Saturday, December 12, 2015

Pen Pals

Earlier this week I re-watched the film version of Julie Powell's book Julie & Julia. In both the book and the film, Julie spends a year cooking her way through all of the recipes in Julia Child's iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Child and her co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, wrote a cookbook with the home cook in mind; they wanted French cooking to be accessible and delicious. I own a copy of this cookbook; I have never made anything from it. Powell blogged about her experience which led to articles in The New York Times and the eventual book. Throughout the year, she struggles with self-doubt, arguments with her supportive yet frustrated husband, and balancing her project with her actual work. I liked the book mostly because I could understand Julie's need to do something other than her desk job but I never really liked Julie and found her difficult to root for at points throughout. At one point her husband calls her a narcissist because of the focus on her blog; I sometimes wonder if I'm as bad as she is about this blog. I hope not.

I enjoyed the film but mostly because of the sections about Julia Child. These were adapted from a second book, My Life in France. I've read this book twice and love. love, love it. In it, Child recounts her move to Paris with her amazing husband Paul and her experiences learning the art of French cuisine. It doesn't hurt that Meryl Streep plays Julia in the film (and Stanley Tucci is Paul which makes their turns in The Devil Wears Prada even more amusing). She's wonderful, from the accent to the clothes to the precision in the cooking scenes. Amy Adams plays Julie in the film; she definitely captured a lot of what I didn't love about Julie from the book. I have an even harder time with the character of Julie after I read Powell's second book, Cleaving. But that's a tale for another day.

One of my favorite parts of the film is the scene in which Julia Child and Simone Beck come to Boston from Paris  to try to get the cookbook published. Julia's friend, Avis DeVoto, helped to connect them with a publishing house interested in taking on the book. As Julia and Simone make their way through the train station to meet Avis, Julia says something that makes you realize that she and Avis have never met. Simone questions her further and it's revealed that Julia and Avis are pen pals and this will be the first time they'll meet face to face. When they do, it's a lovely cinematic moment. I can only imagine what it was like in real life.

The two women struck up their friendship because of a letter Julia wrote to Avis's husband, Bernard DeVoto. He was an historian and Julia wrote to him about an article he wrote on kitchen knives. Avis responded; her first letter led to over one hundred letters between the women over the course of two years. I'm currently working through As Always, Julia, which details those letters. I love Julia Child despite my not having ever made anything from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After reading My Life in France for the first time I was impressed with her drive and humor. She did something truly revolutionary in the world of food at a time with boxed food and tv dinners were on the rise. She elevated home cooking in a very accessible way.

I decided to come back to As Always, Julia now after having started it a few years ago and not finishing. I'm fascinated by people who write letters; I wish I was better at being a letter writer. Maybe I'll try harder this year. Some argue that letter writing is a dead art, a terrible way to communicate. I disagree. I like the idea of taking time to sit down and write to someone, to ask questions, to describe the events of your day or week, to share a bit of you on paper. You can overshare. You can be angry. You can be passionate. You can be funny. I guess letter writing's only fault is that it's not quick or convenient. Sigh.

I think that's part of the reason I decided my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel would include characters writing to one another. My characters, Harper and Ben, are assigned as pen pals in the fourth grade. Over the course of six years, they write to each other regularly about all manner of things from music to books to the kinds of toys girls in the fourth grade like to how to ask someone out on a date. They never exchange photos and never meet. Well, they don't meet as children. Over Thanksgiving, I started my first major revisions to the novel since last May. I have decided 2016 will be the year I truly finish this novel. During NaNoWriMo, editing is not a possibility and I've found that intentions of writing certain things don't always happen. I ended up with a workable first draft and now it's time to finish.

Which brings me back to letters. One of the things I want to spend more time on are the letters between Harper and Ben. There are letters in the first draft: several in the fourth grade (when they "meet") and several in the ninth grade (mostly from Harper as this is a pivotal year in their relationship). However, I really only scratched the surface with the ones in the novel now. I'm starting back in fourth grade, building on the first two letters they send one another. Does Ben tell her about the tree house? Does Harper get mad about his assumption that she plays with Barbies? How do these letters morph into the ones that become very important later on when Ben is no longer really Ben and Harper is the subject of his art?  R-ewatching the Julia/Avis meeting and diving into their letters is further inspiration. Letter writing is challenging when you're doing it for real; it's even more so when you're writing for people who only exist on paper. I worry that they sound too much alike or too adult. I have to take myself back to the early 1990s yet again; what horrifying fashion trend should I inflict on one of my characters? Should Harper harbor a secret love of NKOTB even though she's so much cooler than boy bands?

I don't know any of these answers yet and that's what I love about coming back to this novel. When I first started it I had it mapped out and on a clear timeline because that's what you have to do to finish 50K words in thirty days or less. Now I have time to go back and add in details I wrote down but forgot. I have time to make these characters even more real. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the story when I reread it. There are some romcom-y bits here and there but that's okay; they balance things out nicely.

Here's my request: over the next few months, I hope that you'll indulge me as I post some new parts of Transient Suburbia on the Island to test them out and get some reactions from you. I promise there will still be Lazy Movie Weekends, Your Resident Single Friend will stilll help you out, and occasionally we'll do everything wrong together. By the end of 2016, I hope to have the full novel ready to be sent out into the world.

If you want to get caught up on Transient Suburbia, you can check out my posts from last year (and one from a few months ago).


  1. I'm so proud of you for doing this! I think it will turn out great, and of course am very excited that we get to read more as you make your edits!

    1. Thank you! You are a huge part of me doing this by the way; having a solid writing buddy has been so great and I appreciate all the feedback and cheering. I'm excited to do this and see what happens.