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Charming Alice McDermott: Award-winning Novelist

By Mary Jo Dangel

Her novel Charming Billy was bound to be an award-winner: Irish-Catholic characters who have St. Anthony Messenger in their homes.

Q U I C K S C A N

Photo by
Mark Lee, Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University


Alice McDermott enjoys teaching a graduate-level writing class at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

 


Novelist Alice McDermott didn’t lose her sense of humor when she won the National Book Award in 1998 for Charming Billy. She had been nominated in 1987 for That Night. “I got used to not winning the first time,” she said afterward on PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. “I realized when you don’t win, you get to finish your dessert, so I was looking forward to not winning.”

Alice was the surprise winner—renowned author Tom Wolfe was expected to grab the prize for A Man in Full. “It’s so ridiculous that we would even be compared,” she says. “We’re such different writers.” What they have in common, she explains, is the same publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Alice McDermott laughs frequently as we discuss her life and career in the living room of the home she shares with her husband and three children in Bethesda, Maryland. She explains that they’re ready to begin a major remodeling and construction project, including an addition across the back of the house.

A typical week for Alice includes a day in Baltimore teaching a graduate-level writing class at Johns Hopkins, another day volunteering in the library at St. Bartholomew Elementary School in Bethesda and writing as much as possible in between—until the kids return home from school.


Life Experience

Many of Alice’s novels, including Charming Billy, feature middle-class Irish Catholics who live on Long Island. Although these fictional characters are not based on real people, many aspects of their lifestyle are familiar to the author, who has been to Ireland three times: as a student, on her honeymoon and recently on a family vacation.

Alice and her two older brothers were raised in a middle-class Irish-Catholic family on Long Island after World War II. Their parents were first-generation Irish-Americans who were orphaned as youngsters.

Regarding her grandparents, Alice says, “I never knew any of them.” But she does recall one common characteristic of the grandparents of her friends, who were from various ethnic backgrounds: “For many years, I believed that if you were a grandparent, you had an accent.”

When young Alice was in elementary school at St. Boniface in Elmont, the large classes were taught by religious sisters. By the time she entered Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, changes from the Second Vatican Council had begun.

During her childhood, she kept a diary. As the youngest child and only daughter in a patriarchal family, she says, “I didn’t get to complete a lot of sentences at the dinner table. Both of my brothers became lawyers. Writing was a way for me to make my own world and work out my thoughts....I filled up notebooks and wrote a novel on looseleaf paper when I was 11 or 12.”

But she didn’t really consider being a professional writer until her undergraduate years at State University of New York “because I thought it was supposed to come easily if it was going to be a career,” she explains in Fiction Writer, “and it never felt like it came easily to me.” The author of four novels and numerous short stories says experience doesn’t make writing easier: “You acquire your expertise all over again with each new work.”

To celebrate the publication of her first short story in Ms., she went to a singles bar with some friends and met her future husband, David Armstrong. At the time, Alice was teaching at the University of New Hampshire, where she had earned her master’s degree in writing.

Today, David is a research scientist who commutes to Philadelphia. Over the years they have moved a few times because of his career. When they wanted to settle down, they selected Bethesda, where they had lived in the past. “The move was easy for the kids, going back to their old friends and their old school,” says Alice. Her mother, a widow since 1983, lives nearby.

The location, near Washington, D.C., is rich in cultural and historical sites, making it a great place to raise a family. Alice is quoted in a recent Washington Flyer article that asks local celebs to name their favorite places in the area. Her choices are the National Gallery of Art, because it’s “beautiful and peaceful,” and St. Aloysius Church, “a gorgeous place” she found because her oldest son attends school nearby.

Alice and her husband are the parents of two sons, Will, 15, and Patrick, seven, and one daughter, Eames (pronounced Aims), who is 12. Eames was “my maternal grandmother’s last name, the one who ‘danced herself to death,’” laughs Alice. She explains the family legend: When the aunt who raised Alice’s orphaned mother returned to Ireland for a visit, “The rumor back in their village was that my grandmother had gone to America and danced herself to death.”


The Write Stuff

“The thing that made me want to become a fiction writer is the art of it, the remaking of reality,” says Alice. She explains why readers won’t find sexually explicit scenes in her novels: “It’s boring. It’s not so much of a moral choice as an artistic choice.”

Her writing style weaves rumors, memories and detailed descriptions into stories told in flashback. “If you’re trying to replicate memories or how people talk about their memories, it’s never chronological and it’s seldom well organized.” Regarding the Catholic characters in her novels, she says, “Catholicism gives my characters a way to talk about things.”

Charming Billy begins with the death of Billy Lynch. Throughout the book, relatives recall his life: “Billy had drunk himself to death. He had, at some point, ripped apart, plowed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great, deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life of love, of everyone in the room.”

Another relative recalls that Billy went to Ireland to take the pledge: “I remember Billy saying that A.A. was a Protestant thing, when you came right down to it.” The pledge is compared to “Holy Orders itself—you signed on and there was no going back.”

In real life, Alice sees copies of St. Anthony Messenger at her mother’s apartment. Thus, the award-winning magazine pops up on the pages of her award-winning novel in the home of one of Billy’s relatives, who says, “Today’s Daily News as well as a St. Anthony Messenger—a cover story about celibacy and the priesthood—were on the coffee table between us.”

Alice describes the way she creates her novels: “I still write my first drafts in longhand. I like the silence of pencil or pen on paper, the portability of it.” She was inspired as a youth by Act One, in which Moss Hart describes writing his first play on a legal pad when he was a young waiter in the Catskills. “I think it was one of the things that first put the seed in my mind that people could be professional writers. I think the romance of that has stayed with me.”

The Irish-Catholic flavor comes naturally to the novelist. But when she needs to do any research, it’s the old-fashioned way: “I’m still not into doing it on the Internet. I love libraries. I love being in the stacks. I love pulling things down and opening them up and seeing what you find. I could do that for weeks at a time.”

A novel that is run by research “feels false,” she says. “It’s trying to prove something.” She usually does research after she has written much of a novel. The primary object of her writing is to capture “the voice of the novel, the intentions of the characters.”

Alice admits to being a slow writer: “That means that I need to give myself as much time as possible to get a book written.” Currently, she is working on two novels and doesn’t know which will be completed first. “I’ve never made a target date in my life. My editor doesn’t even ask anymore.”

In order to devote quality time to her writing projects, Alice has been a resident at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), which was established to give creative people a place where they have uninterrupted time to work on their projects. This farm near Lynchburg is “a beautiful setting,” she says. “You meet the most interesting people” during the dinners with other writers, artists and musicians. The lunches of the residents are left outside their rooms so they’re not disturbed during the day. Alice worked on Charming Billy during short stays at VCCA (www.vcca.com). She hopes to return again, if she can find time.

Her first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), was called “impressive” in The New York Times Book Review. The plot focuses on a cynical editor who becomes involved with a client.

That Night (1987) was nominated for numerous awards, including Pulitzer and National Book, and was made into a movie. It examined two teenage lovers who are separated. Although most of Alice’s fiction is not inspired by real events, the idea for this one came from an incident. “It was something that I had not experienced myself,” recalls Alice. “But I had heard people talk about it in that way: ‘Remember that night when....’”

At Weddings and Wakes (1991) was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Referring to this bittersweet story of an Irish-Catholic family on Long Island, the Chicago Tribune called it “a brilliant, highly complex, extraordinary piece of fiction and a triumph for its author.”


Being Catholic

“I don’t think I could purge the Catholicism from my writing if I tried,” says Alice. She became more committed to her faith when she became a parent. “I think having a child opens your eyes to certain universal truths,” she says. “It meant more to me to be a part of the parish so my children could be part of it as well.”

After she won the National Book Award, her fellow parishioners at St. Bartholomew applauded at Mass when the priest announced Alice’s recognition.

This Catholic mother of three doesn’t think there’s a contradiction in being a pro-life liberal feminist. She discusses her views on abortion: “A life is lost whether it’s a legal abortion or an illegal abortion.” Thus, changing the law to make abortion illegal again will not stop abortions. “Unborn babies who die in illegal abortions are still dead unborn babies.”

She believes abortion is a moral issue: “The Church has to take a much bigger moral stance and be much more diligent in conveying the moral aspect. Stop wasting time on the legal aspect....It’s a daunting task to think you can make Christ’s voice heard so no woman would ever consider having an abortion. That’s the task we’ve been given as Christians.”

She also expressed her opinion on politicians who are in favor of capital punishment but who also claim to be pro-life: “That’s a contradiction even a six-year-old can understand!”


Hooked on Reading

The writer says she has always enjoyed reading, especially fiction. “My parents were both big readers. My mother used to read the short stories from the Saturday Evening Post to me, probably before I could read myself. That’s one of my earliest memories....I still remember the plots of some of them.”

Today Alice reads with her own children (see box below for benefits of reading to children). She and Eames belong to a mother-daughter book club. “We’ve been pretty good about not letting the mothers dictate the reading material or control the discussions,” she notes. Some of the titles they’ve selected include To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man in the Ceiling. The club was planning a field trip to the National Museum of Women in the Arts during a display of books by artists. “We’re each going to find a poem about art to read in the museum.”

And she is reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to Patrick each night before he goes to bed. “I love Harry Potter,” she says. “It gives children that experience of entering into a story. It does something to your day. You look forward to getting back to it every night. You talk to other people about it. It’s been a shared experience. Once you have that with one book, you’re hooked: You know what books can do.”

She recalls some of the writers who influenced her, including William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor. “Reading Virginia Woolf made me want to be a writer,” she says. Other favorites include Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

“I just started rereading The Power and the Glory for a book club at church,” she notes. “Revisiting novels is a wonderful experience.”

Another wonderful experience is learning the effect of her own books on readers. While Alice was in Seattle on a book tour after Charming Billy was published, a woman came up to her and said, “I don’t read a lot of fiction. Two weeks ago, my father passed away and I was grieving.” The woman explained that she saw Billy in a bookstore and bought it, even though she knew nothing about the novel.

“For the hours that I was reading that book, I was with my father again,” said the stranger, through tear-filled eyes. Dennis, one of the main characters, reminded her of her father. “It was such a comfort to me.”

The novelist says, “It had nothing to do with why I wrote the book, nothing that I could predict....When something like that happens, it’s bonus points.”

These bonus points don’t make headlines or win awards. But they motivate the writer to continue putting pen to paper as she slowly remakes reality into another story, most likely with some memorable Irish-Catholic characters.


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Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of
St. Anthony Messenger who hopes to complete writing her novel someday.

Benefits of Reading

If you’re looking for an excuse to read a good book, the National Book Foundation has designated May as National Book Month. A list of National Book Award winners (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature) can be found at www.publishersweekly.com/nbf/docs/winners.html. In addition to Alice McDermott, other Catholic winners include Walker Percy, J. F. Powers and Flannery O’Connor. Additional lists of recommended and award-winning books can be found at most libraries and book stores.

And if you’re looking for some help getting your children to become better readers, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Web site (www.aap.org/ family/readmeastory.htm) offers a reading checkup guide, noting that millions of children face an illiterate future because they are falling behind in reading. AAP stresses the benefits of reading to children every day, beginning when they are six months of age: “Reading with your child not only stimulates development of your child’s brain but also fuels a close emotional relationship between you and your child,” says Joseph R. Zanga, M.D., past president of AAP. “Make reading an important and pleasurable experience in your home.”

 

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