to tell the experiences eating at a restaurant as a kind of… it’s like going to a movie, or it’s like going to a concert, really. It’s a form of entertainment, rather than sitting there and really bashing yourself over the head to describe what a piece of steak tastes like.

 

Yeah, it’s inherently difficult though.

 

Valerie

Yes. You talk about describing yet another panna cotta. Do you ever get sick of food? Or get sick of dining out? Sick of sampling the latest gastro pub or fancy restaurant?

 

Larissa

No, I think the minute you become sick of it is the minute you should retire from that job, because, really, yeah, if you’re sick of dining out then you’re sick of life, I think.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Larissa

There are some nights… I tend to go out two or three nights a week to review, and occasionally when it’s the depths winter and there’s some terrible show on TV that I love watching, I sort of groan and moan about it, but once I’m out I’m always really excited, even if it’s a restaurant that I’m not expecting to be much chop. Restaurants are a great arena of entertainment, and I think that’s why people are so obsessed with them and why they’ve become these very attractive arena for writers.

 

Valerie

Back to the book, when did the idea come about? Was it something that came that during the days of being a waitress, or was it something that came later, when you were already writing about food?

 

Larissa

It came along during my time as a waitress. Everyone develops their repertoire of funny stories that you tell at dinner parties, mine always seemed to enter around my hideous career as a waitress. I’ve been dining out on those stories for years. There was always this percolating in the back of my mind, “God this could make a fantastic book one day.”

 

Again, the fact that my husband is in hospitality, he owns a couple of cafes. We talk hospo way too much, it must be really boring to outsiders. But, I find it thoroughly entertaining and interesting.

 

I was always too busy working full time, I suppose, I was at The Age as their full time reviewer. I was too busy working full time to ever get this thing off the ground.

 

Then when I took a redundancy last year I just had time on my hands, I thought, “It’s now or never.” And, I’m lucky I found a publisher for it.

 

Valerie

You took the redundancy and you thought, “OK, I’m going to write this book.” How much of it had been written, or was it really all in your head at that stage?

 

Larissa

It was all in my head. I scribbled notes here and there, My top drawer in my office was full of tiny little scraps of paper with my unintelligible scrawl on it. So, I went through those. But, mostly it just came pouring out of my head once I actually sat down at my computer.

 

Valerie

Tell us about that writing process. Did you set yourself, like, a certain number of months or a certain word count per day? How did you actually get it out there, give it a structure that would make sense to people, that would be readable to people? Just talk us through that.

 

 

 

Larissa

Well, word counts per day terrify me. I can’t work like that, which is funny for a journalist to say that, because journalism is all about word count.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Larissa

Your editor will say to, “I want 800 words on this… go.” I found when writing something that was intended to be 100,000 words that if I would set myself a 1,000 words a day deadline I would have constantly failed and felt bad at myself for it. There was some days where I actually went into the negative, where I was editing my stuff and I would wind up with fewer words than I had started with, and that is just so depressing.

 

I know that word counts do suit some writers, but for me it would just be like beating myself over the head with a stick.

 

Instead I just plodded, I plodded away and I tried really hard not look at the progress I was making. I’m not a great plotter, I didn’t have this incredible chart on my wall of where the story was going and what I was doing with it. I tried to get with the zen of it, I know that sounds ridiculous, but ultimately the way it was wound up being the way it was published, which I was really pleased about. Everything sort of fluttered into place.

 

And maybe it’s because with memoir it’s the experience, so it’s not something that you have to think about too hard, because it’s something that makes sense inside your own head, rather than some story you’re trying to conjure out of nothing. So, maybe that’s the big difference.

 

Valerie

You had the luxury of… I assume many people would think it’s a luxury of having some time to commit to this, and so when you did do that, did you decide then, “I’m going to only concentrate on this?” Did you pursue other things? Or was this your main focus and you thought, “I’m just focusing on getting this book out.”?

 

Larissa

I did think that largely. I still had some bills to pay, so I was doing some freelancing as well. I was called by Time Out to see if I would be interested in doing their restaurant reviews, you know, and who says ‘no’ to that? So, I was doing a bit of reviewing, but mostly my project was concentrating on this book. So 80 percent of the time spent at my computer was simply plodding around Prick with a Fork. And, that is such a luxury. I’m well-aware of how many people are actually working full time and getting up at 5:00 AM so that they can bash out a few hours before they go off to their job. Oh my god, I have so much respect for that, because, as I said, when I was working full time I never had any emotional energy left, I couldn’t contemplate anything except watching The Bachelor on TV.

 

Valerie

When you are writing a memoir you reveal, you know, lots about yourself, but you also reveal a lot about other people and other places that you’ve worked. Was there a fine line there, or were you scared at all that you would be identifying people who would come and say, “How dare you say that about me…” or whatever?

 

Larissa

Completely! Yes! That was a huge thing. I mean everybody has their… well, a few nearest and dearest who I ask if they didn’t mind me using their real name are still in it as themselves, but on the whole I changed names and locations and all of the rest of it, because it’s a very warts and all kind of memoir. It’s not really gilding the lilies.

 

I’m not looking for… to put anyone in the mark or to get revenge on any chef who was mean to me, it’s just meant to be a semi-funny, semi-poignant memoir that doesn’t hurt anyone, except myself, really, because I’m fully identified.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Larissa

I think mostly the joke’s on me. So, I tried to have a good sense of humor about how much personal stuff I’ve revealed. But, I’m still living in fear with my mother reading it, because she hasn’t read it yet.

 

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

 

Larissa

Yeah. There’s some explanation needed there.

 

Valerie

You say that you didn’t have a word count goal, but did you have any kind of writing routine, like, “I woke up at this time… I had a cup of tea… I got to my computer…” whatever, did you have some kind of routine to help you on your day?

 

Larissa

I’m a routine person. I also have two small children, so they really help me. You’ve got to have routine if you’ve got little kids. So, they tend to wake me up at 6:30 every morning and the focus is on them until I pack the older one off to school and the little one gets taken care of by his grandma or goes to childcare.

 

Once that happens around nine o’clock I describe it as my “two hours of power” because between 9:00 and 11:00 I will get most of my work done for the day.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Larissa

Yeah, I’m definitely a morning person, and I’m firing on all cylinders once I’ve had my strong cup of tea.

 

And I really hate being disturbed between 9:00 and 11:00, because it’s… yeah, that time is crucial to me. If I feel I’ve wasted that time, the rest of the day is totally thrown out and I’m grumpy and horrible to live with, I think.

 

I can’t work at night.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Larissa

I wish I could, because that would be so beneficial, because once you’ve got the kids in bed at eight o’clock, to be able to work until, say, midnight would be an absolute blessing, but it’s not in my makeup. I’ve read the author of The Tiger’s Wife, that amazing Serbian-American novelist. She writes all night. I was thinking, “Wow, maybe I should try and make.. so I can sit up all night.” But, no, that’s never going to happen.

 

Valerie

Wow, you obviously get a lot done in two hours.

 

Larissa

Maybe it’s the coffee, just makes me type really fast.

 

Valerie

What did you find the most challenging thing about writing this book?

 

Larissa

Oh my goodness. I think just writing a memoir that resonated beyond just my experience. So, there’s two types of memoir, one that is just ‘me, me, me,’ it’s putting the ‘moi‘ in memoir, and the other sort, which I find much more interesting to read is the sort that deals with themes and universals. And I really wanted my memoir to be in the latter category. I hope that it is.

 

It was about moving elegantly between my personal story and greater themes in the hospitality industry. I also see it as a feminist polemic, because it’s got a lot to do with being a young woman in her 20s dealing with a particularly chauvinistic industry.

 

It’s also just dealing with the sheer… you know, the funny horrors of being in your 20s and trying to figure yourself out, when you really don’t have a clue, and trying to pretend to the world that you know what you’re doing.

 

So, I guess it was finding the greater story, because it’s very easy to write about yourself, and that’s why memoirs are so popular and they’re so popular among writers. That’s why there is so many of them on the bookshelves, but I really wanted it to stand out for reasons that went beyond the fact that I’ve got some funny waitressing stories.

 

Valerie

Now you’ve written this memoir, are you writing another book now? What’s next?

 

Larissa

Yeah, I’ve got two ideas that are sort of swimming away in the back of my head at the moment. One is a piece of fiction, which will be pretty interesting because I think writing fiction is an entirely different beast.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

 

 

Larissa

But, it’s a story that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time that I won’t bore you with because it would take me half an hour to sort of explain that to you.

 

Another thing, I was thinking of another piece of non-fiction, a bit of lived experience. I’m going to try and suggest it to my publisher, so try and package it up and write a sample chapter for them and see how that goes.

 

Valerie

Great.

 

Larissa

Yeah.

 

Valerie

Now when you are writing about food, not so much your memoir, but when you were doing your food critiquing and reviewing, what is the most rewarding thing about that? I mean what do you love doing? I mean a part from loving going to restaurants, the actual art of writing, what’s the most rewarding thing about that?

 

Larissa

I was going to give you glib answer of ‘I’m being paid to eat and write about it’… but, my answer is in part is entertaining people, I suppose. I always will write on the assumption that 95 per cent of the people who read my restaurant reviews aren’t ever going to actually go to the restaurant. There’s a small proportion of people who actually go out to restaurants habitually, two or three times a week, or even once a week. It’s an absolute luxury.

 

I read a study once that most people read restaurant critiques to be entertained, and to live vicariously. So, I often read theatre reviews and I rarely make it to the theatre, because I’m so busy going to restaurants.

 

So, yeah, I just like to think that I’m giving people a story, and something that’s relatable, even though they aren’t intending to make the booking anytime soon.

 

Valerie

What would your advice be to people who are interested in writing about food and reviewing? People who don’t have their foot in the door yet, do you have any advice on how they can get in?

 

Larissa

Well, I guess you could look at the The Rise of the Food Blogger as a salient tale about self-starters. There are just so many food bloggers out there these days who, you know, I believe some of them get an immense amount of traffic on their websites.

 

There are also, you know, your crowd websites, such as Urbanspoon, and I think it’s called Zomato.

 

Valerie

Zomato, yes.

 

Larissa

Yeah, various sites such as Broadsheet, which are always looking for people who have a way with words and have a love of restaurants. So, yeah, it’s just about keeping on pestering, and writing some sample reviews is always a fantastic idea, just to serve yourself. Write a really decent sample, 600-word review that you can show to various editors to see if you can get your foot in the door that way.

 

Valerie

You’ve become synonymous with food and this memoir further consolidates that, would you ever consider moving beats, so to speak? Moving to another genre, covering something else, becoming an expert in writing about something else? Or is this your true passion and you want to stay with this forever?

 

Larissa

Yeah, I’m very interested in a much wider array of things. I sometimes think it’s hilarious that I’ve become pigeon-holed as a food person, because as I’ve said it was just almost a mistake the way it happened.

 

It’s a very comfortable little niche, but, yes, I’m well attuned to the joys of writing about popular culture. I love writing about TV. I do TV reviews for the Green Guide each week. Yeah, just the whole gamut of different things.

 

So, yeah, I am interested in sort of maybe even using this as a springboard into different forms of writing, I suppose.

 

Valerie

Yes, like fiction?

 

Larissa

Yes, very much so.

 

Valerie
And I have to ask, do you cook?

 

Larissa

I do, but my husband’s better!

 

Valerie
Do you cook the kind of food that you go and review? I’m not talking about spaghetti or anything.

 

Larissa

No, no, no. I do cook. I am very much into cooking rustic, hearty, honest foods. I would never try and replicate the kinds of food that I eat routinely when I go out. But, nor am I interested in eating restaurant-style food when I’m at home. I often revert to my vegetarian past. Particularly, I’m going through an Indian phase at the moment, where I enjoy making these Indian vegetarian curries that require about 25 different exotic spices that I have to go and source.

 

Yeah, it’s fun, but I would never describe myself as an amazing cook, by any means.

 

 

Valerie

Writing a 100,000-word, writing a whole book is so different to writing an 800-word review, how did it feel changing gears like that, and was it a big adjustment to realise, “Oh, I’ve got to write, like, 100,000 words… I’ve got to write so much more than I’m ever used to…”?

 

Larissa

Yeah. I remember the very first day when I sat down thinking, “I’m going to write this book…” was terrifying looking at that blank computer screen, thinking, “Oh my god, where am I going to find 100,000 words on this subject?” But, yeah, I think it’s a journey of a million steps, but each day is a couple of steps.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Larissa

And that’s the only way to look at it, otherwise if you’re like me you’ll get the fear and stop.

 

Valerie

Finally, Prick with a Fork, how did you come up with that title?

 

Larissa

Oh, that was me. It was after a few glasses of champagne, actually. I don’t know where… it just popped into my head from somewhere and I exclaimed to my husband, “Prick with a Fork…” and then I ran it by my publisher and they all thought it was hilarious. So we ran with it, yeah.

 

Valerie

Fantastic. That’s hilarious.

 

Larissa

Thank you.

 

Valerie

All right, well, thank you so much for your time today, Larissa.

 

Larissa

Thank you.


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