Mark Lee, Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University
Alice McDermott enjoys teaching a graduate-level writing class at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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....’”
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.”
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.”
she won the National Book Award, her fellow parishioners
at St. Bartholomew applauded at Mass when the priest announced
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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.
just started rereading The Power and the Glory for
a book club at church,” she notes. “Revisiting novels is
a wonderful experience.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger who hopes to complete writing her novel someday.