Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
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Interview – Julia Glass


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Julia Glass Interview August 2011

William H. Coles

Julia Glass The Widower's Tale
Read an excerpt from the book

WHC

I'm in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the Fine Arts Work Center to attend a workshop on fiction writing by Julia Glass. Julia is a winner of the national Book Award for fiction for Three Junes. She is also the author of The Whole World Over, I See You Everywhere, and The Widower's Tale.

WHC

I'd like to thank you, Julia, for talking with storyinliteraryfiction.com.

JG

I'm honored to speak with you. I love the site.

WHC

Thank you very much.

My first question is about story—what story means to you. How do you see story acting in our lives today? Is it taking on increased importance? And story delivery seems to be changing . . . reality TV as an example. Overall, what has become of the prose story?

JG

Well, I am extremely resistant to a lot of modern versions of story. In particular, reality TV, which I've hardly seen. YouTube, to some extent, now provides miniature swatches of story that people pass around to one another. So I would rather address story in a narrower sense, if you don't mind. I mean story as fiction in the old-fashioned sense, as compared with movies and television for instance—because I do love movies and I occasionally watch some television . . . there is a lot of fine story telling on cable television these days. I have to admit, even though I didn't have cable for years, I rented all episodes of the Sopranos recently, and though I wanted to dismiss it, I found that, after watching an entire season in a week (which is a frightening thing to do in terms of your dreams), I was so amazed how equally character- and plot-driven that series was. So there is much to be admired in fiction that is not told through prose. That said, I do believe prose as something we read to ourselves at our own pace will always fulfill a certain desire. . .

WHC

A human need?

JG

Need might be too strong a word. We can survive without fiction. First of all, one of the big differences between watching a movie and reading a book is that one is entirely visual and one is in words. One could say "I'm a visual person" or "I'm a verbal person" —leading to a preference for one medium over the other —but you go at your own pace when you read a book. That's not true for a movie. I [do] find it harder and harder to find long periods of time when I can read, and [I] come at it a different way if [I'm] able to do that, but the experience of reading a story or a book in print is a more and closed experience than watching a movie or a television show. And it allows you to immerse yourself in a more leisurely way—and leisure might not be the right word—but we all have rhythms; we have clocks, and I feel a story as we read it has a very personal rhythm to it.

I'm actually a very slow reader and I don't read as many books as I would like to read. Many people are astonished that I'm not up on as much contemporary fiction as I would like to be. But—this is the thing—the true paradox of reading meaningful, good, affecting fiction is that it's something you do essentially alone, yet what it does is make you feel not so alone. Great stories are about human endurance, about getting through ordeals, whether it’s war or loss of a love, or illness . . . how we go through and get through all the obstacles and all the pain that we experience as human beings. Stories about these themes underscore how those ordeals are solitary, much like the experience of reading a book or a story is solitary. And that's the power of fiction. Another role of fiction is to put us into the shoes of people that we'd never know otherwise, and into other cultures. Or we can experience it as travelogue . . . like how cool I'm getting to see Ethiopia. But we see how human nature is shaped by the experience of being in another culture, or being in poverty, or being an immigrant, or being a child soldier. I could think of a billion experiences. So in that respect, fiction is the greatest teacher of empathy.

WHC

You mentioned the power of fiction. Certainly most [fiction] readers would agree that fiction gives an advantage in understanding and perceiving significance in a story. What should writers be aware of as to how to structure stories to take advantage of this special attribute of fiction? Are there parallels to film? In terms of internalization and other technical advantages that fiction has—and are not available [as readily]—compared to filmmakers?

JG

First of all, I’ve never been involved in movie making. I romanticize that world like the next person. But one thing I do know is that any movie or television show is the product of several people. You have a director, actors, writers, but also many other minds that come together to create a movie or a television show. And that’s not the case with a work of fiction.

WHC

Is that an advantage or disadvantage?

JG

Both. Because you have more control than people who make a movie have. And the disadvantage, though I don’t [really] want to call this a disadvantage, but a more specific requirements for the effective storyteller or good writer is that you really must be good at language. Movies [do] have different strengths. I was just listening to a conversation on the beach about Terrence Mallick’s "A Tree of Life" —it's been much maligned and much admired, and one person was saying that as long as you understand it doesn’t follow a conventional storyline, as long as you go into it knowing it will simply be this visually extravagant, glorious thing, you’ll enjoy it. I thought, Can I do that as a novelist? And I suppose you can say that in some fiction, style is what you’re reading for; you're reading for the gorgeousness of the language.

But I have to have some human involvement there too, whether it’s a character study . . . maybe not a lot happens . . . or it’s a story I can’t put down because I must know what happens to these people. So I think that filmmakers have a broader range of talents than writers do. Now, some writers are better stylists than others. What does that mean? They have a more noticeable style. For other writers, their greatest strength is creating unique and engaging characters. But their writing, for my purposes, has to be more than merely serviceable. You can create fine characters but if your skill with words doesn’t match, you're going to lose a lot of readers. I would venture that you cannot create great character or vivid settings—something a movie can do by holding a camera up to a sunset—if you don’t have real control over language.

I’m not a big fan of Hemingway, I’ll just say it; I find his style too noticeable, it takes me away from the story because I’m noticing Hemingway’s style . . . but people love him. So, different writers have different sets of verbal skills. We’re called writers, right? We aren’t storytellers, we’re storywriters. At some level when you’re watching a movie, at some level there is probably, at the base of it, good writing, but there are a whole lot of other skillsets that go into movies that are contributed by a lot of people.

WHC

So in literary fiction, what, in your mind, makes a good, memorable, lasting character that entices a good literary reader?

JG

First of all, for me, the most intriguing characters are those who are, from the start, extremely flawed . . . possibly disagreeable or repugnant in some way to the reader. In some ways that’s because, as we read on, we discover what we’re uncomfortable with, what we’re least comfortable with, and such qualities are often those we have in common with the characters. Flaws that we share and we recognize.

There is always a mirror aspect to the novels we relate to the most. We may not know why. As I like to say, all good fiction is emotionally autobiographical. I believe that writers writing powerful stories are creating meta-situations that are running like a stream alongside their own lives. When I wrote Three Junes; it didn’t occur to me until after I finished that it came directly out of a very tough period of time I had before and during the time of writing that novel, when I went through three terrible things at once—a divorce, the loss of my only sibling to suicide, and the diagnosis of breast cancer in my mid thirties. And yet, there was a suicide in that book; there is a character who takes his life because he is dying of a terminal illness. There is disease in that book, though it's not cancer. Divorce is not an important part of the plot line. What I was writing about is this: how do I go on? How do I get through these seemingly insurmountable sorrows that, by the way, are hitting me all at once? We never do get over the loss of a sibling, or the loss of a loved one, to suicide. And you never have the same attitude toward your health once you have cancer. I mean, I’m fine now, but that changed me forever. And divorce is a very sad event no matter what, even if you’re glad to be free of a marriage as I ultimately was. So, what was I doing there? I have three characters, each of whom has to get past a significant sorrow. It’s as if Three Junes was like a river running parallel to my life that I kept dipping in to. When I wrote that book—it was my first—I was more unconscious of what I was doing than I have been since. . And that's not necessarily good. I really don’t like to know too much about why I’m writing what I’m writing.

WHC

Was it therapeutic for you to write Three Junes?

JG

Well, yes, I think it was. And, you know, I’ve had conversations with writers who say that if your fiction writing feels therapeutic, it is somehow flawed. That real art is an aesthetic act. Well, what I have to say to that is an expletive that I’m not going to say aloud, because I actually think that powerful fiction can be a consolation to the writer, an act of self-exploration.

We’re questioning God in a way. It’s like God won’t answer these questions for us, so who’s going to do it? We’re going to try to do it. There may be something slightly heretical about that. And grandiose. Because we are taking on questions that all people have been asking of the gods since they lived on Mount Olympus.

WHC

When a novel has a close relationship to the author’s life, can there be timeline confusion and loss of credibility if details and ideas are not story authentic? The dual stream idea? How do you keep author opinion, thought, feeling, time detail, that is contemporary say in 2011, from creeping from one stream to the other when writing in the past, say the nineteen fifties, or twenties? In essence, every story takes place in the past; that’s the nature of storytelling. When the author carries the authorial immediate present back into story time, doesn’t that weaken the power of characterization, the credibility of character? Do you think about that? Do you revise to adjust for it?

JG

Did you just ask me ten questions in one?

WHC

I did. (Apologetically.)

JG

I think I know what you’re asking. And let me add, just to be a bit of a whippersnapper, that there are fine novels set in the future . . .

WHC

But even in the future, the story is told as if it is in the author’s past, of necessity in storytelling. And the time differences can still play a significant role for credibility and clarity in a futuristic story.

JG

Right. I am always in a desk chair in this moment of time. And by the way, I admire historical novels, but I doubt I’ll ever have the guts to write one. Also, I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the library, even though I spent most of my childhood there, because I really don’t want to do a lot of research. What I love most is the actual experience of marinating in my characters’ lives. But what you’re pointing out, or what you’re leading toward, in my mind, is that human nature hasn’t changed over the millennia. Questions of love, heartbreak, conflict, whether it’s cultural conflict or military, between children and parents, all these things remain the same. Those human themes can be revisited authentically by us if we can authentically imagine ourselves in the context of any particular time. And since you were just taking my workshop, you've heard me talk about how, when you create a character who is not the same age as you, even if you are the same age, you have to watch yourself at every step to see what assumptions you’re making about what it was like for that person to be eighteen, or eight, or be in Alabama or Paris, France. You must examine every detail.

WHC

Yes.

JG

The first step is to pretend to know more than you do when, say, you imagine what it was like to be eight or eighteen in Paris in 1962. At first, character matters more than authenticity. What I’m essentially concerned with is this human being. This psyche. At first I don’t want to feel too overburdened with research and chronological authenticity, but then I will do research. My favorite way to do research is to interview a person who is close to that character, rather than to go to the Internet or the library. The main character in The Widower's Tale is a librarian at Widener Library, so I interviewed a librarian who'd worked there for years. She's about ten years younger than he is, but she witnessed firsthand the number of earth shaking changes that happened at that library, which in the novel become metaphors for the great many changes in my protagonist's life. And that was very helpful. She also recommended that I read a history of Widener Library, which I did. And that too was very helpful to me.

WHC

Would you agree, then, that knowledge and research allow you as an author to create more within the context of the character and not have the authorial influence from another time [other than the story time]? The reason I ask is to discover ways to prevent the breaking of the fictional dream or the engagement of the reader in the story because the facts are accurate, the time accurate, and the author is thinking inside the character and the character’s story time. So, as you’ve said, the creation is credible to the reader because of the research you’ve done?

JG

Right. You actually have two concerns. One, as you pointed out, is that you don’t accidentally place some glaringly wrong detail in your story (say, someone in 1960 has a cell phone ring in his pocket), but on the other hand, you can’t burden the story with every last detail from your research. That's when, as I like to say, the research creaks. And that’s why I do my research later: because I’m the kind of person who finds out a lot of cool stuff and I can’t bear not to include it. But if I write the story first and then go back and lay over (or under) it the details I found out, the story I created will not allow me to shoehorn in things that don’t belong.

WHC

How do beginnings engage a reader? Of course it varies from story to story, but what are the principles for a good beginning? I don’t mean particularly the rules that are often taught—don’t start out in the past perfect tense, don’t start with dialogue . . .

JG

My new book I read from the other night starts out with dialogue!

WHC

Not my rules necessarily, and just to augment the idea that rules in writing all fiction are often not useful. But are there trends that authors should be aware of so the reader engagement is solid?

JG

Well, there are many choices you make in the beginning. You have to question yourself. Why am I doing this? When am I starting the story? I like to say that, to my mind—and all these rules are meant to be broken—an engaging story starts in a moment of change, opportunity, crisis, conflict, or self-realization. There is a reason you are starting a story at this particular moment.

For me, it’s what a high school English teacher taught me: you start in the middle of the middle. If you look at most fiction, that’s where the story starts; you're carried forward from there, you want to know what happens next, but you’re also carried back on some fashion, usually through conventional flashbacks, where the reader finds out how the character got to this moment in the first place. So the middle is usually a great place to start. Then you have to ask, what’s the voice going to be? And here‘s where what you’re reading can unduly influence you. Let’s say you start instinctively in the first person. Go ahead and write a few pages, then stop and ask yourself: Does this really belong in the first person? So try it in the third person limited point of view. I'll compare the two voices and ask myself which works better. How close do I want the reader to feel to the main character, or the narrator, or to the point of view that I’m presenting? Do I want to feel as if I’m sitting, as we are now, two people facing each other? (Look at the beginning of The Memoirs of a Geisha: the geisha addresses the reader as if they are sitting in a room together and having tea. It's a very daring way to start a book, but it serves the story perfectly because what is a geisha but someone who is taught to engage a companion in intimate conversation? (She’s not a prostitute, by the way.) So I really admire that. I have no idea how long it took Arthur Golden to find that perfect beginning.

So what is the voice? And what is the tense? Maybe it’s not so true now, but maybe ten or twenty years ago the present tense was all the rage and you could hardly be a contemporary writer if you were still writing in the past tense, especially if you were writing a story you wanted the reader to feel in the moment. I go back and forth now. But I often use present tense when I know I’m going to have deep layers of flashback. And that’s a mechanical decision, because if I’m going to have flashbacks within flashbacks, I don't want to get bogged down in tenses. I’m a real editor's writer; I’m very fussy about those kinds of details, so that helps me. But I also like an old-fashioned story that starts in the traditional past tense.

WHC

In class you made a good point that the major thing that engages a reader is the confidence that the writer is a good writer, and I would project on that that they are good storytellers. If readers can feel that, they’ll stick with it regardless if a rule has been followed or not.

JG

Right. And I want to add a point. Language is music. It’s a real pleasure to hear language inside your head. For me, all the more so because I’m such a slow reader. And I don’t like audiobooks. I’ve come to see why those are great for many people but I’m not good at listening to fiction. But even when you're reading silently, you're hearing the author’s voice, so the rhythm the author has chosen is a very important part of entering the dream, as we say. In the movies, it’s interesting to see the dailies, or what ever they’re called, before the music is overlaid. Very few films, even now, are without music. Music is a huge part of the movie. That’s a great tool for establishing both mood and pace.

WHC

It’s poetry, in a sense.

JG

Interesting point. You’re saying music is like language, and I’m saying language is like music. But here's something else: Some writers try to set a certain mood by borrowing lyrics from a certain song or mentioning an iconic piece of music. What's funny is how rarely that works. For instance, simply alluding to Beethoven’s Fifth or Swan Lake won't stir in your reader the emotions that the actual music will. In a way it’s your responsibility to set the ambiance in the way you use language . . . and dialogue. Dialogue can be very snappy and funny. Some very fine fiction writers hardly use dialogue at all, and some use it so much you wonder why they’re not playwrights. You have writers with different strengths, different preferences. But there must be a coherent rhythm of some kind. Or if not, then why not? You’re writing about someone who is schizophrenic perhaps; is there a way to changing up the moods through the language? But that’s one tool. Language is the writer's only tool. You’re not creating some multimedia work.

WHC

You said something interesting. You felt there was not a change necessary for a character in a story.

JG

Someone else said that.

WHC

Do you feel change is necessary [in a character] for a story to be successful?

JG

A character has to go through something, has to endure something. They ultimately meet a challenge, come to a different realization. But that doesn’t mean that the person’s going to change in nature. The character’s nature probably won’t change. Right?

WHC

Right.

JG

But what that character knows about him or herself, or about the world, or about his or her place in the world, that could be what changes. A character goes from A to B, or A to C, but not A to A.

WHC

. . . and it can be something very subtle . . . that the world is not the same now at the end of the story as perceived [by the character or the reader] at the beginning of the story.

In fiction there seems to be a blurring between what used to be considered literary fiction and memoir (and autobiography). In your view, has this weakened the literary story delivery? Strong memoir is enjoyable, and strong literary fiction is enjoyable. But when you combine the two approaches in a single work, does that help or hinder?

JG

Well, first of all, I’m sort of biased against the so-called fictional memoirs that have come out recently, so I haven’t even read some of these works. I certainly haven’t read memoirs that turned out to be somewhat fictional. I’m absolutely disgusted that James Frey’s editors and agent should try to back-pedal when it turns out that they published something that was promised as a memoir and then it turns out to be significantly fabricated. They actually defended its ultimate lack of credibility. You know, that’s bogus. I’m sorry. It’s like Clinton's defense about the relative definition of “is.” I mean fiction is fiction. Memoir should be grounded in actual events.

I loved A Fan’s Notes by Fred Exely, because while he sets out to write a story about a particular period of his life, he tells you up front that it’s going to be both fiction and memoir (1). And somehow, it really works. There is nothing coy about it. What I don’t want to read is something that is half memoir-half fiction because someone couldn’t fully fictionalize their life on the one hand or, on the other, couldn't face being fully honest about it. It's fine to take your life and turn it into a novel—I often talk about that beautiful novel, A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon which is based on his relationship with his mother and what he went through when she died of cancer. That’s fine. But if you can’t write a memoir because you can’t tell the whole truth, and you can’t write a novel because you can’t figure out how to cross the fictional membrane, then—you know what?—you’re not going to write a good book. I would just firmly state that.

Another thing I want to say about story and memoir, because I didn’t talk about that at the beginning, is that a great memoir is a wonderful book. But there is an awful lot of memoir written today that does little more than satisfy the prurient voyeuristic sense all of us share to some extent. We all want to witness somebody suffering. That’s a very different kind of reader experience than a piece of fiction where a character goes through a passage of suffering. There’s something psychologically different, even if you know it’s made up, even if you buy it as potentially real, even after you finish it and think to yourself, Gosh, I wonder if this author really did go through this chemotherapy, fight in this war. That’s fine. The story feels so authentic that you have to question how much it is based on the author's own life. But that’s different from knowing that the human beings in the book you read really existed and did live those lives. If I read a memoir, and occasionally I do, I want to know that I’m on solid ground. And maybe I’m very fussbudgety about this. That’s my particular taste.

WHC

This seems to relate to the ability to be able to dramatize fiction, particularly narrative descriptive fiction. How does a fiction writer dramatize a narrative passage? How does one do that mechanically? Does it depend on momentum and conflict at the prose level? Do you insert conflict among the characters, the protagonist and the environment?

JG

Creating momentum and drama in fiction happens to some degree organically but then you have to attend to the rhythm of the events in your prose, the pacing, as well as to the prose itself. A woman I met at a party, who reads a lot, told me, “You know, I really don’t like novels where a lot of things happen. I really like novels where I’m just inside somebody’s psyche and get to see why that person acts in ordinary life the way he or she does.” You know, that’s a very particular kind of novel. To a certain extent, my fiction goes there. As I said earlier, I like to marinate in my characters, explore their motivations deeply. But I also like to create dramatic tension, and sometimes it isn’t until I’ve been working on a story for a long time, and by that I mean many months or until I’m reading it over in a final draft, that I notice things have gotten very slow, and then it’s my job to quicken the pace or add a subplot that captures the reader’s interest. You can’t keep a reader unless there is something he or she wants to know. Maybe they only want to know why Maisie stays inside her house, how she gets through her day. There’s a kind of fiction that borders on portraiture. But I want things to happen to my characters. And that requires a lot of manipulation and control.

WHC

What is voice? It seems hard to define. Yet the term is frequently used in different ways. How do you teach voice?

JG

First of all you have to be very interested in burrowing under the skin of other people. It’s like being an actor. Patrick White said he became a novelist because he couldn’t succeed at being an actor. You’ve got to want to play a lot of roles. It’s got to be fun to do that. I also think you’ve got to read a lot of fiction that takes you into different voices to see what’s possible. If you read the same author, the same fiction, all the time, you’re not going to be swimming in a sea with enough temperatures to create your own. I think of Marlon Brando: you’ve got to choose a character you’re really interested in, and you have to try to go deep inside. I think the deepening of character is part of revision—reading over and over and over, catching vocabulary, knowing the character's every tic, taste, and habit: what music would this character listen to, what is something she wouldn’t wear? It’s a matter of getting to know that character. For some writers, that involves another reader. I work very much alone, but there are many successful writers who rely on other sets of eyes to notice, for instance, when a given character is out of character.

WHC

Is that revision process helped by distance? Pausing and then going back to your work months later?

JG

Sometimes, but not necessarily. I don’t write every day, so I have three- or four-week gaps when I’m only thinking about my characters, not writing about them, and when I go back I do have a certain distance from the writing. But I don’t do this deliberately. Then when my editor sees it, I get another break, and when the manuscript comes back to me, I’ll go in and catch things then too. So, yes, distance can be important.

WHC

If one of our readers would like to study with you, how could they access you as a teacher?

JG

I teach most often through week-long workshops here at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The other places are catch-as-catch-can. I just taught a workshop at the Humber School in Toronto. I don’t teach regularly at any one place. You can Google me.

WHC

Do you have that information on your website?

JG

I don't have a website, but my publisher very kindly established a public Facebook page for me with all my events. I sometimes blog and put photos up there, too. www.facebook/authorJuliaGlass.

WHC

Great. Thanks.

WHC

What are you working on now? What can we expect in the future?

JG

I’m halfway through a novel that I see as a quest novel. I’ve always wanted to write a novel in which a hero has to go out and find a specific thing. It’s about a man in his early forties, raised by a single mother, who has never known the identity of his biological father; he's come to accept his mother's refusal to tell him this fact, but his wife demands to know it for the sake of their children. Because he’s in crisis in his life for other reasons, he steps forward to find that out. And of course, as should happen in all the greatest quest stories, in the course of his search, he finds other, more important answers as well as the one he seeks.

WHC

I’d like to thank you very much for your time and valuable insights about writing. I’ve learned a lot.

JG

It was a real pleasure. Thank you.

 

(1) “Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life…I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged a writer of fantasy. ” A Fan’s Notes. Fred Exely

Julia Glass conversation

Watch a recording of the live Book Candy TV conversation with Julia Glass about her recent novel "The Widower's Tale."



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