Author Julia Glass will be appearing at the Central Library’s Skyline Room on Thursday, June 14 at 7:00 p.m. (This event is free; no tickets required.) Glass won the National Book Award in 2002 for her debut novel, Three Junes. Her second novel, The Whole World Over, was published in May of last year. She took a few moments to chat with us about some of our favorite topics.
What role have libraries played in your life?
In Lincoln, Massachusetts, the lovely town where I spent most of my childhood, you could start working at the public library as a “page”--putting away books for an hourly pittance--as soon as you reached fifth grade. Ever the bookworm, I could hardly wait to achieve this glorious status; I think I made my mother drive me straight to the library from my first day of school that year, fearing a line around the block. Oh what a nerd I was! I worked at this library--essentially a magnificent Victorian mansion--from that very week, starting on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons, all the way through the summer before my senior year of college, by which time I had gained the experience to substitute full-time for the children’s librarian while she took a sabbatical. I embraced every new task entrusted to me, from typing catalog cards to covering new books, from calculating overdue fines to maintaining the long reserve lists for such runaway bestsellers as Fear of Flying and Future Shock. Later on, at Yale, I loved both the grandeur and the grandiosity of all its libraries, and I found myself completely at ease in that world--books my oxygen--yet none of them would ever mean as much to me as the place I first made money doing something I loved; first stole wide-eyed glimpses of Portnoy’s Complaint and Candy; first took Shakespeare off the shelves and whispered his verses aloud when no one was near. (Yes, I’m still a nerd.) That library was also the haven of my adolescence, the place I went to escape whenever my parents and sister seemed most heinous and benighted to me. I can’t say the Lincoln Public Library made me a writer, but I would definitely say that it--and many of the grown-ups who worked there--helped bring me up. It was, in a way, my third parent.
What was your favorite childhood book?
I would have to name two, from two different stages of childhood. The first book I ever asked my parents to buy for me--after hearing Captain Kangaroo read it on TV--was Karla Kuskin’s clever, funny picture book Roar and More (published in 1956, the year I was born). Appallingly, it’s out of print, but I still own my original copy and have shared it often with both of my sons. Later, when I was nine, I fell deliriously in love with the world Jane Langton created in The Diamond in the Window. I’d read it several times over when I had the astonishing experience of being invited to tea at Jane’s house. She was my first “real-live author.” (The very year I discovered her book, my family moved, by coincidence, to the town where she lived; it was my mother who found out we were virtual neighbors.) Life came full circle a few years ago when Jane attended the reading I gave from my first novel at my childhood bookstore--where she is a local legend. Recently, I read The Diamond in the Window to my older son and was pleased to find it just as vividly strange and wonderful as ever.
What made you think you could be a writer?
Considering how long it took me to discover the work I love best--writing fiction--a better question might be, What kept me from realizing that I should be a writer? The answer to both questions lies in this observation: For as long as I could remember, I was so constantly in awe of so many great storytellers that it did not occur to me that there would be any point in trying my hand at this venerable craft. Not that I was overly modest; I believed my main talents lay elsewhere. For most of my early adulthood, I set my sights on the visual arts, on painting and drawing--and I wasn’t bad--while making money as a freelance editor and magazine writer. All the while, I continued to read fiction--the “great novels”--like an addict. One day, around the time I turned thirty, something obvious hit me upside the head: I realized that no work of art had the potential to move me as deeply as a great work of fiction--and if this was so, why wasn’t that the art form I’d chosen? This revelation occurred to me when I finished reading Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s final novel--which, I’m happy to say, gives me a ready title whenever someone asks if there’s a book that changed my life.
Who are the three authors you think everyone should be required to read--which books would you start with?
May I be so impertinent as to call this question cruel and quite possibly counterproductive? It’s one thing for scholars to argue which books are the most essential--that’s part of their job--but how can those of us down in the trenches honestly choose favorites--or so few? And the true answers rarely surprise. If I were to suggest, for instance, that the three winning titles are the Old Testament, The Odyssey, and King Lear--and that’s not what I’m definitively saying!--wouldn’t you yawn? Meanwhile, I’d lose a good night’s sleep over not mentioning works by Lady Murasaki, E.M. Forster, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Jane Austen . . . oh, George Eliot! Grimm’s fairy tales! The Golden Bough! . . . and then another night’s sleep as I pondered the culturally limited range of even my longer list and what it means about everything I’ve never read that I ought to. . . . No, I’d much rather introduce readers to something entirely new, even if it isn’t quite Homer or Shakespeare. So instead I’ll name the three best books I’ve read in the past year (all novels): Grief, by Andrew Holleran; A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus; and Finn, by Jon Clinch.
If you couldn’t write, what other job would you like to have?
I have always thought that there would be no greater, more satisfying job than that of a singer. I work so hard to express what I know and feel about the human condition through the dry, sometimes remote art of writing; how much more direct and joyful it would be to use my own actual voice as the medium of expression. But that’s not a talent I have. Recently, though, I have indeed discovered the vocation I would follow with passion if I could no longer write. Two years ago, when I moved from an apartment into a house, I began gardening. I love everything about it: burrowing in the dirt with my bare hands, getting to know plants and trees by their name (a longtime fascination even before I had a garden), getting to know their likes and dislikes, their personalities and relationships, nurturing and protecting them. So if the words all dried up on me, I would most definitely want to become a full-time horticulturalist, perhaps the head gardener of a great estate, given free rein, a few helpers--and lifetime residence in a rose-covered cottage near the sea.