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Cinderella Story

Jaws dropped when unknown author Julia Glass beat a field crowded with literary luminaries to win the National Book Award for her debut novel, Three Junes. Why haven't we heard from this 46-year-old West Village mom before now? Just call her a late bloomer.

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The Writer's Life: Glass with Dennis Cowley and their two sons, Alec and Oliver.  

"V irginia Woolf was wrong,"Julia Glass says, grinning as she ushers me into her ground-floor Greenwich Village apartment. "You do not need a room of your own to write."

Glass's cheerfully disordered life in this less-than-700-square-foot space -- a closet-size kitchen and two small rooms she shares with photographer Dennis Cowley and their two young sons -- is a reproach to all those New Yorkers who fantasize that they, too, could write the Great American Novel if only they had free time, an Aeron chair, and no distractions.

Here at her kitchen table, between editing corporate brochures and writing magazine articles on pets and parenting, Glass, 46, wrote her first novel, Three Junes, a gorgeously crafted saga set in Scotland, Greece, Manhattan, and the Hamptons. She got a five-figure advance from Pantheon, a respectable 26,500 first printing, and glowing reviews upon publication last spring but drew minimal media notice. "I gave a reading at a bookstore in Marin County and two people turned up," says Glass. "I did separate events with Ann Packer and Richard Russo. I felt like the opening band for a rock star."

So it was a stunning upset in the literary world in late November when Glass won the writer's equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar -- the National Book Award for fiction -- which she jubilantly dedicated in her acceptance speech to "late bloomers." She was selected over such best-selling competition as Packer (The Dive From Clausen's Pier) and Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and such hip lit boys as Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated), Mark Costello (Big If), and Adam Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here). As novelist and awards judge Bob Shacochis puts it, "Three Junes is an anti-hip book, an anti-cool book. It was like choosing a 25-year-old single-malt whiskey."

"Julia is incredibly brave," says Deb Garrison, the Pantheon editor who bought the book and shepherded it through publication. "To be a first novelist in your forties, writing without a book contract and no steady income, to just say, 'This is what I have to be doing.' "

"Writing this book required a large sense of denial," acknowledges Glass, who is chatty, warm, and funny. Wearing colorful green glasses, a red patterned shirt, a long black velvet skirt, and red shoes, this painter turned writer looks the picture of bohemian Village mom as she perches on a hard wooden chair in what truly deserves to be called the "living" room, with its fold-out bed, TV perched on an old wooden bureau, children's toys, and wall of books. "I'd sit at this table and look out the window and think, Why am I doing this? Grown-ups have a bedroom; I have children who will be in college one day; I'm supposed to be doing these editing jobs. I could hear my mother saying, 'Daydreaming again?' "

With wistfulness, humor, and poetic language, Glass has created fictional characters who grapple with love and loss, missed connections, and secrets along with tangled family relationships and friendships. "Julia Glass is an update on those wonderful writers from the nineteenth century that we admire so much, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters," says Shacochis, who pored through almost 300 submissions for the book awards. "I couldn't put it down because it had such emotional power."

"I wanted to write about how we live our lives after heartbreak that's incurable," says Glass, who has mined her own painful experiences for material. "In our lives, heartbreak begins to accumulate. Things happen and you realize, I'm never going to get over this. How do you go on?"

That's the question the fictional Paul McLeod, an elderly patrician Scottish newspaper publisher, is mulling over in the first section of Three Junes. He is taking a tour of Greece in 1989 after the death of his beloved wife, Maureen, an earthy former barmaid who bore him three sons and bred prize-winning collies. The reserved Paul looks back at the fault lines in his marriage and the scarcely discussed undercurrents of family life -- in particular his wife's affair with a neighbor and the realization that his oldest son, Fenno, is gay. On the trip, Paul tentatively, hopefully, begins a flirtation with a young painter, Fern.

The next section of the novel picks up the story of the McLeod family in 1995 as the three sons gather at Paul's funeral and reminisce about their parents and childhood. Told through the voice of Fenno, the story details his life in New York and his intense friendship with a cantankerous music critic dying of aids. The final section, set in 1999, picks up the story of Fern, unmarried and pregnant, and Fenno as they meet in the Hamptons one weekend via a former lover of both of them.

"Free of gimmickry, Three Junes brilliantly rescues, then refurbishes, the traditional plot-driven novel," the New York Times Book Review gushed. And The New Yorker declared, "She writes so well that what might seem like farce is rich, absorbing and full of life." But for Glass, the unofficial review that she awaited most anxiously was from her parents, Kerry and John Glass, since she borrowed many biographical details from them. Her father's family arrived on the Mayflower, and he recently retired as manager of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. Her mother, the daughter of a Wisconsin gentleman dairy farmer, bred foxhounds for many years, rides horses, and is the president of the local historical society. "My mother used to joke that she married my father for his pedigree and his teeth," Glass says over lunch at Tartine. "The character of Maureen is largely based on my mother." Glass has visited her mother's relatives in Scotland, which inspired a locale for the novel. "My mother read the book early on, and I sort of waited to be lambasted," she recalls. "I was very nervous, but my mother is very proud."

Indeed, Kerry Glass cannot curb her enthusiasm in a phone conversation from the family home in the Boston suburb of Lincoln (even though the character of Maureen in the book is portrayed as being more involved with her dogs than with her children). "As an author's mother, what's interesting is to see what they pick up from the fabric of their lives and weave into fiction," she says. She pauses for a moment and jokes, "Have you ever interviewed Stephen King's mother?" She hands the phone to her husband, who praises his daughter's talent and then loudly teases his wife about her fictional alter ego: "I'm still wondering about that affair."

I'm not a believer that you have to write every day," she says. If I felt industrious, I'd spend ten hours a week writing. The writing is going on all the time in my head; the trick is to capture it. Showers are great. Traffic jams are great."

Her parents remember Julia as a bookish girl who won spelling bees, volunteered at the library, and loved to draw and write, an indoor girl as opposed to her outdoorsy, animal-loving kid sister, Carolyn. "I was ridiculed in public school for being smart," she says. "A teacher's pet. I thought there must be some place I could go." Glass persuaded her parents (who, in spite of the Mayflower connection, are not old-money) to send her as a day student to the exclusive Concord Academy, whose alumni include Caroline Kennedy and novelists Susan Minot and Sebastian Junger. Alice Layton Taylor, who met 15-year-old Julia at Concord, recalls her classmate's home: "It was dog central. Above the fireplace, where you'd expect to find a nice old family picture, there was a portrait of a foxhound. They were we-don't-flaunt-it Waspy."

Glass remembers that when she fell in love with the works of D. H. Lawrence in high school, her father disapproved: "My father said, 'That man's books are not to be kept on our shelves because of the way he ridiculed your grandfather.' " Her paternal grandfather, a military attaché based in Mexico, had entertained Lawrence, who then parodied him in The Plumed Serpent. Glass adds, "This was my first introduction to the notion that you could be used, unkindly, by a writer." She is amused when friends complain that they were disappointed not to find themselves in Three Junes: "Who wants to be in somebody's novel?"

At Yale, Glass majored in art, graduating summa cum laude in 1978. She won a fellowship to spend a year painting in Paris (as does the fictional Fern), then moved to Cambridge as an administrative assistant on a Harvard archaeological dig and came to New York in 1980. "I got a huge place in Carroll Gardens," she recounts, "and I eventually got a full-time copy-editing job at Cosmopolitan," where she stayed for two years. "The work didn't take much energy. I was painting and having this pleasantly austere life."

She shows me slides of her paintings, most of which either have been sold or are in storage since they can't fit in her apartment. The paintings are dramatic, colorful scenes, which she describes as "narrative" and "Balthusian." Glass, who has also designed and hooked rugs, exhibited her work at group shows but eventually realized that she wasn't going to make a living as an artist and began to devote more energy to freelance writing and fiction. In 1986, she married a magazine editor, and they divorced after five years.

Part of Three Junes is set in the Village during the aids-plagued late eighties, a world Glass entered by accident. While writing a pets column for 7 Days, she asked a vet about a certificate on his wall from a group that helped aids patients find homes for their pets, and later signed on, too. "The last thing I expected when I volunteered was to develop relationships with these men, but you'd sit down and they wanted to tell you about the side effects of these drugs, how their friends had deserted them and their lovers had died," she says. "I'd be in their living rooms, thinking about the great good fortune of my health. And of course in a little while, I was diagnosed with cancer."

She got the bad news in December 1992, after she took the precautionary move of having a baseline mammogram. Newly divorced and involved with longtime friend Dennis Cowley, she spent Christmas at home discussing the situation with her parents and her sister, Carolyn, and dreading her upcoming surgery. Five years younger, Carolyn was a wildlife vet in Florida, an adventurous woman who performed surgery on panthers and who dealt with bouts of depression by throwing herself into her work. "It was like having Jane Goodall as your sister," says Glass. "She loved the wilderness, to be in swamps. She was a Paul Bunyan girl."

Upon hearing of the cancer, Carolyn played supportive sister, offering to research medical options. So it was totally unexpected when, two weeks later, Carolyn committed suicide. Glass's eyes fill with tears as she describes learning of her sister's carefully planned death, the mixture of rage and guilt at the timing, and the pain of grieving while going through cancer surgery and radiation. "I learned the meaning of never," she says. "I'd never see her again. If I had children, she'd never know them." Clearing out her sister's home -- with its artifacts of tortoise shells, a microscope, sequined party dresses, and Arctic camping equipment -- was pure agony: "How can someone with a life like that throw it away?"

By then, Glass had written what she describes as a "toy novel" but put it away and began to work on short stories and essays, many of them autobiographical. Her friend Alice Layton Taylor says of Carolyn's death, "That's what turned her into a writer. When someone you love dies, they leave you with a puzzle. Writing is a way to work things out." In 1993, Glass won a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren award for a short story, and two years later, with her doctor's cautious blessing, she got pregnant with her oldest son, Alec. ("I would not have had children if I had a hormone-receptive tumor," she explains.) She and Cowley, who specializes in photographing artwork for museums and galleries, have chosen not to marry. "I'm with the leather-jacket guy now," she jokes. "He was drawn to me in this Pygmalion way. He thought he was going to turn me into this motorcycle moll." Cowley's version: "I'm a military brat, and I'm suspicious of all institutions. But I think of us as married as can be."

Glass wrote the first part of Three Junes as a short story in 1984, stuck it in a drawer, then kept revising it into the mid-nineties. Magazines turned it down for publication, but in 1999, the story "Collies" won a Faulkner Society medal for best novella. After she kept whining that agents seemed interested only in a novel, a friend told her to stop complaining and try a longer form, a tough-love speech that shocked her into expanding the story. With baby-sitting help only twenty hours a week and a freelance-writing career that occupies much of that time, Glass says her novel-writing habits are the opposite of what every writer's workshop recommends. "I'm not a believer that you have to write every day," she says. "If I felt industrious, I'd spend ten hours a week writing. The writing is going on all the time in my head. The trick is to capture it. Showers are great. Traffic jams are great." Lucy White, a close friend, says, "The idea that she could put down a tedious piece of corporate writing and pick up Fenno's life in the 45 minutes before her son got home was amazing to me."

Gail Hochman, an agent who represents Scott Turow and Michael Cunningham, recalls receiving a modest cover letter from Glass: "I read her manuscript, and I thought, How did I get so lucky that this came to me? This is the real thing."

December 2000 was a happy time for Glass -- Pantheon bought the book, and she gave birth to her second child -- but her next bout of heartbreak came quickly. She discovered a bump on her old scar, which turned out to be a recurrence of breast cancer, albeit a localized nodule rather than a metastasis. "My doctor says it's a chronic disease for me now," she says, "a concern always." Glass went through chemotherapy; her hair grew back in time for the book tour. "We were all devastated," says Cowley. "Julia's got some kind of resilience that gets her through. The preciousness of life, and how to make more of it, has been her focus."

In the fantasy version of the successful novelist's life, Glass would now be rich and famous, but it hasn't worked out that way yet. Thanks to the National Book Award and a favorable selection by Good Morning America's book club, Pantheon has now printed 150,000 copies. But the book hasn't made it to the best-seller lists, there has been no movie sale, and the author hasn't received her first royalty check. "I haven't given up my day job," says Glass, who is still doing freelance editing for JPMorgan Chase, writing articles for Parenting, and working, yes, on a new novel. Eager for a larger space than their current rent-stabilized home, she and Cowley have looked at a rental in Williamsburg but are mournful that they can't afford to stay in the Village. Her agent, Hochman, expects to get a larger advance for her next novel but says, "I don't know if it'll be large enough so that Julie can buy an apartment and write full-time."

But with a year like this past one, Glass isn't complaining. On a chilly Friday night in late December, she and Cowley gave a party in his one-room photo studio in Chelsea to celebrate her 2-year-old son Oliver's birthday. As the energetic children and their friends eagerly stuffed themselves with cupcakes and the adults congratulated and hugged the exuberant Glass, it was easy to understand the inspiration for her new, 150-pages-in-progress novel about a pastry chef, Greenie Duquette, who lives in the Village with her husband and young son.

"I decided to make Greenie an innately happy character," she says. "I don't know many people like that. Most of my characters are angst-ridden, psychotherapized New Yorkers, people who think too much. She may turn angst-ridden, but she's someone who approaches life with great confidence, unlike me." She then adds, with a smile, "The old adage is, Write what you know. But if you only do that, your work becomes claustrophobic. I say, Write what you want to know."


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