Novelist Julia Glass came late to writing fiction — and even later to publishing her work — but she came on strong.
Her debut novel, 2002’s “Three Junes,” improbably won the National Book Award, elevating her to the top of the literary world in Cinderella fashion.
A late bloomer, Glass began writing fiction at age 30. She’d been a painter and had supported herself working as a freelance copy editor and journalist.
“I guess I’m very inspiring to people getting a later start to their publishing careers, because I didn’t publish my first novel until age 46,” Glass said, adding with a laugh, “I may not be so inspiring to people trying to get an early start — it took me awhile to get published.”
She followed her acclaimed debut with 2006’s “The Whole World Over,” 2008’s “I See You Everywhere” and 2010’s “The Widower’s Tale.” The characters and settings from “Three Junes” often have resurfaced in her subsequent work, as they do in her most recent book, “And the Dark Sacred Night,” published in April.
The book descends from “Three Junes,” though it’s not quite a sequel. It follows Kit Noonan, an unemployed art historian in the New Jersey suburbs, on a quest to find his father. Early on, we learn Noonan is the son of Malachy Burns, whose battle with AIDS plays out in “Three Junes.” Noonan’s journey leads him to other familiar “Three Junes” characters, like Lucinda, Burns’ mother, and Fenno, the Greenwich Village bookshop owner at the center of that book, who nursed Burns through his illness.
Though her novels frequently intersect with one another, Glass doesn’t have a grand multi-book scheme in mind for her fictional world.
“It’s unpredictable,” she said. “I am not the kind of novelist that has a notebook full of ideas that are stacked up like planes at LaGuardia. Every time I finish a book, I think, ‘Oh my God, that’s the last one!’”
She began writing the new book after re-reading “Three Junes” in 2010. Though she rarely revisits old work, she was interested in writing more about Lucinda. She describes re-reading the novel as “terrifying and illuminating.” But it led her to the kernel that became “And the Dark Sacred Night” — a secret revealed near the end of “Three Junes,” that Burns, though he was gay, fathered a child as a teenager.
“I said, ‘What if I could write a story that had at its center this child, as a grown man? And that could lead me back to Lucinda and Mal and Fenno?’” she said.
Noonan’s quest brings him to Vermont ski country and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, allowing Glass to build set pieces into the novel.
Among her cast of characters is Jasper, a grizzled old Vermont ski instructor and shop hand known as “Ski Bum Number One,” who was once married to Noonan’s mother. Aspen readers will recognize Jasper for his tics, his ability to divine coming weather by smell, his mountain-man aptitude and his dismay at today’s bro-bra trends in snow sports (“Everybody wants to be Shaun White these days,” he complains).
Glass is not a skier herself and didn’t base Jasper on any personal connection to winter sports. In fact, she admits, she jumped off a chairlift when her partner’s family brought her up a mountain in Idaho.
“I was really lucky I didn’t break my legs,” she said. “I’m such an indoors person; my favorite winter activity is reading by the fire.”
She picked up Jasper’s elderly-ski-bum characteristics largely by eavesdropping on the skiers who come to her town, Marblehead, Massachusetts, to sail in the summer. And she wrote most of Jasper’s section of the book not through research in the New England ski country but while at a writer’s retreat in a castle in Italy.
“It was something to be surrounded by roses and swallows and countryside and to be writing about winter in Vermont,” she said. “It’s a testament to the power of the imagination.”
Through Wednesday, Glass will be teaching a workshop at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Summer Words. She’ll participate in public panels today and Tuesday.
A highlight, she said, of teaching workshops for aspiring writers at conferences like Summer Words is seeing how quickly students build a creative community and how they often stay in touch with one another for years to critique one another’s work. When Glass began writing fiction, she said, she was working in virtual isolation, without fellow writers in her circle. One of the boons of winning the National Book Award was finally finding what she calls her “tribe” of fiction writers.
“It accelerated my ability to meet writers I admired and talk shop,” she said, recalling how authors like Richard Russo welcomed her into their ranks.
But Glass remains grateful that when “Three Junes” won the coveted prize and thrust her into the national spotlight, she already had written about 100 pages of her next novel. Had she not, she may have been stifled by the expectations for her follow-up.
“One does have to be careful once you’ve been given an ego snack and had your ego stroked in that way, because it doesn’t’make the writing any easier.” Glass said. “In some ways it makes it harder.”