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Glass Embraces Life with 'The Whole World Over'

LYNN NEARY, host:

It's not often that a first-time novelist wins the National Book Award, but writer Julia Glass did just that in 2002 with Three Junes. She also built a devoted following of readers who fell in love with her story of intersecting lives and familial connections.

Though the book took place in Greece, Scotland and eastern Long Island, its emotional base was Bank Street in New York City's West Village. Glass returns to this neighborhood in her second novel, The Whole World Over.

Julia Glass joins us now to talk about her new book. Good to have you with us.

Ms. JULIA GLASS (Author, The Whole World Over): Same here, Lynn, nice to be here.

NEARY: What does that neighborhood mean to you? What does the Bank Street area mean to you? Did you live there at one time?

Ms. GLASS: Yes, I lived there for - gosh, 13 or 14 years. And, actually, that block of Bank Street - that stretch of Bank Street that I write so much about was my route from my apartment to the playground where my children played, where I would often drop them off with a babysitter, pick them up in the afternoon.

And so, it's where I experienced a lot of, you know, intimate emotions about my children, but also, daydreaming when I was on my way to and from the playground. And, also, it's a very elegant, almost European part of the city and, you know, on some level, I'd love to live there so, instead, I was able to have my characters live there.

NEARY: Yeah. You started as a story writer. I think I read you said you were never really a short story writer, but you were a story writer and, eventually, wrote Three Junes, moved into novel writing.

I would call your novels - they're kind of traditional in a certain kind of way...

Ms. GLASS: Yes, they are.

NEARY: ...in the sense that they bring characters - a lot of characters are introduced in them - brought together and it sprawls a bit. What is it about that big old-fashioned sprawling novel that appeals to you as a writer?

Ms. GLASS: Well, I do gravitate toward 19th century writers, and I never mind being compared with some of the most memorable writers from that era. I mean, George Eliot is my absolute heroine. But it's more than that.

It's that the way I live my own life is very full and even my surroundings and my house are chock full of things and colors and books and artifacts, and I see life as increasingly complex, vivid, colorful, crazy, chaotic, and that's the world I write about: the world that I live in.

NEARY: Now, this is a book with many stories, but it moves, ultimately, to a day that engulfs not just your characters, but everyone, and that's 9/11.

Ms. GLASS: Yes.

NEARY: First of all, why was it important for you to write about 9/11?

Ms. GLASS: Well, initially, it wasn't. I mean, I have to tell you that I started writing this book in the spring of 2001, and in my mind, I knew that it would take place mostly in New York over the years 2000 and 2001.

And, lo and behold, I was 100 pages into the novel, perhaps, when September 11 arrived and I was living right there in lower Manhattan. And I think, like a lot of fiction writers, I went through a period of several weeks, possibly a couple of months, when I saw no purpose to what I did, and I stopped writing.

And then when gradually I came back to writing, I thought, what am I going to do? And I decided that I would not sidestep it, that I would just write forward the way I do. I'm not an outliner. I would just write forward toward that point in time and that when I got there, I would know what to do, and that's what happened.

NEARY: I'd like you to read, if you could, a section from that part of the book.

Ms. GLASS: Sure.

NEARY: It's on page 439 on Saga, who's a character who has suffered some brain damage as a result of an accident. She's first becoming aware of the fact that something terrible has happened in the city.

Ms. GLASS: (Reading) "She scraped her hand as she unfastened the three locks on Stan's backdoor. But, finally, she yanked it open and stepped out, careful to close it right behind her.

She found herself in a silent storm, not of snow, but of paper, torn, shredded, singed, at times nearly powdered, paper. It brushed her face and hands as it continued to drift to the ground, settling with a festive leisure. How could paper fall from the sky? Saga looked straight up. The sky was perfectly blue. She looked at her feet. At first she was fearful of touching the paper. Silly, she told herself."

NEARY: I wanted to ask you about the character of Saga. She's a really interesting character. She's had a terrible accident, which affected her memory, among other things, but she also has this really fascinating relationship with words and she creates these kind of visual images of words in her mind.

One example, she says patriarch is a brown temple of a word, a shiny red brown like the surface of a chestnut, and she does that with many words. And I know that you were a visual artist as well as a writer, and I wondered if that's where, you know, the artist in you intersects with the writer in those kinds of visualization of words that you create for her.

Ms. GLASS: The way in which she sees words in color was something that I played with because of my visual arts background. In fact, I always tell people, the thing I miss most about not painting anymore is working so directly with color.

Well, lo and behold, I found out after this book was published that there is a condition called synesthesia in which people do see words in color, or they associate words with certain bits of music. So that was remarkable to me.

NEARY: So, I'm wondering, do you think you're going to keep writing about these people and this Bank Street world, or do you expect to branch out in your next novel? Or do you think you can continue with that world - that it's full enough?

Ms. GLASS: Well, I do know - I'm pretty certain what my next two books are. The first one is actually a collection of linked stories that I started many years ago and really want to return to, and that is set partly in New York, but in various other locations, and it's not in this particular cosmos.

But I'm happy to say that I've never felt so much going on in my fictional world. I feel as if I've got a runway with a long line of planes that are eager to take off, and I just have to find the time and the wherewithal to really get back into it.

NEARY: Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. GLASS: Well, thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Julia Glass. Her new book is The Whole World Over.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.