Julie Powell charmed readers with Julie and Julia, in which she chronicled her quest to cook, in one year, every recipe out of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After its huge success and that of the subsequent blockbuster movie, she's back with a new memoir: Cleaving: A Book of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. And just in case you didn't glean as much from the title, it's far from a fluffy follow-up.
In Cleaving, Powell tells two interwoven tales. One chronicles her time spent learning the trade of butchery at Fleisher's, a shop in upstate New York filled with a gregarious group of characters, and a trip she takes to visit other butchers around the world. The second, and (forgive the pun) meatier, story of the two is an extremely candid account of the crumbling state of her marriage, due in part to an obsessive, two-year affair she carries out, shortly after the release of her first book, with a man referred to as D.
Powell took some time to talk about why she had to write her latest book, how her life has changed since the movie was released, and what, after learning to be a butcher, she'll no longer eat. (Hint: not much.)
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Megan: The first thing that struck me about Cleaving is that it's an entirely different kind of book than Julie and Julia. It's dark, and as much about addiction, demons, and human nature as it is about butchery. How did you decide to write this book, which, compared to your first book, seems like a riskier venture?
Julie Powell: I think that what people who use their personal lives for creative fodder have in common is that we don't do things in order to write about them, but, once we've done things, we need to write about them to understand why the hell we do them. And I think with butchery, which is this delicate, meditative activity in a lot of ways, I found a way to give myself the head space I needed to consider what all had happened in my life, and what it meant, all while learning this fascinating trade of cutting up meat. Ever since I moved to New York, I've been really fascinated with butchers. One that I know and love is Ottomanelli & Sons on Bleecker Street in the Village. I grew up in Texas and I didn't have these wonderful, old butcher shops. I was fascinated by these men, who'd been doing the same work since they were 12 or 13, work that had been taught to them by their fathers, who'd in turn learned it from their fathers, and whose decades of work had resulted in this skill and certainty, the knives acting as extensions of their hands. I'm a clumsy person, and so I envied this innate physical sureness.
But the other thing, as anyone who has read Julie and Julia knows, is that I have a tendency, in times of crisis, to make myself more crazy rather than less, as a sort of perverse way of focusing my mind.When I was in real turmoil during this period in my marriage, I needed to be in a space, by myself, learning this physical skill, something I could focus all of my mind and body on. And butchery popped into my head as a haven from the hamster wheel that my brain had become.
I didn't realize it at the time, but it became obvious that butchery is in the same class to me as knitting, or gardening, or certain skills that you learn, like a purl stitch. Once you learn them, it becomes rather rote, but you still have to focus on it all the time, physically and mentally, to move forward, and, in the case of butchery, so you don't get hurt. And that leads to a sort of meditative state, where I could allow my brain to be still for once, rather than wracking itself with guilt and confusion, which was not helpful at all. I needed to let the facts of my situation mellow, and figure out what the hell was going on in a more quiet way. Butchery allowed that kind of focus for me.
Megan: What did your publisher say when you came to them with the idea for this book?
Powell: They were remarkably supportive. I'm really blessed that I'm with Little Brown. They were instantly all over it, and throughout the writing process, my editor Judith was quite supportive. She'd be like, "You know, you don't really need to get into that, actually," which was really good for me. I think that memoirists are masochists on some level, and you run a risk when you're still too close to what you're writing about.
Megan: You're extremely candid in Cleaving about the affair you were having with a man you refer to as D. Did you feel vulnerable after sharing so much of yourself with a large audience?
Powell: I find writing about myself easy. I have no problem cracking open my chest and saying, "Here, read about all of my nasty stuff." It doesn't bother me. I'm sure I'll burst into tears at some point when someone says something really mean, but that was never my concern. The real concern is the other people it affects. I'm much more concerned about Eric, my husband, and D, as well as other people. Eric and I talked long and hard about this, and I could have never published the book if he had not given his blessing. It was a courageous, generous thing for him to understand how important writing this book was for me, and in exchange for that generosity I have to be responsible for him. I'm telling my story and I have to be responsible for the people that make up my life, and make sure they're taken care of as best as they can be. That has always been my primary concern.
I think it's very important when you're writing about events that happened to you, that you're not writing from a place of bitterness or self-justification. If I'd written a book about having an affair because I was wronged or justified in some way, that would be a hideous, horrible book. It would be boring, and no one wants to read 250 pages of one rationalizing why what they did was right, and it would be a lie. The whole point is to explore what happened when you make that choice you can't take back.I made choices, some of them very hurtful, and took actions, like the affair with D, that fundamentally changed what my marriage was. And I have to take responsibility for that. At the same time, one of the effects of facing that responsibility is that I was forced to look at my marriage in a new way. I had to face the fact that it wasn't what it had been, that it had changed. Or rather that I had changed. The marriage Eric and I had was something I thought I wanted, but realized I no longer did. I needed something different now.
I'm perfectly happy being hard on myself, but my job is not to be hard on these other people who were involved. That's their story. If Eric wants to write a story about what happened, I can't get into his head. His experience is his, and mine is mine. All I'm writing about is what was going on in my head.
Powell: Well, we're not one of those families where everything is shared. During the period when I was going through the events and writing the book, I did eventually go to my parents and say, "We're having problems with our marriage," and they were aware that there was an affair. My mother is very adamantly not going to read the book. Which is fine. Different family members are behaving in different ways. Some people want to read it and want to understand, and others would rather not be a part of it. Both options are completely viable. Again, I don't want anyone mired in this who doesn't want to be. For the most part, everyone's been pretty understanding about the process, whether they want to engage with it directly or not. I am blessed with a loving, if not always communicative, family.
Megan: Why butchering instead of, say, commercial fishing, big game hunting, or another traditionally masculine food-related activity?
Powell: That's interesting; that's a good question. I don't think I was looking for a sense of supremacy, or power over another thing. That's what I needed to get away from. Every relationship I had was everybody trying to achieve power over somebody else: trying to control D, grappling with these emotionally violent relationships. One thing I noticed when I was working with Josh, the owner of the butcher shop, is that he had these friends who would come by, male friends, who would butcher on the weekends, and when I'd ask them what the appeal was for them, it was always about acting out aggression, or acting out anger and frustration — this very testosterone-driven, macho thing. And that wasn't like my experience with butchering at all. I found it to be very meditative and delicate and poetic, and that was what I found there, the serenity of being part of the process.Maybe I thought I was attracted to the blood and guts and gore, but the reason I stuck with it and continue to be fascinated with it is the calm process.
Megan: Were you looking for this form of therapy, or was it a happy coincidence that butchering was this for you?
Powell: I don't think I was looking for therapy when I started. I think I was looking for escape, basically. I'd always been fascinated with butchery, so the idea of dedicating time to learning about it seemed like a way to make a haven for myself. What I didn't realize, but soon learned, was that butchery is not just about lifting heavy pieces of meat and hacking into them; it's much more delicate than that. Most butchery is done with the one-inch tip end of a five-inch boning knife. It's about following the seams between the muscles, separating them in the way they're meant to be separated; about the process of ushering a dead animal into something beautiful and nourishing and sustaining. I quickly discovered that there is something therapeutic about the action of that.
Megan: The crew at Fleisher's is a great set of characters. Are they prepared for the attention they're likely to see from Cleaving?
Powell: I think they are. They know what they're doing and have amazing business already. They've done an amazing job with the shop and are truly at the forefront of this hip, new rock-star butcher situation we've got here. It's going to be fun for them. I'm really excited.
Megan: You've said you are more comfortable eating meat now, after knowing exactly where it comes from. Any exceptions to that rule?
Powell: Not a lot. There's such a contentment in knowing that what I'm eating was humanely raised outside of physical entrapment, is local, and was slaughtered humanely. That's a great comfort to me. Sometimes it's sort of knee-jerk reaction. I admitI had a testicle once, and it was fine; there was enough of a taste to overcome the textural thing, but I couldn't quite let go of that fact that I had balls in my mouth. Personally, I think I draw the line at eyeballs. I don't think I could eat them.
Megan: I pride myself on being an adventurous eater with a pretty strong stomach, but I had a lot of trouble with the scene from the book where you're in Africa, drinking blood.
Powell: The blood didn't bother me, but the thing where they stir the stick and it coagulates — that was bad. [Laughter] That's when I had my “no way” moment.
Megan: You've said that Julie and Julia was about more than you learning to cook — it was about finding your vocation as a writer and finding your voice. What's the big picture result of Cleaving?
Powell: It's about my journey to find myself as a person — a person who can stand on her own two feet — something that I think is common for people who married very young. Eric and I have been together since we were 18, and I think I had a really child-like, naïve view of marriage. Like it was a box I was putting myself in, thinking that it would always be the same. One of my major revelations is that any relationship is not a prop. It's a living thing, composed of these two living people, who have to grow and change and go through crisis in order to be resilient, in order to survive. And that's a scarier way to look at marriage. But it's also freeing, in a way.
And the second thing about our marriage in particular, since we married so young and grew up together, is that we became so enmeshed, without even knowing it, that the idea of me spending eight hours at a cutting table, butchering, doing something that I wanted to do, was terrifying because it seemed like almost a betrayal — just the independence of it. It was hard for us to see that there was a reason that these kinds of separation had to happen.
My life had changed after Julie and Julia. I was a "writer," and I didn't want the same things out of my marriage that I had before. I wanted different things, and that scared the shit out of me. And then D popped up, and he became the very thing, the articulation of my confusion. He's not just an abstraction or an excuse — I had genuine feelings — but he definitely popped in as a wedge that I needed at that moment, to pry myself away from a relationship I was too entwined in to even see, to examine what our marriage was, and how it wasn't working.
But it's really about me realizing that standing on my own two feet is a good thing. Because I stepped two feet away, because I traveled to Argentina, because I cut up animals — which Eric didn't understand — that doesn't mean I'm running. That's me being an individual person. That's me taking care of what I want to be. And that's good, that's a good thing. That's not something to be afraid of. And the reason why Eric and I managed to stay together is that we had to both say some separation and some individuality should not seem terrifying. It's what you call "growing up." It just took us awhile to sort through it.
Megan: How have things changed for you since Julie and Julia the movie?
Powell: Well, you know, the thing with the movie is that, first of all, it's totally crazy and surreal and awesome. I got extraordinarily lucky there. For about a month, my life was insane. I got this glimpse into how the other half lives for a bit. It was amazing and it was great and… I was so glad to be done with it. I'm still living in Queens, walking the dog. It's not like my life has changed in kind. It's just gotten... better. I got to have dinner with Joss Whedon, which I never would have, otherwise. So that was cool, but basically you have to remember that it's all icing on the cake. It's really nice that it happened, but it doesn't change anything fundamentally. All it does is give me some opportunities that hopefully help me continue what I want to do, which is continue making a living as a writer.
Megan: Do you feel like you've conquered the demons that were plaguing you in Cleaving?
Powell: Yes and no. One thing I did with the book, very intentionally, is not end it with a "and then we all lived happily ever after." That wasn't the goal, to tie a bow around it. The goal is to experience it and see how it changes. Eric and I are in a much better place now, and I certainly have resolved some things with myself, but it's important that it's a journey, and that you keep yourself open to how things change and grow as you go through life. And while I would say that I grew a lot, and dealt with this particular unhappy place that I was in,I also don't think I've become some serene Zen master and that everything's going to work out for me from now on. I'm still a neurotic mess, but I'm a happier neurotic mess. It's a work in progress.
Megan: Are you prepared to deal with angry vegans?
Powell: It's funny, Jonathan Safran Foer's book just came out, and we have the same publicist. We're the bizarro version of each other. I've never met him, but I read his book. The thing is, we're actually not as far apart as you think. He's writing about figuring out what he can eat, what feels ethical and right, and so am I. We're both against industrial farming and all that stuff.
Josh, from Fleisher's, was a vegan for 17 years, including six months into his work opening the shop. He and his wife both definitely have some of the same concerns that dedicated vegans do. I confess to personally having little use for vegans — not because they're wrong, but because they're sanctimonious pricks. I'm sure I'm going to get some PETA emails, but... oh well.
Megan: What are you working on now?
Powell: I want to move away from the memoir writing. I think I've done enough of that for a bit. I'd like to get into writing fiction. That would be an exciting challenge for me, and is always where I always saw myself going when I was younger. I'm in the very early stages of working on a novel, and it's scary, but it would be a fun way to go.
I spoke to Julie Powell over the phone on November 24th, 2009.
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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.
Books mentioned in this post