Julia Glass’ immersive novel, “A House Among the Trees,” is a departure for the National Book Award winner in that it was born from real life. Unlike her previous books, including 2002’s lauded “Three Junes,” her latest grew from the life of the children’s author Maurice Sendak.
In “A House Among the Trees,” a character who bears a resemblance to Sendak, named Mort Lear, leaves chaos in the wake of his untimely death. In the course of the novel, readers are invited into Lear’s inner circle, which includes a longtime caretaker, a museum curator eager to house the author’s memorabilia, an actor cast to portray the author, and a petulant lover who succumbs to AIDS.
Glass, who spent most of her childhood summers on “a beautiful dairy farm in Pewaukee” where her mother was raised, spoke by phone from her home in Marblehead, Mass., in advance of her appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Q: What inspired “A House Among the Trees”?
A: Unlike all my other books, it did not grow out of a character that gestated inside my head. It actually was inspired by a couple of external things. One was an article I read about the last will and testament of the writer Maurice Sendak, whose final wishes were quite different from what people had expected. He left a number of people not just surprised but unhappy. What interested me about that story was not really Sendak himself, or even the terms of his will, but the fact that he had left a longtime, loyal, live-in companion in charge of carrying out his wishes. The distrust and scorn for this woman and her ability to carry out his wishes struck me as a fascinating situation to be in. I began to think about what would it be like to be someone who had devoted your life to the care and feeding and reputation of a creative genius.
The other inspiration is related to my older son’s devotion to the theater. We go to the movies and talk intently about performances and storytelling through the movies. I became obsessed with the best actor race a couple of seasons ago, when virtually all the top performances were in biopics. I had the idea that at the end of this children’s author’s life, there was a movie in development about his life when he was a younger artist, and the actor who had been cast to play him had been corresponding with him. The novel begins when the longtime caretaker, who’s been left with the responsibility of carrying out this author’s final wishes, has to meet the actor who is cast to play the author. That encounter is the spark of the story.
And of course, because it’s a Julia Glass novel, there are secrets revealed.
What was your familiarity with children’s literature before writing this book?
My familiarity with children’s literature comes simply through my love of books of all kinds. One of the things I most looked forward to about becoming a parent was reading to my children. If my house collapses one day, it’s going to be under the weight of all the children’s books I can’t throw away. I actually have in this book the entire text of the picture book that launches this writer to fame, which would be parallel to “Where the Wild Things Are” by Sendak. It’s called “Colorquake.” Many people who’ve read the book have said, “Why don’t you just get an illustrator and publish this book?” My agent represents some very prominent children’s book authors and she hasn’t said a word about me writing a children’s book.
In “Three Junes,” you wrote about AIDS, and this novel, too, has a character suffering from AIDS. Why have you gone back to that?
Even I have wondered why it is that I return often to characters whose lives have been greatly influenced, if not radically changed, by the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s in this country. I lived in the West Village during some of the worst of those years, when the disease was visible on the street. You could see men walking down the street who were gaunt or covered with lesions and you just knew. I did volunteer work helping people with AIDS take care of their pets so they didn’t have to give them up. Most of the clients I worked with died within a few months of my meeting them.
I had a revelation recently. My mother, who grew up in Pewaukee, is in her mid-80s, and she often reminisces about what it was like to live through World War II. Her older siblings had classmates who died in the war, and she remembers very vividly where she was when she heard about Pearl Harbor and knew that her older brothers would have to serve. She talks about being a child waking up in the middle of the night terrified at the thought that either the Germans or the Japanese would invade Wisconsin.
The thing that I realized is that the plague years in New York City are my war. I was not a soldier. You could say I was a witness. I think that as for my mother and members of her generation, that when you live through a war, even if you’re not on the battlefield, it becomes part of the fabric of your lifelong perspective on everything. I think that’s part of the reason that I return to it, sometimes marginally, again and again in my novels. It’s the war that I witnessed.
The psychological effect of living through a time when too many people are dying too young will always find its way into my work.
What are you working on now?
There is another book that is gestating slowly. I actually just wrote a play. I stepped aside for a couple of months from fiction writing, but now I have to return to the novel. I don’t know what will become of the play, but it was a very interesting experience, and it’s something that I’ve always wondered if I could do.
What are you reading in the meantime?
I have a big stack of plays on my bedside table. I’ve also read some very good novels this year. I’m reading this beautiful novel by Barbara Trapido called “Brother of the More Famous Jack.” I just finished a beautiful novel by Francine Prose called “Mister Monkey,” which came out this year. I also loved Richard Russo’s latest collection of stories called “Trajectory,” and another novel that came out earlier this year called “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti. I’ve read some wonderful fiction this year.