A Conversation with Julia Glass, author of Three Junes
Q: What led you to create Three Junes?
A: Sometimes it's hard for me to think of this novel as something I created, because I never sat down and planned it out as a whole, the way you might cut and piece together a suit from a bolt of cloth (as I'd always imagined a novel gets written). Three Junes grew over several years, like a tree—organically and at first in odd, sporadic bursts—starting out as a short story called "Souvenirs," which was based on an experience I had while traveling in Greece after college. One of the first stories I wrote as an adult, it was your typical ingenue-abroad, loss-of-innocence tale with a predictably idyllic setting, and I was hoping to sell it to Cosmopolitan magazine, where I was working as a copy editor. (In those days, short stories—some by wonderful writers like Laurie Colwin, Lorrie Moore, and Elinor Lipman—were a fixture of the magazine. Often, there were two in a single issue, just as there once were in the New Yorker.) Reportedly, Helen Gurley Brown read my story but thought the heroine too "privileged" for her readers—that is, not your good old "mouseburger" COSMO Girl—so into a drawer it went. A few years later, I looked at the story again and decided that Paul, who had been little more than a third wheel or a foil, was much more interesting than Fern or Jack, and I decided to make the story his, not Fern's. Suddenly, this character's whole world seemed to crack open before my eyes—his dead wife, his waylaid ambitions, his country home, his sons—and I found myself with an ungainly narrative of 40 pages plus. I actually had the nerve to submit it to a couple of magazines and received a brief but kind rejection from the Atlantic the gist of which was "Sorry, though we'd love to see these characters inhabit a novel." Once again, into a drawer it went.
Somehow, though, what was now called "Collies" refused to be abandoned, and a couple years later, two things happened: First, I was intrigued by a fiction competition that included a category for "best novella" and decided to amplify the story yet further. Second, having by now published a couple of stories in modest venues, I'd been contacted by two agents who wondered if I had a novel. Somewhat stubbornly, I was writing only stories—you couldn't really call them "short," since they were lengthy and complex, bursting at the seams like pregnant women refusing to buy maternity clothes—and when I wrote to a fellow writer how unfair it felt that these agents wouldn't consider story collections, he wrote back something like "Stop complaining, get off your duff, and just write a novel. If you want to, you can." I was momentarily hurt, but I knew he was right. Sometimes I wonder if I would ever have written Three Junes without that kick in the pants.
Q: Three Junes, teeming with its relationships and interconnected lives, resembles a wonderfully dense nineteenth-century novel in a way, despite its very modern characters and setting. Do you agree?
A: I am anything but a minimalist, and I don't say this proudly, because if my work—visual as well as verbal—has one prominent weakness, it's a tendency toward clutter. (I also have a tendency to talk too much and, I'm told by the one adult who lives with me, to fill a room with too many objects and too much pattern.) When it works, however—when it's disciplined—the clutter can yield a magnificent richness, and that's what I aspire to. If this makes me a Victorian of sorts, so be it.
I wouldn't flatter Three Junes by comparing it with anything by Hardy or Eliot or Hawthorne, but they are all personal gods, so clearly I have such ambitions. In the years after college, when I had ample time to read whatever I wanted, I undertook to fill some of my literary gaps by going on reading binges of certain authors: E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, and George Eliot among them. One book I read then that impressed me above and beyond most of what I'd ever read—and it may have been partially responsible for my starting to write fiction—was Daniel Deronda. While I understand the criticism of its flaws, I was astonished by its characters and structure (not to mention its exquisite, masterly prose). Just the idea that you do not meet one of the two protagonists for over a hundred pages seemed revolutionary, and though I didn't write Three Junes till many years later, I know that its ultimate structure was in some ways influenced by that impression. I'm not sure I could have risked what I did with Fenno's character—making him the center of the novel yet keeping him largely offstage for most of the beginning and much of the end—without that example.
Q: Why did you divide the book into three parts with only the second as a first-person narrative? Why did you choose Fenno to set apart? In addition, why does Fenno occasionally address the reader, "Feeling left out, you will have noticed, is second nature to me" (p. 172)?
A: I mentioned earlier how essential character is to me in the creation of story; well, Fenno is a character who basically hijacked my soul as a writer. He's the one who chose me. Working on Three Junes, I had an experience I'd never had before. In the past, my characters were largely composed in a deliberate manner—under my thumb, you might say—although they often seemed to make spontaneous choices that would surprise me. But Fenno (also Mal, and to some extent Paul) seemed to spring up from my psyche fully formed, like the goddess Athena from her father's head. Writing in Fenno's voice often felt like conversing with a stowaway, continuing the journey and letting go of anxieties about where in the world he came from.
One of the timeworn dictums laid down for first novelists is "Whatever you do, steer clear of the first person!" "Collies" had always felt completely natural in the third person, even though it was limited to Paul's point of view, but when I started the second part of the novel, Fenno's story, I couldn't help hearing it in his own voice—and I was petrified. I knew I was embarking on the longest portion of the book and I thought, I can't do this! Change time period, locale, point of view, and voice? Surely a big mistake. So I did try to work on the story in third person, and I lasted only a few pages. It felt like trying to bend steel pipe.
While writing "Boys," the third part, it hit me that what I was writing, structurally, was a triptych—that is, a strong central image flanked by two narrower, more modest images. I thought of the medieval Netherlandish altarpieces I love so much: Sometimes the central panel—be it a picture of the annunciation, the crucificion, or a martyrdom—is flanked by panels depicting portraits of the altarpiece donors (often husband and wife, male and female). While the central image is frontal, the donors are often shown in profile. And suddenly I had this very clear picture of Three Junes. Here was Fenno's large, rich story at the center, told directly to the reader, with Paul and Fern portrayed in intimate detail to left and right but seen from the side and that's what third person is: a kind of narrative profile view. From then on, Fern's story flowed easily in the third person, mirroring Paul's.
Q: Places figure crucially in the novel—for instance, a Greek island, a Scottish village, Greenwich Village, and a Long Island town. Are these places significant?
A: Certainly, all these places are places to which I've traveled (Paros and Dumfries, for example) or know intimately, as I do the Greenwich Village, my neighborhood for the past ten years. But beyond that, virtually all the locales of Three Junes, even Fern's hometown, which figures only fleetingly, share an ideal quality. They are places popular with tourists or people escaping their everyday life. I made that choice intentionally, though it entailed certain risks, the first, quite simply, that places of such celebrity may upstage characters and events; the second, that they will make the story seem superficial or glib, like the escapist fiction you buy at the airport to distract yourself from the boredom and anxiety of flying. What I wanted, however, was to make place underscore the deep, nearly insatiable longing felt by the three major characters. Almost all these places are, in real life, places where we hope to receive some kind of sublime, intangible gift, be it beauty or peace or romance, and we often (though not always) come away unsatisfied. Greece, for instance—as the characters themselves acknowledge—is a place utterly steeped in the past. We go there as tourists to wander through ruins and marvel at the eerieness of time and mortality; perhaps we want the Oracle to make sense of our human lives. When he goes to Greece, Paul is torn between wanting to remain in his perfectly ordered past and to somehow get free of its grasp. He does receive a gift, but it's not the one he expected. Scotland, as I mentioned before, brings to mind tradition and family loyalty (think of the clans and the tartans), but by the same token it is a place where acts of great barbarity and betrayal took place, where the land has been as tough and unyielding as it is beautiful. That, of course, is the duplicitous landscape of family itself: love and betrayal, war and peace. Paris, of course, represents true, everlasting love, while Amagansett is a place where we imagine people living perfect lives in perfect privacy…. And then there's June, the perfect month: the month of blossoming, of weddings and conceptions, of—since our childhood—being freed from obligations.