Oh! I get to interview a literary heroine! I've loved everything that Julia Glass has written, from her National Book Award winning Three Junes, followed by The Whole World Over, I See You Everywhere, The Widower's Tale, and And the Dark Sacred Night. Her newest, A House Among the Trees obsessed me and was one of those books I did not stop reading. About fame and love and family, A House Among the Trees is so alive, that it practically breathes.
What surprised--and delighted me--so much about this interview is how accessible Julia is, and how very funny! Thank you, thank you, Julia for letting me pester you with questions and for making this one of the most fun interviews, ever.
A House Among the Trees explores celebrity with unusual finesse. Did you ever expect your own fame? How has it (or hasn’t it) changed you?
To the extent that I've ever been "famous," it's nowhere on the scale of my characters Mort Lear--a genuinely iconic author based loosely on Maurice Sendak--or Nicholas Greene, a newly minted movie star whose face is, as my heroine Tommy Daulair observes, "on the racks at the CVS." For one thing, none of my readers are ever likely to recognize me walking down the street or even walking into a bookstore. (As I write this, I'm seated on a plane next to a woman who told me she's a librarian, then dove into her book. Even if I told her my name, I doubt she'd recognize it.) Another of my characters in A House Among the Trees remarks that being "secretly famous" is the best kind of famous there is. In the wake of my winning the National Book Award, back when I lived in New York's West Village, that's how I felt. Someone could be reading Three Junes across from me on the subway but would have no idea the author sat within arm's reach. That's a delightful experience. So I would answer this question by saying that if anything changed me at that pivotal point in my life--not that I was going to change much at age 46!--it was success, not fame. It gave me two precious gifts: First, thanks to increased royalties, it bought me more time to devote to writing fiction, rather than the assortment of freelance jobs that kept me afloat over the previous two decades; second, it gave me a moment in the limelight that enabled me to meet other writers, including many I revere and admire, some of whom I now count as friends. So, after years of working in solitude, I finally found my tribe. For the first time, I got to talk shop! And I found out something quite reassuring: All good writers are, at some level, nerds.
Like your other novels, A House Among the Trees is about family dynamics. I know I write about family because my own was so fractured, but what is it about this unit that draws you?
On the whole, both the family I was born into and the family I've made are your average crazy-quilt of blessings and tragedy, of love and emotional wounds, loyalties and betrayals. The same is generally true of the families I bring to imaginary existence in my novels. My characters may suffer grievous losses, but they are all relatively privileged, like me. So why is family life at the core of my work? Because I have a fundamental belief that whatever human beings witness and learn in the context of family will greatly determine the way they grow up and influence the world around them. (I love that haunting song in Sondheim's Into the Woods, "Children Will Listen." It's both tender and terrifying.) Not just every artist but every world leader will always carry, deep within, the child born to his or her parents in a particular place and time. Whether we honor our parents or rebel against them, whether we know them for half a century or were abandoned by them at birth, their shadows loom large. (Ignore those shadows at your peril!) I'm also fascinated and moved by the many "unconventional" ways in which people form families, whether out of necessity or choice. Such families make their way into my stories not through any political agenda but because I want to write about how resilient and adaptive people are, how decent people always try to fix what's broken--our hearts included. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't. Sometimes even the smartest people make foolish choices. How we deal with the consequences (or don't) is what makes for a riveting tale. In A House Among the Trees, the initial challenge for all my characters is how to deal with the highly unanticipated final wishes of a great artist with a fragile ego. That challenge leads all of them down unexpected alleys into their past lives and the choices that have brought them to this crucial moment.
I love the way you jump both time and characters. How did you keep everything mapped out, or don’t you map out at all? I’m also curious about how you approach each new novel. Do you feel as if you are starting all over again? Or are you building on what has come before?
The way I move through time in my novels--which are dense with flashbacks (even flashbacks within flashbacks!) is entirely organic. Although I revise obsessively--my Achilles heel is overwriting, so I have to do a lot of paring down--rarely do I radically restructure the chronological rhythms that guided me instinctively at the start. Nor do I cut and paste. And I definitely do not map out a novel in advance; I'd make a terrible general! E. L. Doctorow said something about writing as if he were taking a long journey by car in the dark and could see only the road within the range of the headlights . . . yet had faith it would take him to his destination. What's good about this approach is that my characters can surprise me. It's much easier to let a character take on a greater role, or make an unanticipated choice, if there's no road map to follow. What's not so good is that I sometimes write myself into cul-de-sacs; backing out can be a challenge (I can almost hear that abrasive beep-beep-beep of construction vehicles in reverse.)
As for how it feels to start a new novel, sometimes I know I'll be bringing back a character or two from a previous book, yet even when I'm certain that I'm starting entirely anew, once in a while a character I think I've left behind for good comes knocking. Everything, really, is about the characters. Plot, in my novels, emerges entirely from the nature of their relationships, their choices, and the consequences of their actions. At the outset of a novel, I'm always worried that "nothing will happen."
I’m obsessed with the question, How well do we know the ones we love? It’s not just celebrities who have both a public and a private side. Can you talk about this, please?
Well, guess what? I'm obsessed with that question, too! I am a tremendously nosy person, by the way, and yet I'm fully aware that I will never know "the all of it" even about my husband, whom I've known for 33 years. I know even less about my parents--and increasingly less about my children as they grow into adulthood. (I can almost feel the watertight chambers forming in my 21-year-old son's psyche as he forges his independence; it's a little sad, but it's also right.) I'm also obsessed with how, in any given family, each member--even among siblings who feel close to one another--will have dramatically different perceptions of their parents, their upbringing, the significant events and memories of their early lives. This was the impetus behind my creation of the three McLeod brothers in Three Junes. Two years ago, while I was in the middle of writing A House Among the Trees, my father died. He saved EVERYTHING, and when I discovered an old candy box filled with diaristic notes and letters from his late teens and early twenties, it was like meeting another man: my dad before he met my mom, my dad before he was a dad! I also found boxes of photos he'd taken as a college undergraduate. I had the painful wish that I'd seen these papers and artifacts--many of them lovely in their revelations--before he died and that we could have talked about them. But you know what? I have a feeling he wouldn't have been comfortable with that. I do wonder, however, if he ever imagined my finding them after his death.
I loved how your novel probed just what it means to be gifted, and what it means not to be. At one point, a character says that being secretly famous is the best kind of famous to be. I love that line. Do you feel that fame interrupts great art?
Oh, so you noticed that "secretly famous" line! You know, let me add to what I said above that I think many people would love to know what it feels like to be revered, even adored by strangers (as both the author Mort Lear and the film star Nick Greene are in my novel). Who wouldn't love to turn appreciative heads or get a standing ovation? I have to confess that I had fun imagining what it would feel like to become suddenly famous--really famous--in creating the character Nicholas Greene, who lucks into a role that wins him every screen award there is. (Why do I feel guilty when writing is fun?!) But yes, I do think that boldface, magazine-cover fame can threaten the making of great art--mainly because it would have to force any genuinely introspective artist to question why his or her art has been "chosen." (Sidebar: Not all brilliant artists are introspective.) And if you are fortunate enough to stand on the pinnacle of a mountain, the view may be spectacular, but your perch is slippery and the only direction from there is back down. Artists who can both maintain and manage the pressure of that stature over decades are few and far between, I think. Some of those who succeed do so in part thanks to a stable, firmly rooted relationship in their lives. Others create a protective public illusion. (Read Richard Russo's fine new collection, Trajectory, for a chilling story involving characters clearly based on Robert Redford and Paul Newman, both of whom Russo has worked with and known.)
A House Among the Trees is, in part, a cautionary tale about creativity, fame, and ego. The relationship that the late Mort Lear held dearest (while taking it for granted) is the one he had with his quietly devoted assistant, Tommy Daulair, the novel's main protagonist--and of course she is left to weigh the costs of having allowed this man to keep her so close for the prime years of her adulthood. Though I never wrote from Lear's point of view, I began to realize that Tommy was effectively his emotional ballast--yet even so, she could not save him from the consequences of his own pride.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Whether I'm going to take up the novel I abandoned midstream to write A House Among the Trees instead. As a writer, I've always been a serial monogamist, working on one book and one book only until it's done. This time, for the first time, I stepped out on a novel when I was 200 pages in; it felt like I was having an affair! Whether those characters (one of whom my readers know from The Widower's Tale) will forgive me and take me back is the burning question in my creative life at the moment.
What question should I have asked that I didn’t? [I think I wrote enough!!]
What question should I have asked that I didn’t? [I think I wrote enough!!]