To let in visitors through the front door of her apartment building on the quiet, shady street just off Dupont Circle, Julia Markus lets down a key on a bright blue string, a little like Rapunzel letting down her hair. She is, in fact, not at all a modern-day Rapunzel, locked away from the world and spinning yarns in solitude, especially not these days, with the success of her novel, Uncle , published earlier this fall to acclaim from Time and Saturday Review and various newspapers.
Opening the door to the third-floor walk-up apartment she shares with her husband, art historian Frank Di-Federico, Markus explains that she's just back from a trip to New York, one of many in the last few months, that included meetings with her editor and agent, a typical New York literary party, and lunch with an influential book review editor. "It's been fun, really exciting, but it's getting to be a little bit too much," she sighs, brushing back a wing of black, graystreaked hair. "I'm glad to be back here."
You can see why, of course. "Here" is a comfortable place to be. The light-filled living room is also filled with books, and there's a kind of casual, tossed-off elegance to it - a gold brocade couch you don't mind sitting on, an antique arm chair, a contemporary rattan chair, an Oriental rug, a few good prints on the wall, mementos of a stay in Italy scattered about.
There's something comfortable yet elegant, too, about this attractive 35-ish woman with eyes the color of chocolate mousse, dressed in blue jeans, a navy sweater and yellow thongs, who serves coffee in square-shaped glass cups and saucers and the kind of cookies that don't come from Nabisco. "Refined" is perhaps the word you'd associate with someone who wrote a Ph.D. thesis on Robert Browning's poetry, has edited Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Casa Guidi Windows," is on the board of the Browning Institute and co-editor of Browning Institute Studies. Browning scholars are always refined. Still, she'll tell you that when, at a family birthday party, she commented that she'd always thought of herself like that ("quiet and refined"), she was regarded with astonishment: "There was a long silence followed by loud guffaws. Even my mother said, 'I can't believe you said that!'"
Julia Markus is not, however, kvetching about the pressures of success. On the contrary, she laughs that "When this [the publication of Uncle ] first happened, I had a moment of panic. I thought, 'Maybe it won't make me happy, maybe I really like suffering.' But I've found it does make me very happy!"
That "suffering" she can laugh about now means that for a long time she wrote and wrote and wrote in what she calls "a vacuum," and that when somebody besides family and friends read it, it was because she had the gumption and resourcefulness and sheer faith to publish it herself.
It's a very American story, really. Julia Markus grew up in Jersey City, where her father was a butcher and her mother was a housewife. (There's still some Jersey in her voice when she says something like "It duzunt mattuh." with that very flat, broad "a.") She remembers it mainly as "claustrophobic": "I thought the whole world was like Jersey City. Once, though, we took a trip to Mt. Vernon, and then I thought there were two kinds of places in the world - Jersey City and Martha Washington's house." Her father was "sort of an atheist" who liked to discuss philosophy and ideas with his daughter, but he didn't encourage her to go to college: "They thought I read too many books anyway."
Drifting along, "pretty screwed up," she recalls, Markus went, at a friend's urging, to look at Boston University. BU was a world away from Jersey City: "It was a world I hadn't known existed. Boston was so beautiful. I loved the cold, the way it made your eyes sting all the time." She met DiFederico in a comparative romance literature class, married him, went on to teaching comparative literature at a college in New York.
All that time, though, even as a little girl in Jersey City, Julia Markus didn't just want to be a writer, she knew she would be, even though her only writing was a poem here and there or an occasional journal entry. But when DiFederico got a Fulbright to Italy and she went with him, she decided to try to write a novel.
The result was Nancy Blue , still unpublished. Then La Mora , a novel about a black woman from Jersey City who becomes an Italian film star. She sent La Mora around to publishers, but although some liked it, no one was willing to make a commitment. "I'd been writing eight or ten years by then and nothing had come of it," Markus recalls. "I wanted that book to be published, so Frank and I just thought, Why not start our own press?" Their company, Decatur House Press, published La Mora in 1975.
In the meantime, Markus had earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland and had begun Uncle , the novel that "would tell me whether I would keep on writing or not." It took five years. "When I finished it, I knew it was good and that I would keep on writing whether Uncle was published or not . . . It's a very inward thing for me. I just think you write, finally, to please yourself."
The novel that pleased her is, like her own story, a very American one, perhaps in some sense a response to those years in Rome when the expatriate's life seemed best, before Markus realized that "you have to come back to where your roots are." "Uncle" is Irv Bender, a poor Jewish boy growing up in Jersey City in the '20s and '30s, who eventually becomes the wealthy owner of a Jewish summer camp. "It's the story of what happens to people when they come to America, that generation once or twice removed from Europe, who began to gain material wealth and then to ask, What's it all about?" Markus explains. She's been praised as "the next Jewish writer," but she doesn't see that such a label has much meaning. "I'm just trying to get to life without falling into verbosity or prosaicness," she says.
Apparently, she succeeded. What happened to Uncle is, in fact, the kind of success story that gives hope to all those unpublished writers in places like Dubuque and Amarillo. Without an agent, Markus sent the novel "over the transom" to Houghton Mifflin, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nothing's really changed too much. She has an agent now, and a publisher for the new novel she's writing, but Markus still works on her novel in the mornings and devotes the afternoons to Decatur House Press or to Browning Institute business. The press, for which Markus and DiFederico do all editing and layout from an office in their apartment and contract out printing and binding, has expanded to include a literary series (they've published two books of poetry since La Mora ) and a serious, scholarly art history series whose first publication was DiFederico's book on the 18th-century Italian painter Francesco Trevisani.
And no great changes are planned. "I'll just keep doing this as long as I can. Of course, a writer's great fear is always of drying up, of not having anything to say," Julia Markus says, her voice trailing off, and for a moment she looks very solemn. "Maybe," she adds, "If writers knew how hard this was going to be they'd never start in the first place." But you can tell she doesn't really mean it.