Julia Glass, author of A House Among the Trees, speaks to me wearing sweaty badminton clothes. Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she lives, operates one of the few remaining private badminton clubs—Gut‘n Feathers—in the United States. “If I have a routine, it’s not writing; it’s playing badminton as often as I can,” she says. Her love of the sport mirrors the kind of author she is: precise, maybe a little nerdy, ferocious but genteel, civilized in her competitiveness, ready to parry.
Glass wasn’t weaned on sports, however. Books lined the walls of her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where she worked at her hometown library from fifth grade until her last year in college. “I was a teenager who listened to madrigals and practiced calligraphy while my classmates listened to James Taylor and got stoned in the woods,” she says. “I still haven’t been to a rock concert.” She has however, won the National Book Award in fiction in 2002 for Three Junes, something that surprised her and others; at Yale, she studied painting and worked as an artist for 30 years. “I would not be the writer I am if I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time looking at the world with the aim of rendering it in a visual way.” Her artwork, colorful and energetic, graces the walls of her home and portrays people doing “particularly inscrutable things.” In other words, it is the work of someone who needs to tell stories.
Her newest novel is built on the somewhat accidental relationships between the main characters: Mort Lear, a children’s author; Nick Green, an actor poised to play Lear in a biopic; and Tommy Daulair, Lear’s wary but trusted assistant; and Meredith, curator/patron hoping to inherit some of Lear’s legacy after he dies in a tragi-comic accident.
Glass touches upon themes of celebrity exploitation, professional disappointment, and secrets skirting under the carpet of everyday ordinariness in a juicy vernacular, with sentences as vibrant as her own paintings. But it’s impossible to ignore the parallels of Glass’s book to the narrative of Maurice Sendak’s, the beloved children’s author. In Glass’ novel, a gay children’s author (Lear/Sendak) lives in a small town in Connecticut in a rambling house with his lifelong assistant (Tommy/Lynn Caponera). After Lear (Sendak) dies, Tommy (Caponera) is named literary executor. Some feel she’s not capable of handling the task, including the enraged book museum director, Meredith (the Rosenbach Museum). Lear sketches children playing, including Tommy’s younger brother, Dani, the prototype for his famous character, Ivo (Max, in Where the Wild Things Are). “I read the New York Times article about Sendak’s surprise will after his death and thought, What a curious situation to be in. But I didn’t read anything else about it,” Glass says.
While similarities remain, Glass’ ability to layer other narratives over the obvious one dulls the resemblances to the Sendak drama. The film American Sniper inspired another storyline, about actors playing real people, living or deceased; Navy SEAL Chris Kyle died before Bradley Cooper and he could meet. Nick (Cooper) tries to avoid ghosts of his own as he wrestles with how success and living happily ever after don’t always unite, something Glass wrestles with herself. Meanwhile, Tommy assesses the sacrifices she’s made of her own life to satisfy Lear’s. Personal traumas, long-held secrets, andunanticipated relationships drive these characters, with Lear’s (and Sendak’s) trauma hovering above the rest like a sentient specter, haunting a childhood withboth real and imagined beasts.
Kerri Arsenault is on the National Book Critics Circle Board and has written for various publications including Lithub, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Freeman's, and others. Her book, What Remains, will be published by Picador in 2019.