Almost every author has two jobs: Writing the book, and finding the employment that allows time to write that book.
In today’s spotlight, Ilan Mochari, whose debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), has earned high acclaim from Booklist and Kirkus Reviews, talks about his nine years as a waiter in the Greater Boston area.
There’s a One-Letter Difference Between Waiter and Writer
I know, I know. It’s not the deepest etymological observation.
But when you spend nine years as a waiter -- and it’s during those years that you write your first novel -- well, the similarity between the words doesn’t lose its charm.
And here’s the thing: I never wanted to be a waiter. In 2003, when this adventure began, I hated staying up late; I was indifferent to recipes and mixology; and I was exceptionally unkempt. Previous employers had critiqued my appearance in annual performance reviews.
So why did I do it? Mainly because of my admiration for a woman named Sarah Casalan. We had grown very close, speaking almost every night on the phone. She was under 30 and already a project-management rockstar, on track to be a C-level exec in the near future. And I? I was 28, unemployed, and drowning in red ink. My debt had reached $20,000 and I still spent exorbitantly on trips to Vegas and God knows what else. (When your late-twenties brain is still filled with teenage levels of passive suicidal ideation, that’s how you roll.)
I told Sarah that what I wanted -- more than anything -- was to write a great novel. But how could I find the time to do it, while working enough to climb out of debt? She suggested waiting tables. It was, she argued, the best way to be “all in” about writing a book, while staying fiscally responsible. You made good money, yet it was the type of job that you didn’t take home. Leaving aside the memorization of menus, your downtime was yours, rather than your manager’s.
I savored the suggestion, for the geekiest of reasons. The narrator of one my favorite novels, I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, was a waiter. “Try putting that on a job application,” Sarah joked.
I was terrible at the beginning. I dripped drinks, I dropped dishes, I mangled orders. And I struggled to primp properly. There were wrinkles in my clothes and flakes of dandruff in my dark-brown hair. But after a few false starts -- where my employers, with plenty of justification, lost patience with me -- I settled in at the Full Moon Restaurant. The owners took a chance, despite the warts on my profile. I had no idea, when I began working there in October of 2003, that I would stay until February 2012. But that’s exactly what happened. And it was one of the best things to ever happen to my writing life.
For one thing, I got to work with other creatives. Musicians and glass artists, painters and filmmakers. All of us were waiting tables for the same reason. Our interactions were fruitful and empathetic, absent the petty jealousies that sometimes arise when you’re talking shop with genre bedfellows.
For another, my Spanish improved dramatically. That will happen, when most kitchen employees hail from Central America. At one point I was reading voraciously about El Salvador’s history. I composed three stories in what I (then) conceived would be a collection of Salvadoran tales.
On top of all this, I built something of a fan base from my regular customers. One of them -- the playwright Lydia Diamond -- ended up giving my novel a blurb.
But more than anything -- corny as it sounds -- I learned how to persevere as a writer. Two examples:
• The Sunday of Despair. I wrote my entire first draft by hand in coffee shops in 2003 and early 2004. By the summer of 2004 I had completed a second draft by typing it up (and editing as I went) on my computer. Then -- one Sunday morning in 2004 -- my PC died. I worked an entire brunch shift almost certain I’d lost my book. Fortunately, the PC hadn’t died. It had just lost the ability to run Windows. So with a few tricks of the MS-DOS trade, I was able to copy the Word file onto a disk and save it. But let me tell you -- that was one bleak Sunday.
• The Years of Rejections. One of my favorite moments in The World According to Garp is when young T.S. Garp realizes, while living with his mother in Vienna, that he has what it takes to be a writer. He just knows he can write a better story than the famous (fictional) Australian writer Franz Grillparzer. My own Grillparzers were too many to mention. Getting published? How hard could it be, in a world full of Grillparzers? How wrong I was. I began seeking agents in 2007. I still don’t have one. And I didn’t find my publisher until 2011. By which time I realized how fortunate I was to find one. And how lucky I was that it only took four years.
All this is why I’ll always be grateful to Sarah. At a time when I was struggling, she gave me some killer advice. And now, nearly 10 years after I wrote its first sentence, my novel is coming out. I am holding my head a little higher. My ideation is almost gone. And I am paying more attention to how I dress.