Q+A with Alex Prud’homme about My Life in France
What was your original connection to Julia Child?:
We were related by marriage: Julia’s husband, Paul, was the twin brother of my grandfather, Charles Child. So she was my great aunt. I grew up knowing her on TV and in person. The two Julias were one and the same. In other words, the personality you saw on TV was the same personality I saw at home — funny, smart, and happiest when cooking something delicious for an appreciative audience.
Paul was shorter and quieter than Julia. He’d been a diplomat, was an accomplished artist, and was an essential part of Julia’s success. In fact, our book is dedicated to him. He was ten years older than she was, knew all about wine, and entertained us with unusual tricks — how to tie a bowline knot with one hand (he’d been a sailor), how to trip someone (he was a black belt), how to hold a wineglass when making a toast (by the stem). He and I shared a love of bacon and bananas, and Julia thought we looked alike — which is probably one reason she liked me.
How well did you know Julia and Paul Child growing up?
Quite well. Although they lived in Cambridge Mass, and we lived in New York, they were frequently in Manhattan as Julia’s career flourished. We’d often have Thanksgiving together, and we’d see each other in Maine during the summer, where Paul helped my grandfather build a log cabin.
They never had children of their own, but were close to Charlie’s children (my mother, aunt, and uncle). They weren’t quite another set of grandparents to us — Julia was a celebrity, and they were always flying off to exotic places like France or California — but they were very down-to-earth people, and always curious about what WE were up to.
Julia and Paul were generous, and would pass on gifts of food and cookbooks they’d been given from well-meaning friends. But their biggest gift was to live their lives in an exemplary way: they taught us the importance of passion, doggedness, creativity, and humor.
What are some of your favorite memories of Julia and Paul?
Mostly about eating, of course. Julia’s kitchen in Cambridge was her laboratory, and the center of the house. We’d sit around the big table there talking – about movies, politics, food – while she tinkered with some new recipe on her old Garland stove. There were all sorts of giant knives and copper pots and exotic culinary contraptions in her kitchen — like the giant mortar and pestle she bought in Paris. (Her entire kitchen is on display at the Smithsonian.) This seemed natural to me, and it was only much later that I realized how lucky I was to spend time with her.
In Maine, Julia would join us in picking strawberries, fishing for mackerel and digging for clams. She’d make chowder, bouillabaisse, lobsters, bread, and — our favorite — lace cookies, jams and berry pies.
In New York, Julia would sometimes take us along to a fundraiser she was doing, and then we’d go out to a restaurant, where they’d seat us in the middle of the room and feed us way too much food. Afterwards, Julia made a point of going into the kitchen to thank everyone from the dishwasher to the head chef. Entering a restaurant with her was an experience — I’ve seen near-riots break out when Julia walked into a room. Once, a woman nearly broke her ankle in front of a Howard Johnson’s when she saw Julia and tripped off a curb. Another time, a woman at a fancy restaurant set her napkin on fire when she knocked a candle over in a rush to get Julia’s autograph. Julia handled the crush of attention very well; Paul didn’t like it much, but put up with it for her sake.
In France, we visited Paul and Julia in Provence a number of times. Shopping at the great outdoor market in Cannes, Julia spoke to every vegetable and meat purveyor, and, naturally, they loved her. In 1976, when I was 14, she took us to La Colombe d’Or, a restaurant in St. Paul de Vence, where I had my first really extraordinary, three-plus hour French lunch. On that visit I also learned how to drive a stick-shift car in their field (I ground the gears and put a dent in the bumper, but it was fun!). Then Paul set up a TV on the veranda, and we watched the Montreal Olympics while Julia grilled the most delicious chicken I’ve ever eaten.
Of course, one of my best memories of all is spending time with Julia at the end of her life: we were writing this book together, and getting to know each other — and our family stories — all over again. I feel very lucky.
When did you first learn that Julia was writing a book about her life?
The years she lived in France, Julia said, were “among the best of my life.” It was there that she figured out who she was and what she wanted to do with herself. And for almost as long as I can remember, she talked about writing a book about that time — “the France book.”
In 1969, Paul suggested printing the letters that he and Julia had written to my grandparents from France. But the publishers weren’t interested. Julia liked the idea, though, and kept mental notes about it. She kept files of things she had written about her experiences there — her first meal in Rouen; how to shop for partridge in Paris, or fish in Marseille; the trials and tribulations of getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking written and published. But for some reason, “the France book” never got written.
How did you first become involved in the writing of MY LIFE IN FRANCE?
I was a professional writer, and had long wanted to do something collaborative with Julia. But she was self reliant, and for years had politely resisted my offer.
By December 2003, Julia had retired to Santa Barbara, CA, and when I made my annual visit, she once again mentioned “the France book” in a wistful tone. She was 91, and growing frail, and I once again offered to assist her. This time she surprised me by saying, “All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together.” I wasn’t especially prepared, but we sat down and did our first interview the next day. Our collaboration grew from there.
Talk about the process of writing this book with Julia:
For a few days every month, I would sit in Julia’s modest living room, asking questions, reading from a stack of family letters, looking at Paul’s evocative photographs, and listening to her stories. Occasionally we’d watch a tape of one of her old TV shows, and she’d tell me about it.
It wasn’t always easy, though. Julia could only work for a couple of hours at a time. She didn’t like to talk about her innermost thoughts. My tape recorder distracted her, so I took notes instead. But after some fits and starts, we finally got into a good working rhythm. Many of our best conversations took place over a meal, on a car ride, or while I rolled her wheelchair through the farmer’s market. Something would trigger her memory, and she’d suddenly tell me how she learned to make baguettes in a home oven, or how one had to speak very loudly in order to be heard at a French dinner party.
When I had enough material, I would write up a vignette. Julia would read it, correct it, and add new thoughts. She loved this process, and was an exacting editor. “This book energizes me!,” she’d say.
We worked like this from mid-January to mid-August, 2004, when she passed away in her sleep from kidney failure. She died on August 13th, two days before her 92d birthday. I spent the next year finishing My Life in France, and wishing I could call on her to fill in the gaps.
The final product is a true collaboration, featuring the voices of Julia, Paul, and a bit of me. It is not a scholarly treatise, and in some places I have blended Paul and Julia’s words. Not only was this practical, but Julia encouraged it, noting that they often signed their letters “PJ,” or “Pulia,” as if they were two halves of one person. I wrote some exposition and transitions, and used her funny words — “Yuck!,” “Plop!,” “Hooray!”
What was it like to work on this with Julia’s long-time editor and friend Judith Jones?
Judith is a legend in her own right, and working with her was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a writer. What is amazing is that she lived in Paris at roughly the same time that Julia did (though they didn’t know each other there), and so when the twice-rejected manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking landed on her desk, Judith instantly understood it in a way that no one else did. She was a young editor, but her passionate advocacy for Mastering persuaded the rather skeptical Alfred Knopf to publish it. He didn’t like the title, which Judith had written, and said, “If anyone buys a book with that title, I’ll eat my hat.” She says: “I like to think he’s eaten a lot of hats!”
Judith has a deft and sensitive editorial touch — something any writer can appreciate. Added to that, she worked with Julia for forty years, and her deep understanding of our subject helped this book immeasurably.
What are you currently working on?
My new book is about the perilous state of the world’s fresh water, the people and forces that are defining how we use it, and why water will be the central issue facing the planet this century.
I came to this subject in part through Julia: not only is France the place where bottled water and private water companies got their start, but her niece is married to a globe-trotting hydrogeologist who is full of amazing water stories. It should be a lot of fun. I think Julia would approve.