Julia Glass -- A Booksellers' Favorite -- Reflects on Unexpected National Book Award

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When the critically acclaimed debut novel Three Junes won the National Book Award for fiction last November, a number of people were caught off guard. Count among them author Julia Glass.

"I didn't expect to win.… It was a complete shock," she said in a recent interview from her Manhattan home.

Author Julia Glass

But the unexpected has brought only good things for Glass, who described the nomination process and award ceremony as a "fairy tale."

Recounting the evening -- being taken to the event, her vintage dress and costume jewelry, the photographs of the nominees lining the banquet room walls, a special spot at the table of the book's publisher, Pantheon, -- Glass joked that "as a woman, you'll understand: 75 percent of my anxiety was over once I was in my dress. " She explained that "it felt unreal, in a dreamy kind of way. I felt like Cinderella after I won."

Three Junes is the story of Fenno McLeod, a Scottish expatriate living in New York. The AIDS crisis has begun, and for Fenno, whose nature it is to isolate himself, the specter of AIDS makes it all too easy to stay alone. He's part owner of an independent bookstore (named Plume, for a love of birds as well as books). The novel begins, however, with Fenno's father, Paul, a widower traveling in Greece. It ends with Fenno among friends, some old, most new, who carry the third section more than Fenno himself does. The novel paints a deeply moving portrait of family life -- of abiding love, petty resentments, real betrayals, and forgiveness. But interwoven are descriptions of Scotland and Greece; a walker's view of New York; details about breeding collies and French cooking, and music criticism; and a look at the close and catty inner life of academe -- all of which create a rich, compelling tapestry.

Three Junes had an enthusiastic response well before earning the National Book Award. The novel was selected for the Book Sense 76 list for May/June 2002, garnered superb reviews and author endorsements, and was selected in September by Good Morning America for its book club -- a fairy tale, indeed, for any writer, but especially so for a first novelist.

Glass has also received kudos for her short stories. She is the winner of three Nelson Algren Awards for short fiction and a Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella. Glass explained that writing this first novel was a lengthy process, one, in fact, that began with a short story.

Her fiction is character-based, and Glass noted that Fenno came to her almost whole, as did other key characters. Calling her writing process "organic," Glass said she writes very much from instinct, from the gut. "There is not as much deliberation as you might think."

She did think carefully, however, about the structure of the novel, especially after realizing her book would be shaped like a triptych -- a painting often serving as an altarpiece, which consists of a central image flanked by related images, like "wings," Glass said. This concept anchored the book for the author. Fenno's story (the second of the novel's three segments) is told in first person, the others in third, a choice that best reflects Fenno's central role. And Fenno occasionally addresses the reader directly, "face on," so to speak.

Glass began her creative life as a painter before switching to writing. She majored in art at Yale and, like her character Fern, spent a year in Paris. She began writing fiction "in earnest" in her late twenties.

Specific events and details from Glass's life informed her fiction in much the same way her artistic background helped shape the structure of her book. Her mother is an amateur genealogist and is very proud of her Scottish heritage. That connection was a major factor in Glass deciding at 17 to visit distant cousins in Scotland. "I was brought up to believe family is very important," she said.

And 10 years ago she suffered deep loss, which gave Glass her subject for this novel.

"I wanted to write about living through incurable heartbreak, the kind that haunts you forever," she said. But she added that ultimately she wants her fiction to be "life-affirming" and that her book has "a hopeful ending." She quoted Margaret Atwood, saying: "If there must be a death, let there be a resurrection."

Glass is trying to work on her next novel, though the aftermath of the National Book Award has kept her quite busy. She described her new book, which she's "tentatively planning to narrate from four points of view," as "a novel about marriage and happiness." She said that the "protagonist lives in New York's West Village -- but this time the character is a woman: a pastry chef, a mother, and someone far more extroverted than Fenno McLeod."

Glass grew up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, but has lived her adult life in New York. She frequents several of her neighborhood independents but speaks especially fondly of Three Lives & Company, where she had the first reading on her book tour. After Glass won the National Book Award, Three Lives put its poster of her book back up in the front window with a sign that read: "Congratulations, Julia." Not Julia Glass, she noted. Just Julia. And when she speaks of the glorious ride that is the story of Three Junes, Glass sounds as moved by that personal well wish from Three Lives -- which she saw as she walked past the store on an errand one afternoon -- as she is about the moment she heard her book and name announced at the National Book Award ceremony.

The paperback of Three Junes is coming from Anchor this June. A major tour is planned, though specific cities have yet to be announced. --Caitlin Hamilton