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The rewards of a literary detour
When Julia Glass’ publisher sends her the very first copy of a novel she’s written, she experiences a magical moment. “I lift the book out of the box and wonder, when did this get written?” she says. “It’s as if I had a baby without knowing I was pregnant.”
By now she’s had more than a few of these transcendent moments. A self-described late-bloomer, she published her first novel, Three Junes, in her mid-40s, only to see it win the 2002 National Book Award for fiction. Since then, she’s published five more novels, and now there’s another, A House Among the Trees, a rich new literary feast for her fans to cozy up with and savor.
The house in the title belongs to renowned children’s illustrator and author Mort Lear, who dies after a dramatic fall, unexpectedly bequeathing his home, art and literary affairs to his longtime assistant, Tomasina Daulair, known as Tommy. Meanwhile, museum curator Meredith Galarza feels jilted by Lear, who had led her to believe the museum would inherit his artwork. And British celebrity Nick Greene, who’s been cast to play the illustrator in a biopic, struggles to deal with many unanswered questions.
Glass reflects on this cast of characters while sitting in a cafe window seat in the picturesque seaside town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband (a photographer) and their two sons. Friendly and chatty, Glass shares story after story, reminiscent of her books, which brim with details, flashbacks and insight.
“My previous books have grown out of a single character who came to me in some way,” she says. “And when I look back, I can see how those characters have emerged from my own psyche, some part of myself that I’m not so fond of. I like writing about characters who are in some ways misfits.
“Disagreeable is too strong a word,” she adds, “but characters the reader has to grow comfortable with. I prefer characters who improve upon acquaintance.”
Glass notes that her new novel began in a very different way. “I was actually working on another novel,” she says. “So this book represents, for me, an act of infidelity.”
She’d written more than 200 pages when that manuscript began to present challenges. As is her usual routine, she started one writing day by playing recreational badminton (which she does year-round, indoors). Afterwards, at home in the shower, she began thinking about completely different characters, and decided to try writing about them. Before long, they took over, forcing her to call her agent.
“I have good news and bad news,” Glass told her. “I seem to have stopped working on the novel I’m contracted to write. But the good news is I’m writing another one that I’m really enjoying.”
The new storyline had slowly sprouted from several inspirational seeds. About a year earlier, Glass had read a New York Times article about the estate of children’s book icon Maurice Sendak, which he had left in the hands of his longtime caretaker, leaving a stunned Philadelphia museum out of the loop.
“I thought to myself,” Glass recalls, “what would it be like to be that woman, to not only be left with this enormous responsibility, but to have public opinion come down on you after leading this very monastic kind of life dedicated to the life and work of this great man?”
"I prefer characters who improve upon acquaintance."
That dilemma stayed in the back of her mind, percolating. Meanwhile, she was watching movies with her older son, Alec, a Bard College student with a passion for acting. Before the Academy Awards in 2015, Glass listened to a roundtable discussion with the best-actor contenders, many of whom had portrayed a real person (such as Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing).
“Suddenly these two ideas came together for me,” Glass explains. “I thought, what if you had a situation where this great man dies very suddenly? His estate is complicated and he was about to be played in a movie.”
Glass’ fictitious children’s author is the fascinating heart and soul of A House Among the Trees, the creative sun around which the other characters orbit. “At first the characters of Tommy and Nick were there,” Glass says. “But because my books are so steeped in the past—they’re so flashback heavy, as one person has said—I should have known that the character of Mort Lear would become an important character, even though he’s dead on page one.”
At its heart, she says, the book is about relationships.
Did she do research on Sendak?
“Not one bit,” Glass says. “It is not a novel about Maurice Sendak.”
She quickly adds, “It would be insulting to Sendak to say that. Really, that story about the assistant, that’s the only thing. . . . I worry a little bit that people will think that I’m writing about Maurice Sendak, but I’m not.”
That said, it’s nearly impossible not to make comparisons, not to think about Where the Wild Things Are and its hero Max while reading about Mort Lear. Glass has created a character who sprang to fame with Colorquake, a picture book about a boy named Ivo whose artistic world magically explodes during an earthquake. And while Sendak’s assistant began working for the illustrator at age 19, Glass has 12-year-old Tommy meet Lear at a playground while babysitting her younger brother, who unknowingly becomes Lear’s model for Ivo.
“I surprised myself by creating fictitious children’s books,” Glass admits. “A couple of my early readers have said, ‘Why aren’t you writing children’s books?’ That’s because I don’t have that kind of mojo. I wish I did. We’ll leave that to the pros.”
Although never an illustrator, Glass is hardly a stranger to the art world. She majored in the subject at Yale, painted in Paris for a year on a fellowship and spent much of her 20s painting in New York City while doing copy editing work.
“I did large, expressive oil paintings, very colorful, some of which hang in my house,” she reminisces, “but I also did very meticulous, monochromatic pencil drawings. And I sold a lot of those drawings—portraits, still lives. The amount of time it took was absurd, so it wasn’t a money-making enterprise.”
Growing up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Glass had always been a bookworm, working in Lincoln’s public library from fifth grade through college. She compares her years as a painter to time spent abroad, calling her return to writing akin to a homecoming, adding, “Writing is my native creative language.”
Glass’ career switch from painting to writing has certainly paid off, and winning the National Book Award for Three Junes as a newcomer signaled a major shift in her life. “Seismic,” she says. “Talk about quakes.
“Nobody knew me. It was like Julia who? Three what? I am quite aware that but for this particular confluence of judges at that particular moment in time—do I think I wrote the best novel of 2002? Of course I don’t. But I was certainly put into people’s awareness in the book world. For about a year I was invited to every literary gala. . . . And I enjoyed that year of being the flavor of the moment.”
Unlike some writers, Glass looks forward to publicizing her work. “I enjoy the public part of being an author,” she says. “I’m not some monastic introvert. I love doing events. I love meeting readers. It’s like old-home month when I get to go on tour and visit my favorite booksellers.”
Meanwhile, what about that poor novel that she abandoned? Will she return to it?
“We’re in couple’s counseling,” she says with a grin, “if it will take me back.”