Reading Julia Glass's fourth novel, The Widower's Tale, feels a bit like sinking into a just-right feather bed. The National Book Award-winner writes in a style that's literate without being pretentious, compelling without being in a rush, and emotional without turning sentimental. In The Widower's Tale, she adeptly juggles voices that encompass an age range from college to post-retirement, and that cross gender and class lines with compassion.
Julia Glass generously responded to my questions about her creative process with some answers that may surprise you. Our interview:
Q: When you're writing through the eyes of various characters, in what order do you write? Do you stick with one character for a long time, and then interweave the parts to form a novel that flows the way you want it to?
No. I write a book from beginning to end, revising meticulously as I go along. Each time I sit down to work on the novel, I generally spend well over half of that time, sometimes all of it, going over what I've already written. When I reach the last page of the book for the first time, I am almost ready to hand the book in to my editor (after which there is always more work to be done). Though on rare occasion I may move a few paragraphs--perhaps to clarify a sequence of events--my writing of the story generally mirrors the way the reader will ultimately read it.
WRITING TO SLOW THE WORLD DOWN
Q: More than one reviewer has remarked positively on the leisurely pacing of this novel. I also found it a story I could sink into (and look forward to getting back to) without feeling rushed. Are you naturally a patient, perhaps even mellow, person?
Quite the opposite. I am temperamental, impatient, and easily become anxious about many things. But I also try to be a good listener to my friends, and perhaps it's because of my very "type A" nature that I appreciate the way in which reading--especially reading good novels--slows the rush of time and takes you deep into a serene, quiet place that I believe we all have somewhere inside us: a private sanctuary of sorts. I fear that, for many people living out hyperconnected modern lives, that place is becoming almost inaccessible.
Q: You put the reader inside the heads of some characters, but not all. I would have liked to know why Sarah, the younger woman, was making the decisions she was making, but then I suppose that would have changed the way you had to write the widower Percy. How do you make those decisions?
There are very few works of fiction that take you inside the heads of all characters. I tell my writing students that one of the most important questions to ask yourself when you begin writing a story is this: Whose story is it? You need to make a commitment to one or perhaps a few characters. This doesn't mean you'll tell the story from within the heads of those characters, but you have to know, as when you take a picture, what you're focusing on and what, by default, will remain less distinct. Sometimes a reader is left wondering about the inner life, or choices, of other significant characters, but the author's focus directs the story.
The Widower's Tale is, first and foremost, Percy's story (though it is also largely Robert's, with some of it given over to Celestino and Ira as well). Part of his story is the way he must react to, and deal with, decisions made by someone he loves but who chooses not to let him completely in. If you, the reader, knew all of Sarah's motivations, it would change your perception of Percy's story in ways counter to my intentions for the novel.
Q: A lot happens in The Widower's Tale. Can you share your creative process with us? Yellow stickies on a wall? A software program?! Are you one of those writers whose characters just do things in front of your eyes so you can readily capture their activities?
In my fairly disorganized life, yellow stickies are too easily lost, and as for software, I try to avoid using my computer as much more than a typewriter and a post office. I rely on my lifelong habit of daydreaming to spin my stories. The lion's share of "writing" is, for me, simply thinking and musing about the choices my imaginary friends will make in their everyday lives--choices that, of course, I make for them. This God-like determination of fates takes place when I'm alone with myself, whether showering, shopping, driving, gardening. . . . The ALONE part is crucial: no cell phone, no radio or TV, no iPod. (I loathe the proliferation of TV screens, everywhere from doctors' offices to airport lounges to workout rooms. It's the ultimate invasion of privacy.) Again, it comes down to finding that personal inner sanctuary I referred to earlier when I spoke about the importance of reading good fiction.
THE PARADOX OF FLOW
Q: Does time sort of stop when you're writing? If so, when and how often and is it more or less likely these days?
Time slows down, as I experience it subjectively-but on the clock, it can rush by too fast while I'm writing. A strange paradox! This experience may be harder to capture as I get older, but mostly that's related to increased obligations (mainly as a parent), not to inner changes . . . though I do begin to notice the whittling away of my short-term memory now that I'm over age 50.
Q: In another interview you said the book is about fear of and yearning for change. Is that a big theme in your own life?
I have struggled for decades now with the fear of and resistance to change-mostly in the realms of technology, transportation, and the ways people choose to communicate. If I had a theme song, it would be that lovely song "I'm Old-Fashioned," as sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Some of my resistance seems quite reasonable to me. (Boy do I hate talking on cell phones, with their ghastly, fickle reception; and I'm appalled at the way my teenage son and his friends rely almost entirely, often counterproductively, on texting as their primary means of staying in touch and making plans.)
But some of my resistance and fear reflect, on the one hand, my inflexibility and, on the other, my worries about aging and being "shoved aside." Examining this aspect of myself is what led me to create the character Percy Darling; at the opposite end of the spectrum is his grandson Robert, whose yearning for constructive change is typical of privileged children on the cusp of adulthood. Of course, it is one thing to want to "save the planet," yet to set about doing so without much adult experience, an understanding of the many shades of gray to so-called progress, can lead to rash and perilous decisions. I wanted to write about the friction between those two polarities in attitude.
Q: Did you construct the dialogue and thought processes of your gay male, retired guy, college student, and gardener characters any differently than you would those characters more like yourself?
After four books and a number of well-loved male protagonists, it's clear to me that I write almost more comfortably from a male than a female point of view. I can't really say why. One notion I have is that, having grown up in a predominantly female family (my father was the lone male, outnumbered by my mother, my sister, and me), I am always yearning to know and explore "the other." To me, stretching the capabilities of my imagination is a crucial aspect of writing fiction; you could think of it as a mental form of athleticism. The greatest challenge in this book was creating Celestino, the Guatemalan gardener, and his "maleness" was the least of it. It is far harder for me to write across class and culture boundaries than across gender or age lines.
Q: You've been interviewed a lot. What do you WISH someone would ask you?
Right now, there's no question I feel "missing" from the thousands I've answered. But I'm looking forward to hearing it. I want the questions to go on and on; sometimes they lead me to contemplate my own work from fresh, fruitful angles.
* Julia's novels can be quite funny. A question from an earlier interview: "If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?" and Julia's answer: "Either Not a Minute Too Soon: How Julia Glass Meandered Uphill and Down, through Privilege and Tragedy and Stubborn Denial, to Find Her One True Calling...; or, if I were the author, Back Off, AARP: I'm Just Gettin' Started!"
* Listen to Julia interviewed in a podcast here.
* And finally, can you surprise Julia Glass with a (real) question she hasn't heard yet?
(c) Copyright 2010 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D. May not be reproduced without permission.