An Interview with Alice McDermott

An interview with novelist Alice McDermott (b. 1953) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2011.

In Alice McDermott’s novels, the past has a firm grip on the present -- a grip of nostalgia and of sorrow. Her characters, usually from Brooklyn or Long Island, usually Catholic and Irish, navigate their ordinary lives with a map of stories from their pasts – of lost loves, family traditions and broken promises.

“I’m very conscious of trying to make something epic out of something small and ordinary,” Alice McDermott once told an interviewer.

McDermott, who has won both the National Book Award and the Whiting Writers’ Award for authors early in their career, was born in Brooklyn, but lived most of her childhood in Long Island. At the State University of New York, she took writing courses so she could “coast,” she has admitted. After college, her parents suggested secretarial school. Instead, she worked for a year for Vantage Press, which became the vanity press featured in her first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter.

Anne Tyler, the famously reticent Baltimore author who for a brief period reviewed books for the New York Times, raved about McDermott’s 1982 debut: “A fascinatingly prismatic story.”

McDermott went on to get a master’s in writing, and pen five more novels, including her best-selling Charming Billy, which the New York Times called “a luminous and affecting novel.” Charming Billy, up against Thomas Wolfe’s hefty A Man in Full, a front-runner for the National Book Award, won the prize by surprise. McDermott’s novel “cared nothing for horsepower, only for stealth,” said the chairman of the judges’ panel.

McDermott’s catalog also includes At Weddings and Wakes, After This, Child of My Heart, That Night and Someone. Many of McDermott’s novels flash back and forth through time, with cinematic scenes loaded with details about clothes and gestures and family gatherings. A central event – a fight on a suburban front lawn, a young girl’s pivotal summer, a lie covering a heartbreak – resonates through the characters’ relationships and shapes their lives.

McDermott works as the Richard A. Macksey Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and writes in her Bethesda home.


Susan Thornton Hobby: Your parents moved you as an infant from Brooklyn to Long Island. And the Long Island of the mid-20th century seems to crop up frequently in your books. What does that setting it mean to you?

Alice McDermott: It’s where I grew up, but I can’t say it holds much meaning for me other than that. It’s not a place of particular charm, or one filled with particularly charming eccentrics just ripe for literary plucking – it’s not the South, after all. It’s rows of houses with backyard and front yards. It’s where people who worked in the city went to raise their kids.

STH: And what does that setting mean to your characters?

AM: Of course, the role of place in fiction is very different from what it is in real life. The role of these communities in my work differs somewhat from book to book but perhaps, most consistently, acts as a reminder of the characters’ modest, and yet deeply compelling, hopes: a settled, happy life, a safe place to raise children, a shelter from life’s blows.

I also find the geography of L.I. appealing as a device because its span in some ways illustrates the immigrant experience in America – from city to suburb to sprawling mansion by the sea. It’s a geography that fits itself nicely into stories about yearning . . . Gatsby’s outstretched arms.

STH: In each of your books, there is a loss at its heart – of innocence, of idyll, of a romantic dream. What sends you back to that theme?

AM: I guess it has to do with my attempt to say something about what endures. Loss is inevitable – you have to be blind or naïve to think otherwise. What interests me is whatever it is that allows the heart to continue to yearn for something the intelligence knows is impossible to have: a lost love, a shelter from life’s blows, the return of a time past, even a connection to the dead.

I’m interested in characters who should know better, who know they should give up, move on, accept life as it is, with all its constraints – life, death, time -- but don’t.

STH: Is there the possibility of redemption or passion or hope in the face of those losses?

AM: Passion, certainly – and the belief that what we yearn for so passionately cannot be lost to us, which is hope. Redemption – not a lily-livered settling for some faint equivalent of what was hoped for, but the full achievement of the impossible thing that is so passionately desired – is the question, isn’t it?

STH: Obviously a novelist believes in the idea of the power of story in people’s lives, but your books seem to have it at their center’s, such as charming Billy’s Eva and May’s tragic death in At Weddings and Wakes, even Elizabeth’s
bigamist father. Could you talk about that idea?

AM: No doubt it has to do with the redeeming power of story. Among the annoying constraints that life puts on us, the passage of time – and the things that are inevitably lost in that passage – is the one story can most easily address. Tell the story again and it’s as if no time has passed at all, as if he/she is still with us, as if we’re reliving it . . . Nabokov has a wonderful line about how the writer uses detail to “step on time’s receding tail.”

STH: Your novels’ families sound like real families, even if our families aren’t Irish Catholic or even American, like yours. How do you capture the web of relationships in an extended family?

AM: Only through each individual character alone, I suppose. I think if I were to set out to try to say something about all Families, or all Relationships, or even The Irish Catholic Experience, I’d end up merely illustrating the obvious, confirming the accepted wisdom, or simply putting some flesh on the cliché. I’d rather work at bringing full life to a character who is a unique individual (as we all are), and leave the Big Ideas about Family Life and Character Types and the Ethnic Experience to the newsmagazines.

STH: In That Night, the narrator tells readers, “Even children know you cannot separate the tale from the teller.” You seem to remember what it’s like to be a child so vividly. Why choose a child narrator?

AM: Strictly speaking, I’ve never used a child narrator. I’ve used adult narrators who recall childhood – a very different thing, to my mind – and I suppose it’s those narrators who recall their childhoods so vividly, or at least certain incidents from within it. The intention of those narrators, it seems to me, has much to do with that “stepping on time’s receding tail” (tale?) notion. And with redemption.

Daisy in Child of My Heart is restored to the paradise of those few days with her cousin through the telling of the tale, and Theresa, the adult, redeems the loss of those days, of Daisy herself, through the story she tells – a story informed by the adult’s understanding of those days, and all that followed them.

STH: Women do lots of the heavy lifting in the world, and in your books. Could you talk about that?

AM: After I got the National Book Award, a famous novelist told me it wasn’t because Charming Billy was necessarily my best novel, but because it was about men. He may have had a point, but, hey, it’s not my problem. Characters, and their stories, make their own demands and that’s where my focus is.

I regret that writers who are women, and books with women characters, are still, still (!) relegated to a lesser subgroup by critics and readers and publishers. I especially regret it when I see so many talented young female writers in my classes writing more and more from a male point of view for fear of writing “chick lit.” It’s a good subject for discussion, even for outrage – don’t even get me started on how many female characters in fiction are only interesting when raped and/or murdered . . . But it’s not something I can take into consideration in any way when doing my own work.

STH: Your novels, excepting Child of My Heart, are discontinuous narrations. The story darts back and forth in time, yanking the rug out from under the readers. Why do you choose that structure?

AM: Again, story dictates. Character dictates. I love the puzzle of discovering the right structure for a story – it’s as close as a novelist gets to the playwright’s craft – but I’m not sure I ever simply choose a structure.

STH: I sense, in your careful prose, the attempt to get at possibility of truth
by not telling it. The New York Times called your style “corseted.” The power is
in containment, in what isn’t said, is that right?

AM: Our language is limited. It can’t always contain the depth and complexity of our experience, our emotions, the things we yearn for. And more often than not, our attempt to put these things into words results in a diminishment of the intensity of our feelings or beliefs or hopes. In her wonderful story “The Blank Page,” Isak Dinesen says that where the storyteller is true to the story, the silence at the end of the story will speak.

STH: In your writing’s repetition, the circling, the sound of your language, I hear the Latin Mass, yes?

AM: No doubt. I sometimes reassure my students who fear that their fiction will appear to be autobiographical, that all writing is autobiographical since all of us learn our first language through experience. My “experience” of learning English was very much shaped by the language of the Mass, the gospels, and of Catholic prayer – which was my first poetry.

STH: Your work has been compared to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, James Joyce – pretty good company. What literary influences do you count?

AM: I hope it’s an ever-expanding list, but for early influence there is, of course, the English major triumvirate of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. With a good dose of Henry James. But Nabokov and Virginia Woolf keep me at this game.

STH: After winning the National Book Award, how do you keep writing without worrying about topping that achievement?

AM: You don’t have to be terribly astute to understand how arbitrary such awards are. While the experience of getting one is delightful, it’s not so much an achievement as a confluence of favorable circumstances, all of which are beyond your control. I have enough to worry about regarding the things that are in my control (ie, my sentences).

The attention such awards can bring to books is wonderful, I know, but my sympathies are always with the good books that remain in what Updike referred to – on the evening I got mine -- as “the outer darkness of the un-nominated.” I won’t deny that this has something to do with my having been a Pulitzer finalist three times now . . . never a bride.

STH: As a teacher of creative writing, what do you see your students writing? And does teaching impede or expand your writing?

AM: The range of student writing I see undermines the whole notion of a “workshop” story as far as I’m concerned. There is the trend I mentioned above, young woman writers feeling obliged to write in the voices of men in order to be considered literary, but even that trend does not take anything away from the scope and the ambition of the work I see.

There is nothing more encouraging to me than to see intelligent, hard-working, multi-talented young writers struggling not to write best-sellers or movie blockbusters, but to add to the great trove of literature their own vision of what it is to be human. Teaching neither impedes or expands my writing as far as I’m concerned. It’s one of the perks of this profession.

STH: I’ve heard you are superstitious and don’t like to talk about your upcoming work, but when might we see another novel?

AM: Not so much superstitious as in a constant state of revising and rewriting. Whatever I might tell you today might not be true tomorrow.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2011. All rights reserved.