Julie & Julia author Julie Powell is back—but don’t think her new book, Cleaving (Little, Brown), picks up where the Amy Adams movie left off. Cleaving tells of the troubles in Powell’s marriage, and how she found solace by working as a butcher, of all things. As Powell explains, readers who come to Cleaving from the Nora Ephron romantic comedy are going to experience “some psychic whiplash.” She also talks about what drew her to hacking up animals and other, er, meaty subjects.
PW: This is definitely a heavier book than Julie & Julia. Do you think readers will be surprised?
JP: I think there’s a difference between people who come to Cleaving from Julie & Julia the book, and from Julie & Julia the movie. For any reader who is invested in Julie & Julia this is a turn. It’s a darker book. It’s delving into the situations and relationships that felt very safe in Julie & Julia. But I also think that there is a through line, if you look at one book and then the other. I think people can see that if they read Julie & Julia the book. If they come out of the Nora Ephron romantic comedy, there’s going to be some psychic whiplash. To see this moment of crisis a couple years later is going to be disturbing for some people. But I wrote Cleaving in deference to marriage. Marriage is not a box; it’s a thing that grows and moves and has crises. Cleaving is about that part—what happens when things are not tied up with pretty bows anymore.
PW: You’re kind of a throwback, first cooking your way through the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking and then going to work as an apprentice at a butcher shop. What drew you to another old-fashioned institution?
JP: There’s a certainty to it, and a history to it as well. When I proposed my book, my working title was The Dying Art: A Story of Meat & Marriage. Butchery seemed like something that was disappearing. My publisher wound up wanting me to change the title, which I fought (I’m now very pleased). But my original title almost doesn’t make sense anymore, because now, there’s this resurgence of butchery and seeing how your food gets from the pasture to your plate.
PW: Why a butcher shop and not, say, a fishmonger or a cheese shop?
JP: There’s this style of manliness to the traditional butcher. It’s this men’s world and there’s this confidence I find attractive and I envy. There’s something very carnal about red meat, obviously. Handling slimy fish over ice or tidily cutting up rounds of cheese didn’t fulfill that primal quality. Everyone has the stereotype about butchery, that the very word has this secondary meaning of destroying, hacking, mess and violence. What I quickly discovered is it’s not like that at all. It’s a poetic and beautiful craft, ushering this gigantic hunk of dead animal and creating something nourishing out of it, through very intimate, delicate work.
PW: You turned your blog into a bestselling book, and it, in turn, became a Hollywood movie. What are your hopes for Cleaving?
JP: I just want to keep writing books. I hope that I can do that. I don’t think Cleaving is going to be a Nora Ephron movie. Other than that I have no idea. I hope that some people will receive the book as being helpful to them in dealing with a difficult subject matter. It’s incredibly difficult and isolating to be in a crisis like this and not be able to talk about it. Julie & Julia turned out to be a light book—it’s Julia Child, who doesn’t like Julia Child? It’s an easy read. I think this is a much more discomfiting read for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s going to be for everyone.
Author photo by Kelly Campbell
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.