ulie Powell thought cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the craziest thing she'd ever do—until she embarked on the voyage recounted in her new memoir, Cleaving.
Her marriage challenged by an insane, irresistible love affair, Julie decides to leave town and immerse herself in a new obsession: butchery. She finds her way to Fleischer's, a butcher shop where she buries herself in the details of food. She learns how to break down a side of beef and French a rack of ribs—tough, physical work that only sometimes distracts her from thoughts of afternoon trysts.
The camaraderie at Fleischer's leads Julie to search out fellow butchers around the world—from South America to Europe to Africa. At the end of her odyssey, she has learned a new art and perhaps even mastered her unruly heart.
WOW: Thank you, Julie, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with WOW! readers. We are thrilled to hear about your writing journey and your new book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. Let’s start with your new book. For Cleaving, you trained as a butcher in New York City. Why did you decide to take on this career?
Julie: Butchers have fascinated me ever since I moved to New York. When I was growing up in Austin, Texas, all my meat came from a supermarket, wrapped in cellophane. So when I discovered my first real, old-school butcher shop, I was just overwhelmed by the sights and the smells and especially by the men behind the counter. I envied the physical confidence and skill and knowledge that comes from having done the same work for decades upon decades, work passed down for generations.
WOW: Hearing your answer makes me want to look up my local butcher and see what it’s all about! So, what was your favorite part of working as a butcher?
Julie: Well, there's this perception, which I myself shared before I began my apprenticeship, that butchery is about violence—hacking and rending and brute strength. But it's not that at all. Butchering is a delicate craft. Eighty-five percent of butchery is done with the one-inch tip end of a thin, five-inch knife. It's about allowing the meat to tell you how the muscles want to come apart, how to find that crevice between the joints. It's meditative and moving, I think—this ushering of a dead animal into something else beautiful and nourishing.
“...butchery is about violence—hacking and rending and brute strength. But it’s not that at all. Butchering is a delicate craft.”
(Photo from Julie’s blog. She writes, “I thought you should know that I boned an entire pork leg, using just THIS.” Wow!)
WOW: It seems after people read your next book, there may be a new respect for butchers. For the Julie & Julia book, you focused on finishing all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC). What does Cleaving focus on in regards to food?
Julie: Well, meat, obviously, but also generally how the making of food, the participation in the process of getting good food from the field to your table, is not only educational but also an exploration of your own ethical stand on what you eat and why. Plus, of course, whenever you talk about food—especially for me, the flavor of a beautifully-aged steak from a humanely raised animal—you're talking about a sustenance that goes beyond merely the nutritive. Good food speaks to all kinds of needs—communal, sensual, even spiritual.
WOW: Many people would agree with you that food serves more than the need for nutrition! Julie & Julia also revealed details about your relationships with your husband, your friends, and your family. Readers loved this! Did you write about your relationships in Cleaving also? Can you give us a glimpse into what we can look forward to reading?
Julie: Well, Cleaving is a much, much darker book, and a more personal one, about a later period in Eric's and my marriage. People who really invested a lot in the perfection of our union as depicted in Julia & Julia may be thrown for a loop by Cleaving. Not that the events and the relationship in the earlier book were inauthentic in any way; but as any person who's been married knows, even the strongest marriages change and are threatened and in fact, must change and be resilient if they're to survive. Cleaving is, in part, about that process.
“Cleaving was written the old-fashioned way, from scratch, starting with that dreaded blank page.”
WOW: It sounds like Cleaving will give readers that dose of Julie Powell honesty about life and love and food that your fans have come to love! How difficult was it to write a second book about food and your life after all the success of Julie & Julia?
Julie: Well, of course the process was quite different since Julie & Julia came out of a blog; and out of a blog I began before I, or anyone else, really knew what blogging even really was or certainly what it could do. The upshot of this being that when I commenced the writing of Julie & Julia, I already had a lot of material to work with. That didn't mean that there wasn't a ton to do in order to shape these daily musings into a working narrative, but I had pieces in place. Cleaving was written the old-fashioned way, from scratch, starting with that dreaded blank page. So that was hard. But the writing of this book was very cathartic, too and necessary, so that propelled me through doubts and rough patches.
WOW: When you are writing about a “year in your life,” how do you decide what stories to put into the book and which ones to leave out?
Julie: Well, that's where the help of an editor comes in. It's all about composing the narrative—a story that has both an arc and at the end of the day, a meaning. The funniest cooking disaster in the world may not really be moving things forward in terms of story or character development or theme. On the other hand, stories that seem very random—my conversation while working at LMDC with a successful S&M dungeon owner looking for business aid, for instance—wind up having a resonance that echoes through the rest of the book. Honestly, I rely on intuition, then let my editor say, "Do you really think you need this?"
“It's all about composing the narrative—a story that has both an arc and at the end of the day, a meaning.”
WOW: (laughs) There certainly were plenty of funny stories in Julie & Julia, and it’s great to hear that your editor helps you in this process of deciding which ones to include. I know many writers wonder how editors help successful writers, so thanks for sharing that with us. Writers also wonder if you have to ask your family members and friends if it is all right to include them in a book, especially if you don’t always say the best things about them. What has been your experience with this issue that many memoir writers struggle with?
Julie: If you are using the lives for others for your creative fodder, you absolutely have a responsibility to them, ethically if not legally. I take special care to be extremely fair with those in my life who I write about. That doesn't mean they'll always like what I say, but I would never be interested in writing from a point of vindictiveness or self-justification at the expense of others. In the case of Cleaving, I needed to get actual legal consent from both my husband and the man I call "D" in the book. Before it came to that, though, Eric talked long and hard about the book, which I would not and could not have published without his blessing. I'm lucky that he has proved so courageous and generous in understanding why I needed to write this book.
WOW: You’re probably asked this question all the time, but everybody is curious: how has your life changed with all the success of Julie & Julia?
Julie: Well, you'll get some of what happened next in Cleaving, of course; but in general, I'd say very much and not at all. I'm working as a writer, not a government drone, so that's key and clearly amazing. And I get the odd brush with glamour, which is nice, though not something I'd want all the time. But you know—I still live in Long Island City—though in a better apartment, thank God! I walk the dog, I neglect to clean the house, I cook. It's like the shiny, happy version of what I had before.
(Photo right: Julie on the red carpet at the premiere of Julie & Julia.)
WOW: I’m glad that you got a better apartment—the sink in your other apartment was a little scary! You started out a little different than a lot of writers—with a project, then a blog, then a book deal, and then a movie deal. So, since this WOW! issue is about agents, too, can you tell us how you wound up getting your agent?
Julie: Oh, God, I hate this question because it makes me sound like such a dweeb. Basically, what happened was this: back in, oh, 1998 or so, when I was living for a summer in New Mexico, I wrote a fan letter to this writer for GQ Magazine, one Elizabeth Gilbert, who'd written a story I much admired about high-end sex dolls. Didn't hear back for a year or so. By this time, we'd moved back to Brooklyn; and I finally got the letter she'd written in return via NM and then my folks' house in Texas. She was incredibly kind; and over the next few months, we met a few times for drinks. She read some of my juvenilia and was supportive. And that was that.
Flash forward to about mid-way through the J/J Project—say spring of 2003. I got a nibble, sort of out of the blue, from Knopf because of course, Knopf published MtAoFC [Mastering the Art of French Cooking], and a publicist there found my blog and thought there might be a book in there. I met her and wound up, to my horror, in a room with Sonny Mehta. As soon as the meeting was over, I started racking my brain for anyone I could think of who had any publishing experience, and the only person I could think of was Liz. So I dug up her e-mail—keep in mind we hadn't spoken for probably three years or so—and sent her a desperate missive. Twenty minutes later she wrote back saying, "I can’t write for long. I'm in Afghanistan, but you should call my agent Sarah." So I did. Nothing came of the Knopf thing, but then, towards the end of the Project when publishers started getting interested, she was there.
And that's my stupid story about how I'm a lucky son-of-a-bitch.
“A good agent is a thing of beauty and will make it much easier to get your foot in the door of the publishing world.”
WOW: (laughs) Okay, so you were lucky to get an agent that way, however, I would say you did plenty of hard work just cooking all those blasted recipes in MtAoFC. Plus, it was a great idea to send Elizabeth Gilbert a letter and then follow through with her. That’s actually what marketing and networking are all about! Would you recommend all writers get an agent?
Julie: A good agent is a thing of beauty and will make it much easier to get your foot in the door of the publishing world. That said, the Internet is an amazing thing; and with work and dedication—well and talent, of course, presumably—you can get your work noticed out there without aid of an agent, in the beginning. Not to mention that you'll get agents to notice you. Once you get a base of work, though, I think an agent is, yes, important.
WOW: What are some tasks your agent does for you?
Julie: Well, she is smart and scary (to others, not me) and tells me what makes sense financially. She knows when to take an offer and when a better one will come around. But what makes Sarah a truly great agent is that she listens to and understands what I want to become as a writer. She loves me making money as much as the next person, but she's not about the short-term, take-the-money-and-run ethos. There are a lot of people with very bad ideas that can dangle money in front of you, but that's not how you're going to build a healthy, long career as a writer. Sarah understands that.
WOW: It sounds like Sarah has your best interest at heart and loves your work. I’ve always heard that your agent should be one of your biggest fans and be in love with your projects almost as much as you are! Last issue, we focused on how the Internet can help authors promote themselves and their work. When you started your blog, did you dream it would turn into Julie & Julia?
Julie: No way, no how. You have to understand that in 2002 what we were calling "blogging" was the equivalent of cave drawings scratched into a wall with a stick. I literally had almost no notion what a blog was until my husband suggested I start one. I thought of it very simply as an online diary, something to keep me honest and writing once I'd settled on a project to write about. The thing that was useful to me about the blogging medium, at that time, was that I really didn't get that people other than my mother would be reading the thing. And by the time I realized they were, I had committed to this level of intimacy that really informed my tone as a writer.
That was vital. But in terms of a blog as a promotional tool, I had no understanding of that. I never sent my link to anyone but family and friends. I never approached another reporter or blogger for support. I was, by contemporary standards, a terrible blogger and a terrible self-promoter. Hmmm. Maybe I'm not the writer to ask about this.
“You have to understand that in 2002 what we were calling "blogging" was the equivalent of cave drawings scratched into a wall with a stick.”
WOW: Well, even if you were a terrible blogger, I believe you must have been doing something right! (Laughs) Maybe it comes back to that luck thing you mentioned earlier. Did you write on your blog about your experiences training as a butcher and writing Cleaving?
Julie: God no. For a few reasons. First of all, Cleaving is intimate in a way that even Julie & Julia is not, and I didn't want to be throwing stuff out there while I was still working it through—both on the page and in my life. Hand in hand with that, I was AWARE of the power and dangers of blogging in a way that I had not been when I began Julie & Julia. I wanted Cleaving to be composed and to keep it to myself until I—and my husband and others—were ready to release it to the world. Also, I could never again approach a blog project in the same organic way. For me, it would have felt gimmicky, and that would have killed it.
WOW: That makes perfect sense, and I like how you say, “the powers and dangers of blogging.” I think many people are not thinking before their fingers start typing and sending their messages to the cyber world, and it’s something we, as writers, should probably think about more! Do you think it is important for authors to have a blog?
Julie: Well, I think that understanding the blog as a tool that we now have means that blogging can be part of a career strategy. And that's useful. But if you're not passionate about what you're writing about, it's not going to make you a writer. I think the usefulness of a blog is going to vary from writer to writer. If the medium engages you, then a creative fizz can come out of regularly blogging, of the feedback you'll receive. For others, blogging is just going to be a way to keep your base engaged and educated about what you're up to while the real work happens behind the scenes.
“If you're not passionate about what you're writing about, it's not going to make you a writer.”
WOW: Good points, and I like how you have explained different ways for writers to use their blogs. How do you use your blog today?
Julie: I'm one of those second kind of bloggers. Unless I have a particular subject, I can't get into blogging with verve, so mostly I'm just lettin' folks know when I'm going to be where. True blogging today takes a kind of dedication I just don't have at this point in my life.
WOW: For your final thoughts, what are two tips you can offer to WOW! readers about anything you’ve learned through your writing journey?
Julie: Gosh. Well, I'd say that 1) Being smart and selling yourself and networking is great, but none of that means a damn if you forget why you want to be writing in the first place. Julie & Julia worked, I think, because I was lucky enough to find a subject and medium that completely engaged me and became this crucible where none of the other stuff mattered. I was way too busy to think about book deals. I was trying to get dinner on the table and then get up the next morning. The passion, not the end result, was what was driving me. (That's corny, I know. But I find it to be true.)
2) That first step is a doozy. I know wonderful, brilliant writers who've been frozen at the prospect of their first book for years. It's a matter of finding yourself in that place where you're more frightened of not writing than of writing. And no one else can get you there but yourself.
WOW: Thank you, Julie, so much for such an insightful, humorous, and educational interview! We wish you the best of luck with your second book, Cleaving, and can’t wait to follow you and your writing career!
Margo L. Dill livesis a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. She is a columnist and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is assistant editor for the Sunday Book page in The News-Gazette.
Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911. When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Chester, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com