The Writer as Witness
Novelist Julia Glass Talks to Mark Olmsted About AIDS, Loss & the Consolation of Words

Photo © Dennis Cowley

Julia Glass rose to literary prominence in 2002, when she received the National Book Award for her debut novel, Three Junes. Those lucky enough to have read it will never forget the indelible Fenno McLeod, the Scottish bookstore owner in New York’s West Village, and the deep friendship he forges with the dashing and dramatic music critic Malachy Burns, who gradually succumbs to AIDS. (The book takes place as the eighties turn to the nineties). Ms. Glass revisited the characters in 2014 in And the Dark Sacred Night, paying particular attention to the emotional trajectory of Malachy’s mother, Lucinda Burns, after the death of her son. Several of her books—I See You Everywhere, The Widower’s Tale, and her most recent, A House Among the Trees—similarly explore themes of grief and survivorship.

Mark Olmsted: Shall we start by reassuring everyone that—despite the intro—reading a Julia Glass novel is anything but a downer? There’s actually a lot of humor in your books, which are full of witty characters. Are you considered “the funny one” among your family and friends?
Julia Glass: At home, when I was young, my father was the funny one. He had a wry, sophisticated wit—and a love of verbal gymnastics. He would instruct me and my sister on widening our vocabulary in amusing ways: say, by deploying more creative insults. (My favorite was “geophagic troglodyte”—dirt-eating cave dweller—which worked well for me decades later in thwarting the anonymous fiend who stole my Sunday paper several weeks running.) So when I grew into my own funnyness, it surprised me—and it surprises others. I’m used to hearing new friends remark, “You know what? You are really funny.” I must seem very grave on first acquaintance! And maybe that describes my novels. I write about weighty stuff: heartbreak, mortality, betrayal. Yet I aim to tell stories that will make readers laugh as often as they cry. As often as I inflict loss and sorrow on my characters, I bestow consolations. And I always end on a hopeful note. I also know, too well, the importance of being able to laugh in the face of death. I’ve lost young friends not just to AIDS but to other rogue diseases and to drugs; I’ve been treated for breast cancer twice; and my brilliant, beloved sister killed herself at the threshold of a promising career.

You manage to get into the skin of your gay characters as well as any writer I know. Can you speak a bit about the role gay men have played in your life? Was there a particular friend on whom you modeled either Fenno or Malachy—or any of your other gay characters?
In hindsight, a lot of my friends since childhood have been, or became, gay men. Starting in grade school, I hung around with “creative” classmates, and a number of the boys I considered confidants would come out many years later. (Fifteen years ago, I reconnected with my first true best friend, a boy I lost touch with at age nine, when my family moved. I learned he had come out after college. In our sixties now, we’re close again, and we crack up at memories of listening to Broadway musicals on his parents’ record player in 1963. Yes, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl!) In my twenties, I had romantic relationships with three men who had yet to come out. Though I’m straight as can be—hey, I love men too!—there is some deep, lifelong affinity I can’t explain. Perhaps it has something to do with being shaped by a particular kind of vulnerability? Recently, on a questionnaire, I was asked to choose my gender from a dozen options. I saw one I’d never seen before: “two spirit.” I found out that it’s a term unique to Native Americans, but you know what? That’s just how I feel: of two spirits, straight woman/gay man. I’m grateful that my very hetero husband isn’t threatened. He’s a fan of the Alien movies, and we’ve joked that perhaps one day a fully formed gay guy—picture Rupert Everett—will pop out of my chest.

As for my characters, I regard most of them as fully invented—though I borrow habits, tastes, tics, and family lore from people I know. And there’s always one who’s a skewed version of me. Fenno began as a reflection of tendencies I’ve had toward reticence and fear, toward “standing back.” I suspect that, unconsciously, I started writing Three Junes as a cautionary tale for myself at a time of crisis and uncertainty. I was living in the West Village in the early nineties then. Both my first cancer diagnosis and my sister’s death occurred in December 1992. Since the late eighties, I had been doing volunteer work helping people who were weakened by HIV to care for their pets. So many of those people died within months of my meeting them. Malachy’s entrance—involving the necessary surrender of his parrot—was inspired by that work. In my new novel, Mort Lear contains flashes of my father, who died while I was in the middle of writing that book. Mort’s younger lover, Soren, is more of a “type”—the vain but charming artist whose good looks are a curse as much as a blessing.

We get to know Lucinda Burns first as a mother caring for her dying son, and then, decades later, as a mother who has learned to live with a kind of grief that never really lifts. I wonder if you might elaborate on how you inhabited her so skillfully? Was it emotionally difficult to write her given your own vantage point as a mother?
How we endure, even lead full lives, after suffering inconsolable loss is a recurring subject in my novels—which also tend to be populated with a wide variety of mothers. I think that would be so even if I weren’t a mother. Mothers are one thing that all human beings have in common—and whether we know them for a day or decades, they play a big role in who we become. Keep company with one of my characters and you’ll wade into his gene pool. In Three Junes, Lucinda, Mal’s all-important mother, was the character I had the hardest time creating: a devout Catholic and deeply loving mother agonized by her son’s refusal to embrace that faith as he’s dying of AIDS. Yet once I “had” her, I fell in love, and she haunted me through the writing of three other novels. Finally, I let her back in. Here she was, years later, caring for her husband after a stroke. That experience takes her back to caring for her dying son. I could now imagine the trajectory of Lucinda’s life back to her wartime childhood. Other losses she’s suffered emerge. But her worst loss was of Mal, secretly her favorite child, and she struggles with how her heartbreak and her guilt sabotage her love for her surviving children: a son (also gay) who’s found a life partner, a daughter with a rich if more conventional life. An unexpected family connection reunites Lucinda with Fenno McLeod, who has also found a partner (the colorful Walter Kinderman, possibly my own favorite “child”—but don’t tell the others).

Are there any observations you might want to make about the “other” long-term survivors, the friends and family of those who have loved (and sometimes lost) the HIV-positive?
I lived in New York from 1980 till 2004. How well I remember listening to a gay friend read aloud to me, in 1981, that very first, buried article in the New York Times; then and there, he predicted the looming epidemic. (A dozen years later, he would kill himself despite escaping the virus.) I still marvel at how few essential friends I lost to AIDS itself—two close coworkers, a college classmate, many acquaintances and neighbors, but my nearest and dearest were spared. Only later, after the emergence of the protease inhibitors, did I find out that a few of my apparently healthy friends were HIV-positive but had kept it a secret. In one case, a longtime friend confided his status to me only when he learned about my cancer diagnosis—as only then could I be empathic. I felt both concerned and hurt. So many conflicting emotions surrounded the risks and stigma of HIV. Trust did not come cheap. Over the last twenty years, discussion of the plague years has diminished, as has the sacred mourning of those who died, yet now, whenever someone in my age-group dies of “something else,” a sense of injustice rears its head among those who did lose numerous loved ones to AIDS. How quickly we recall, from our twenties and thirties, the too-many funerals, obituaries, sundered careers—even children losing parents—and rage at the realization that having endured all those untimely deaths does not spare us from enduring what will now be the tightening circle of “timely” deaths. There is no lifetime quota of loss. And some friends tell me that watching elderly parents crumble and fail only reminds them what it was like to watch someone far younger die such a ghastly, prolonged death—how irrelevant nobility and grace are under such circumstances; how much anger, fear, and guilt are involved. The scars can be reopened on a dime.

All your books include characters whose lives are in some way, directly or indirectly, influenced by the effects of HIV/AIDS on our moment in history. In A House Among the Trees, there is even a character dying of AIDS at a time when the protease inhibitors were coming into wide use, saving so many lives. Why is that?
Well, first of all, as Michael Friedman’s recent death proves, AIDS is still a potentially fatal disease. The retrovirals have kept many people alive, and thriving, for decades—but they never did and still do not work for everyone; or they become ineffective. There is a dangerous wave of denial out there, too. I do not, however, write about the ripple effects of HIV for political reasons. Recently, while listening to my eighty-four-year-old mother reminisce (yet again!) about her childhood memories of World War II—the literal toll it took among her older siblings’ peers, the deprivations of rationing, the fear that German or Japanese armies would invade–something struck me. I, too, lived through a war: the plague years. In fact, I lived on one of its worst battlefields. I wasn’t a soldier, but I was a witness. A war is not just the sum of deaths it causes; it changes everything from political agendas to the arts. It leads to activism and resistance, to suspicion and secrecy, to acts both fearless and fearful. And those who live through any war are haunted forever. Is it tiresome to revisit that war, again and again? Sometimes. But to set it aside, to leave it out of our stories, is worse.

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As a long-term blogger for several prominent websites, Mark Olmsted writes extensively about the intersections of the personal and political, whether the subject is HIV, the criminal justice system, or creativity as the ultimate expression of personal spirituality. He recently published a memoir about his experience in prison, Ink from the Pen. Visit his website at: