Julia Glass, the acclaimed author of Three Junes, talks with Lynn Neary about her new novel, The Whole World Over. Glass says she stopped writing her book when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occured. Then she incorporated the event into her story when she felt compelled to start writing again.
LYNN NEARY, host:
It's not often that a first-time novelist wins the National Book Award, but writer Julia Glass did just that in 2002 with Three Junes. She also built a devoted following of readers who fell in love with her story of intersecting lives and familial connections.
Though the book took place in Greece, Scotland and eastern Long Island, its emotional base was Bank Street in New York City's West Village. Glass returns to this neighborhood in her second novel, The Whole World Over.
Julia Glass joins us now to talk about her new book. Good to have you with us.
Ms. JULIA GLASS (Author, The Whole World Over): Same here, Lynn, nice to be here.
NEARY: What does that neighborhood mean to you? What does the Bank Street area mean to you? Did you live there at one time?
Ms. GLASS: Yes, I lived there for - gosh, 13 or 14 years. And, actually, that block of Bank Street - that stretch of Bank Street that I write so much about was my route from my apartment to the playground where my children played, where I would often drop them off with a babysitter, pick them up in the afternoon.
And so, it's where I experienced a lot of, you know, intimate emotions about my children, but also, daydreaming when I was on my way to and from the playground. And, also, it's a very elegant, almost European part of the city and, you know, on some level, I'd love to live there so, instead, I was able to have my characters live there.
NEARY: Yeah. You started as a story writer. I think I read you said you were never really a short story writer, but you were a story writer and, eventually, wrote Three Junes, moved into novel writing.
I would call your novels - they're kind of traditional in a certain kind of way...
Ms. GLASS: Yes, they are.
NEARY: ...in the sense that they bring characters - a lot of characters are introduced in them - brought together and it sprawls a bit. What is it about that big old-fashioned sprawling novel that appeals to you as a writer?
Ms. GLASS: Well, I do gravitate toward 19th century writers, and I never mind being compared with some of the most memorable writers from that era. I mean, George Eliot is my absolute heroine. But it's more than that.
It's that the way I live my own life is very full and even my surroundings and my house are chock full of things and colors and books and artifacts, and I see life as increasingly complex, vivid, colorful, crazy, chaotic, and that's the world I write about: the world that I live in.
NEARY: Now, this is a book with many stories, but it moves, ultimately, to a day that engulfs not just your characters, but everyone, and that's 9/11.
Ms. GLASS: Yes.
NEARY: First of all, why was it important for you to write about 9/11?
Ms. GLASS: Well, initially, it wasn't. I mean, I have to tell you that I started writing this book in the spring of 2001, and in my mind, I knew that it would take place mostly in New York over the years 2000 and 2001.
And, lo and behold, I was 100 pages into the novel, perhaps, when September 11 arrived and I was living right there in lower Manhattan. And I think, like a lot of fiction writers, I went through a period of several weeks, possibly a couple of months, when I saw no purpose to what I did, and I stopped writing.
And then when gradually I came back to writing, I thought, what am I going to do? And I decided that I would not sidestep it, that I would just write forward the way I do. I'm not an outliner. I would just write forward toward that point in time and that when I got there, I would know what to do, and that's what happened.
NEARY: I'd like you to read, if you could, a section from that part of the book.
Ms. GLASS: Sure.
NEARY: It's on page 439 on Saga, who's a character who has suffered some brain damage as a result of an accident. She's first becoming aware of the fact that something terrible has happened in the city.
Ms. GLASS: (Reading) "She scraped her hand as she unfastened the three locks on Stan's backdoor. But, finally, she yanked it open and stepped out, careful to close it right behind her.
She found herself in a silent storm, not of snow, but of paper, torn, shredded, singed, at times nearly powdered, paper. It brushed her face and hands as it continued to drift to the ground, settling with a festive leisure. How could paper fall from the sky? Saga looked straight up. The sky was perfectly blue. She looked at her feet. At first she was fearful of touching the paper. Silly, she told herself."
NEARY: I wanted to ask you about the character of Saga. She's a really interesting character. She's had a terrible accident, which affected her memory, among other things, but she also has this really fascinating relationship with words and she creates these kind of visual images of words in her mind.
One example, she says patriarch is a brown temple of a word, a shiny red brown like the surface of a chestnut, and she does that with many words. And I know that you were a visual artist as well as a writer, and I wondered if that's where, you know, the artist in you intersects with the writer in those kinds of visualization of words that you create for her.
Ms. GLASS: The way in which she sees words in color was something that I played with because of my visual arts background. In fact, I always tell people, the thing I miss most about not painting anymore is working so directly with color.
Well, lo and behold, I found out after this book was published that there is a condition called synesthesia in which people do see words in color, or they associate words with certain bits of music. So that was remarkable to me.
NEARY: So, I'm wondering, do you think you're going to keep writing about these people and this Bank Street world, or do you expect to branch out in your next novel? Or do you think you can continue with that world - that it's full enough?
Ms. GLASS: Well, I do know - I'm pretty certain what my next two books are. The first one is actually a collection of linked stories that I started many years ago and really want to return to, and that is set partly in New York, but in various other locations, and it's not in this particular cosmos.
But I'm happy to say that I've never felt so much going on in my fictional world. I feel as if I've got a runway with a long line of planes that are eager to take off, and I just have to find the time and the wherewithal to really get back into it.
NEARY: Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. GLASS: Well, thank you, Lynn.
NEARY: Julia Glass. Her new book is The Whole World Over.
(Soundbite of music)
NEARY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
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The call came on the twenty-ninth of February: the one day in four years when, according to antiquated custom, women may openly choose their partners without shame. As Greenie checked her e-mail at work that morning, a small pink box popped up on the screen: Carpe diem, ladies! Scotland, according to her cheery, avuncular service provider, passed a law in 1288 that if a man refused a woman's proposal on this day, he must pay a fine: anything from a kiss to money that would buy her a silk dress or a fancy pair of gloves.
If I weren't hitched already, thought Greenie, I would gladly take rejection in exchange for a lovely silk dress. Oh for the quiet, sumptuous ease of a silk dress; oh for the weather in which to wear it!
Yet again it was sleeting. Greenie felt as if it had been sleeting for a week. The sidewalks of Bank Street, tricky enough in their skewed antiquity, were now glazed with ice, so that walking George to school had become a chore of matronly scolding and pleading: “Walk, honey. Please walk. What did I say, did I say WALK?” Like most four-year-old boys, George left his house like a pebble from a slingshot, careening off parked cars, brownstone gates, fences placed to protect young trees (apparently not just from urinating dogs), and pedestrians prickly from too little coffee or too much workaday dread.
Greenie was just shaking off the ill effects of what she called VD whiplash: VD as in Valentine's Day, an occasion that filled her with necessary inspiration as January waned, yet left her in its wake—if business was good—vowing she would never, ever again bake anything shaped like a heart or a cherub or put so much as a drop of carmine dye in a bowl of buttercream icing.
As if to confirm her fleeting disenchantment with all that stood for romantic love, she and Alan had had another of the fruitless, bitter face-offs Greenie could never seem to avoid—and which, in their small apartment, she feared would awaken and worry George. This one had kept her up till two in the morning. She hadn't bothered to go to bed, since Tuesday was one of the days on which she rose before dawn to bake brioche, scones, cinnamon rolls, and—Tuesdays only—a coffee cake rich with cardamom, orange zest, and grated gingerroot: a cunningly savory sweet that left her work kitchen smelling like a fine Indian restaurant, a brief invigorating change from the happily married scents of butter, vanilla, and sugar (the fragrance, to Greenie, of ordinary life).
Dead on her feet by ten in the morning, she had forgotten the telephone message she'd played back the evening before: “Greenie dear, I believe you'll be getting a call from a VIP tomorrow; I won't say who and I won't say why, but I want it on the record that it was I who told him what a genius you are. Though I've just now realized that he may spirit you away! Idiot me, what was I thinking! So call me, you have to promise you'll call me the minute you hear from the guy. Bya!” Pure Walter: irritating, affectionate, magnanimous, coy. “Vee Aye Pee,” he intoned breathlessly, as if she were about to get a call from the Pope. More likely some upstate apple grower who'd tasted her pie and was trolling for recipes to include in one of those springbound charity cookbooks that made their way quickly to yard sales and thrift shops. Or maybe this: the Director of Cheesecake from Junior's had tasted hers—a thousandfold superior to theirs—and wanted to give her a better-paid but deadly monotonous job in some big seedy kitchen down in Brooklyn. What, in Walter's cozy world, constituted a VIP?
Walter was the owner and gadabout host (not the chef; he couldn't have washed a head of lettuce to save his life) of a retro-American tavern that served high-cholesterol, high-on-the-food-chain meals with patriarchal hubris. Aptly if immodestly named, Walter's Place felt like a living room turned pub. On the ground floor of a brownstone down the street from Greenie's apartment, it featured two fireplaces, blue-checked tablecloths, a fashionably weary velvet sofa, and (Board of Health be damned) a roving bulldog named The Bruce. (As in Robert the Bruce? Greenie had wondered but never asked; more likely the dog was named after some fetching young porn star, object of Walter's cheerfully futile longing. He'd never been too explicit about such longings, but he made allusions.) Greenie wasn't wild about the Eisenhower-era foods with which Walter indulged his customers—indulgence, she felt, was the province of dessert—but she had been pleased when she won the account. Over the past few years, she had come to think of Walter as an ally more than a client.
Except for the coconut cake (filled with Meyer lemon curd and glazed with brown sugar), most of the desserts she made for Walter were not her best or most original, but they were exemplars of their kind: portly, solid-citizen desserts, puddings of rice, bread, and noodles—sweets that the Pilgrims and other humble immigrants who had scraped together their prototypes would have bartered in a Mayflower minute for Greenie's blood-orange mousse, pear ice cream, or tiny white-chocolate éclairs. Walter had also commissioned a deep-dish apple pie, a strawberry marble cheesecake, and a layer cake he asked her to create exclusively for him. “Everybody expects one of those, you know, death-by-chocolate things on a menu like mine, but what I want is massacre by chocolate, execution by chocolate—firing squad by chocolate!” he told her.
So that very night, after tucking George in bed, Greenie had returned to the kitchen where she made her living, in a basement two blocks from her home, and stayed up till morning to birth a four-layer cake so dense and muscular that even Walter, who could have benched a Shetland pony, dared not lift it with a single hand. It was the sort of dessert that appalled Greenie on principle, but it also embodied a kind of uberprosperity, a transgressive joy, flaunting the potential heft of butter, that Protean substance as wondrous and essential to a pastry chef as fire had been to early man.
Walter christened the cake Apocalypse Now; Greenie held her tongue. By itself, this creation doubled the amount of cocoa she ordered from her supplier every month. After it was on his menu for a week, Walter bet her a lobster dinner that before a year was out, Gourmet would request the recipe, putting both of them on a wider culinary map. If that came to pass, Greenie would surrender to the vagaries of fleeting fame, but right now the business ran as smoothly as she could have hoped. She had a diligent assistant and an intern who shopped, cleaned up, made deliveries, and showed up on time. The amount of work they all shared felt just right to Greenie; she could not have taken an order for one more tiny éclair without enlarging the enterprise to a degree where she feared she would begin to lose control. Alan said that what she really feared was honestly growing up, taking her lifelong ambition and molding it into a Business with a capital B. Greenie resented his condescension; if Business with a capital B was the goal of growing up, what was he doing as a private psychotherapist working out of a back-door bedroom that should have belonged to George, who slept in an alcove off their living room meant for a dining room table? Which brought up the subject of George: was Alan unhappy that Greenie's work, on its present scale, allowed her to spend more time with their son than a Business with a capital B would have done?
“Delegation,” said Alan. “It's called delegation.”
This was the sort of bickering that passed too often now between them, and if Greenie blamed Alan for starting these quarrels, she blamed herself for plunging into the fray. Stubbornly, she refused to back down for the sake of greater domestic harmony or to address the underlying dilemma. The overlying dilemma, that much was clear. Through the past year, as Greenie began to turn away clients, Alan was losing them. His schedule had dwindled to half time, and the extra hours it gave him with George did not seem to console him.
Alan, two years away from forty, had reached what Greenie privately conceived of as the Peggy Lee stage in life: Is That All There Is? Greenie did not know what to do about this. She would have attacked the problem head on if the sufferer had been one of her girlfriends, but Alan was a man, chronically resentful of direction. When he was with friends, his argumentative nature was his strength, a way of challenging the world and its complacencies, but in private—alone with Greenie—he fell prey to defensiveness and nocturnal nihilism. She had known this before they married, but she had assumed this aspect of his psyche would burn off, under the solar exposure of day-to-day affection, like cognac set aflame in a skillet. Next year they would be married ten years, and it had not.