Julia Glass’ fourth novel, THE WIDOWER’S TALE, was released last fall, and drew praise for its ambitious range of contemporary topics — from ecoterrorism to immigration to affluenza in the suburbs. But above all it deals with family, and how we as aging individuals contend with change: Changing culture and changing circumstances, the evolution of relationships and patterns that have given us comfort.
Beyond the Margins caught up with Glass after a reading in suburban Boston, and she responded at such generous length that we divided the interview into two parts. Today we run questions dealing with her life as a writer—how her modus operandi has changed since the early days of writing, how she crafts her characters, and how as a so-called “late bloomer” she perceives the fuss made of Writers Under 40.
The second half of the interview, to be published later this month, will deal specifically with her new novel, THE WIDOWER’S TALE.
PART ONE: THE WRITING LIFE
What’s changed about your writing process since the days of THREE JUNES? How much of the difference would you attribute to experience, to receiving the National Book Award, and to your children being bit older?
I wrote Three Junes in a virtual vacuum: no contract, no agent, no mentors, not even (since I started writing fiction entirely on my own) compatriots with whom to share the struggle. In a way, I marvel that I was able to persevere for so many years in such solitude, yet now that I am a member of the fiction-writing “tribe” (which, for the most part, I love), I guard that solitude carefully—at least during the writing stage. I may talk with other writers about what I’m doing in a general sense, but I do not show any of my work to anyone until I’m quite far along, and even then, the only people who see the draft stages of a book are my agent, my editor, and my mate.
The primary change created by the National Book Award was simply, but very importantly, this: more money from my publisher, which bought me more time to write fiction. Since then—for the time being—I haven’t had to do a lot of “extra” work (copy editing, copy writing, journalism, etc.).
As for my children, right now they’re actually at stages (elementary and high school) where they require more “thinking” energy from me than they did when they were smaller. It is now impossible for me to get work done once they’re home from school. (Let’s put it this way: By the time I had my second baby, I was a pro at working on a novel while nursing; try writing so much as a shopping list while helping a child study for a Latin quiz or learn how to do long division!)
Some of your most beloved jump-off-the-page characters are men, starting with Fenno in THREE JUNES, who returns for a cameo in THE WHOLE WORLD OVER. Why do you think you’re able to write a man’s point of view so naturally?
I can’t really explain this, but lately I have a theory. All my primary characters reflect aspects of myself, often those I find disagreeable, weak, or vulnerable (take Fenno’s emotional insecurity or Percy’s self-righteous contempt toward modern technology). Sometimes when I start telling a story about one of these characters, it’s almost as if I’m writing a cautionary tale for myself, aimed at one of those unattractive foibles. I find it’s easier to examine them if I can somehow hold them at arm’s length—personify them in someone markedly different from myself. That character might be different in age or choice of profession or even temperament—but to place that character across the gender line may be the easiest separation of all. Still, that doesn’t explain why I feel so comfortable writing from a male perspective. Having grown up without male siblings, having experienced “romance” relatively late, I can only imagine it’s related to a longtime fascination with, and longing for closeness to, The Other.
What is your point of entry to a new project — the characters, their crisis, a message, or plot? In what order would you say these develop?
Always, without exception, the point of entry is a single character in a particular predicament. Everything else flows from there.
You’ve said you began as a painter, and gave up the visual arts for writing. Was that an unconscious choice, or are there only so many hours in the day?
There are only so many hours in a day: you pegged it. And that was back when I lived alone: no kids, no boyfriend, a great apartment with a very low rent. Nevertheless, I wasn’t supporting myself as an artist, so I had a nine-to-five job and did my artwork evenings and weekends. And then I got this hankering to write stories. For a while, I juggled everything: work, art, writing (and hanging out with friends). I knew it couldn’t work, and when I found myself “stealing” time from painting to write, the choice became clear. For a few years, I found it quite depressing. When I came home, I walked through a studio with unfinished work gathering dust—and I wondered if I’d wasted a decade of my life on the wrong calling. It was a time of enormous doubt and terrible insecurity. (I now understand how my years as a visual artist greatly influenced my writing, but I didn’t begin to see this until after Three Junes was published.)
So much attention is given the age of a writer, from the fuss made over the “Top 20 under 40” to the so-called late bloomers. I’ve always felt writers just have their own timelines, which is as much a factor of their other life responsibilities as anything else. Why do you think there’s so much focus on the age of a writer’s debut?
I could be wrong, but I think this focus on the age of a writer’s debut arose in the early 1980s when a virtual phalanx of extremely precocious writers—Jay McInerney, Susan Minot, David Leavitt, Bret Easton Ellis, and Ethan Canin among them—came out with highly acclaimed works of fiction seemingly all at once. I was a painter back then, so I watched this phenomenon as a reader, not a writer, yet it seemed as disturbing as it was exciting. What disturbed me was the sudden widespread notion that if you hadn’t published a noteworthy book by the time you were thirty, your hopes of ever doing so suddenly looked dim. I’m almost certain that was the genesis of all these “20 Under 30”–type anthologies and dedicated magazine issues that have been with us ever since. (Imagine how absurd I felt publishing my first book at age 46!)
As far as I know, there’s no commensurate recognition of writers who emerge as “late bloomers”; to be fair, there ought to be. I’m in favor of any awards or collections that bring talented writers greater attention, but could we spread the recognition across a broader lifetime spectrum? For instance, why doesn’t the National Book Foundation, which annually asks “older” writers to anoint younger ones (under 35) in a formal awards ceremony, also ask established “younger” writers to pick underrecognized writers over age 50?
Of course, we live in a culture that grossly favors the facile inventiveness of fresh-faced youth over the hard-earned wisdom of jowly-jawline middle age—but doesn’t it seem pathetic that the literary world must adhere to the same shallow fashionista values? I know I’m sounding perilously like Percy, but honestly now, since when are writers comparable to ballplayers? Generally speaking, the older we get, the better we are!
What bit of advice would you offer the pre-published writer today sweating it out nights at a kitchen table, as you did?
First, read like a maniac; your best teachers will always be the best writers you read.
Second, ignore the bullying myths of what it takes to be a “real writer.” You don’t have to write every day or write what you know or get an MFA or show-don’t-tell or keep a journal or . . . whatever. Try out different habits and “rules,” by all means, but reject the ones that don’t work for you.
Third, understand that success in writing may (a) take a long time (for me, seven years to publish a short story, seven more to publish a book) and (b), once it arrives not offer you much in the way of financial reward. Many of the finest fiction writers I know require the security of a solid day job—teaching, editing, lawyering, shrinking—to support and sometimes even inspire the work that matters most to them.
Fourth, if you like the company of other people, try a good workshop. I teach a week-long fiction workshop every summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and I am always amazed at how energizing it is for most writers who attend. Many of my students form important long-lasting support systems after the workshop and help inspire one another to work harder than ever. (This year, I’ve had the pleasure of blurbing debut novels by two of my students.) I got where I am the lonely way and sometimes wonder if I missed out on something—and if maybe I’d have been published sooner if I’d had a broader network. In the end, connections do help.
Please check back in on January 21, 2011 for Julia Glass’ discussion of her latest novel, THE WIDOWER’S TALE.