Washington Post Magazine: Real Life
Monday, July 14, 2008; 12:00 PM
She was ready to learn about the world beyond home -- the world of office work, Playboy clubs and broken romance. Well into adulthood, she sees the true lesson.
Novelist Julia Glass was online Monday, July 14 to discuss "Real Life," her Washington Post Magazine story about the summer after her freshman year in college.
Julia Glass is the author of the novels Three Junes (winner of the National Book Award) and The Whole World Over. Her third book, I See You Everywhere, will be published this fall.
A transcript follows.
Julia Glass: Greetings, readers. This is Julia Glass, writing in from Massachusetts. Composing this essay opened doors in my memory I thought had been closed forever--wonderful and painful memories alike, from that awkward time when you THINK you've found yourself but are still so young and fragile. I look forward to your questions.
big fan: Julia - I love your books and had not yet heard you have another coming out. Is it another novel? What is it about?
Julia Glass: Well, that's the 64 million dollar question, exactly what my upcoming book "is." Advance readers are seeing it as a novel, but it started out as a series of stories I wrote over many years, some even before I started writing THREE JUNES, some as recently as two winters ago. They are about two adult sisters over 25 years, mostly together yet sometimes apart. To me, the book is something like a patchwork quilt or a suite of songs: you can read the individual parts autonomously, but their strength is in their unity as one work, one long series of episodes defining two lives. It's called I SEE YOU EVERYWHERE and the publication date is Oct. 14. For those of you who might like to attend a reading, my very first event ever at the D.C. bookshop POLITICS AND PROSE is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 20 at 7:00 p.m. Please come!
also a Yalie: I am also a Yale grad, and still am probably not over feeling intimidated by my classmates. Did you feel different going back sophomore year after your "real life" summer? Have you been back for any reunions? I love reunions, but find they are slightly surreal experiences.
Julia Glass: I loved Yale, because, as I say in the essay, my brain was made to negotiate that kind of academic culture (it still amazes me that I never went to grad school). But socially, it was very tough-especially the male-female stuff. Boy was I naive! My sophomore year was completely different from my freshman year, yet not mainly because of that summer (which I set aside, until writing this essay, as sort of "irrelevant"). I did not have a great roommate situation freshman year--it was a very mismatched quad--but even though I lived in a suite even more crowded the next year, I'd been able to choose the people I lived with. They were great. It makes all the difference to "come home" to people you like at college. (My junior and senior years, I lived off-campus, also with friends. That was the best of both worlds for me.) As for reunions, I did go to my 25th, and I had a good time. Maybe I'll go to the 35th if I'm still around. . . . Here's something funny: The first line of my next book is "I avoid reunions." Those are words from the mouth of a fictitious character, but she's quite a bit like me!
Arlington, Va.: To what extent are your writings based on your own life and actual people and events you have observed, how much is extended from such observations, and what degree is pure fiction from your imagination?
Julia Glass: I could write a long essay in answer to this question! I like to say that all my fiction is EMOTIONALLY autobiographical, but most of my characters and the events in their lives are made up out of whole cloth (with help from my subconscious, no doubt), though I am well aware which characters have the most in common with me . . . and with my mother, who was a direct inspiration for an important character in my first novel. (She recognized herself right away.) That said, the book coming out in October will be the closest to "literal" autobiography of any fiction I've written. Yet still I've invented a great deal of it. Otherwise I would have written a memoir--something I have never been tempted to do at book length.
Munich, Germany: Judging from your last paragraph, you've indeed experienced some of the woes of life, and hence I'm not sure that I understand your last sentiment: "Real Life -- Real Work, Real Sacrifice, Real Responsibility -- has yet to catch up with me". Usually people associate woes with real life.
Julia Glass: You're quite right, and that's the irony of it. Though I feel I have certainly been "tested," there is some dreamy emotional core in me that feels perpetually cocooned. It's something I'm still figuring out, and writing this essay has me thinking about it more than ever. I wonder if it's in the nature of fiction writers to never quite see their own lives as "real," since we are always making stuff up!
Washington, D.C.: What do you tell your own kids about what "real life" and "the real world" are all about?
Julia Glass: Oh boy, that's a tough one. Reading the newspaper and listening to NPR--my kids' main sources of acquaintance with the world beyond our safe, pretty town--is certainly not enough. My sons are 7 and 12, and just this past weekend their dad and I had a long conversation about how, in a youth-oriented society that suffers enormously from a sense of entitlement, we can show our children, in a way that's natural, what it means to work, to save, to be frugal, to be modest and sometimes deny oneself things one WANTS more than NEEDS. I know I may have seemed flip, in that essay, about my mother's childhood, but it's true that my parents were brought up with a lot of discipline and sacrifice yet saw themselves as privileged, too. This is an ongoing dilemma.
Arlington, Va.: I've always felt that one of the more trying transitions from college to the workplace was moving from a system with obvious long-term goals and clear paths to get there to a completely open-ended system where you have to figure out for yourself exactly what you want and how to get it. I think for a lot of people this leaves them feeling lost and tentative in the first couple of years after college. Did you find that as well?
Julia Glass: You know, the columnist David Brooks, in the New York Times (yes, that OTHER paper!), wrote a fascinating piece about a year ago called "The Odyssey Years" that addresses what you're talking about it. I found it absolutely wonderful and thought-provoking. As for me, I majored in studio art at Yale, and I spent my 20s striving to be successful in the visual arts, withlimited success. I made most of my living, however, with my word skills (which I think I took too much for granted). I also hoovered up the fiction classics I'd never read (Austen, James, Eliot, Forster, etc. etc.). FINALLY, in my early 30s, I started writing fiction for the first time as an adult. That felt so scary, and I spent a few years feeling miserably "behind" my high-achieving friends. But I persevered and obviously have no regrets. Many of my old paintings hang on the walls of my house, and I now feel happy that I had those ten "misguided" years. I met with a lawyer the other day who is writing his first novel, and he said something I love: "Education is not destiny." That philosophy should be folded into one's college education, I think. Not that I would ever see any of my education as wasted!
Arlington, Va.: This is pretty random, but one of the things I remember reading when Three Junes came out was that you and your family all lived in a 2-room apartment in New York. It made me feel better about my "tiny" house. Do you still live there? How do you make it work?
Julia Glass: Yes, the four of us lived in that one-bedroom apartment until my sons were 4 and 9. I also worked at home! Our apartment was like a cross between a submarine and an amusement park. Finally, a one-year fellowship in Mass. gave us a chance to sample living outside New York. When, after that year, we realized we could buy a house in a perfectly nice town, not far from where I grew up and my parents still live--yet couldn't buy anything much better than a teensy 2-bedroom in a decent NYC neighborhood--we made the wistful yet obviously wise decision to do the former. The house we all share now feels like a PALACE to me, though its rooms are small by most standards; sometimes I have to remind my sons, who play at friends' obscenely large homes, that we are very lucky indeed to live where we do. I think Americans overestimate absurdly how much space a family "needs." And in the winter, I am very glad to be living somewhere cozy!
Tenleytown, D.C.: Hi Julia - How did this essay come to be? Did you write it and submit it to the magazine, or did they approach you? and how did you decide on this subject?
Julia Glass: An editor from the magazine, who publishes this terrific issue every summer, approached me through my agent. I looked at past issues, including essays by many of my favorite contemporary fiction writers, and was dying to be a part of it. But at first I couldn't think of a summer in my life that I felt was "significant" enough to write about. Talking with the editor helped me reconsider this particular summer--one I hadn't thought of in ages. A lot of mixed emotions came back to me. Sometimes the writing leads to the revelations, not the other way around.
Greenbelt, Md.: Hello! I just finished "Three Junes" (last night, even!) and loved it! Thanks for a wonderful book. I'm intrigued by your description in the Post essay of your mom and the dogs she raised. Is there a connection between her and Maureen in the novel? The bigger question behind that is the relationship between your own life and your fiction. How are your novels informed by your experiences?
Julia Glass: I answered much of this question a bit earlier, but yes--Maureen is the character based quite a lot on my mother! Not many of my characters bear such a close relationship to real people in my life, but this was almost unavoidable. My mother was, I'm happy to say, mostly amused and flattered. Thank you for your kind words about THREE JUNES. If you loved Fenno, you should know that he comes back in my second novel, THE WHOLE WORLD OVER (though it is not strictly a "sequel").
Dallas, Texas: I loved "Real Life." Did you have any other exciting or interesting summer jobs?
Julia Glass: Most of my summers before graduating from college, I worked in that same wonderful public library where I grew up. I taught art classes at a museum one other summer, but really, I was boring and predictable. I sometimes envy people with endlessly hilarious stories of weird summer jobs. My mate had dozens of weird gigs, including two summers in an Idaho silver mine and another summer, in the early seventies, fabricating mood rings! But working in a library kept me close to books, and I'm sure that's a crucial part of why and how I write.
Harrisburg, Pa.: What made you realize, after you had found yourself, that you hadn't?
Julia Glass: Oh, that took another decade! And it was a gradual, painful process. I look at my kids and wish that I could "package" the scant wisdom it took me so long to accrue, but each of has to go it alone, right?
office politics: Your description of the sexism, even sexual harassment of that 70s-era office was amazing - at the time did you recognize it for what it was? or if not, when did you realize how wrong that atmosphere was? and how?
Julia Glass: It made me uncomfortable, absolutely, and I knew it was "wrong," intellectually, but I had just completed a year at Yale, which had only recently graduated its first female undergrads. A lot of women felt very angry about sexism at Yale while I was there (in the art department, where I was a major, there was only one tenured female my freshman year), but my attitude was, How can you expect an institution that's been all male for HUNDREDS of years to change on a dime? So I was already in an atmosphere where women had to "prove" themselves. In an odd way, I found it a stimulating challenge. But I also consider myself fortunate to have grown up with a dad who escaped completely so much of the sexism that afflicted his peers. I think that shielded me, right or wrong, from a lot of the (justifiable) anger that arose among women in the seventies.
Greenbelt, Md.: I'm curious about how you got started as a writer: How did you decide to start writing fiction, and how did you do it?
Julia Glass: While I sort of answered that question earlier here (how I spent ten years aspiring to success as a painter), I will say that I think all good writers start as passionate readers. Nothing teaches great writing like the very best books do. Yet good teachers often help students cross that bridge, and I have to say that I had a few extraordinary English teachers in high school whom I still credit for their guidance. They helped shape the way I read fiction (something I couldn't live without) and also confirmed my innate instincts that fiction really matters to the well-being of the soul, that it brings readers to profound human experiences in a way that even the best movies and memoirs can't. In a strange way, I "came back" to writing fiction after many years away, and I can only assume that break--the years I spent as a painter--made its mark on my work as well.
Julia Glass: Great questions, everybody! This has been very enjoyable for me. Thank you.
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