“All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together.”
Talk about the process of writing this book with Julia.
Q: 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 selfreliant, and for years had politely resisted my offer. By December 2003, Julia had retired to Santa Barbara, California, 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.
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 farmers’ 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 13, two days before her 92nd 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. I wrote some exposition and transitions, and used her funny words—“Yuck!” “Plop!” “Hooray!” In some places I have blended Paul’s 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. j
Taft Bulletin Fall 2009 35
Quarterly magazine of the Taft School