A new canvas for Julia Glass
The figurative painter turns her guilty pleasure into a rich debut novel
Among the many pleasures of Julia Glass' marvelous first novel, Three Junes, are the numerous small, brilliantly rendered moments the gestures, objects and places that suggest the larger dramas in the lives of the McLeod family. Such casual-seeming moments often have a painterly luminescence, which should surprise no one. Before she became a writer, Julia Glass was an accomplished figurative painter.
"Like the character Fern, I actually did have a fellowship to paint in Paris after I graduated from Yale," Glass says during a recent call to her home in New York's West Village. "I had always been a good writer, but I was concentrating on the visual arts. After college and after Paris, I came to New York like lots of young aspiring artists. I showed paintings in group shows and won some modest prizes. I supported myself as a copy editor for a magazine. Gradually I realized that I missed writing and I began to write stories. The funny thing is, I'd feel incredibly guilty about this. I'd come home from my copy-editing job and instead of working on some big painting, I'd feel drawn to working on a short story. It was as if I had some secret vice. Finally I decided, this is my life. I can do this if I want."
One of the first stories Glass wrote was "Souvenirs," which was loosely based on experiences she had on vacation in Greece in 1979 during her fellowship year. "It was a very formulaic, ingenue-abroad, loss-of-innocence story," she now says. It was never published.
Revisiting the story some years later, a "splinter of memory" of a "very sad-looking, very handsome older Englishman in his 60s" presented itself. " I had had only one brief conversation with him in which he explained that his wife had recently died. When I went back to the story, I thought this man is the really interesting character here." Since she knew almost nothing about England but did know something about Scotland (she'd vacationed with distant cousins in Dumfries during her teens), Glass made the story's central character, Paul McLeod, a Scottish newspaper publisher. The heroine of the original story morphed into Fern, a young artist who briefly tantalizes the grieving McLeod in Greece (and reappears in full in the final section of the novel). "Souvenirs" became "Collies," winner of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society medal for best novella, and, eventually, the opening section of Three Junes.
Told in three parts, each set in the month of June, each a variegated weave of past and present, the novel movingly explores love and loss and the emotional bonds among the McLeods Paul and Maureen, oldest son Fenno, twin sons David and Dennis, and a surprisingly large constellation of people connected to them.
"It's a novel about many things," Glass says. "Relationships between adult siblings fascinate me. . . . I wanted there to be a reflection of the truism that every child in a given family has a different childhood. But I also really wanted it to be about how we live past heartbreak, heartbreak that we're never going to get over, heartbreak that will be stratified in our hearts forever. For each of these characters there is a loss that is in a way irredeemable, but also one that he or she can get through and live beyond in a full way."
Central to this overarching story of heartbreak and its aftermath is the narrative of Fenno McLeod, an articulate, emotionally reserved gay man who goes to New York to study literature and stays to open a bookstore in the West Village. Fenno forms an extraordinary friendship with a witty, acerbic music critic named Malachy Burns who is dying of AIDS.
"Fenno was the kind of character I'd read about but had never experienced before, where a character gets up and starts to live his or her life pretty autonomously, while you're madly trying to keep up," Glass says. "I'd walk my at-that-time one-year-old along Bank Street to his babysitter, and I'd have this experience where I just sort of saw Fenno's life in this part of New York. Then on these walks back and forth with my baby in the stroller, I began to hear his voice, and I started to write part two of the book." Glass also remained interested in the character of Fern, and she eventually began writing a third section to the novel. "Not having gone to school in fiction-writing, I probably broke a lot of rules without even knowing it," she says. "I never took a creative writing class, and I actually took very few literature classes, considering how much I love reading. I've been a bookworm since the minute I could read. But I love to savor books, read them very slowly. It drove me nuts that you have to take these courses where you read the great books in a week. I can't read that way."
Glass thinks of her novel as triptych rather than a trilogy, similar in form to "the altar pieces that I loved so much when I was studying art. You'd have a momentous central religious image and, to either side, images of the patrons who paid for the altar piece facing in toward this rich, very complicated, colorful central image. . . . I think of this as being Fenno's story flanked by the stories of these two other characters' stories seen in profile."
Of the novel's final section, in which Fern connects with Fenno, and Fenno revises his relationship with his brother Dennis, Glass says, "Early on while I was working on Three Junes I had a series of personal crises in my own life that could have paralyzed me. I reached a point where I realized that time doesn't heal all wounds, that there are tragedies that we carry around forever. But I am essentially a hopeful person. I didn't want it to seem glib or pasted on, but I did want this book to have a happy ending, and in my mind it does."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.