Growing up with two older brothers, Alice McDermott began to write, in part, to solve the problem of getting a word in edgewise at the dinner table. “If I wrote, I could not only complete a sentence, I could make up brothers who were in awe of the brilliance of their younger sister,” she said in a 2007 interview. McDermott would go on to publish eight novels, including That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This, all three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her fiction explores the joys and struggles of Irish Americans in postwar, suburban Long Island and New York City.
In March, the Scholar’s online book club, [Spoiler Alert], read Charming Billy, McDermott’s National Book Award–winning novel about Billy Lynch, an alcoholic whose death leaves his family and friends to grapple with his legacy—and the mystery of the “Irish girl” who broke his heart that first summer after World War II. Assistant editor and [Spoiler Alert] moderator Katie Daniels exchanged emails with McDermott about the writing process, how to decide which character should tell a story, and why sometimes it’s okay not to write. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Katie Daniels: You grew up in and around Long Island and New York City, and many of your novels are set there. What drew you to writing about these places?
Alice McDermott: My familiarity with them is the obvious answer. But then again, I have a terrible sense of direction, and of geography, so a more honest answer is that these are places I know something about, but not too much—thus I feel free to make them my own. I borrow from actual places, but of course, these are not really actual places, they are places created to serve the fiction. In Charming Billy, for instance, I was drawn to the metaphorical implications of the geography of New York City and its suburbs, how the place itself parallels human aspiration: the port city as the goal, the aspiration, of immigrants; the near-in suburbs as the aspiration of a postwar generation looking to raise its children and keep them safe; the far reaches of the east end of Long Island as the embodiment of the hope for transcendence: success, wealth, love.
KD: What’s your writing process like? Has it changed at all, eight novels later?
AM: I pretend writing fiction is a real job. I try to be at my desk in the morning, to write through the day, take weekends off if I can. This hasn’t much changed over the years. Only the distractions and interruptions change.
KD: What’s the hardest part of a story for you to write?
AM: I guess I don’t think of writing a novel as a process that occurs in parts—it’s all difficult. And some of it, intermittently, is fun. Figuring out structure is fun: it’s like putting puzzle pieces together. Stumbling upon something that you recognize as true is a kind of pleasure.
KD: When you were starting out, you set yourself one goal for your fiction: It would have “to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe,” to borrow from Joseph Conrad. Has your understanding of that goal changed over the years?
AM: Only in that I’ve come to recognize more thoroughly how difficult and rewarding Conrad’s challenge is. In the pursuit of it, marvelous things can happen: plot and character can arise out of language itself, for instance. And in the effort to do justice to the visible world, the unseen is sometimes revealed. Or reveals itself. Again, it’s about the discovery of what you didn’t know you knew, but recognize when you see it.
KD: One of my favorite parts about your novels is the almost effortless detail—you’ve got this incredible ability to evoke time and place. Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of writers who do that, or did you look to certain writers for inspiration when you first began to write?
AM: Well, if one is attempting to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe, precise details will be required! But, yes, I still look to certain writers for inspiration—or perhaps I should say I look to them for the courage to go on: Nabokov and Woolf come to mind, writers who can make us see again, with sudden illumination, what’s always been before our eyes.
KD: Charming Billy opens at Billy’s funeral. There are a few flashbacks from Billy’s point of view, but we come to know Billy primarily through other characters’ descriptions of him and their memories of his life. This sort of oblique narration ends up revealing as much about the narrators as it does about Billy. Did you ever think about writing the book entirely from Billy’s point of view and, more generally, how do you decide who tells the story?
AM: I knew intuitively that Billy couldn’t tell his own story—he would romanticize and evade, grow sentimental. I came to understand pretty quickly, too, that the book wasn’t about Billy’s version of himself, but rather the stories of his life that were told by the people who loved him, who made his life possible—his life as an alcoholic as well as his life as the romantic hero of his own tragedy. It was their stories that interested me.
KD: You’ve talked about the writer being just one part of a story’s creation, a trinity that also includes the reader and the story’s narrator. You’ve also likened a writer to an “instrument.” Given how personal the creative process is, do you ever struggle to find the balance between maintaining control over your creation and relinquishing it to the writing process and your readers? If so, how do you reconcile that?
AM: This is a very interesting question that probably requires more self-analysis than I can muster. I don’t know that I feel protective of my creation—I mean, if I wanted to keep it to myself, I certainly could. Or I could simply not write it in the first place. (I was in graduate school, home for the summer, working on a story in my bedroom. I went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and my mother saw me looking miserable. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I told her I was writing a story, and it was just so difficult … She said, sympathetically, “Well, don’t do it.” Lesson learned: Don’t do it is always an option.)
I also believe that giving up control to the writing process, to character and situation and language, is a marvelous experience. As for giving up control to an audience, well, any qualms I might have about that need to be measured against my gratitude that I have an audience at all.
KD: I’ll admit that this is likely a necessary hazard of book clubs (and something I’m probably guilty of myself), but I loved an interview you did in which you said that “we’ve forgotten to ask what a book means.” Instead, “we just want to know what it’s about.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?
AM: Clearly, it’s the dictates of marketing—a publicist can sell a subject (incest! immigration! murder!), but meaning is a bit harder to exclaim about. And then there’s the melding of fiction with memoir and journalism—the whole “torn from the headlines” thing. We’re often uncomfortable talking about fiction as a work of art, a thing of beauty—a construct, purposeful in design and execution, sentence by sentence, something whose subject is only a means to an end—the end being something less tangible, something beyond the story itself. You very seldom hear people say of the visual arts: I only look at pictures of apples. Or of the musical arts: I like music that teaches you something. But otherwise intelligent and sophisticated people will say without hesitation, “I only read mysteries” or “I like stories I can relate to.”
KD: People tend to describe you as a “Catholic writer” because your characters are often Catholic (as in Charming Billy or in your most recent novel, The Ninth Hour). In an interview with Image, you said, “The Catholicism in my writing is not there because I’m interested in Catholicism or even because I was raised Catholic. I have used Catholicism simply to give my characters a vocabulary that they might not otherwise have.” What does the ability to tap into, or borrow from, that vocabulary mean for your characters and for you as the writer?
AM: What I mean by “a vocabulary that they might not otherwise have,” is that the religious tradition gives certain characters a way to express fear and hope and longing through the prayer and rituals of their church. Prayer and ritual is community language, shared petition, but it is also entirely private. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,” is a phrase both familiar and unique for every Catholic, and yet the complexity of its meaning, the context of the plea, will always depend on the individual, and the circumstance in which the prayer is uttered, or thought, or repeated.
Without this inherited language—the gift of it—I doubt very much that many of my somewhat taciturn characters would be likely to sit down and dissect their feelings at any given moment, or engage in the kind of navel-gazing that would lead them to conclude that they are feeling sort of lost and childlike, longing for the assurance they might have felt in the presence of their loving mother, or of some ideal loving mother that they’ve never actually had. And feeling, too, that they’ve done so many things wrong, despite their best intentions, and wish there was some way to figure out how to make amends, or get some help from somebody who actually can help … maybe a therapist, but then again, a therapist is going to ask you to talk about your feelings and, honestly, I don’t know how to talk about my feelings because I don’t know exactly what I feel: lost, lonely, looking for succor, etc, etc … The vocabulary of their faith saves my characters from all that blather.
KD: Your books are often set during a time in the 20th century when Catholicism was a really integral, lived experience for most Catholics—in other words, when everyone in that community understood and shared that “vocabulary” of meaning. Do you think the kinds of books you write almost have to be set in the past to make sense? Would it be believable if the stories were set in the present day?
AM: Catholic culture has changed, it’s true, and continues to change, rapidly. So has the broader culture. (The Brontës’ England and Flaubert’s France have also changed quite a bit.) It’s the inevitable result of writing about a specific time and place. But, as I’ve said, I don’t think of novels as historical documents or records of the cultural experience. Yes, they’re about a certain historical time, and a particular kind of experience … but that’s what they’re about. What a novel means doesn’t change, and should continue to make sense even after their settings have become the long-ago past.
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