Things were not going very well for Julie Powell. She had moved to a crummy apartment in Long Island City, Queens, with her husband and was working at a succession of even crummier temp jobs rather than fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. Like so many New Yorkers on the cusp of turning 30, Powell was questioning every aspect of her unfulfilling life. As she told blogger Christopher Lydon, she often lamented, "Why am I in New York? Why am I torturing myself with the commute and the un-air-conditioned apartment and making $50,000 a year but still being unable to pay my bills?"
Unable to reconcile her life or find a constructive outlet for her increasing hostility (particularly irked by that daily commute, she was known to punch and shout at subway cars), Powell turned to a book, which she has described as having "totemic" qualities. The book was her mother's well-worn copy of master-chef Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell didn't exactly consider herself to be a great cook, but she began to formulate a seemingly hair-brained project that might give her life some much-needed structure. She decided to tackle all 524 recipes in Child's cookbook in a single year.
The project started relatively easily as she whipped up some potato soup. Soon enough, however, the dishes became increasingly complex and Powell's pet-project became a true test of her mettle (not to mention of a test of her husband's commendable patience).
While diligently working her way through Julia Child's cookbook, Powell chronicled her progress on the Internet via her own blog, appropriately naming the project "Julie & Julia." Much to Powell's surprise, the funny, self-deprecating, often potty-mouthed and completely unpretentious accounts of her trials and triumphs in the kitchen became a big hit with readers. Before she knew it, the project she began as a means of giving herself a bit of direction yielded a whiz-bang memoir with the unwieldy title of Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, & Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living (mercifully abbreviated to Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously in its most recent printing). Suddenly, Powell was no longer just another unsuccessful, struggling New York artist. Her book became a smash hit amongst readers and critics. The Library Journal declared it "well-executed" and "entertaining," while Kirkus Reviews applauded "its madness and pleasures." Periodicals including The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and Publishers Weekly were also quick to recommend the book, and Powell even snared a James Bean Award and a Quill Award for her efforts. Incidentally, Powell has also discovered that she has become something of a celebrity.
"When I was working on my first draft, in the summer of 2004," she told Powell's.com, "I took my dog Robert up to the Adirondacks, to this primitive cabin all by itself in the middle of nowhere... [I] got to talking to the couple, about how beautiful the country was, and how quiet, and how I like the cabin -- the only one on this particular tract of land that had electricity. I offered that I needed electricity to power my laptop, since I was working, so they of course asked me what I was working on. I'd barely gotten out ‘Well, I'm writing this book about how I cooked all the recipes in Mastering' -- when the wife said, ‘You're Julie Powell! I'm a huge fan. I read your blog all the time!' That was pretty gratifying -- if just the teensiest bit creepy."
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The "Julie & Julia" project was not the first time that Powell has indulged in a bit of ritualistic behavior. When she was a kid, she would read Douglas Adams's entire Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy every two years.
Aside from housing one bestselling author and one husband, Powell's Queens loft is also home to three cats, one snake, and a 115-pound dog named Robert.
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Powell:
"In working on Julie & Julia, I had the opportunity to rifle through Julia Child's archives. Surprisingly, the most fascinating thing to me was her husband Paul's archives of letters. He was an extraordinary correspondent and a complicated, contradictory, sometimes crabby man. I became far more fascinated by him, and by the nature of his and Julia's marriage, than I would ever imagine. I hope that someone will someday publish his letters."
"I first met David Straithairn, wonderful actor and my secret dangerous boyfriend, while working as an intern at New Dramatists', a fantastic non-profit service organization for developing playwrights in New York City. This incident is described in my book. But I have met (stalked) him several times since. He even knows my name now. It's a very special relationship."
"I'm still living in Long Island City, Queens, albeit in a MUCH superior apartment. Three things I like about it particularly:
a. Sitting in the living room, we can watch the 7 train arc around us like a necklace. Every time we notice it, my husband Eric says, ‘The 7 train to Times Square. You'd like to be on that train, wouldn't you?' and I say in my best Bogey voice, ‘Why? What's in Times Square?' And it's this whole big married moment.
b. I have a dishwasher that isn't my husband.
c. In the summer we can stand on our patio and look down every Saturday at all the hipsters dancing at PS 1 museum's weekly DJ party, and feel quietly superior."
"I hate all bananas and most Republicans (sorry.) I like Cheetos, occasionally, and Skittles, which I eat like an OCD sufferer, two skittles of the same color at a time, until I only have odds left in the bag."
"Butchery is my new favorite thing to do, and, while tiring, a fantastic way to unwind and get out of my head for awhile. My head can be an annoying place to be."
"A gimlet is worth learning to make well. Very cold vodka (or gin, that would be more authentic, but I like vodka) shaken with about a third of a capful of Rose's lime juice. NEVER fresh lime juice. Something made with fresh lime juice might be tasty, but it is not a gimlet. That's it. If someone serves you something with an onion in it, that is a Gibson, not a Gimlet. It can be tasty, if a little strange, but is no substitute."
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In the winter of 2007, Julie Powell took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Well, the most obvious impact is clearly Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It reached out to me at a time when I felt like I'd hit the end of the road. A year's immersion in its challenges, and in Julia's exhorting voice, prepared me as nothing before had for transforming myself into a professional writer.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Oy. Talk about your impossible questions. This list changes on a nearly daily basis, so don't hold me to it, but this is what I'm thinking now. In no particular order:
Anything by Alice Munro -- Munro writes like the anti-me, with utter control, a complete lack of showiness. She is tough on her characters, but unfailingly compassionate, and her stories paint a world that is often sad and unsatisfactory, but ultimately redemptive in small, real ways. If I could write anything in the world, it would be one short story just like one of hers. Well, either that or:
The "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman -- I'm tempted to count this as three books, but I guess that's sort of cheating. I've had a thing for young adult fiction since long before I was anything resembling a young adult myself, and the world that Pullman created in these books sucks me in every time (embarrassing confession: I've read the books three times now). The books are difficult, knotty, and magical, and totally transcend the conventions for YA fiction (unlike the Harry Potters books, as much as I enjoy them.) The invention of daemons alone (read the book, I will not spoil it for you by explaining) is alone enough to get "His Dark Materials" on my top ten list. Plus I'm completely in love with the male protagonist, Will. (Embarrassing confession number two: brooding adolescent boy protagonists kind of get me hot. If that's wrong I don't want to be right.)
A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen -- This remarkable book traces a daisy chain of friendships, love affairs and rivalries spanning more than a hundred years of American writers and artists, from Henry James to Norman Mailer. One thing about being a writer, or trying to be a writer, is that it's the loneliest thing in the world. But in the long view that Cohen lays out, just by living and working and drinking, by feeling curious or shy or tormented or confident, by living our lives, we're all affecting one another, helping one another. The romantic in me is comforted and inspired by that. The cynic in me, on the other hand, is oddly comforted by:
Against Love by Laura Kipnis -- "A polemic," Kipnis writes in her introduction, is "supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions." And her polemic against the "sacred cow" of love -- and more particularly, marriage -- does just that. With tongue firmly in cheek, Kipnis tartly, and sometimes hilariously, dismantles our most sentimental received notions about love and marriage in the modern world, and in the process gives you both a subversive laugh and a few things to think about. I'm not against love, not really, but it's oddly freeing to read this book and pretend for a moment that I am.
Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater -- A hugely successful British cookbook author, Nigel has made a career of blending his idiosyncratic writing style with a simple yet similarly idiosyncratic cooking style. His book The Kitchen Diaries purports to describe his eating habits every day for a year, in a beautifully illustrated, compellingly honest book. But I'm even more enamored of his memoir, Toast. Too often food writing is bogged down by its own set of sacred cows -- that food must almost necessarily stand in for family, community, comfort -- the good things in life. Slater does something tricker and more ambiguous in writing of his childhood experiences with food. Biscuits and bad puddings become a prism through which we see more clearly his sorrow, his isolation, his uncomfortably emerging sexuality. Toast is food writing about death and sex and bodily fluids, and it's some of the best I've ever read.
Feasts For All Seasons by Roy Andries de Groot -- I simply love this cookbook. The copy I have is a first edition -- I don't believe the book is in print any longer -- given to me by my father-in-law. It is laid out, as the title suggests, according to the seasons, beginning with "The Winter Dog Days" and ending with "The Fall Holiday Season" -- and for each season there are offered both budget dishes and "party and feast-day menus," the feast-days including such oft-celebrated events as "A French dinner for Epiphany" and "A Madrasi harvest dinner." De Groot, a blind New Yorker with a large paunch and some off-kilter views of cooking (MSG in every dish? 1/4 pound each of bacon and salt-pork, plus two cups of olive oil, to cook five cups of black beans?!), was nevertheless an entertaining, enthusiastic and erudite writer. Feasts for All Seasons, published in 1966, is sometimes dated and occasionally infuriating, but a great read. Belongs as much on the nightstand as in the kitchen.
Persuasion by Jane Austen -- Any Jane Austen, really. I can't really think of anything to say about the wonderfulness of Austen that hasn't already been said. I just lurve her. Sometimes people approach me after reading my book and say they want to be my BFF. That's how I feel about Jane Austen.
The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks. Okay, so partly I just like listing Jane Austen and zombies side by side. But I love this book. Starting out reading it, you're expecting arch, slightly hipper-than-thou, McSweeney-esque prose. But Brooks, son of the great Mel, lets not the slightest wink into his dead-serious detailing of how to protect yourself from the flesh-eating hordes. You start out laughing, but by halfway through, you find yourself seriously considering the best way to knock out the stairs to your apartment and conserve rations once the onslaught begins. This if filed under Humor in my local bookstore, but I can't help thinking it ought to be in nonfiction.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys -- It is probably simplistic to think of Pepys as a sort of proto-blogger, but there is something so fresh about his idea that there was something valuable, if only to him, in keeping a diary that chronicled not his philosophical musings or political maxims, but his interior decorating snafus, the time he kicked his dog's wife, or the barrel of oysters he had for dinner. He is an occasionally exasperating, always lively character; his first hand writing about plague, fire and political mayhem are fascinating, but I'm even more charmed that he not only wrote about trying to feel up the scullery maid, but about her spurning of his advances. Plus, he wrote every single day for nine years, come hell or Black Death. There's inspiration for you.
Anything by Elizabeth Bishop -- A truly astonishing poet, dazzling and humble at the same time. There's no one else like her.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Again, good lord, there are too many to mention. I tend to groove on dialogue, so the movies I keep going back to are the highly quotable ones.
Out of Sight is, I think, one of the best films in at least a couple of decades -- smart, adult, sexy, with a brilliant script by Soderbergh at his least pretentious, filmed gorgeously. This is the movie that fooled me into thinking that Jennifer Lopez could act.
I just really like Die Hard. I sound like I'm eighty years old here, but no one knows how to make a good solid action movie anymore. Good writing, contained storyline, every piece fits together. Love it. Have watched untold hundreds of times.
The Princess Bride -- I broke up with one of my first high school boyfriends over this movie. I realized when he said he thought it was stupid that I was way too good for him.
The Thin Man makes me feel better about my high-functioning alcoholism. If Myrna Loy can look so glamorous doing it -- and her little dog too -- then so can I!
Chinatown -- For a long time I had this knee-jerk problem with what I called "seventies movies." Chinatown was an important first step for me on my long road back to recovery from cinematic philistinism.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to writing all that much when I write -- my music tends to be very lyric-heavy, and I tend to get caught up in other people's words at the expense of my own. My musical taste is a real grab-bag; there's a lot for people to hate in my iPod, but I guess I'm sort of proud of its eclecticism. Probably the biggest emphasis is on good country music -- Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett. But I've got Eminem, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Schnittke, Michael Jackson. There's a little bit of everything in there, I guess.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Hm. If I were going to be in a book club, it would be because I want to challenge myself to read the stuff I've always had on my shelf but never gotten around to. Joyce's Ulysses -- all the way through this time. The Man Without Qualities. Poetry.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Cookbooks are always fun to give. Silver Spoon is one I give often, as is The Border Cookbook by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison -- real food from my growing-up years. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is of course the quintessential wedding present.
As far as books to get... I like being surprised. My mother-in-law always comes up with book I had no idea I wanted -- like A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen, which I mentioned above.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I'm the worst writer in the world, in terms of stick-to-it-iveness and the stabilizing effects of ritual. I need to write in the morning or I won't do it at all. I need to drink much caffeine. I usually write, these days, at my dining room table, desks for some reason make me antsy. And I usually have a book cracked open to read for a few pages when I'm stuck.
What are you working on now?
I'm working with a butcher shop upstate in the Catskills, learning the craft. I'll be writing a book, much in the vein of my last one, that used butchery as a filter through which to explore these last few years of my life -- marriage, friends, professional life, etc.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I find myself embarrassed to talk too much about how I got here, because it was so incredibly lucky. I had the right idea to tackle the right subject in the right medium at the right time, and one thing led to another with very little effort on my apart, aside from the cooking and the blogging, which were both so much more fulfilling than my hideous day job that I didn't even think of it as work. Mine is a sort of Cinderella blog story; all I had to do was work in dead-end temp jobs for nine years and snap! New life!
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Gosh, hm. I have so many friends and family who are promising wonderful writers, and I would love to give them any leg up they need to get published and become wildly famous. But among published authors, I think Kathryn Davis should be read more, and Harry Mathews, and Philip Levine.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I got so lucky, it's hard for me to give much in the way of practical advice. I came onto the blog scene at just the right moment; I wrote about something that managed to catch people's imaginations. I think that that's the real key: find your subject. If you're passionate about what you're doing, no matter how obscure or pointless or off-putting that something is, the passion becomes infectious. Don't get bogged down in endings. Let one thing lead to another.
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