Julia Glass, VIGIL HARBOR: A Novel

Julia Glass, VIGIL HARBOR: A Novel

Zibby interviews National Book Award-winning and bestselling author Julia Glass about her brilliant new novel Vigil Harbor. Julia talks about her unique cast of interconnected characters (some of which reappear from earlier books), the intimidating challenge of working with fantastical and speculative elements for the first time, and the pressing global issues spotlighted in the novel. She also gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the audiobook process and reveals who some of the voice actors are! (Remember Three Junes? It won the National Book Award and Zibby absolutely loved it!)


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julia Glass: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: I have to tell you — I’m sure you don’t remember this. About twenty years ago or something — when did Three Junes come out? What year was that?

Julia: Twenty years ago this past May.

Zibby: See, so I was right. I went to an event in Brooklyn at someone’s house. You were there. There were two or three tables. I sat at your table. I am the biggest fan of Three Junes ever. It was me and all these moms. I did not have kids then. The whole time, everyone was talking about schools and this and that. I was like, I don’t even understand what everyone’s talking about. I just want to talk about the book.

Julia: That must have been at my agent Gail Hochman’s house in Park Slope. I’m thinking that’s when it was. Wow, you have good memory. I sort of remember that dinner. You’re right. If there are moms, what do we talk about? We don’t talk about books. We do, but we got to get the mom stuff out first.

Zibby: Now that I am a mom, I understand. I remember telling my mom. She laughed. She’s like, “Just you wait.”

Julia: I heard your show with Anthony Doerr and how you guys were talking about being parents of twins.

Zibby: You don’t have twins, though, right?

Julia: No, no. I have two boys, five years apart. Not boys anymore.

Zibby: Five years is a good split. Don’t you think?

Julia: It’s how far apart I was from my sister. It’s a little farther than I might have liked, but mother nature will have her way.

Zibby: Yes. I have a six-year gap, so I understand. Anyway, Vigil Harbor. I watched your interview with the Boston Public Library, which was really fascinating. One of the things you said was how it was one character from another book, and this is the continuation, that the character landed in Vigil Harbor. That’s where you started this, the launching-off point. Tell listeners what Vigil Harbor’s about, how you decided to bring that particular loop in to start off, and everything else.

Julia: First of all, every single one of my books starts with a single character who comes to me. It may be from a previous book, whether I like it or not. Actually, in this case, there were two characters. The one you’re referring to is Celestino, who’s a very important character in my novel The Widower’s Tale. In that book, he’s an undocumented Guatemalan lawn worker who aspires to have his own tree business. That novel ends in a town I invented called Vigil Harbor, which is a seaside town in Massachusetts based on the town that I live in, which is called Marblehead. You live in a coastal community, so you know the privileges and the hazards of what it’s like to live by the sea. I kept thinking about Celestino through another couple of books. I wanted to bring him back. I was also kind of visited by this architect. Sometimes when I’m writing a book, I become fascinated by a particular profession. I think, I really want to write about an oncologist. I really want to write about a concert cellist. I’ll delve into that. In my town here, there are a lot of architects. It’s also a town with a lot of historical architecture. I’m surrounded by houses built in the seventeen century, eighteenth century, nineteenth century. I’m fascinated by fantasizing about all the lives that have been lived in these old houses. I think it draws in a lot of architects as well.

I had this idea about an architect who’s in the prime of his profession who builds houses to withstand the increasingly furious coastal storms we have, as Florida is being battered by Ian. Everything has gone well for him, but there’s a secret from his past. When he was a young architect in New York City, he had a very tempestuous affair with a young woman, very artistic, intense young woman who presented herself as a creature from the deep, as it were. I thought, am I really going to go there? Is Julia Glass the hyper-realist writer about families and communities and heartbreak and going to bring something supernatural in? I thought, maybe she claims to be a mermaid or a selkie. I wasn’t even sure. He works in this privileged, beautiful, historic town on the Massachusetts coast. The stranger comes to town, the woman from his past, another woman from his past who he isn’t aware knew of him, who was also in love with this young woman, Issa. The relationship came to a very tragic end. On the one hand, I really wanted this character Celestino, for the reader to see him decades later settled in this seaside town, married with a child and a successful business. He works with that architect. People are thinking, what? This is me. What happens inside my head is that characters constellate. I’m utterly incapable of writing a novel from one point of view.

Zibby: That was a beautiful sentence, by the way. That should be on a T-shirt. Where characters constellate, that’s really cool.

Julia: Make the T-shirt, Zibby. I’ll buy a dozen.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll make it.

Julia: I had these two poles, this architect with this secret that’s going to emerge from his past because this woman who’s sort of bent on vengeance but also wants to find out what became of Issa, this passionate young woman who presented herself as this otherworldly creature — and this man who has this very successful business as an arborist. By the way, I’m obsessed with trees. Drive me down a street, and I’m going to say, what’s that tree? What’s that tree? I just planted a tupelo tree in my yard. I go and watch it like a baby. Maybe it’s my displaced motherhood here now that I’m an empty nester. Anyway, something different happened to me with this novel. I think it’s because I actually became very intimidated by the notion that I was going to try to work in a fantastical element into my novel. I stepped aside from that novel. I wrote another novel, which was A House Among the Trees, my last book. I don’t do that. It felt like I was having an affair, like I left my spouse, like I’d packed my bags and run off to Spain with this other novel. After A House Among the Trees was published in 2017, I went slinking back toward the seventy-five pages gathering dust on my desktop where Celestino and this architect, Austin, and Issa, this woman, and Petra, the stranger who comes to town and outs the secret, there they lurked. As I joke in my author’s note to Vigil Harbor, we went into marriage counseling. I salvaged the marriage because I’m a stubborn person. Ask my husband.

What had happened was, it was 2017, and our world had changed a lot in the three or four years since I had left those characters behind. I’ll just tell you the story that maybe you heard in that interview. I had to go back and do a little googling. This was June 1st of 2017. I was pulling into my garden center to buy a tree, as a matter of fact. NPR was on. Everyone was waiting for our relatively new president to come on the radio. Everyone knew what he was going to say. I thought, no, he’s not going to say that because nobody would say that. I waited in the parking lot and listened. Yes, our president pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord. Personally, I feel that climate change — I’m hardly the only one — is the most urgent of so many challenges facing us. I sat in the parking lot, and I cried. I just thought, do these people have children? Do they have grandchildren? What is going on here? I thought to myself, what is it like at this moment in time to be a climate scientist or a climate change activist and to feel that all the work you’ve done is just roadkill? I thought, what if we reach a time when, in order to be heard, those people resort to violence, to terrorism? Suddenly, I thought, here I’m writing a novel about this coastal community, which is privileged — I borrowed this line for one of my characters. My husband jokes about our town that diversity is represented by brunettes. That’s about true. It’s a, politically, mostly very liberal town, but be that as it may. What if I set this novel a dozen years in the future when all those big issues that keep us up at night, immigration and reproductive rights, but climate change certainly, that the volume has been raised on those issues? Things are more dire. Politics is more polarized. There’s actually, in my novel, a splinter political party called the Endtimers.

I did not want to write a dystopian novel. First of all, dystopia’s above my paygrade. My imagination is not very good on technology, for instance. My joke about this — I was actually emailing the writer Karen Russell, whose imagination is just out where the buses don’t run. I think she’s so brilliant. I said, “Guess what? I’m writing something. It’s set in the future. It’s baby-steps speculative.” What happened is, I now knew the larger world, the more dire world in which my privileged community was this bubble, in which the people believe that, in some ways, they’re insulated from the rising seas. For instance, this town, like my own town, is set up on a granite pedestal. It’s not like towns on Cape Cod and the mid-Atlantic coast where almost daily you can see the coast eroding and houses going underwater, even regardless of hurricanes. I knew when and where this novel was set. Then the characters began to gather. One of the most important characters — this actually surprised me. I write forward into the dark. I do not plot a novel. Sometimes characters that I thought were incidental become very important. One of those characters is the architect Austin’s stepson, whose name is Brecht. He’s essentially the first voice you hear in the novel. He’s in his early twenties. He was in New York City for college. Something very violent happened. He survived a very traumatic event. He came home to Vigil Harbor.

Zibby: That was in Union Square, right?

Julia: Yes. There’s a bombing in Union Square where, when I lived in New York City, I went to the farmer’s market three times a week. Brecht is someone who’s been traumatized. His life is on hold as he tries to figure out where he’s going. He lives in his father’s house with his mother. I’m sorry, his stepfather, Austin. He works for Celestino. He works building walls. He works planting trees. His view of the world in which he lives as a twentysomething was really the greatest leap of imagination for me. There’s also new language. Do you have teenagers yet?

Zibby: I do. I have two fifteen-year-olds.

Julia: They come home and use they adjectives. You’re like, that’s not how that word is used, especially if you’re a wordmonger. You realize, this is the language evolving. I had some fun with Brecht’s new twists of phrase and so on. In addition to Brecht, who becomes, in a way, not the heart of the novel, but seeing the world through his eyes is where I really encountered this near future most directly. Most of the other characters are older. Vigil Harbor has a yacht club that is, for people, very much a social center. If I tell you that my town has five yacht clubs, nobody would believe that a town has five yacht clubs. Zibby, I love visiting book groups. I visit book groups here. The first question is, which club is it? Of course, I say, it’s a composite. Another pair of characters that I really enjoyed writing were — Mike and Margo are these two characters, both in their fifties. They’ve raised their children. They belong to the yacht club. To their mortification and shock, their spouses leave them for each other and run away to a survivalist community in Wisconsin. There’s this whole survivalist movement, as you can imagine. I guess they’re called preppers, but I didn’t use that term. Mike, who’s this very serious marine biologist, and Margo, who’s this spitfire of a retired high school English teacher, are thrown together, not romantically, but by virtue of being cast in this town scandal. Margo has taught Brecht. There are all of these connections among the characters. Mike’s grown son, Egon, who’s an actor in New York City, comes home because there’s another bombing in New York City.

Zibby: You’re making me feel a little uneasy sitting here talking to you in New York City.

Julia: I’m giving your listeners vertigo.

Zibby: No, this is amazing.

Julia: If I tell you that the novel is narrated by eight characters, and seven of those characters are people who live in Vigil Harbor — perhaps they’ve lived there their whole lives or they’ve come there. Then there’s this stranger. There’s also another stranger who comes to town who’s actually another character from a previous novel, but I’m not going to go into that subplot. The events of the novel take place over only a few days, bringing these characters together in an event that is quite a violent event, an event that brings the dangers of the outer world into this bubble of a town and throws everyone together. Also, like all of my books, each character is this deep well of experience. I call myself the flashback queen because by the time you finish one of my novels, you know each of my characters all the way back to their childhood. You know their gene pool. You know their struggles to become who they are in whatever profession they’re in. For readers of mine who were a little terrified at the thought that I’d turned into a sci-fi writer, that isn’t the case at all. I’m still really writing about, how do we endure? I think all the greatest fiction is about how there’s this amazing ying/yang in human nature of fragility and resilience. Also, I’ve said this very often, but one of the things that really interests me in fiction is, how do or what happens when — we know it happens frequently. What happens when people who are fundamentally good-hearted and very smart make incredibly foolish choices in their lives? How do they deal with the consequences of that? How do they deal with the fallout? Can they rise above it? Can they get through it?

Once again, I am writing about a group of characters who are confronted with intimate challenges and losses and also global issues that are affecting their lives every day, whether they like it or not. Like all of my novels, I believe that this book ends hopefully. One bookstore where I did an event said, “Julia Glass’s amazing and devastating new novel.” I thought, thank you for saying it’s amazing, but I don’t think it’s devastating. It’s not the kind of novel that allows you to set aside from your mind, the worries we all share as a nation, as families, as towns. Maybe it allows you to immerse yourself in them in a different way and to see that we will all work our way through these things. This is not a fairy tale. Everybody doesn’t have a happy ending. This is very much my asking myself, how do we get through this? How will we? How could we? My imagination of the world twelve years from now — the year that this takes place in is 2034. By the way, I’ve been asked by a couple of readers if I chose that because it’s fifty years after 1984. No. I am so not a numbers person. I could now claim, oh, yes, of course. It’s echoes of George Orwell. It’s not an Orwellian novel, so no. In fact, there’s another novel that came out last fall that I really was riveted by and admired enormously called 2034 — that’s the title — that imagines that that’s the year in which World War III begins. I thought, if that were actually the case in 2034, my characters would have a lot more to worry about than what they’re worrying about.

Zibby: Wasn’t that Elliot Ackerman’s book?

Julia: Yes, it is.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love him.

Julia: Have you interviewed him?

Zibby: I have interviewed him.

Julia: Oh, my god, he’s incredible.

Zibby: His partner, Lea Carpenter, is an old friend of mine from business school. She was the very first guest on this podcast. That’s when I realized I loved podcasting, was because of Lea. I see Lea and Elliot quite a bit. Although, not lately. Anyway, yes, 2034.

Julia: Also, because I’ve talked about all the points of view in this book, I promise you won’t get confused. I promise I steer you straight through all of these different narrators. I have to have a little mom-brag moment here, Zibby.

Zibby: Always.

Julia: Most of my previous books have been narrated by single audio readers. I can’t listen to an audiobook because my mind wanders. It’s a terrible confession. I have to read. I have so many friends who, that’s how they get books. They listen to them. I have come to realize over the past twenty years that the audiobook is incredibly and increasingly important. Imagine my shock when the producer told me that they were going to cast nine performers for this audiobook. In addition to the eight narrators, there’s kind of an omniscient overview that I use that punctuates these voices that gives you a picture of the long history of this town, Vigil Harbor. I had the pleasure of being able to ask for them to cast a friend of mine who’s an actor named Jeremy Davidson, who does audiobooks as well as stage and screen acting. He reads Mike, the marine biologist who’s, for me, a really beloved character. Some people think he’s the character who’s the most like me. My friends love reading my books and saying, this is you, Julia, even though aspects of me are in all of my characters. My twenty-five-year-old son, who had graduated from college in performance and theater — although, the pandemic sent him in another direction. He is now a farmer. I really heard his voice — he has a beautiful voice — as Egon, who is Mike’s son, the actor who comes back from New York, who only has two chapters.

Zibby: Oh, so it’s actually your son narrating? That’s amazing.

Julia: I say to the producer over the phone, I say, “I know you’re going to roll your eyes, but I have this son.” She just interrupted me and said, “Anyone can send me a tape and try out.” It took him two tapes with her. She gave him notes. My son, Alec, is one of the voices. Did it bring us closer? No. Did it make him go and read all my books? No. I had a funny experience where his college roommate, who came to us for Thanksgiving, asked — I was at the breakfast table with his roommate one morning. My son was still sleeping. He said, “I understand you’re an author.” I said yes. He said all the nice things you’d say. He said, “It’s interesting to me that Alec hasn’t read any of your books.” I said, “Yeah, that’s interesting to me too because he’s a really big reader.” He’s an actor. He’s been in six Shakespeare plays. He said, “He told me why it is.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because he’s terrified that there may be sex scenes. The idea that he might read a sex scene written his mother is just –” I said, “You know what? That’s a very good reason not to read your mother’s books.” Not that my books are very racy.

Zibby: I had originally written some more steamy scenes in my memoir about my own husband and me. I was like, I have to take these out. My kids are going to read this one day. I can’t share that.

Julia: The other thing is, I’ve still got a living mother who reads. That’s the other thing. You don’t want your mother reading your sex scene.

Zibby: That’s true. Although, I have to say, that’s what people want to read. A lot of people want to have a little bit of that in there.

Julia: Not in all cases, but in most cases when I write about intimacy, it’s the rock-and-roll fadeout a little bit.

Zibby: We’re watching — Tembi Locke, her book, From Scratch, was just made into a show on Netflix.

Julia: Oh, wow.

Zibby: I was lucky enough to get the screener because I’m interviewing her. I’m watching with my kids. They’re loving it because it’s in Florence. It’s beautiful, and cooking and whatever. Then all of a sudden, there keep being these scenes. I keep jumping on top of them on the couch. I’m like, no, here comes another one. I just lunge. It’s probably not a good parenting moment. It’s lovely. What we do for our kids. First of all, you are just a genius. Listening to you describe how your mind works and how you craft stories and create characters and interlink them, and plots, and how you take the things that are bothering you and that you want people to examine and then twist it around and put it into a story — really, that’s how people feel enough to make changes in their own life. I feel like if you read a hundred articles about climate change, you can put them off into one analytic piece of your brain. If you hear one story about one family affected, truly, by climate change, it might make more of a difference. Your ability to tie all that in and really affect people and the world, that’s the goal. It’s to get people to reexamine. We’re all making decisions every day, whether we think we are or not.

Julia: That’s true. During the writing of this book, I subscribed to The New York Times climate newsletter. I get those in my inbox. I have to say, sometimes I think, god. I start out the day and go, oh, here it is. I’d read. You know what? You read really hopeful things too. I want to say that especially for parents who have older kids, you wonder, how can they want to go forward and make a family? I have a twenty-six-year-old in a committed relationship. I don’t go there with my kids. Ezra Klein, in The New York Times, wrote this beautiful piece called “Your Kids Are Not Doomed.” I recommend that op-ed piece to any parent, in particular who has older children, and wonders, how do you talk about the future? How do you feel hopeful? There is much to be hopeful about. There really is. I hope that my book is a part of that conversation.

Zibby: I hope you’re right. That’s awesome. My son, I talked to him about some of this the other day. There was a whole group of us. He was like, “We’re all totally screwed for life, basically. There’s no hope for us.” I’m like, “Really? Do you feel that way? I don’t know that that’s –” He’s like, “All my friends, that’s what they all think.”

Julia: That’s what this addresses. Also, when I had those conversations with my older son, sometimes he’s like, “It’s your generation that did this to us.” You know, mine — I’m older than you, Zibby. We were a very, very privileged and fortunate generation of Americans. My generation escaped by a few years, being drafted for the Vietnam War. Personally, I feel that the war that I was witness to, because I was very close to it and I did volunteer work, is the AIDS epidemic in New York City. I was right square in the middle of that, but I wasn’t personally affected by it. He’s right. I cannot argue with him that — the excesses in which my generation, that we perpetrated are very real. Of course, my generation is still around to try to help amend that, and his generation. Not just the resilience, but the ingenuity of human beings is incredible.

I see that our time is drawing to a close. I’ll just tell you one little story here. While I was getting ready for this book to come out and I was in this kind of nervous state, I was looking around my bookcase one day, and I saw this book I’d picked up at a cash register. It’s called The World According to Fred Rogers. In a way, we go back to children. It’s these gems that Mister Rogers said over his lifetime. I opened it up to one. He said, parents sometimes ask me when something catastrophic is happening and their children see that catastrophe, whether it’s on TV, whether it’s a hurricane or a terrorist bombing — I was there with a five-year-old in New York City, 9/11. He said, what you say to the children is, look for the fixers wherever you see catastrophe. Whether it’s the Red Cross, whether it’s FEMA, whether it’s Anthony Fauci on TV, there are always people whose whole heart and whole life is dedicated to fixing, to getting around, getting through, enduring that. I thought, maybe that sounds simple, simplistic, but it’s not. That’s where I want to draw the attention in my book and in my parenting. There are always people working as hard as they possibly can to make things better. I like to think fiction writers are among those people.

Zibby: I think so too. Julia, this was so great. I could listen to you all day. You’re such a masterful storyteller.

Julia: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Just to listen to you is a privilege. Thank you for coming on.

Julia: Thank you. I had a great time.

Zibby: Good. Me too.

Julia: Good luck with the rest of your tour.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Julia: Bye.

Julia Glass, VIGIL HARBOR: A Novel

VIGIL HARBOR: A Novel by Julia Glass

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