Appetite for Life: A visit with Julia Child’s biographer
As Julie and Julia debuts in theaters around the country this weekend, there’s a role in the film viewers may not immediately notice but without which the movie might be completely different. It’s Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Julia Child titled Appetite for Life. Riley Fitch’s book, while never outright mentioned in the film, was a resource for writer Julie Powell for her blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her book Julie and Julia 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen. Powell drew on several sources including Appetite for Life as she was imagining the scenes between Julia and her husband Paul for her book. Powell’s blog and book became the basis for Nora Ephron’s movie, which stars Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
Riley Fitch, who had earned her PhD in American Studies from WSU in 1969 was already an accomplished biographer when she met Child at an American Institute of Food and Wine conference in 1990. Child, a voracious reader who loved material about Americans in Paris, had already read a few of Riley Fitch’s books.
How did you convince Julia Child to let you be her biographer?
She had said, “I say no to everybody who asks me that. I’m a very busy woman and I don’t have time to tell you about my life.” I said “Well, I’ve never written about a person who is still living, so I don’t really need all your time. I know how to research a person’s life without having met them or talked to them.”
So that started the conversation about doing a biography?
Yes. So we corresponded by e-mail.
Oh yes, she loved any new invention.
What were some of the ways you researched your book?
In Cambridge I was going through papers she had put at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. She had given her official stuff to them. There was a lot to read. I would go for a week or two and I would read them and then she and I would get together for meals. We really had a social relationship. When I did an official interview with her, I tape recorded it, and it was usually at her kitchen table while she was cooking. She would clang and bang. There was nothing really quiet and demure about her.
The first time when we both knew I was going to write her biography, she said, “Before you do research at the library, you come to my house and see what I’ve got here.” She said, “You’re coming next week? I’ll see you Monday and Tuesday, but I have to leave the rest of the week because I have to make appearances.” On one of the first visits, she came to the door and said “My secretary will show you where all my files, and my desk, and my cupboards, and my drawers are and you are to look at everything. I have nothing to hide.” Everything was there, even things she didn’t remember she had. I discovered filing cabinets in the basement that hadn’t been touched in decades. They held diaries and government papers.
I realized she had a full life before she ever, ever started cooking, before she became this cook on TV. She had a whole life before she became famous and influential.
What role did you or your book play in the movie Julie and Julia?
I had already sold the film rights to (actress) Joan Cusack, so they couldn’t acknowledge my book. Except there are two scenes in the movie where Julie is reading my hardcover book, and she actually quotes the section when Julia is picking cannelloni out of the boiling water.
My book was also used in an early magazine ad for the film. The actress who plays Julie (Amy Adams) is sitting there and she’s reading the hardcover copy. Of course my publisher and Joan Cusack were upset. Later the photo was photo-shopped. They took out the subtitle, and they took out my name.
Have you seen the whole film?
I went to a sneak preview. My sister belongs to one of these old restored movie houses in Santa Monica and they were showing it for members only. So we went with my sister and brother-in-law. I went with some fear and dread. I don’t think I wanted to see it because I was so upset with the advertisement, the infringement. But the movie is better than a biopic you’d see on TV. It’s a good movie, really.
What would Julia think of this portrayal?
She really didn’t want herself portrayed. Even when I did the book, she said it felt like an obituary. She was determined not to read it. But then someone in her family would say, “Oh, you’ve got to read this paragraph about Paul, it’s a really good portrait of him.” So she’d look at that.
And Julia was not pleased with the blog (that Powell was writing). You’ll see that in the movie.
Did the film and the actors capture Julia’s joy, her playfulness?
I think in some ways occasionally it seemed a bit overdone. But she’s (Streep) got her spot on. I must say it’s a great imitation. The movie is better than a bio-pic you’d see on TV. It’s a good movie. The audience loved it.
**Look for a more detailed story on Noel Riley Fitch and her biography of Julia Child in the November 2009 issue of Washington State Magazine.
Julie and Julia – The official movie site
Appetite for Life – Purchase information
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 6th, 2009 at 2:11 pm and is filed under Food Science and Human Nutrition, Literature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.