An Interview with Julia Glass
Acclaimed American novelist Julia Glass’s new book, The Widower’s Tale, tells the story of Percival Darling, a widower who lets a preschool where his daughter will work open in his barn on his property in Massachusetts. The book follows one of the teachers at the school, Ira; a gardener and immigrant from Guatemala, Celestino; and Robert, Percy’s grandson who is going to Harvard and getting more and more involved with an environmental organization.
Glass, who recently moved back to her hometown in Massachusetts from Manhattan, is also the author of Three Junes, which won the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction, The Whole World Over and I See You Everywhere. Bookslut spoke to Glass in San Francisco.
Your main character is a 70-year retired librarian, Percy Darling. You’re certainly not a male, retired librarian, so where did Percy come from?
All my main characters come from some alter ego of mine, and in some cases I’m very proud to be associated with them and in other cases maybe less so. Percy came to me when I was living in my very beautiful, bucolic hometown west of Boston for a year after I’d been living in New York for 24 years. We came here six years ago because I had a fellowship at Harvard to finish The Whole World Over, which was such a blessing. I rented a house in the town I grew up where my parents still are and of course I’ve visited the town for years and always been so happy that it seems to be the same. But when I moved there, I found beneath the surface it had changed quite a lot and in ways I really didn’t approve of as though somebody had to get my permission to make things more affluent, more politically correct. The public library where I had been worked as a page had been completely gutted and was now dominated by computers, so I was having this very prickly response. Somewhat paradoxically, it was both more liberal and more conservative. I was urged by these other moms to join this raw milk cooperative and these moms are driving these Sherman-tank-like cars, so they’re all campaigning for a greener planet, and they live in 4,000-square-foot homes, and this was driving me insane. I’m also somebody who hates political correctness. I’m a good knee jerk-liberal but if I feel constrained in expressing myself honestly by the tip toe mores of wealthy liberals, that drives me nuts.
So this is what Percy grew out of. Percy is this extremely curmudgeonly guy who had envisioned retirement where he lived this bucolic life, reading novels, swimming in his pond, where nothing changes, but as he spends more time at home in his town, he realizes that things are changing much faster than he realizes and in a way he doesn’t like. He does embody the fear of and resistance to change alongside old-fashioned values whether it’s a book centered library or a town where woods are valued. And that really was me. But in choosing Percy as this alter ego it was also to kind of confront my own phobias.
By contrast, the character Robert, his 20-year-old grandson, who came to me next and is in many ways the second most important voice and viewpoint in the novel, represents to me the youthful idealistic yearning for change which is so important but can lead to a folly all its own.
So Percy was a way of both indulging in and facing down my personal cyberphobia, my wish to see things stay the same as I tip over into the second half century of my life. It’s always funny to notice that you’re no longer in the television demographic that anybody cares about when you’re past 48 or 50 or whatever it is. It’s this reference to the idea of accelerating change, and I do think we live in a world that is changing faster than it has at any point since, arguably, the Industrial Revolution.
Robert also finds the idea of less technology appealing in some ways. He spent a summer in Costa Rica with no laptop or cell phone.
I choose not to make Robert the complete yang to his grandfather’s yin. For one thing, the bond between them is very important in this novel. He has a great deal of respect and empathy for his grandfather and he does share some of his grandfather’s values. So while he’s being seduced into activism that’s aimed at quote unquote saving the planet -- I hate that expression -- by shaming people who are uberconsumerist, he’s enough of a romantic to wonder what it would be like to live a more unplugged life. He had a taste of that, which is very much a privilege of the pampered classes, to go to Costa Rica and help build an eco-lodge in the middle of the rain forest. So he found out what it was like to live outdoors, to live without Internet connection, to really have to live fully in your senses. I think it’s one thing this incredibly plugged in world deprives people of. My younger kid is in fourth grade and I was picking him up from his second day of school a few days ago and I cannot tell you -- his school is fourth through sixth grades, so I was probably looking at sixth graders, but as these kids were waiting for their parents to pick them up, maybe 90 percent of them were on their handheld devices. You’re so not in the world when you live like that. It’s not that I don’t see all the richness and value we gain from all this technology, but there’s a cautionary tale there.
Why did you want to deal with ecological activism?
You know, I’m having a memory glitch with this because I cannot for the life of me remember what the spark of inspiration was for this particular group and this mayhem they perpetuate against wealthy suburbanites. I do think our aspiration to live a so-called greener life is something we’re made to be conscious of constantly, like when we’re shopping, and we wonder whether being locavores is actually decreasing our footprint. In my town, which is a very old town on the north shore of Massachusetts, we have virtually no open spaces, and every time somebody chops down a tree, there is a hue and cry about it -- you deprive birds of nests, you deprive creatures of shade, even though this is a village.
The ecological consequences of so many everyday deeds are very much on the minds of the privileged classes, of which, for good and ill, I am a member.
You have another character, Celestino, who is an illegal immigrant. Why was he someone you wanted to write about?
That came directly out of living in my hometown again. We rented a house with a huge yard, and my mate, Dennis, looked at this yard and thought, “Oh my God, well, I guess I’m going to be mowing this yard.” And I said, “Oh, no, no, when I grew up, you hired a local teenager, and they make pocket money that way.” Ha! The local teenagers don’t mow lawns anymore.
So I woke up one morning the second week we were there at 8 o’clock, and I heard this amazing racket outside the house. I looked at the lawn and there were five Hispanic guys out there with mowers and blowers and weed whackers, and I went outside and tried to have a conversation, but they did not speak English. So I called our landlord who lives in town and he said, “Oh that’s the monthly service that you’ll get, you don’t have to worry about mowing the lawn.”
Then I was going around town, I began to notice there were these platoons of lawn workers with flatbed trucks, so I became very interested in these groups of workers I’d see around town. Someone told me in the Boston area, they’re mostly Guatemalans or Brazilian. I began to read a little bit about immigrant workers experiences, some people have interviewed undocumented workers, actually I think a book like that was published by McSweeney’s, and Dave Eggers gave me the book to read, and it was really interesting. People had been interviewed who worked as lawn workers, who worked in meat packing factories, who worked in fish factories. Then as I had made this decision to create this character, there appeared many stories in the New York Times about raids, mostly in the Midwest and on companies that employed undocumented workers, many of them from Guatemala interestingly. Celestino is very conscious of these stories, and there is this undercurrent of fear although a community like that where everyone is very wealthy tends to be very sheltered because who wants to out you? If you’re getting your lawn and property landscaped for a fairly low cost, you’re going to turn your head the other way. I don’t think anybody wants to wonder what those guys who show up and mow your lawn at 8 in the morning, what they’re getting paid, what’s expected of them, so that was a way for me to portray this kind of paradoxical community.
Why did you choose to put Percy in a situation where there is a preschool on his property?
Well, I am writing about a family and all of its complicated relationships, resentments, and jealousies. I thought of Percy as this widower, as this man who’s very alone, but does have these grown children. One child who’s very successful and the other who’s well meaning, but quite floundering. I wanted the decision that Percy makes that changes his life to be one that was directly related to family. I thought there was an interesting irony in Clover, not having fled motherhood, but she talks about needing a sabbatical from motherhood, and yet what she wants to do, she tells her father, is work with small children. And that gave me a rather self-indulgent opportunity to gently parody the experience I’d had of being a parent of a child in preschool, both in New York and in the suburbs here. There is a preciousness beyond all description to contemporary parenting. It’s both admirable in that parents that just want to do everything right and it’s also so suffocating and prey to political correctness. In a way it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. I really enjoyed portraying that slice of modern culture, the preschool culture.
Also each piece of fiction I write begins with a character in a particular predicament. And very soon after I get a very clear picture of where that character lives or the physical environment of that character. This place where Percy lives is not a specific place, it might be in the town I grew up in, but I dreamed it up. So I remember seeing that pond on his property and seeing this huge barn.
I like to think the way in which setting comes to me is a legacy of my many years as a painter. In college I majored in art and through my twenties I was a painter. Through the difficult years of having to sacrifice my visual artist side to become a writer I felt very mournful in that I assumed I had quote unquote wasted those years that I devoted to visual arts. But when Three Junes was published and people began to talk about the writing and I even when I began to read out loud from it, only then did I see that all those years as a painter -- and I was a figurative painter, so I paid a lot of attention to my surroundings -- that that had very much formed the way which I create a fictional world. So this barn came to me and I thought, I’m going to use this barn somehow.
Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter who writes about the arts in San Francisco for the Examiner.com. She has done stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, Agence France-Presse, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, Edutopia and Alternet. She also teaches at City College of San Francisco.