Photo credit: Cheryl Juetten
Describe your book.
My book, Killing It
, is about life, death, love, and dinner, and the complexity that lies between each. It’s also about loss and sacrifice, about invention and reinvention, about ethics and morality, success and failure, and curiosity too. It’s about asking questions and doing hard things in order to become a better person, and the difficult choices we have to make (and should be forced to make) in order to become that better person. It’s about chasing the genuine article and sometimes realizing the genuine article is elusive at best.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O’Dell. I write about this early on in my book, actually. As a kid I liked the idea of being all alone on an island, assuming traditionally male tasks out of necessity, like hunting and fishing and carving canoes, and surviving on abalone and devilfish and berries that I harvested myself. Of course, the main character has been mysteriously abandoned by all her people and eventually is taken away from the island by white people who force her to abandon her feather dress, and it’s not a very happy story at all. But there was something about the way she learned to fend for herself that captured my imagination when I was growing up in the country, hunting and fishing with my Dad, learning how to fix cars, in the Geraldine Ferraro, sisters-are-doin'-it-for-themselves era of the 1980s.
When did you know you were a writer?
I received a purple diary that came with a lock and key in the first grade and that’s when I began writing about the world around me. I sometimes turn to those first entries for a good laugh. By the third grade I was writing really bad ghost stories. So from a very young age, I relied on writing as a means to find greater meaning in what I experienced. I also loved writing letters and did this with friends through college and beyond until email took over. In high school, I fancied myself a poet in the most romantic, rambling sense of the word. But, I don’t know that I thought about being a writer as a profession until I graduated from college, when the man I was dating and living with expressed an interest in working for magazines, and we decided to move to New York to make a go of it together. Even then, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to write for magazines. I thought of myself as an editor or a researcher, and, truthfully, I probably did more of those than I did magazine writing, though I did a lot of that too. Now, if I say I am a writer, I mostly say it to avoid conversation about what I actually do, but I don’t really know if I am A WRITER in the most traditional sense of the word, as in, it is not necessarily my trade. And yet writing is very much how I make my way through the world, and how I make sense of it.
What does your writing workspace look like?
While I was writing the book, I turned one room of our house into my office. It had a grass-green wall to the east and white walls everywhere else, with a set of ship stairs going up to a loft bed, and vaulted ceilings. I set my computer up so that I could look out a set of casement windows onto the bramble and forest that is our backyard. I stacked my favorite books around me, put a bright blue and white rug on the floor and called it a day. But I also spent a lot of time at a friend’s cabin on the Oregon coast. There, I looked out beyond my computer screen toward the gray, tumultuous Pacific Ocean each day, and when my brain hurt, I’d build a fire in the outdoor sauna and sweat out my writerly frustrations. My daughter was born around the same time I turned in my first acceptable draft of the book, and my office quickly became her room. So, after that, all my edits were done in coffee shops, in my car, on the couch, wherever I found myself.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I love just about everything I have read that John Berger has written. I quote Pig Earth
extensively in the book. I think Pig Earth
is a great place to start, though it is perhaps not as well known as many of his collections of essays. About Looking
is a great collection to start with as well.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
When I was 16, I got a job working in the kitchen of a nursing/retirement home, and one of my tasks was to blend up the meal — which was often meat, potatoes, and a steamed vegetable — in a blender for those who could no longer eat solid foods, so that they could drink their entire meal from one glass. This always seemed mean, or at the very least uncaring, and I felt bad doing it. We sent the glasses, whose liquid was almost always brown, although sometimes gray, upstairs in this old-fashioned dumb waiter and then the dirty dishes would come downstairs when they were done. One day, someone sent the meal-in-a-glass back down with a note that just said: “Shit.” I think I quit soon after.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Being misunderstood, which is impossible to control, because it happens every day in regular old life. Nevertheless, it’s a fear I struggle with.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
One of my secrets as an editor was that I hated writing headlines. Subtitles I could muddle through, but headlines, no way. I really wasn’t good at it. The idea that I had to reduce something big and complex down to a catchy, sellable phrase always felt crappy to me. I was always impressed with people who could do that and still maintain meaning. The title of my book was not my idea. My agent came up with it. I was hesitant about it at first, perhaps because I was afraid it would be misunderstood. Of course, all of my title ideas were long and convoluted and would never sell. If someone writes a biography about me, the title and subtitle should probably be long and convoluted, too, so that it doesn’t sell, as to remain truthful to who I am as a headline writer.
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
This is from the epigraph of my book:
“‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, 'is not a walk across an open field.' Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And so the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance).” — John Berger, Pig Earth
Describe a recurring dream.
During the period of time that the book starts with, a year in which I left the man I thought I would marry, ended my career as a magazine editor, and ran away to France to study butchery and charcuterie, I had this recurring dream that someone would come into my bedroom while I was sleeping, step quietly onto my bed, and start jumping up and down on it. I would wake up in the dream, although it felt like I had woken up for real, but was always lying on stomach so I couldn’t see who it was behind me on the bed, and I could never get up enough courage to turn around and look to see who it was. At first, they seemed playful, like a child jumping on the bed. But their presence felt more menacing over time. Once, I felt the person grab me by my hair, lift me up, and begin slamming my head and face into the wall. I woke up on impact. The person never visited me again in my dreams. I think it was probably me slamming myself into that wall, trying to wake myself up from the fog of depression and anxiety I was lost in for so long.
Do you have any phobias?
I don’t really have any major phobias, but I tend toward claustrophobia. You’ll never find me crawling through a small cave.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve received too much good advice to pick just one piece. But a friend sent me this recently because I am an insomniac, and a perfectionist who takes on too much and is generally hard on herself, and more often than not is haunted by so much old nonsense:
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I don’t think I’m very good at following this advice, but I read it to myself often anyway.
Also, a colleague in the meat world once wrote something in a newsletter I found in my inbox that said something like “salting a pork leg and hanging it in your basement is a form of defiance.” I think I have always believed that in these industrialized, modern times, demanding or commanding any kind of agency in any facet of our lives is defiant. My colleague crystallized it for me in that one sentence, and now I like to think about all the other ways we can, as citizens, be defiant in that way. I think of cooking a meal from scratch as a defiant act. Growing your own food. Butchering a pig on your kitchen counter.
Also, the poet Nikki Giovanni
came to speak at my high school once, and I remember her saying that if you wanted to be a writer you should never study it, that you should study the things you want to write about instead, or, even better, she said, you should just live in the world and that would make you a good writer. I know a lot of people who studied writing and are happy that they did. They are very talented writers, in fact, and I don’t doubt that if I had studied writing I would be a better writer. But, I consciously followed her advice and am so happy that instead of studying writing, I went and worked in a women’s prison, and helped to organize farm workers in Nicaragua, and spent time as a volunteer administrator at a domestic violence shelter, and studied theater and literature and art, and, yes, slaughter and butchery and charcuterie. All of these experiences have informed my writing style, and have become such great fodder to write about. In turn, I approach so many experiences as writer now, which is to say I approach every experience in search of deeper meaning. Sometimes I wish I could drop that filter, but without it, I would probably be quite bored.
Five Books That Step Outside of the Usual Confines of the Reductionist Meat Debate:
I haven’t included the excellent Omnivore’s Dilemma
by Michael Pollan because it is almost too obvious to mention.
The River Cottage Meat Book
by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
I found this book on a shelf in the library at Saveur
magazine almost 15 years ago when I worked there. I think it was the first time I ever really thought about the fact that an entire animal could be used for food, and the first time I ever thought about whether there was any kind of meat that one could eat other than industrialized meat. It’s a beautiful book, with very honest pictures of the basic processes that get meat to our tables.
by Nicolette Niman
Nicolette Niman is a lawyer and she is so very good at rhetorical argument and framing the facts in a broader context with a long view in mind. Here she makes a case for the ways in which, when raised the right way and incorporated into a truly regenerative, holistic system of agriculture, raising beef could actually contribute to a better planet.
by Betty Fussell
Why exactly is America so in love with meat? Here’s a meticulously researched and gracefully written history of why. As an aside, Meathooked
by Marta Zaraska is also a good follow-up to this book, but with a broader and more global historical view.
by Jonathan Safran Foer
I don’t always agree with Safran Foer's conclusions, but I appreciate the way that he attempts to redefine the limits of the meat debate, which is to say that he chases after nuance, is willing to openly grapple with ethical conundrums that may be impossible to come down on one side or the other of, and leaves room for complexities. If only we approached every hot button topic this way.
by Barry Estabrook
In this book, Estabrook explores the darker side of the pork industry, but also goes in search of whether or not it is possible to eat pork responsibly, and encounters people trying to do just that.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a former editor and writer for magazines including Saveur
and National Geographic Adventure
. In 2009, she traveled to southwest France to study whole animal butchery and charcuterie and subsequently founded the Portland Meat Collective, a transparent, hands-on meat school that has become a local and national resource for meat education and reform. In 2014, Camas launched the Good Meat Project, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring responsible meat production and consumption through experiential education across the country. Camas and the Portland Meat Collective have been covered in media outlets such as the New York Times Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Food and Wine, Bon Appétit
, and Cooking Light
. Killing It
is her first book.