When I look back on writing my first novel, Three Junes, I'm astonished that I did so under such tenuous, unpredictable circumstances. I am not (alas) one of those up-before-dawn, twenty-pages-by-noon sort of writers; in fact, I have never been able to forge anything resembling a routine. But somehow the work gets done - back then, between stints of writing for magazines, editing corporate brochures, and hooking rugs (several of which were published in a beautiful art book the same year Three Junes came out). Because my education and early working life had been focused on the visual arts, I had no "writing network" (let alone an agent or a contract), so my fiction often felt like the stuff of dreams, a phantom avocation. This sensation was only amplified by the birth of my first son at about the same time I decided to write a novel. My publisher bought that novel five years later, a week after my second son arrived - and life turned a corner. I felt the lovely gratification of being "recognized" as a writer, while my responsibilities as a mother grew more complex . . . and more all-consuming.
Both despite and because of my first book's success, I was having a hard time concentrating on the second, so I decided to apply for two fellowships (both of which had turned me down in the past). One was the NEA grant, the other a one-year university fellowship. This time I won both, and together they helped me move my family to a big house in a small town and to work full-time on what Shirley Hazard so rightly calls the "difficult happiness" of writing fiction. At last I had the luxury - and the challenge - of descending, for several hours day after day, deep into the world of my imagination, and the novel I completed in that time is so much the richer for it. Though the grant was finite, the changes it wrought in my relationship to my work are profound and permanent, and I am deeply grateful.
From the novel Three Junes
Paul chose Greece for its predictable whiteness: the blanching heat by day, the rush of stars at night, the glint of the lime-washed houses crowding its coast. Blinding, searing, somnolent, fossilized Greece.
Joining a tour - that was the gamble, because Paul is not a gregarious sort. He dreads fundraisers and drinks parties, all occasions at which he must give an account of himself to people he will never see again. Yet there are advantages to the company of strangers. You can tell them whatever you please: no lies perhaps, but no affecting truths. Paul does not fabricate well (though once, foolishly, he believed that he could), and the single truth he's offered these random companions - that recently he lost his wife - brought down a flurry of theatrical condolence. (A hand on his at the breakfast table in Athens, the very first day: "Time, time, and more time. Let Monsignor Time do his tedious, devious work." Marjorie, a breathy schoolmistress from Devon.)
Not counting Jack, they are ten. Paul is one of three men; the other two, Ray and Solly, are appended to wives. And then, besides Marjorie, there are two pairs of women traveling together, in their seventies at least: a surprisingly spry quartet who carry oversize binoculars with which they ogle everything and everyone, at appallingly close range. Seeing the sights, they wear identical, brand-new hiking boots; to the group's communal dinners, cork-soled sandals with white crocheted tops. Paul thinks of them as the quadruplets.
In the beginning, there was an all-around well-mannered effort to mingle, but then, sure as sedimentation, the two married couples fell together and the quadruplets reverted more or less to themselves. Only Marjorie, trained by profession to dole out affection equally, continues to treat everyone like a new friend, and with her as their muse, the women coddle Paul like an infant. His room always has the best view, his seat on the boat is always in shade; the women always insist. The husbands treat him as though he were vaguely leprous. Jack finds the whole thing amusing: "Delightful, watching you cringe." Jack is their guide: young and irreverent, thank God. Reverence would send Paul over the edge.
Even this far from home there are reminders, like camera flashes or shooting pains. On the streets, in the plazas, on the open-decked ferries, he is constantly sighting Maureen: any tall lively blonde, any sunstruck girl with a touch of the brazen. German or Swedish or Dutch, there she is, again and again. Today she happens to be an American, one of two girls at a nearby table. Jack has noticed them too, Paul can tell, though both men pretend to read their shared paper–day before yesterday's Times. By no means beautiful, this girl, but she has a garish spirit, a laugh she makes no effort to stifle. She wears an eccentrically wide-brimmed hat, tied under her chin with a feathery scarf. ("Miss Forties Nostalgic," Maureen would have pegged her. "These gals think they missed some grand swinging party.") Little good the hat seems to have done her, though: she is sunburnt geranium pink, her arms crazed with freckles. The second girl is the beauty, with perfect pale skin and thick cocoa-colored hair; Jack will have an eye on that one.
The girls talk too loudly, but Paul enjoys listening. In their midtwenties, he guesses, ten years younger than his sons. "Heaven. I am telling you exquisite,"says the dark-haired girl in a husky, all-knowing voice. "A sensual sort of coup de foudre."
"You go up on donkeys? Where?" the blonde answers eagerly.
"This dishy farmer rents them. He looks like Giancarlo Giannini. Those soulful sad-dog eyes alone are worth the price of admission. He rides alongside and whacks them with a stick when they get ornery."
"Oh just prods them a little, for God's sake. Nothing inhumane. Listen–I'm sure the ones that hump olives all day really get whacked. By donkey standards, these guys live like royalty." She rattles through a large canvas satchel and pulls out a map, which she opens across the table. The girls lean together.
"Valley of the Butterflies!" The blonde points.
Jack snorts quietly from behind his section of the Times. "Don't tell the dears, but it's moths."
Excerpted from Three Junes by Julia Glass Copyright © 2002 by Julia Glass. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Julia Glass was awarded the 2002 National Book Award for Fiction for her first novel, Three Junes (Pantheon Books). The Whole World Over, her next novel, will be published by Pantheon Books in May 2006. Glass was a 2004–05 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a recipient of a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Prizes for her short fiction include a Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society medal, three Nelson Algren Awards, and the Tobias Wolff Award. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.
Photo by Tony Rinaldo