Today on the blog is the très fabuleuse Erin Hagar, yet another friend from VCFA. She’s here to talk about her middle grade biography, Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures (art by Joanna Gorham), which was published in May by Duopress.
I’ll be giving away a copy of this book. But let me talk to Erin first. I hope you’ll join in the conversation later on.
El Space: Erin, it’s great to have you on the blog.
Erin: I am so excited to be on El Space! Thank you for having me!
El Space: How did you come to write a biography of Julia Child?
Erin: Your readers are probably familiar with Brian Selznick’s amazing The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007). The publisher of Duopress had the great idea to adapt this visual format—with large chunks of the story told visually—to a biography. It’s an amazing concept, and I was so glad he approached me to work with him on it. We brainstormed possible subjects, and I suggested Gordon Ramsay because my family loves Master Chef, Jr. After discussing it a bit, we thought, “Why not the television cook who started it all?” Voilà—Julia it was!
El Space: What is it about Julia’s life that so many people find fascinating? I can’t help thinking of Julie & Julia (2009).
Erin: Isn’t that a great movie? I watched it only after I’d done a lot of research on Julia, because I didn’t want to confuse facts about her life with details from the movie, in case they’d been changed as screenwriters understandably do. But you know what? The parts with Meryl Streep were incredibly accurate! To answer your question, gosh, there’s so much that’s fascinating. I think it comes down to her personality. She just radiated energy and enthusiasm and this remarkable down-to-earth spirit, with a little sauciness thrown in. Pardon the pun.
El Space: Ha! Love the pun!
Erin: On top of that, the details of her life are remarkable—her service during WWII, and how hard she worked to find something she loved to do, how tirelessly she worked for her success, her pioneer show on television. All of it is amazing, really.
El Space: Did you try any of her recipes while you wrote this book? If so, which ones?
Erin: I confess, right here on El Space, that I am not the greatest cook. But my daughter is, and together we made Julia’s Duck L’Orange for Christmas dinner this year. It turned out pretty great! Mostly thanks to my daughter. But I did read a lot of Julia’s recipes, of course, to get a sense of her voice and her attention to detail which is amazing.
Julia Child’s Canard à l’Orange
El Space: I just read this article about Flynn McGarry, a 15-year-old Michelin-starred chef. How does your book motivate young novice cooks to challenge themselves?
Erin: What a great story! I wouldn’t mind getting on the guest list for one of young Flynn’s amazing supper club events. It’s funny, though, because Flynn’s experience is the polar opposite of Julia’s. Julia didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life until her late thirties. She was just an eater until her time overseas, and while she appreciated good meals later, she was a disaster at making them for a long time. So what I hope kids take away from this book is that—while it’s great to have amazing, talented young people in a field like cooking—you don’t have to be excellent from such a young age to make a name for yourself later on. That’s true in any field. Be a kid! Bumble around! It’s okay!
El Space: What was your research process for this project? Did it involve a lot of fact checking?
Erin: I’m lucky to have had lots of information to work from. There have been several amazing biographies written about Julia Child, notably Bob Spitz’s Dearie and Noël Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life, which were huge helps. Julia also wrote her autobiography, My Life in France, with her nephew, Alex Prud’Homme. That book, along with a collection of letters Julia wrote to her best friend, gave me lots of “dialogue” for my book, which I hope lightens it up and gives a readers a sense of her voice. In addition, there is an incredible collection of Julia’s papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. I spent a good part of a week there researching, which was a lot of fun. I could have spent much more time there, actually.
El Space: Any advice for a budding writer who wants to tackle a biography?
Erin: Go for it! In many ways, you’re doing the same thing as fiction writing: bringing a person’s story to life, using the best details you can find to show their transformation over time. The difference is, of course, the need for those details to be entirely accurate as well as telling. Knowing what to leave out is as important as what to include. I struggled a lot with that in the early drafts. Thankfully my editor, Robin Pinto, is super smart and always knew what to take out.
El Space: This is usually a tough question for authors to answer, but I need to ask it: Which authors inspire you right where you are in your journey as an author?
Erin: I have a crazy amount of respect for any novelist who finishes a novel. Seriously. But you probably want me to be more specific, don’t you? Okay, I loved Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap for its magical realism, and I love the way Kekla Magoon wove together the many points of view in How It Went Down. Lindsay Eyre just published a chapter book called The Best Friend Battle, and it’s one of the best examples of “kid speak” and “kid think” I’ve ever read.
El Space: What are you working on?
Erin: I just wrapped up another nonfiction for Duopress—a slightly shorter book about the history of the LEGO brick titled Awesome Minds: The Inventors of Lego. Super fun! It will be out in Spring ’16. I also have a picture book coming out with Charlesbridge in Fall ’16 about the Woman’s Land Army of America during World War I. Think Rosie the Riveter, one generation earlier, on farms. And I’ve got this middle grade novel I’m trying to tame. It’s been a long haul with this story, but I’ll get there. Someday.
Thank you, Erin, for being my guest. You’re awesome!
Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures can be found here:
As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be giving away a copy to a commenter. Winner to be announced on June 10. When you comment, please share a dish you like to make or eat. I’ll start by saying I make a mean coq au vin. Yes, I do!
Book covers from Goodreads. Movie poster from madeinkitchen.tv. Kid chef from multiplemayhemmamma.com. Julia Child photo from indianapublicmedia.org. Julia Child’s Canard à l’Orange photo from foodista.com.