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Soul Food

Julie Powell, the author, blogger, and inspiration for the film Julie & Julia, discusses living in New York, missing Austin, and seeing her life on the big screen.

By August 2009Comments

Photo by Kelly Campbell

In an interview with Texas Monthly, the author and blogger Julie Powell admits that she’s not a huge blog reader, and that she became a New Yorker when she wasn’t looking. Her success as a blogger and writer? “I got very, very lucky.” She talks about how surreal it was to watch the film adaptation of her book, Julie & Julia, and why she loves her hometown, Austin, Texas. Her next book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, is set to come out in December.

Austin is home for you, right?

Yes, I don’t get back nearly as much as I want to, but [my husband] Eric and I both have lots of family in Austin, so we definitely get back to Austin once or twice a year. And I love it. I love Austin.

Living in New York City, what do you miss the most about Texas? The least?

It’s funny. When I first moved out of Austin, when I went to school in Massachusetts, really that’s why I began cooking, because to my mind, as a Texan, people in the northeast don’t know how to cook. So I spent my college years desperately trying to recreate everything I missed from home—enchiladas to gumbo to chicken fried steak to whatever—and that really was the spark that started the cooking in the first place.

Obviously, New York is a pretty good eating town too but not in the same way that Austin is. Every time I come back, I just make a complete pig of myself because so much of the food that I grew up with and I love, you just can’t get it up there. So definitely the food is one thing, and then you know, it’s just everything in Austin is a little bit easier.

What do I miss least? I can’t even say it’s the heat because New York summers are ten times worse than Austin because it’s muggy, and New York has not mastered air conditioning the way that Texas has. And you’re going in and out of subways where it’s hysterically hot on the subway platform, and then you climb into this frigid subway car and you get back out. It’s this hot-cold hot-cold; absolutely miserable.

But I think what I miss least—God, that’s really hard—driving all of the time. I mean, I like driving, but I also love the luxury of being able to climb into the subway and see where it will take me and walk to places and, you know, it’s a little more difficult in most parts of Texas to just walk to the grocery store, both because of the weather and because the distances are just that much longer. So yes, I love being in a very walkable city.

Do you think you’ll ever move back?

You know, Eric and I talk about this all of the time, and I think he’d really like to move back, and I am a little more ambivalent, not because I don’t want to move back, but I think I’ve become a New Yorker when I wasn’t looking. I’ve been there for fourteen years. My mother would be horrified, but yeah, I’ve become very attached to New York.

But you know, the one thing I will say is that having lived first in Austin and then in New York, I’ve become such a snob about places to live. There are so few places, and especially since I’ve been on book tour, and I’ve visited all of these cities, and you know, it would be nice to visit a place for a while, but I find—I don’t know how to say this—I find so many places inauthentic.

Everyone is trying to be the New York of the Midwest or the L.A. of Florida, or trying to instill some New York histor-culture into this Podunk town in Indiana or whatever it is. And Austin is itself. Austin is not trying to be anything else, and as long as that’s true, it remains one of the few places I’d consider living in other than New York because I know it’s not striving to be something else. And you know, that’s something I fear for Austin as it becomes more of a player.

How involved were you in adapting your book to the Julie & Julia screenplay?

I wasn’t very involved in the film. I was really watching it from the outside. At the very beginning, as Nora [Ephron] was embarking on writing the screenplay, we sat down for a couple of lunches, and she asked a lot of very incisive and tough and sort of scary questions. She then took what I gave her, and she took the blog, and she went back in her room and wrote a Nora Ephron screenplay and it became very much her baby.

And so I was kind of on the outside. They were kind enough to let me sit in on some filming one day with Meryl [Streep] for a few minutes, and I was able to take a look at the screenplay, but yes, I was very much on the outside. So sitting down and seeing the movie for the first time, it was…I mean, it’s almost too obvious to say, but it was surreal and impossible to watch it the first time through. It was impossible to watch it as a movie. You can’t make any kind of judgments on it; you’re just sitting there, sort of trying to keep breathing while you watch this version of your story.

You know, in the months leading up to it, I thought I did a really good job preparing myself, saying I know this is a movie…it’s not my book. It’s three steps away from my experience. Julie Powell is a fictional character in a comedy movie. Yet still, when you’re actually faced with it the first time, it’s breathtaking—just the shear implausibility that I would’ve gotten this far. You know, the first blog about Potage Parmentier [potato and leek soup] to sitting in the theater with Meryl Streep, sitting behind me watching the screening. That took me a while to get used to. I’ve seen it five times now, so I’m a little more used to it.

Do you have a regular writing routine?

I’m a terrible writer. I’m such a procrastinator. I have this inner clock that tells me exactly how much time I need to finish a project—whether it’s a one-thousand page essay or a book. For the one-thousand page essay, I think, “OK, I’ve got 37 hours, I need to start now.” Then I’ll sit there and write in a panic. When I get a book deal, I twiddle my thumbs and sort of think about it and let it “gestate.” And then I find myself in a desperate panic to get it down on paper. When I’m in a routine, I have to write early, or I won’t write at all. If I haven’t started writing by 11 a.m., it’s not going to happen. So I’m definitely a morning person. And I don’t write at a desk. I write at the kitchen table, or sitting on the porch. And yes, I love editing myself. I’ll do it until my editor tells me to stop.

Do you read blogs today, and if so what are some of your favorites?

I always get in trouble for this, but I’m not a huge blog reader, unfortunately. I think it’s because I’m old. I read all of the same stuff that everybody else reads. I read Gawker, JezebelGo Fug Yourself is one of my favorites. But in terms of food blogging, I don’t follow the blogging as assiduously as I should.

I do have a few people…it’s such a tight community that you start meeting people, and then once you’ve met them, you get very interested in what they’re doing. So Adam Roberts, who’s just become this huge thing with The Amateur Gourmet, I met him a couple years ago and he was this sweet kid with a blog, and now he’s enormous. Cathy Erway is another blogger, she does Not Eating Out in New York, which, as a person who doesn’t eat out in New York, I’m very much in tune with what she’s about. I like her because she’s a missionary for sustainable, local food which is something that I continuously get more excited and passionate about.

Oh, and my good friend, Emily Farris—when I say that I’m old, it’s in contrast to Emily Farris—she’s in her mid-twenties, and is unapologetically peripatetic in her blogging. She blogs for everyone, like Nerve.com. She does a blog called Eating Well on $50 a Week, in which she and some other people try to eat for fifty dollars a week. I think she’s going to make a real name for herself because she’s really good at recession stuff—how to make do with a little. She has a book called Casserole Crazy, the reinvention of casseroles. She’s great at making do. I think she could be the hipster blogosphere’s Martha Stewart, only way more kick-ass.

Are you bombarded by bloggers, and does everyone ask for your advice?

Yes, and I feel kind of guilty when people ask me for advice because the truth is that I got so very, very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t have the first idea about what I was doing. You know, I didn’t even really understand what a blog was when I started blogging. I was just keeping an online diary so my Mom could read what I was doing.

It was just such a tiny world—a medium in its infancy—and, you know, I came up with an idea at the right time that happened to resonate. But it’s easier to resonate when there are five thousand blogs out there as opposed to 130 million. Just getting yourself heard in this cacophony is an enormous undertaking, but I didn’t have to do that. I was pitching words down into the mineshaft and, you know, people found me.

But what I say to bloggers now is that blogging has obviously evolved, and it’s such a greater and more complicated undertaking…and it takes great rigor. And I think the other thing about blogging is that it’s now acknowledged as a tool. People use blogging, no matter what they want to do. The blog becomes almost a piece of a strategy. And I think that’s inevitable.

But if what you want to do is write, and have that as a career, I think you have to retain the passion. Blogging is uniquely suited to obsessive-compulsives, and I think that whatever that obsession may be, that is where the passion comes up—and I think that’s what people are going to connect to. If you’re single-minded in your pursuit of whatever your subject matter is, or whatever your perspective is, your blog needs to be as specific as possible, and it needs to be as true to you as possible. And if you start looking at it too much as a strategy—as branding yourself—it’s going to lose its beating heart. You might sell a book, but that’s not going to make you a writer.

I noticed you stopped posting on Twitter. Why did you stop tweeting?

When someone asks me about Twitter, I feel like I’m eighty-two years old. I stopped tweeting—I was actually given a gag order on the tweeting—because Sony Pictures wanted to handle the whole advertising tweet campaign, and, you know, Twitter is such a promotional tool which is exactly what I don’t like about it. I mean, I love Facebook. I’ll Facebook all day, but Twitter to me feels much more corporate, and I’m not that interested, so when they told me I couldn’t twitter, I was like, happy to not do it.

Your next book is called Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. Tell us a little about your inspiration behind this book project.

Sure. Cleaving is another food-related memoir, based on a six-month stint I spent as an apprentice at a butcher shop in upstate New York. It came out of a fascination I’ve had, ever since I moved to New York, with butcher shops because, at least in my experience growing up in Texas, there are no butcher shops per se, at least that I frequented. Our meat came from supermarkets, wrapped up in cellophane, so when I moved to New York and found my first old-school butcher shop, I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the guys behind the counter. I was fascinated by what they could do, and over the years that fascination continued.

So after Julie & Julia came out and I thought of myself as a writer… it occurred to me this would be a wonderful way for me to indulge my fascination with butchers. So I went around and asked many, many butchers, and many, many butchers said, you’ve got to be crazy to want to hang around my counter with a sharp knife. Until that is, I found Joshua and Jessica Applestone at Applestone Butchers in upstate New York, and they allowed me to work with them for six months.

And basically, Cleaving is about butchering in much the same way that Julie & Julia is about my project of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in that it is essential and yet also a springboard to talk about a lot of other things, including marriage and how it evolves. Butchery is great as meditation. It’s great as work. And it ultimately serves as an overall metaphor for life.

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