Julia Glass hasn’t had the most traditional route to her career as an award-winning and bestselling writer of fiction. After graduating from Yale with a degree in studio art, Julia spent several years pursuing her ambition as a painter, paying the bills by working as a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and magazine writer (her “beat” covered pets and parenting). She turned to writing fiction in her early thirties, publishing her first short story at age 37 and her first novel at 46. That first novel, Three Junes, went on to win the National Book award followed by a number of awards and fellowships over the last 12 years. This spring, Julia published her fifth work of fiction, And the Dark Sacred Night, which brings back some of the characters we came to know in her first two novels.
Julia will be speaking at Amherst this summer and we asked her a few questions about her passion for literature, her path to becoming a writer, and what she loved to read as a kid.
Great Books Summer Program: What role did literature play in your childhood?
Julia Glass: Books were as essential to me as oxygen. Some children thrive only if they can spend plenty of time running, jumping, playing games—but for me, burying myself in a good book was the best way of passing free time. (Drawing was my other favorite pastime.) Luckily, I grew up in a house filled with books, and my parents were well educated and honored my obsession with stories. At one point—maybe third grade or so–I sought out fairy tales, folk tales, and myths from as many cultures as I could find: British, Japanese, Celtic, French, Chinese, Nordic . . . the list goes on. I loved biographies, too (oddly, nowadays, I rarely read them). From the time I was nine, we lived in a suburb with a beautiful public library; you could start working there as a page in fifth grade—and the minute I was old enough, there I was. I worked at that library, almost continuously, including most summers during high school and college, until I was in my early twenties.
GBSP: Did any one person in your life stand out as fostering a love of writing or literature?
JG: Several stand out. My father and mother, certainly—especially my father, who was writing his Ph.D. thesis in archaeology when I was young. Sometimes I would read on the floor of his study while he worked. Also, the children’s librarian for whom I worked during my middle school years: Heddie Kent. And my remarkable English teachers in high school: Phillip McFarland, Richard Shohet, and Ann Shannon.
GBSP: What was your favorite book as a teenager?
JG: Oh, there are way too many to name! I’ll never read that prolifically or adventurously again. One thing about those years: I loved to read fiction in translation—which was perhaps the way I indulged my wish to travel—and I loved to read plays. So I might have a stack of books checked out from the library that included Ionesco, Strindberg, Pirandello . . . Knut Hamsen, Françoise Sagan, Andre Gide, Günter Grass, Georges Bernanos, Yasunari Kawabata. In fact, during high school, I was captivated by Japanese literature. Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters stands out in memory as one of the books I treasured. I keep meaning to reread it but haven’t found the time!
GBSP: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
JG: Yes and no. Which is to say that I’ve always loved language and known I’m a skilled writer—that skill made me an outstanding and very confident student throughout my school years—but there were too many other passions at which I wanted to try my hand, most notably painting and drawing. Writing took a back seat to art-making from college until my early thirties. That’s when I returned to writing fiction for the first time since high school.
GBSP: If you could give one piece of advice to young writers, what would it be?
JG: Read like crazy, and read many different kinds of writing. (Venture outside your comfort zone.) The best writing teachers are the authors we read (though it helps to have flesh-and-blood teachers guiding us along). And if you fall in love with a writer—whether it’s Dr. Seuss or Alice Munro—go ahead and try to write in that writer’s voice. Imitation is a great learning tool.