Cooking with Marcel

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 15, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"I'm a serious technology geek," says writer Marcel Gagné, speaking with his usual hyper enthusiasm. The writer of six books on free and open source software (FOSS) for Addison-Wesley, as well as SysAdmin Corner and the extraordinarily popular Linux Journal column "Cooking with Linux," Gagné took an uncharacteristically quiet moment at the recent Calgary Open Source Systems Festival (COSSFest) to talk to me about his interests and his development as a writer, and how he ended up in his current gig as senior editor at Ubuntu User.

"I grew up watching Star Trek, and puppet shows like Thunderbirds and Stingray. the idea that there was this amazing technology just around the corner -- the flying cars, the transporters, the computer that talked to me when I walked into the house and asked me what my day was like and read my messages to me, and told me that I needed to order the mile (or, better yet, ordered the milk so it was delivered when I wasn't home) -- that was just so amazingly cool, to think that that future was out there waiting for me."

Gagné always wanted to be a writer, and, over the years, he has published a few science-fiction short stories and written several unpublished novels. However, to this day, the bulk of his income comes from consulting work as a system administrator -- a career that led him directly into involvement with FOSS.

After graduation, Gagné joined Honeywell in 1986. There, he discovered GCOS, AIX, HP-UX, and other versions of Unix. In 1992, working at another company, he saw advance publicity for Caldera's GNU/Linux distribution. His investigations soon turned up Slackware, which he quickly installed.

"I thought, 'This is really cool!'" Gagné remembers. "'I can actually run Unix (or what I thought of as Unix at the time) on my PC without having to spend the vast quantities of money that it costs.'"

By 1996, he was replacing Windows with GNU/Linux on his home computer. "That was a pretty early time to start running desktop Linux, and you had ti work hard to make it work," Gagné says. "But, you know, it was both a fun thing to do and also allowed me to work on things that were more advanced than anything I could do on Microsoft."

However, at this point, Gagné was involved with FOSS strictly as an system administrator. He admits that, at the time, he had little sense of the community or its possibilities.

Chez Marcel Opens for Business

In 1999, Gagné happened to get access to an advanced copy of Corel's NetWinder, a GNU/Linux-based appliance computer. He pitched a review to Marjorie Richardson, then editor-in-chief at Linux Journal, who rather tentatively told him to submit the review.

"Well, it was a big hit," says Gagné. "I have an unusual style in presenting technical information, very tongue-in-cheek and irreverent. I don't have a classical approach to presenting technical information. I tend to think this stuff should be fun and approachable and readable.

"Hooked on the idea that I'd written an article," Gagné recalls, he sold a second article to SysAdmin magazine. Then the Linux Journal contacted him and asked if wanted to contribute to an issue with the theme Cooking with Linux.

"Being a bit strange, I thought, "Cooking, yeah. A restaurant. A waiter. A menu. So I came up with this character called Chef Marcel and a menu of what at the time were useful scripts." Called "The French Connection," Gagné's article proved hugely popular, and he was invited to begin his now-famous "Cooking with Linux" column. It was to run for ten years and some 120 issues.

The first column in Linux Journal's Cooking with Linux issue contained none of the characteristics for which later ones became famous. Gagné mentioned no wines, nor François the literal-minded waiter.

However, by halfway through the first year of the regular column, these characteristics were fully developed. At first, Gagné, who says that "I enjoy a good wine," would simply mention a wine at random. But, before long, he started to mention specifically the wines he had recently discovered in the small winery section of the local liquor store.

Similarly, as Gagné started to write the regular column, François' character was quickly introduced. "François, to be perfectly frank, is in my mind a copy of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. but I called him François because it was supposed to be a French restaurant. I wanted him to be a little bit bumbling and a little bit silly so I could have a character to play off. [At first] He didn't have much of a role except, 'François, get the wine! Vite!' then by the third or fourth issue, I started to have conversations with him."

The final stage of François' development was when Robert Carlson depicted him as "this penguin with a pencil-thin mustache." To be honest, Gagné says, "It never occurred to me that François was a French version of Tux," the GNU/Linux logo. But he quickly warmed to the idea, especially when Carlson gave him full permission to use the illustration any way that he liked. To this day, Gagné continues to use the illustration as his online avatar.

"Cooking with Linux" proved immensely popular, regularly winning Readers' Choice Awards. However, "there would always be a few people who would write in and hhhaaatttee it," Gagné says, drawing out the word. "They didn't just didn't dislike it, they hated it. They wold write letters saying, "I really like the magazine, but get that stupid column out of here,' and inevitably there would be a pile of other readers writing in saying, 'Don't listen to him! Don't listen to him!' I think the Linux Journal liked to print those sorts of letters.

It's a reaction that Gagné has had often enough that he sees the humor in it. "A similar thing happened with my first book. I won't mention any names, bu the very first person who was given a draft to review was so angry that he actually wrote a letter, saying, 'If you put my name as associated with the publication of this book I will sue the company."

Pounding the table with his fist and mocking the reaction by mimicry, Gagné continues, " He said, 'It's called technical writing. Writing of a technical nature in a specific style, and this makes a whole mockery of what we do.' Well, as turns out it was a really popular book. I got a second book contract out of it and a third and a fourth and a fifth and a sixth. so apparently he was wrong, and I was right. It's always amazed, this incredibly powerful, nasty reaction, like I had broken some secret, sacred covenant, you know?"

Gagné could have continued writing "Cooking with Linux" indefinitely, but he decided in 2009 that he had had enough. "They didn't fire me or anything, and it wasn't for lack of material. But I wasn't having as much fun as I had been. It was just time -- I can't put it any other way. It was time to close the restaurant."

Life After Chez Marcel

Gagné wasted no time finding new ways to occupy his writing time. He remains a much-in-demand speaker at conferences, and now writes for Linux Pro Magazine, and has recently become senior editor at its sister quarterly Ubuntu User, for which he also blogs.

He still does not make as much money from writing as he would prefer, making his money mostly from technical consulting but figures that he still has plenty of time, even to become a fiction writer.

"The cool thing about being a writer," according to Gagné, "Is that it's something you can for the rest of your life. There's no age for being a writer, and there's no time frame that says this is when you're at your peak. It's a question of whether you can handle the craft, and produce the material that people want to read. That's really what it comes down to. I mean, I could stop writing now and decide twenty-five years later that I want to star again, and there's nothing to stop me from doing it."

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