The Widower's Tale: Q&A with Julia Glass
Surviving Breast Cancer
Like Sarah in the novel, you are a breast cancer survivor. Some of those scenes in the oncology clinic run by Percy's high-profile daughter, Trudy, are almost painfully real. How did Sarah's experience in the novel reflect your own?
As a cancer patient, I've been "luckier" than Sarah, at least so far. Though I was almost 20 years younger than Sarah when I was diagnosed, my cancer was caught early; and though I went through a frightening recurrence some years later, I am now 10 years out of my last cancer treatments and feeling pretty healthy for my age. Sarah's cancer is caught late, so her prognosis is uncertain -- and it's a different type of breast cancer from mine. But cancer patients, regardless of their various pathologies and treatments, share so many aspects of the experience, particularly the private emotions, the change in relationships to loved ones, and the establishment of new relationships with medical caregivers. Chemotherapy can be a long, tough haul -- for me, it went on for six months -- and the best doctors and nurses become, if only for that period of time, as essential in your life as friends or spouses. As a cancer patient, I've also spent a lot of time just waiting -- in reception areas, exam rooms, phlebotomy labs, chemo suites: sterile, austere, often windowless spaces. I am constantly amazed at how willingly doctors and their colleagues spend most of their lives in such surroundings. I have to believe that takes an unusual degree of dedication. A lot of what I've observed and felt in these places went into what Percy observes and feels when he visits Trudy at her office and, later, accompanies Sarah for her treatments.
I thought Robert and Arturo's activism was bitingly funny, though I also felt shock and discomfort at what they were doing. What inspired the theme of eco-terrorism and the tension it created between the two of them? What questions did you want the reader to consider about their relationship?
When I started writing about Percy, I was thinking about what happens between the time we're young and hungry for change and the day we realize that we wish the world would just stand still, that what we once saw as progress now looks like a threat. (I think that's often what happens when we realize we're closer to the end than to the beginning of life. We want to yell, Stop the conveyor belt!) I decided I wanted to have a young character who would be the counterweight to Percy's attitude -- and I wanted him to be someone with whom Percy would have a loving relationship, about whom Percy has ambitions and dreams of his own. Ergo, the favorite grandson. At about this time, the New York Times gave a lot of coverage to young idealists making radical changes in their lifestyles to try to reduce their impact on the environment (e.g., freeganism, foraging, college housing with group showering), and while I could read these articles and laugh at such eccentricities, it's hard not to admire the discipline they show -- and the message they send. I'm not sure when I decided that eco-activism -- not terrorism, by the way, which aims at taking lives -- would figure in the book, but my visits to the Harvard campus gave me glimpses of a generation that justifiably fears what its future will look like if it doesn't act extremely and urgently. Confrontation, even provocation, is an essential ingredient of changing the status quo. Robert's conversion to Arturo's militant standpoint may be naive, but it's also noble. The reader may wish he'd been less impetuous, but what would it say about Robert if he couldn't respect his best friend's passions? And if Arturo betrays Robert, it's not by placing him in danger; it's by deceiving him about much simpler matters.
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