In 1999, novelist Julia Glass made a memorable first visit to the Crescent City, attending Words and Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans, to receive the William Faulkner Prize for best novella. She remembers a candlelit party in St. Anthony’s Garden, the way everyone who falls in love with New Orleans remembers something beautiful; a transformative moment here.
That winning novella, “Collies,” grew into Glass’s debut novel, “Three Junes,” which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002. New Orleans has been lucky for her.
“I was thrilled when my publisher said they were sending me South,” Glass said, ahead of a visit tonight to Octavia Books. “I rarely get to do a bookstore event in New Orleans, and this will be special.”
Glass’s career has grown steadily, with big, generous novels that propel the reader into the lives of memorable characters. Her latest, her sixth, “A House Among the Trees,” is no exception. It is the story of a children’s book writer/illustrator who dies suddenly — and how that death ripples into the lives of his circle of friends and acquaintances. It is a rich study of the artistic life and how it is made possible, and the meaning of an artistic legacy.
“Anyone would recognize that the story was inspired by Maurice Sendak,” Glass said, describing how Sendak’s will placed his assistant in charge of his estate and how she was judged by the art world.
Her character Mort Lear has captivated a generation with his children’s books and novels, and now that he is gone, the beautiful house of the title belongs to his assistant and helpmeet, Tommy Daulair (who takes her name from Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, known for their books of Greek and Norse mythology).
“That name was a little Easter egg just for me,” Glass said. “I was completely besotted by the D’Aulaires when I was a kid. I think I could have won the Mount Olympus category on 'Jeopardy!' ”
When Mort dies suddenly, Tommy must reckon with his estate and the surprising conditions attached to it, as well as Mort’s secrets. And many people are interested in Mort’s life and work. Curator Meredith Galarza has been wooing him to leave his works at her museum; actor Nicholas Greene has been corresponding with the artist and is visiting the house to soak up the atmosphere for a bio-pic.
We get an inside look at the world of children’s books, drawn from Glass’s early experiences working at a children’s publishing house. Glass cites her mentor there advising her, “People think children’s book authors are all sunshine and roses and these lovely people, but some of them are the most neurotic, difficult, narcissistic and egomaniacal people you’ll ever meet. Not across the board, of course, but some.”
Still, the reader would have loved to have known Mort Lear, difficult a character as he was. And Glass creates his imaginary books and characters — and the models for them — as well. “One of the great joys of this book was revisiting my passion for children’s books. I love my children as 16- and 21-year-olds, but I’ll never forget my joy at introducing them to so many children’s books — and discovering children’s books with them, too.”
“Oliver!” she calls out to one of those sons at the sound of barking in the background. “You’ve got to do something with the dogs. They can’t do the interview." Back on the phone, she continues, "I have these Corgis who are so opinionated, But they’re really nice dogs. “ And that’s just what you’d expect from the author of “Three Junes,” in which dogs figure so prominently.
In this novel, Glass is grappling with, among other things, the loneliness of success.
“Once you reach the pinnacle, there is a kind of fragility, a sense of insecurity and jealousy. Once you reach the top, there’s nowhere to go but down … It’s hard not to worry that you’re going from being a star to a has-been. All around you, people are rising.”
Glass is still rising, that’s for sure. “A House Among the Trees" shows her at her tender, compassionate, thoughtful, best, thinking about art, about life, and the way they intertwine so beautifully to make us, finally, fully human.
Julia Glass signs “A House Among the Trees” and "And the Dark Sacred Night"
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 25
Where: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St.