by Evelyn Somers
Evelyn Somers: You studied art at Yale, and your early creative work was in painting. Did you ever study writing formally or participate in a writing workshop?
Julia Glass: I want to back up the time machine to the small private high school I attended, where I had extraordinary English teachers. Concord Academy was a hothouse for creative writing; I was one of numerous students there who wrote both fiction and poetry with enormous passion. I worked on the literary magazine and the school newspaper alongside teenage writers who would grow up to become the novelists Susan Minot, Ruth Ozeki, and Katherine Mosby; the poet Julie Agoos; and the biographer David Michaelis. (Sebastian Junger is another, younger alum.)
Arriving at Yale in the mid-1970s, however, I was discouraged from the pursuit of literary studies by the modish zeal for deconstructionism and semiotics. I loved Yale, and I was deeply challenged by the pursuit of painting and drawing, but looking back, I was also steered away from my innate love of storytelling. (Or you could say that I turned to telling stories through visual means.) When I rediscovered fiction writing in my early thirties, I might have gone back to school for an MFA, but I preferred “going it alone.” I did take one short workshop early on, but after that I stubbornly (and a bit grandiosely) returned to my solitary habits. It took me seven years of submitting my work to get my first short story published; another seven years passed before my first novel found a publisher. I still marvel that I didn’t quit.
ES: Both novel writing and motherhood are midlife endeavors for you. Is there any connection between your decisions to do both those things “late”? Has being a midlife mother affected how or what you wrote?
JG: I’ve done everything late: talk, walk, swim, ride a bike, drive a car, kiss a guy—you name it. I certainly did not mean to become a mother as late as I did—nor would I ever have wished to “delay” my success as a writer, but circumstances and my own choices conspired, quite consistently, to stamp me even more emphatically as the late bloomer I am apparently doomed and blessed to be. When I had my first son, just shy of 40, I had been writing “short” stories—more accurately, long stories yearning to become novels if I would only let them—for about a decade. Having a child was like getting a kick in the backside from reality. I needed to support this other person, make a real living, be a “grownup.”
I was also writing nonfiction for magazines, but I did not want to give up the fiction. I understood that the only way to make it viable was to undertake a novel. And that’s when I found out that I was, by nature, a novelist, not a short story writer. (A less charitable way to look at my “late blooming” might be to see it as an extremely dogged form of denial!)
ES: Each of your four books is told from the perspectives of multiple characters. I know editors who say that writing from multiple viewpoints prevents the reader from becoming involved with the characters. Do you agree? Also, has the decision to write from multiple perspectives been deliberate? Or have the different narrative perspectives asserted themselves unexpectedly?
JG: Well, I have never heard anyone say that writing from multiple viewpoints—in the context of a novel—is detrimental to the reader’s experience. That’s nonsense. Off the top of my head, the greatest novels I can think of, old or new, all take the reader into the hearts and souls of many individuals. Not that I haven’t read wonderful novels told from a single perspective (and when I do, I’m envious, since I’m not sure I could maintain such a literally single-minded focus). I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles; maybe I’m a bit of a literary voyeur in that respect. I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.
Sometimes I’m surprised to find myself inhabiting a character I introduced for pragmatic reasons, to serve as a foil or motivator, to move a more important character’s story forward. This was definitely the case, for instance, with Walter, the restaurateur in The Whole World Over, and Ira, the preschool teacher in The Widower’s Tale. Less frequently, I find that I have to resist taking on a given point of view; in The Widower’s Tale, I had originally intended to write about Percy Darling from the perspective of his daughter Trudy, the oncologist. I have long wondered what makes certain kinds of physicians tick; I wanted to imagine that experience myself. And I know I would have enjoyed the challenge—but at an early point I understood that this particular story was meant to be told only through the eyes of the men, so I had to “settle” for viewing Trudy’s life from the outside in.
ES: The flexibility and resilience of family is a primary theme for you. Families get stressed internally and externally, and they may have to re-form in new configurations, but they hang on. This seems to me a very 21st-century American subject. What is it about the resilience of family that compels you so much?
JG: What compels me is the resilience of human beings, period. As I’ve said before, all the most lasting fiction is about one thing: how we go on. Some writers tackle this in the context of war or poverty or tyranny; I tackle it through the intimate world of the family. We are all born into one, and most of us do our damnedest to form one. And, again, a certain innate voyeurism makes me want to “know everything” about the messiness of making families work—or the heartbreak and the struggle when they don’t.
When I spent a year at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, where most of the fellows are esteemed academics, -ologists of one sort or another, I introduced myself, jokingly, as a “scholar of the human heart.” It’s true, in fact. I grew up in a very stable household; my parents have been pretty happily married for close to 60 years. But I wonder sometimes if coming of age at a time when divorce became a suburban epidemic made a strong impression on me. I remember vividly how so many classmates’ parents starting splitting up when I was in middle school, in the late 1960s. I would venture that by high school, the majority of my friends had parents who were estranged, even remarried.
As an adult, I lived for 24 years in New York City, where domestic norms are about as mutable and elastic as they come. The older I get, the more moved I am by the ways in which I see my friends and fellow parents cope with crisis and endure the many kinds of heartbreak that life inflicts on us all sooner or later (debilitating illness, accidental death, suicide, infidelity, our children’s adolescence, our parents’ senility; the list goes on and on).
ES: The Widower’s Tale deals with several very current issues: immigration and illegals, ecological activism, and gay marriage, to name the most obvious. Did you ever worry as you were writing it that the novel might be becoming too topical?
JG: I very rarely make a conscious effort to write about “topical” matters, in part because all my stories originate with individual characters, not with themes or subjects. What happens, however, is that these characters, as they live their lives, bump up against the social barriers and political controversies of their time—which are also mine. The Widower’s Tale began simply as the story of an older man who, though vigorous and active, sees nearly all change as a threat and tries to circumscribe his life in a way such that he can ignore or avoid change. If I thought about any specific resistance, it was his contempt for what modern technology is doing to the world at large—and, in his microcosmos, to libraries and the lives of readers in particular.
In the early stages of shaping Percy and his world, including his relationship with his teenaged grandson Robert, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about freeganism—a decidedly youthful resistance to modernity (to consumerism rather than technology). I loved the eccentric idealism of the people portrayed and began to think about the difference between being 19 when I was in college and in Robert’s era (now). A visit to Harvard in the company of an undergraduate only deepened my interest in youthful activism, its paradoxical nobility and naïveté.
As for immigrants’ rights, again, this “issue” arose through my creating the character Celestino . . . whose genesis was my experience, while renting a house in a wealthy Boston suburb, of waking one morning to find our large yard overrun by garden workers who were clearly Guatemalan and who I discovered did not speak English. I wondered what it was like for them to try to interact (or not interact) with me, and it also occurred to me that when I was a child growing up in the suburbs, teenage boys did all our yardwork. What were all the teenage boys doing instead? Was this work beneath them? Such chains of thought often steer my stories.
ES: I am in awe of the intricate realism of your novels, and also the spread of them, the way they weave together multiple characters, conflicts, and themes quite fearlessly. Could you have written these works when you were younger? In your early thirties, say?
JG: I was definitely striving to do this—create intricately realistic worlds—back in my early thirties, but I was doing so in shorter narratives. I wasn’t brave enough yet to write a novel. But then, if I’d ventured into a novel that early, it would probably be sitting in a drawer. Late bloomer (slow learner?) that I am, it took me 10 years of writing my complicated, heavily burdened short stories before I wrote my first novel. I like the idea of being “fearless,” but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. Some people who’ve visited my house would probably also call me an “overdecorator.” I love filling my physical space with lots of colors, textures, images, and patterns. Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.
ES: I’m also struck by your ability to create characters of depth. Even your minor characters are fully drawn. If you could scratch the surface of a Julia Glass character, you would discover there’s no veneer; this is not a “type.” The humanity goes all the way down. How does that imaginative process of seeing down into your characters work?
JG: That’s such a powerful compliment. The characters are everything to me. Recently I met an older British woman, the mother of a neighbor, and we started talking about books. She did not know I was a writer. She said to me, “The kinds of novels I love are the ones that delve very, very deeply inside the characters’ minds and souls. I don’t even care if nothing much happens. I just love entering the complete experience of another person.” I found myself blurting out, “Well then, you might like to read one of my novels!” I’m sure that being in psychotherapy for many, many years had a strong influence on how thoroughly and compulsively I mine my characters’ histories, particularly their family histories (even if I’m actually inventing them!).
Sometimes I go too deep and spin out extensive yarns from a character’s past that are too distracting from the main story, even tedious. Here is where my editor’s eye is crucial. She is terrific at reining me in; in my latest novel, she actually broke the news to me that a particular character’s point of view—to which I had devoted more than a hundred pages—was superfluous and weakening the story. I’d had a hunch that something wasn’t right about that storyline, even though the character herself was crucial to the chain of events; slicing away pages and pages of hard work was painful. Among other things, I had to vaporize an entire little world I had created: a roomful of high school students to whom this character taught music. I had realized it fully, but the pupils hit the cutting-room floor right along with their teacher.
ES: Many readers of Three Junes were fans of the gay bookseller Fenno McLeod. To create a character that memorable is an accomplishment, and you succeeded in doing so in your very first novel (Fenno reappeared in the second novel also). Did you ever worry about not being able to match that accomplishment?
JG: I am still amazed at how attached to Fenno so many of my readers have become. It’s very moving. And at the start, it stunned me. For one thing, while waiting for Three Junes to be published, I was terribly worried about how authentic Fenno would seem as a gay man when I am neither a man nor gay. And although I despise political correctness, I worried as well about criticism from people who might feel I had no “right” to imagine the perspective of anyone who is a member of a sometimes-persecuted minority. On the contrary, I received several letters from gay men who told me how real and humane my portrayal of Fenno was—and how many of them gave the book to their parents or even grandparents. I also had parents of grown gay men tell me that reading the book had given them a way to talk with their sons about their lives—especially living through the early, hopeless years of the AIDS epidemic.
I had no intention of writing a political novel; I was just telling a story about the world in which I lived during the late 1980s in Greenwich Village. As for whether I could match that accomplishment, the positive reception of Fenno gave me the courage and confidence to tackle characters even more unlike me, such as Saga, the character with head trauma in The Whole World Over, and Celestino in The Widower’s Tale.
ES: You’ve written a number of compelling and convincing gay characters. Why does the subject of homosexuality—which is a secondary conflict in several of the books—interest you so much?
JG: The short answer to this question is that I honestly don’t know. I do have many close friends who happen to be gay, but I don’t think of them as distinctly different from my other friends, as constituting some discrete category. I sometimes wonder if I am more haunted than I realize by the volunteer work I did with men in the HIV-positive community back in the 1980s. I had never spent time with people who were so obviously dying, and it was terrifying at first. I was helping them in a secondary way—by helping them care for their pets—so I was not doing the truly tough work of nursing. But when I visited them to talk about or care for their dogs and cats, inevitably they would describe to me the challenges and heartbreak of their illness.
Certainly, I poured a lot of their fear and suffering—and grace and humor—into the character of Malachy Burns in Three Junes. Perhaps I feel I owe them some debt, but I don’t think so. I’ve had one gay reader write to tell me that she thinks I’m the first truly “post-queer” fiction writer she’s encountered (an idea that baffled me until gay friends of mine explained what she meant), and a friend who just read my new novel wrote to me last month that he thinks I am “the great contemporary gay novelist.” Go figure!
ES: I’m assuming there’s a new book in progress. Is that the case? Can you say anything about it?
JG: My next novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, will be published in April 2014. It begins as the story of a 42-year-old man whose wife sends him in search of his biological father. He was raised by a single mother who became pregnant with him at age 17; she was a good mother in many ways, but she has resolutely refused to tell him the identity of the man who impregnated her. As you can imagine, there are several other significant characters . . . and because this story grew out of a tiny subplot from Three Junes, some of those characters will be quite familiar to my readers.
Click here to read Evelyn Somers’ essay on Julia Glass.