After graduating from Yale with a degree in art, Julia Glass received a fellowship to study figurative painting in Paris. Upon her return, she moved to New York, where she became involved in the city's vibrant art scene, worked as a copy editor, and wrote the occasional magazine column. She had always been a good writer, but her energies were initially focused on an art career. Finally, the pull to write became too strong. Glass put down her paint brush and picked up her pen
One of her earliest short stories, never published, was a semi-autobiographical piece called "Souvenirs." Loosely based on her experiences as a student traveling in Greece, the story was (by Glass's own admission) pretty formulaic. Yet, she found herself returning to it over the years, haunted by the faint memory of someone she had met on that trip: an older man whose wife had recently died.
Then, during the early 1990s, Glass experienced some serious setbacks in her life: Within the space of a few years, her marriage ended in divorce, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her beloved younger sister -- a dynamic woman with a seemingly wonderful life -- committed suicide. Devastated by her sister's death, Glass turned to writing as a way of working through her grief and loss. Suddenly, the memory of the sad widower in Greece took on a melancholy resonance. She retrieved "Souvenirs" from her desk drawer for one final rewrite, expanded it to novella length, and spun it from a different point of view. Renamed "Collies," the story won the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Medal in 1999. It also became the first section of Glass's remarkable 2002 debut novel, the National Book Award winner Three Junes.
After a spate of "postmodern" bestsellers, Three Junes was like a breath of fresh air, harkening back to an era of more straightforward, gimmick-free writing. Spanning a period of ten years (1989-1999), the novel covers three disparate, event-filled months in the lives of a well-to-do Scottish family named McLeod, weaving a cast of colorful, interconnected characters into a tapestry of contemporary social mores that would do Glass's 19th-century role model George Eliot proud.
The same dazzling sprawl that distinguished her acclaimed debut has characterized Glass's subsequent efforts -- rich, dense narratives that unfold from multiple points of view and illuminate the full, complicated spectrum of relationships (among parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and lovers). In an interview with NPR, she explained her penchant for ensemble casts and panoramic multidimensional stories: "I see life as increasingly complex, vivid, colorful, crazy, chaotic. That's the world I write about...the world I live in."
Good to Know
Back to Top
Glass's first published writing was a regular column on pets called "Animal Love" that ran in Glamour magazine for two years in the late eighties. Says Glass, "I grew up in a home where animals were ever-present and often dominated our lives. There were always horses, dogs, and cats, as well as a revolving infirmary of injured wildlife being nursed by my sister the aspiring vet. Without any conscious intention on my part, animals come to play a significant role in my fiction: in Three Junes, a parrot and a pack of collies; in The Whole World Over, a bulldog named The Bruce. To dog lovers, by the way, I recommend My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley -- by far the best 'animal book' I've ever read."
She is an avid rug-hooker in her free time. She explains that "unlike the more restrictive needlepoint, this medium permits me to work with yarn in a fluid, painterly fashion." Several of her rugs were reproduced in a book called Punch Needle Rug Hooking, by Amy Oxford (Schiffer Books).
Glass considers herself a "confirmed, unrepentant late bloomer." She explains, "I talked late, swam late, did not learn to ride a bike until college -- and might never have walked or learned to drive a car if my parents hadn't overruled my lack of motivation and virtually forced me to embrace both forms of transportation. I suspect I was happy to sit in a corner with a book. Though I didn't quite plan it that way, I had my two sons at just about the same ages my mother saw me and my sister off to college, and my first novel was published when I was 46. This 'tardiness' isn't something I'm proud of, but I'm happy to be an inspiration to others who arrive at these milestones later than most of us do."
Back to Top
In the fall of 2002, Julia Glass answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
I cannot imagine how many books I've read in my life so far -- and to name a "favorite" would be impossible, but the most influential, hands down, was Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, because, though it's certainly flawed, it's the book that put me to work writing fiction as an adult. As a child, and through college, I had always loved reading and writing, but the notion of "being a writer" wasn't one I thought much about pursuing; perhaps writing came so naturally to me from an early age that I took it for granted, saw it as a means rather than a possible "end," a life's labor unto itself. My professional sights were set on the visual arts; In college I majored in art, then won a fellowship to spend a year painting abroad after graduation, and then, like so many artists, found myself in New York City holding down a day job as a copy editor and painting at night. I was showing my work here and there, but I was also reading a great deal.
Having adored Middlemarch in college, I picked up Daniel Deronda -- and fell so deeply in love with the experience of reading it that, now in my late twenties, I began to yearn to write fiction for the first time since high school. George Eliot's astonishingly beautiful use of language, her nearly contemptible yet ultimately captivating heroine -- Gwendolen Harleth, who remains one of my favorite all-time characters -- and the daring structure of the novel itself, the way it leaves major characters offstage for significant stretches, all made me think at length about what an extraordinary thing a book really is -- and suddenly I wanted, fiercely, to be making up stories of my own.
What are your ten favorite books -- and why?
Another impossible question to answer -- and were I to attempt such a list, it would no doubt include many predictable classics -- perhaps Anna Karenina, Sense and Sensibility, and Shakespeare's sonnets. I'd rather name ten books, several lesser known, that have made a deep impression on me in recent years, that I recommend wholeheartedly and often. In no particular order, they're books I've read since turning my ambitions from visual art to storytelling, because since that point I read with a different eye -- if not a different soul:
The Half-Life of Happiness, by John Casey. This is a big, moving, gloriously panoramic novel largely about something quite intimate: the dissolution of a marriage and all its messy consequences, comic as well as sad. Reading it was a great, expansive pleasure, and it made me realize how much we -- modern readers -- have come to assume, falsely, that novels about "relationships" must be concise, economical things, while "big" books are the territory of sagas, dramas playing out across long periods of time or during cataclysmic historical events. It was an inspiration to me while I was writing Three Junes.
The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter. Quite simply, this novel delivers exactly what its title promises: a feast of extraordinarily varied voices, of emotional extremes, of finely wrought language, and love in so many, many configurations: parent to child, husband to wife, youthful lover to lover, and more. It is a gorgeous book about romance and lust, rage and jealousy, regret and longing, grief and renewal.
Dalva, by Jim Harrison. Harrison is one of my favorite writers, and in this book he's created a cast of exceptionally varied, colorful characters -- Dalva, like Gwendolen Harleth, is one of my favorite heroines. Folded into this novel about a mother's private regrets about lost love is a historical thriller; surprisingly, and so movingly, it has one of the most satisfying happy endings I have ever encountered, and I carried the heroine's emotions around with me for months after finishing this book.
Love Warps the Mind a Little, by John Dufresne. This book took me by storm, because initially, I wasn't wild about the characters, particularly the hero -- a dissolute, not particularly successful writer. In general, I'm not drawn to books starring writers, perhaps because I don't much like looking in that particular mirror. But the writing was so beguiling -- so funny and full of blithe but profound bits of wisdom -- that I persisted. And then I was strangely swept away. There are passages from this book that I wish I could memorize -- and that I sometimes read aloud to friends -- for their unique confluence of joy and sadness. This sounds clichéd, but it's true. No one writes quite like Dufresne or with what I imagine to be his own brand of hilarious self-dissection. This book also includes a terrific dog.
Larry's Party, by Carol Shields. Absorbing from beginning to end, this is the story of an ordinary life -- rife with mistakes, unpredictable revelations, quirky chance events and meetings that change everything. One of my favorite things about this novel is the close view it gives of how one man finds his calling in life and then pursues it, a subject I haven't seen in fiction a great deal. Another is the unusual mixture of objectivity and affection with which Shields portrays her subject, something like the tone of a painting by Bonnard. And I loved the structure of the book: Larry's life seen from a series of different angles, as if a camera were moving steadily around him and coming full circle.
Men Under Water, by Ralph Lombreglia. I don't know what's become of this writer, but this was the first of two wonderful collections of stories he wrote several years ago. They are farcical, perhaps a little too hip at times, but full of tenderness and love, delivering a kind of powerful backhanded joy in the complexity of life.
The City of Your Final Destination, by Peter Cameron. Elegantly, succinctly written, with few settings and a small band of fairly privileged characters, it has the intimacy and focus of a play. Superficially, this is the story of a man struggling with a secretive family for permission to write a biography, but what it's about is letting go -- of defenses, secrets, ambitions, and other internal barriers --and it ends perfectly, the only way it can. I'm also a great fan of Cameron's earlier books, especially The Weekend and Andorra.
Binstead's Safari, by Rachel Ingalls. Ingalls writes, for the most part, novellas that are modern gothic tales: intensely suspenseful and full of looming threat, but somehow she does it with a very light touch and an ultimately realistic eye. This novel, longer than most she's written, is about an English couple touring in Africa and how the wife is transformed. Atmospheric and haunting, it's a tale of simultaneous awakening and possession -- not by a being so much as a place.
Astronauts, by Matthew Iribarne. This is a first book of stories mostly about the power and burden of family ties -- my favorite subject -- a few of them outstanding. My favorites in the collection are "Make Them Laugh," about a priest who's been "demoted" to a backwater parish for drunken driving -- and keeps in a jar the tooth he lost in the car accident -- and "A Dream, Not Alone," which takes place in a hospital where a woman is dying of cancer while her daughter is having a baby. The first is painfully funny, the second one perceptive and beautifully observed, and they show the great range of feeling this writer has.
Mystery Ride, by Robert Boswell. This novel, too, is about family, and all I can say is that it touched me personally in a way that helped me understand a particular kind of sorrow I'd been going through. Aside from that, however, it's wise and entertaining -- with one of the most colorful, wicked adolescent characters I've ever encountered.
I am a shameless romantic at the movies. Nearly all those I love best are about finding or rediscovering love against the odds or in outlandish circumstances. They include Les Enfants du Paradis, Sabrina -- Billy Wilder's original, Rebecca, Truly Madly Deeply, I Know Where I'm Going, The Ref, and Persuasion -- the one with Ciaran Hinds. I am also a fan of thoroughly silly comedies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and A Fish Called Wanda. The Norman Conquests, an Alan Ayckbourn TV-play trilogy, is a favorite to rent.
I love to dance, and I enjoy playing music while cooking and running, but my taste is eclectic and unschooled. I love classic jazz vocals, especially the women -- Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Big Maybelle, Nina Simone, and Dinah Washington -- and I've sung my sons to sleep with Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart. I listen to Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Handel -- I play the entire Messiah whenever I can through most of the winter. I dip into the occasional opera -- but also like reggae, bluegrass, gospel, and a bit of country.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
My admirations ebb and flow -- and there are poets and journalists I love to read as well -- but here I'll just name a few fiction writers I worship. Besides such greats as Austen, Eliot, Hardy, and Forster, I deeply admire -- and have learned a great deal about life from -- many older contemporary writers, highest among them Andre Dubus the elder, for the way he writes about love and the hardest of moral conflicts, and Alice Munro, for the way she writes about the mysteries and epic repercussions of chance. I also love Jim Harrison for the gloriously flawed people he creates and the glorious predicaments they land themselves in, Iris Murdoch for the devilish, earth-shaking choices she makes her characters face, and Robertson Davies -- among the greatest of modern storytellers in the best, old-fashioned sense. His novels take you on utterly unexpected journeys and leave you, at your final destination, deeply sated.
Back to Top