Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia, recently released her second memoir, Cleaving, which is, ahem, slightly darker in tone than the sunny Nora Ephron movie version of Powell’s life. Cleaving tackles questions of meat and marriage and in it Powell hides out upstate, learning to butcher at Fleisher’s Meats while trying to figure out what to with herself and her marriage after an intense affair. The (still-married) author will read tonight at Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, accompanied by meat snacks and wine. Check out our interview with her for a preview of the evening; I know Powell a bit socially, as I used to work at her neighborhood wine store and my husband, Tom Mylan, also learned to butcher at Fleisher’s, so consider this an especially frank exchange with an author who traffics in TMI.
BB: In your column on Double X you’ve talked about the oversharing factor in your work and how some reviewers have expressed embarrassment on your behalf for the content of Cleaving. But you respond by saying that though your affair was difficult for you and your husband Eric, that you’re not embarrassed. That seems remarkably levelheaded and centered for someone that those same reviewers have occasionally characterized as unhinged. How did you get to that place?
JP: Awesome question. I’m tempted to answer that I’m very level headed about the fact that I’m unhinged. But that’s just glib and not really right. The truth is that there was a period when I truly was utterly unhinged (love that word!), and the writing of the book was part of what got me back on track. I wanted to depict the irrational desires and bad choices that result when one is standing on the edge of an obsession, because I think that is a subject worth shining a light on. I knew that in doing so I’d get some people cringing at the TMI factor, but it felt important to me.
BB: Is there anything though, that you won’t talk about or particularly hate being asked?
JP: “What’s your favorite Julia Child dish?” I am so sick of that one. Honestly, though, there’s not much I mind being asked about, at least as far as my personal experience goes. I am much more circumspect when it comes to questions about the other people I write about. In Cleaving, for example, both Eric and “D” were extraordinarily generous to allow me to write my version of their stories. In exchange for that generosity, I owe them a responsible approach. I will never try to visit their intentions, or expose them any more than is inevitable. I’m grateful to them, and want to be careful on their behalf. I don’t so much feel that way about myself.
BB: What has most surprised you about the reaction to Cleaving?
JP: I was expecting some negativity, and I got it, so that’s not a shock. I suppose the thing that surprises me is how personally people take it, whether they hate it or love it. Of particular interest has been how men read it. I’ve had by now several conversations with men about their reactions to the book, and what strikes me is that it seems to strike a deep empathetic, and somewhat sexual, chord with some of them. It’s as if they’re maybe surprised to read a woman’s frank take on her own desires and adulterous impulses. I had no idea that the very notion of talking about these things, as a married woman, would seem so very shocking and intriguing. I mean, men write about it all the time.
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BB: This book is so brutally honest that it can be difficult to read, but that honesty opens a smart and important discussion of marriage. Were there standard tropes about marriage, wives or infidelity that you were consciously writing against?
JP: I continue to be a cynic about the contemporary notion of marriage. I don’t mean that a traditional marriage absolutely can’t work, but this idea instilled in us that being married means relying on one person to be everything to you–helpmate, lover, friend, bastion of your own self-identity–seems to me diminishing, wrong-headed, and unworkable. What I found with Eric was that I was depending upon him for my sense of self, which was both frustrating for me and unfair to him.
Also, and more frighteningly, I have discovered that it really is possible to love two people at once. Which is exhilarating and terrifying and considered pretty much evil by most people.
BB: Why do we still invest so much in marriage and how resilient is it as an institution?
JP: I think American marriage serves the purpose of a safety net for a lot of people. The 21st century is a scary, uncertain place. I mean, just Facebook and Twitter alone leave me feeling constantly unbalanced. Having one person to depend on to ground you can feel like a saving grace. And it can be that. But ultimately, depending on one person for that, for all time, is I think too much to ask of you or your spouse.
I think marriage is tremendously resilient as an institution, because everyone can, if they’re brave, make their own, in their own images. It’s the conventional expectations of marriage that have always been and will continue to be broken and remolded.
BB: Online, some of your harshest critics are women who feel outraged on behalf of your “long-suffering husband.” What do you make of that?
JP: Not to make a huge feminist conspiracy case of it or anything, but a woman’s adultery is still pretty taboo, unless the husband mistreats her or doesn’t fulfill her in some way, thereby “justifying” her actions. A description of a woman in a marriage with a good man who nevertheless finds herself cheating is threatening, I think, especially to people, male or female, who have made a huge investment in the idea of monogamous marriage. It’s scary, it really is, finding oneself outside those borders, and it can be easier to just cover the whole thing over with a blanket condemnation rather than examine how someone might have gotten there and what that might mean for one’s own relationships.
BB: Is that characterization of Eric fair from your point of view?
JP: Well, I think the phrase “long-suffering” is fair enough, as far as it goes. But it strikes me as a bit beside the point. People want to make me the villain of the piece, because it’s easier, and a simple way to do this is to express mystification that sweet Eric puts up with all my shenanigans. It’s remarkable that he stuck around during this rough period, that we both did. But I don’t think that either of us had an unassailable monopoly on suffering or a firm grip on the moral high ground. People want to make things more digestible for themselves.
Brooklyn Based: Through your two memoirs you’ve spent a lot of time learning about food, learning classic French technique in Julie and Julia, and butchering in Cleaving. Are there other culinary projects you’ve taken on off the page?
Julie Powell: I’ve been teaching myself to cook since I was 19 years old, and a lot of that experimentation has, over the years, led me into some extreme territory. The story of my first experience attempting to make a Cajun roux for gumbo would make you shudder. I’ve not tackled any wild, systematically rigorous projects in awhile, but it’s only a matter of time. It’s what I do, after all, whether I’m writing about the experience or not.
BB: Are there any new projects you’re eager to tackle?
JP: I’m in the very early days of working on a novel. Fiction is what I always wanted to do, and I’m happy to have that opportunity. The idea scares me, which I take as a good sign.
BB: You live in Long Island City, which is Queens, but do you have favorite places, to eat, drink or otherwise, in Brooklyn?
JP: I spend quite a bit of time in Brooklyn. Bonita was my go-to Mexican place, much mourned. Eric and I go to Dumont Burger on Sundays and do the crossword.
Sent by Annaliese. Photos courtesy of Julie Powell/Little Brown and Company/Kelly Campbell.