In Part 1, we discussed her thoughts on the writing life. The popularity of her insights spiked our blog’s traffic, and sparked requests for the rest.
In this second half, Glass discusses the techniques and decisions that went into her fourth novel. THE WIDOWER’S TALE has a complex web of characters who struggle with changing environments and relationships: Percy Darling, a 70-year-old widower whose comfortable home and celibate status are in flux; his grandson Robert, a college student drawn dangerously into eco-activism by a passionate friend; Ira, a gay preschool teacher reluctant to give himself over to trust and commitment; and Celestino, an illegal immigrant landscaper concealing his past, his ambition and his fear.
In THE WIDOWER’S TALE you’ve created the fictitious town of Matlock, so evocative of the affluent Boston suburbs where Yankee sensibility is undergoing change. Did you ever consider giving it the real name of the town on which it’s based? What do you think is gained and lost in giving a community a real name in fiction?
Matlock is a great deal like Lincoln, the town where I grew up. But when I envisioned my characters living their lives, I saw them in a place of my imagination, not on the streets and lawns I know. It’s as simple as that. I wasn’t attempting to “disguise” anything or to write a roman-à-clef. One thing I don’t ever want to do is to put fictional characters in a real-world setting and make a geographical mistake of any kind. I’ve heard that in The Hours, Michael Cunningham evokes the intersection of two actual Greenwich Village streets that, in reality, never meet. These details do bother and even alienate some readers. I see no reason to risk such distortions of actuality—at least for those of us who consider ourselves plain old-fashioned plodding realists!
The novel has four points of view. Can you explain your thought process in making Percy’s the only one in first person?
Percy was always, from the night on which he came to me, the heart and soul of the novel. I heard his voice so clearly that I knew he would speak directly to the reader. I did contemplate using first person for the other three perspectives, but very quickly I realized that, just as Three Junes is ultimately Fenno’s story above all, this tale belongs overwhelmingly to Percy. So I wanted to return to the narrative choice I’d made in that earlier novel: to make sure that the reader feels closest, by far, to the “hero.” And I do think that both Fenno and Percy feel like true heroes by the end of their stories, not merely protagonists. (By the way, the original title of the book, all the way through the first set of galleys, was Everything Must Change. I did not decide on the final title, which gives ownership of the story to Percy, until the book was almost ready to go to print.)
There are many important female characters in the book, yet none of them are given a point of view. In what way would that have detracted from your intent?
I briefly considered writing from the viewpoint of Trudy, the daughter who is the successful oncologist—I think I would have relished that challenge, in terms of both her personality and her profession—but this is a book about how a man’s later life has been determined by the absence of a woman, so I felt that the entire novel should reflect that absence as well.
By waiting a bit to explain how Percy’s wife died decades before, you create not only suspense, but a subtle sense of guilt. Was that always your “rollout” timing?
Not until well into writing my second novel, The Whole World Over, did I realize that creating suspense by withholding crucial information from the reader isn’t “cheating.” So one of the first things I ask myself when I start a story—when I’ve got to win not just the reader’s admiration for my interesting characters and my “talent” at crafting words but his or her desire to turn more pages—is this: What can I make the reader hungry to know, not just in the long term but in the short term? How can I get readers to stick around for, say, 30 or 50 pages, by which time I hope they’ll feel committed to the longer haul?
I knew full well that Percy’s voice might be as grating at the outset as it is eloquent, that even readers who appreciate his wit might be highly irritated by his sense of superiority; in fact, I’m not interested in giving starring roles to characters who aren’t difficult to love (at first). But what would readers need to know about him that might even help explain why he’s so difficult? Hands down, it would be how he lost the wife he obviously loved so much. (I recognized, by the way, that there were echoes of Paul McLeod’s story in the beginning of Three Junes, and I made a point of differentiating Percy’s personality, along with his particular brand of “widowerhood,” from that of Paul.)
How much culpability did you mean to suggest for Percy?
Here’s an interesting case of my responding to input from my agent, who is a very astute reader (as is my editor). She read a draft of the first hundred pages (which I had to submit to my publisher to formalize the terms of the contract), and only when I asked for her reactions did she remark that the one thing which bothered her at the beginning was Percy’s seeming lack of any guilt over his wife’s death. To my mind, Percy isn’t to blame at all for Poppy’s death, but when I reread what I’d written, I realized that he is haunted by the sense (only a hunch) that his younger daughter does blame him. His love for her is so great that it would be impossible, as a result, for this suspicion not to influence his conscience. So I made some very small tweaks in the first chapter that I believe make Percy more sympathetic—and more authentic, too.
Along with the many things that are in flux in your characters’ lives is their sexuality, from celibacy to fear of commitment to a husband’s questioning his heterosexuality. What is the significance of this for you?
I just went to see that extraordinary movie The King’s Speech last night, and one thing it did was to remind me (as well-wrought dramas about the British so often do!) how much we modern “enlightened” Americans (especially those of us living in the smug liberal Northeast) not only take for granted a free-floating permission to display our emotions, our fluctuating attractions, and our personal needs but also believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to act on them, too.
There is obviously a great advantage to our open-mindedness about sexuality and the ambivalence we may have about various forms of commitment or friendship, but at the same time much collateral damage results, particularly to children, when people do not consider the consequences of “doing as they please.” This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but this cultural state of affairs is something I’m endlessly concerned about in my fiction.
I’ll come right out and say that I think Clover was an impetuous fool to abandon her family (Robert is the one to reflect on the ramifications of the new family structure that will result when her ex remarries). By the same token, Ira’s emotional withdrawal from his gay lover may seem cowardly to some, but to me it is entirely understandable in the wake of the trauma he experiences as the result of losing his first teaching job. And what are we to make of the way Sarah juggles two men toward the end of the novel? Is it justifiable, in the light of her terrible personal situation and the support she needs, or should she have come clean with Percy from the start?
The relationship between the two college men has a tenderness like an old marriage, at times almost homoerotic. Was this a to underscore Robert’s seduction by Turo’s radical environmentalism, or along with Robert’s breakup from his girlfriend, were you suggesting something more?
As for Robert and Turo, yes, there is a kind of seduction that takes place. Part of that relationship is typical, I think, of the intimacy that passes for a casual, doglike playfulness among males at the awkward limbo between boy and man—but an implicit dialogue of manipulation and gullibility also shapes that friendship. Some readers have told me that at the end of the novel they’re upset about Robert’s fate, that they don’t feel he “deserves” it—but what I say in return is that Robert made his choices, and though they may have been naïve, still he must bear the consequences.
Again, this is one of the weaknesses in modern, liberal-minded morality: that there must always be some “just” alternative to taking the rap for our own accidental stupidities—or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Julia Glass is also the author of Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction; The Whole World Over; and I See You Everywhere, winner of the 2009 Binghamton University John Gardner Book Award. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her short fiction has won several prizes, and her personal essays have been widely anthologized. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. You can follow her Facebook author’s page here.