Historian Laura Shapiro Tells Engaging Story of Julia Child

September 30, 2008
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Julia Child cover
Julia Child
by Laura Shapiro
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Historian Shapiro Tells
Engaging Story of Julia Child

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Laura Shapiro
by Ellen Birkett Morris

October 2008

 

 

A compelling biography requires attention to detail, the ability to tell a good story and the finesse to put one person’s experience into a larger social/historical framework.

Journalist and historian Laura Shapiro’s engaging biography of Julia Child, part of the Penguin Lives series, meet those criteria in less than 200 pages.

“The Lives series is a very specific take on a life. They are short in length and more impressionistic. ”
—SHAPIRO

“The Lives series is a very specific take on a life. They are short in length and more impressionistic. It was the perfect format for a biography of Julia, who has been written about 8 million times,” said Shapiro.

The result is a lively portrait of a woman who went from California party girl to head clerk in a World War II spy station to amateur cook to American treasure.

Shapiro, a Harvard graduate, started her writing career in the early 1970s at an alternative paper in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which allowed her to develop a unique voice and gave her free reign to write about topics that interested her, including women’s issues. It was an era new journalism, during which writers were encouraged to be creative and put themselves at the center of the story.

“I believe the ability to go out there and make mistakes is key to education. . .”
—SHAPIRO

“I developed a voice and style long before I had anything to say,” said Shapiro.

It was a period of experimentation and learning for the young writer.

“I learned how to write in public. I believe the ability to go out there and make mistakes is key to education,” said Shapiro

It was also a time when she developed her interest in women’s history and food.

“Our cooking traditions come from women and it is through women’s lives that we learn more about cooking. Food is a window into women’s lives,” observed Shapiro.

She went on to work for Newsweek Magazine, where she would spend 15 years writing about the arts and food. Her time there cultivated an attention to accuracy, detail, structure and coherence.

". . . it was hard to learn to leave behind the formulaic structure for sentences and paragraphs."
—SHAPIRO

 

 

 

It was the mid-80s and America was beginning to pay serious attention to food. Shapiro had an opportunity to interview both Child and Alice Waters. While she gained much from the experience, the transition to books required changing some writing habits.

“When I left Newsweek in 2000 to work on books it was hard to learn to leave behind the formulaic structure for sentences and paragraphs. I had to learn to use the economy and accuracy and leave behind the too glib formulas that plague news magazines,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro’s first book, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, was a labor of love that took seven years to research and write. It came out in 1986. She drew on the resources of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard, where Shapiro was able to “read a 19th century cookbook and a book about women’s domestic life at the time side by side.”

Her book, Julia Child, displays a flair for showcasing personal history within a social and historical context in a graceful way.

“I always try to write for smart people who don't know the subject. In my mind, I am writing for my friends,” said Shapiro.

She never dreamed that she would one day write about Julia Child. Her book about the 1950s, Something from the Oven, came out the summer that Child died.  After looking at what had already been written about Child, Shapiro decided there was room for another book about her. 

She read Child’s biography, Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch, and Time and New Yorker profiles before looked through hundreds of cartons of her correspondence. 

“I felt like Julia was just rising out of these cartons. I read her mail continuously for months. When I finished I felt as if I had said goodbye to her,” noted Shapiro. 

Drawing from “Julia’s voice on paper”, Shapiro put together a biography in which the subject’s character and humanity shines through.

Shapiro said the greatest challenge in biography is to create an accurate portrait of a real person that “puts flesh and blood on that person by imagination.”

As she wrote about Julia, Shapiro took great pains to deal with Child’s history of homophobia, which Shapiro referred to as “an anomaly in her character.”

“I finally saw that it was part of her whole feeling about love and marriage, sex, and men and women. She came into her own when she married Paul.  She just didn’t get it,” said Shapiro.

"Become a mini-expert on what you are writing about. Write about what you love."
—SHAPIRO

 

 

 

While writing the book, Shapiro kept notes that she saw as a conversation with herself — points that struck her, questions to explore. She worked from an arc of the story written on scraps of paper that included ideas about how to begin and end and a list of points to cover.

Shapiro starts work first thing in the morning and works as long as she can, often until 1:00 or 2:00 pm. “A good morning is what I strive for,” she said.

“Nothing is more daunting than sitting down to write,” explained Shapiro.

When she was working on her first book, friend and novelist Brenda Peterson advised her to “put everything away, sit at the typewriter and write out everything you know.”

“It was in me. It just had to come out. She freed me,” said Shapiro.

“Become a mini-expert on what you are writing about. Write about what you love. Learn how to develop an idea. Your take, your ideas, will be what sells it. Nothing replaces passion for a subject.”

About Laura Shapiro

Laura Shapiro is the author of Perfection Salad and Something from the Oven. She was a writer at Newsweek for more than fifteen years and has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Granta, and Gourmet .

 

 

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists. 

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris