In 1998, Alice McDermott's fourth novel, Charming Billy, surprised the literary world by capturing the National Book Award. Few doubted that McDermott deserved the prize and the readership it would deliver — she's also been nominated for two Pulitzers and another N.B.A. — but A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe's 727-page tome, was generally presumed to be a shoo-in for the prize.
In some respects, beating out Wolfe offered an incisive clue about her success. Book after book, McDermott does more with less. In her novels it's often what isn't on the page that tells you what you need to know about the characters and their stories. Salon.com marveled at Charming Billy: "There are no explosive confrontations, no charged recriminations. Yet the drama is enormous, arising from the tension of what isn't said."
Since her debut, A Bigamist's Daughter, reviewers have been calling McDermott's fiction "prismatic." And it's true: the force of her writing rarely hits you directly, but rather through the accumulation of precise, stunning details delivered in immaculately crafted phrasings. "Such wonderful things happen deep inside the sentences," Newsweek raved of her third novel, At Weddings and Wakes.
All this and I haven't yet mentioned That Night, where I first encountered her fiction. The book was then, and remains now, perhaps the most dead-on portrait of suburban childhood naivety I've read.
Now she gives us Child of My Heart, a deceptively simple story about one fifteen-year-old girl's summer on the east end of Long Island. "McDermott is something of a specialist in the literature of wry sorrow — she's Irish, after all," Ron Charles noted in The Christian Science Monitor. "Her previous novel, Charming Billy, described a lovable alcoholic who could never marry the woman he loved. She's not far from that theme in Child of My Heart, but this time she's wound sorrow tightly around a spine of resilience to produce a story that's more profound and unsettling."
Dave: The description of the subway through the children's eyes that starts At Weddings and Wakes is such a compelling opening sequence; we're immediately drawn in. In that novel, we witness five women's lives from the not-so-informed perspective of three children. It's an alien universe, not just the subway, but the whole adult world.
In Child of My Heart, one child, Theresa, tells the story. She's also on the outside of adult society looking in, but the story she tells is her own. In many ways, Child of My Heart is your most traditional book.
McDermott: I don't know that I'm ever that self-conscious about my intent, but I was aware that this was going to be a more straightforward, traditional story, a story in a tradition of coming-of-age stories: The plucky and beautiful heroine, over the course of a single summer — that sort of thing. And of course the challenge you set up for yourself is: Can I do all that and still tell a story that hasn't been told before?
I wrote this book very quickly — for me, it's very quick — and I wrote it without much planning. I'd been working — and I'm still working — on another novel. I took that pause in daily life that we all took after September 11th, and when I went back to work I just felt that I had to do something new. What form it was going to take I didn't know.
I wrote quickly, almost in a single breath, with an awareness that it would be in a traditional form. In some way it allowed me to be in touch with a lot of books that meant a lot to me — and still mean a lot to me. The development was almost without forethought. It came as a voice. I'm going to hate to sound like I'm channeling or anything, but different books develop in different ways. Maybe this was just a lament in response to what we were all feeling; this is the way my lament took form.
Dave: A lot has been made of what doesn't get drawn out in the story. One reviewer basically said, "She skipped the most important parts!" But that was kind of the point, I gather.
Dave: As if maybe you didn't realize you were skipping those scenes.
Dave: Still, that line of criticism led me to wonder: What was the book about for you?
McDermott: The story arises from the voice of a girl who refuses to be reconciled to some simple truths about relationships and how we live and die. The world as Theresa sees it is not acceptable to her. In her own way, she remakes it.
She certainly remakes it for the children who are in her care. And the fact that she is caring, I think, is part of that. Her sympathies for all of us are tremendous. And that's why she tells the story.
I suppose, honestly, without trying to sound self-inflated, it's a book about art, why we need it, and what the impulse to make it involves: incredible selfishness and incredible generosity. Theresa has both those things. As she says herself when she's observing the real artist in the book, the painter, it involves a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are. You remake the world so that it's more to your liking. She's a lonely child who at fifteen has probably read too much, but she sees that as a way of remaking the world.
Dave: You show virtually nothing of what becomes of her after this summer.
McDermott: No. She pretty much dismisses it as irrelevant. There are a couple of indications that she gives which the careful reader might or might not pick up: She talks about her relatives who were entranced by her beauty and discussed whether she had some French blood up until the time she was in her thirties. And she mentions that both she and her cousin Bernadette are alone in their beds when they recall Daisy.
I think that's enough. Where she's working and who she's dating and how her landlord is treating her doesn't seem relevant to the story she needed to tell, and as I say that's the "in one breath" aspect of the story: just these few days, just these few moments that have dissipated into memory.
Dave: You mentioned some other books being there as guides or inspirations. Were those books that you read when you were younger?
McDermott: Formative things, yes. If I think about the obvious ones — Theresa is reading Return of the Native throughout the story as she tells it. She refers to A Midsummer Night's Dream and of course to Macbeth. There's Gatsby in there. There's Lolita in there. As I say, it's sort of a tip of the hat (on my part moreso than hers) to something enduring.
Dave: Your novels describe a culture that if not gone is certainly disappearing. Maybe because I was at my parents' house in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving when I was reading Child of My Heart, I thought, No one in an Alice McDermott novel ever flies in for the holidays.
McDermott: Not yet.
Dave: But it's true. These are very enclosed worlds. Families. You've developed a vivid fictional universe in mid- to late-century Brooklyn and Long Island. Will you continue to set your stories there, in that familiar space and in that same time, the years of your youth?
McDermott: I think place and time for me is often a matter of convenience, something I can use to another end rather than something I'm trying to define because it's somehow fascinating to me in itself. It's more what the place can do for the larger goals I have for the work.
I have characters or narrators that are looking back through time, seeing things in a new way. I want to capture the sense not so much of the place itself — because I'm not all that precise and accurate about place — but more the sense of a place seen in retrospect. And the role of memory, the relation of memory to storytelling, to faith, to mythmaking. Those are the things that interest me, and that I hope that the work eventually seems to be more about than the particulars.
Dave: You could apply that statement to any of your books, but it seems especially relevant to Charming Billy. The whole book is about myth and faith and storytelling.
McDermott: Absolutely. And who remembers what, and how it gets told.
Child of My Heart is much more direct. This is a narrator who's really telling her own story, but also telling it from a distance. It's not an as-it-happens narration. So I suppose what I'm hoping is that there's at least a sheen of not just nostalgia but manipulation. Memory is not pure. Memories told are not pure memories; memories told are stories. The storyteller will change them. I've always been interested in that. Even if the storyteller seems to be more up-front, telling the story all in one breath — "this is what happened" — it seems to me that the distance, the fact that the narrator is looking back over time, changes how the story should be perceived.
Dave: Prior to Richard Ford's visit in February, I'd read an interview in which he said that he wants readers to read his stories and his sentences exactly as he means them. He wants readers to "think exactly what I imagine they would think," he said.
You take care to describe things at such a granular level and your sentences seem to be so carefully crafted. Is your writing style the result of a particular belief about fiction or rather would you say that you don't know any other way to do it?
McDermott: Oh, I could always write badly! No, I'm kidding. But the reason I read fiction is much the same reason I write it: I'm fascinated by the way language is used.
I don't just want a story. We're bombarded with stories. Everybody's got a good story. The six o'clock news has a good story just about every night. Orpah has lots of stories. Story is one thing, but that's not what I go to literature for. I go for that line-by-line, felicitous use of language to another end than simply telling me what happened to somebody at some time in their life.
I wouldn't want to spend the energy just telling a story. I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described. That's what I love when I read. It's too much work just to tell a story; there's not enough reward in it. The reward is when you know you've labored to make the best use of language you possibly can.
The idea of precision, though, is sort of interesting. On the one hand I want the language to be right. On the other hand I don't want to grab my reader by the back of the neck and say, "See, this is what I mean." Although there are moments when I regret that I didn't — when you see wild misinterpretations or careless readings of something you hoped had been written carefully. But I'd rather take that risk. I'd rather hope the spell of the language is somehow sufficient.
I guess this is what I love about poetry, too: when you can get beyond that what does it mean and simply experience the language in a way that can't be described. That's the whole point. We don't have the means to fully explicate everything we think and feel and experience. Language is just an attempt — an attempt that's usually doomed to failure, but sometimes it can rise above its own failure, and you can't pin down exactly how or why. A perfect poem you can't pin down and say, "This is exactly what it meant to me." It's not a self-help manual. I guess I hope that fiction sometimes can do that, too, that you can sink into the spell of the story and not have to do socioeconomic analysis in order to find out Why did I read that?
Dave: When Ann Patchett published Bel Canto, she admitted that it was the first time she managed to write using "a truly omniscient third person narrator." She had tried with previous books and failed; and each time she wound up going in a different direction, using a different narrative strategy.
You have five novels now, each of which is different than the one before. Looking back on them, do you see particular growth here or there as a writer? Do you feel like you've been able to achieve more as you've gone along?
McDermott: Gosh, no. Every time I start anything new, I guess I feel more like a novice. I don't feel like I've accrued any benefits from anything I've done. Each story has to find its own way to be told, and that is exclusive to the story, so when you're finished with one, you're starting all over again. Or should be, I guess. I don't think any of us want to repeat ourselves.
In some ways, I guess it keeps me forever young because every time I'm confronted with something new I feel that I have no idea how to do this.
Dave: I'm flipping through my old copy of That Night, which was assigned to me in a graduate school English course seven or eight years ago, and I'm looking at a comment I made in the margin of page 160. The line goes:
"So what are they going to do to me?" Rick said, as if he were prepared for an easy fistfight. "What are they going to charge me with?"
"Melodrama," the lawyer said. Hoods he could handle. "Making a scene. Stupidity. The whole damn neighborhood saw you."
I wrote in the margin: "The paradox of this novel: how to write a novel obsessed with melodrama without being melodramatic."
McDermott: [Laughing] Good point! That line comes back to me, but I would have had a hard time telling you what page it was on.
I think that being a writer at all probably indicates in most of us a certain contrariness, and part of my contrariness has been to write about things I probably shouldn't because they are melodramatic or clichéd or the characters are stereotypes, such as in Charming Billy. Or even with Child of My Heart: yet another coming-of-age story with a plucky, beautiful heroine that takes place over a few days in summer after which nothing was ever the same. If I had any brains at all, I'd say, "I'm not touching that!"
What happens to me time and again is that the stuff I say I shouldn't touch, I say, "Well, but I'm going to do it like nobody's ever done it." With that incredible hubris we need. So I guess in a way, yes, that's very true, and I guess it's this belief of mine that the language can redeem anything. The language can make us see anew anything, if it's right. And if it's done with care.
Dave: Jeffrey Eugenides was here recently. One reviewer called his new book, Middlesex, one of the best novels of the past decade, alongside The Corrections and Underworld. I thought, Okay, well, I now have an idea of what this reviewer considers quality fiction. But implicit in his statement is the idea that very big, epic novels are best. As someone who doesn't write gigantic, seven hundred page tomes, what do you think? What are the best novels for you? What are the most affecting?
We're such kids. We really are. And often, I think, when we're trying to draw up our lists or make judgments about things like books there's a sense of admiring the brawn, admiring something that — and this is a term I always hear, talking about books — something that's "totally made up." We suspect that's probably better than something that comes from life. I don't know if it's because we're seeing something that we're convinced we can't do and so that makes us respect it more.
Again, being a contrarian, I'm very conscious of trying to make something epic out of something small and ordinary. And in the long run when I'm reading I don't really care if everything that's in the novel actually happened to the author or never happened to the author or is made up and totally wrong, factually. I care if I'm sucked into the spell. I care if I see things I've never seen before or feel things I've never been able to articulate. I care if the book works. Subject, length, setting, and author's biography seem so irrelevant to the experience.
I think a lot of us who love books are frustrated by just that kind of guidance from book reviewers who maybe forgot what it's like just to be sucked into the spell of the work and need to look for those outside things. Comparing height, like kids do. Or making muscles, one book against the other. Instead of, I was there with that book. I was entranced. Or, It broke my heart. Or, It made me laugh.
My favorite criteria is when pieces of a work of fiction — a line or a moment — come back to you after you've read the work when you're doing something entirely different. And I don't know how to catalog that. Does that mean it was a smart book? Does that mean it was a brilliant writer? Somehow I've been given a gift. Somehow my internal monologue has been enhanced by that reading experience, and to me you can't get much better than that.
Dave: Can you think of a recent example? A line or passage that's been stuck in your brain?
McDermott: William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault had lots of moments that came back to me after reading. [Read McDermott's review of Lucy Gault, first published in the Atlantic Monthly.] I'm just now reading Austerlitz, and there was just a description — I'd have to go back and try to find it: the blue flickering of TV's, coming in on the train. Just a taste of it. It's there. And it's sort of wonderful.
Dave: Speaking of keeping things straight in your brain: You work on two novels at once. I can see advantages to that. For instance, if you get stuck on one.
Dave: But how do you balance? Do you ever feel like you're neglecting one? How does that work?
McDermott: Well, I do sometimes feel like I've neglected one, but it's benign neglect.
I don't work except when I'm actually working with the words. Obviously I think about stories when I'm doing other things, but I find that when it's time to sit down and get the writing done I don't worry much about what's not getting written. Again, I guess it's that whole idea of sinking into the spell of the language - you hope to or try to.
Dave: When Charming Billy won the National Book Award your previous books began to receive a lot of attention. Awards are like that in terms of throwing a disproportionately large readership at authors who may have been quite deserving of an audience for a long time. Were you surprised by the impact? You had plenty of nominations before.
McDermott: Yes, it was very surprising, but on the other hand it gives you a wonderful perspective. The book had been out for a while. It had nice reviews and nice sales, then the National Book Award came along. It certainly didn't hurt that everybody thought Tom Wolfe was going to win [for A Man in Full]. In another year with another set of nominees it probably wouldn't have gotten so much attention.
So it's lovely, and it's nice that something like this happens that gets your books into the hands of many more readers, but you also realize how totally arbitrary it is. And the thing that sort of makes me chuckle is That Night was nominated for a lot of things. At Weddings and Wakes just ended up on one award list. Then Charming Billy got the National Book Award. Well, now everybody's saying that At Weddings and Wakes is clearly the best one.
Dave: I've seen that written, actually.
McDermott: You're like, Oh, go to hell! [Laughing] Nobody was saying that at the time, when I could have used it!
Dave: Is there anything you think that I've blatantly omitted? That people just have to know.
McDermott: I don't know. What do you think?
Dave: I don't know. I never know until it's too late and I'm transcribing.
It's not hard to describe your work, but it's somewhat hard to find comparisons. You can bring up the Irish-American thing, and the Catholic Church, but that doesn't speak to the style at all. There are lots of books written about Irish-Americans or the Catholic Church and they're nothing like yours. So where does that leave you?
McDermott: I'm finding that Child of My Heart is a difficult book for me to talk about, and from what I'm hearing it's a very difficult book for other people to talk about, too. I guess because, my sense is, that the book is what it is. It's there, and it is kind of a breathless rush. It is a lament. But I hope that it's also an offer of strange comfort from one of us to the rest of us.
Somebody said something about it being more like a poem, and I guess if I ever aspire to be a poet — and I have way too much respect for poets to even think of it — going back to the idea that it's the same thing I feel about poetry: a poem doesn't mean. In odd ways, this novel, more than anything else I've written, is just there. It's what it is. It's a single breath. The breath was taken and it's done.
Dave: That's an interesting comparison. Like a lot of poetry the book can defined as well by what it omits as by what it presents, which is not typically something you would say about a novel.
McDermott: That's right, very much so. And I think there's the assumption in poetry that we're in this together, reader and poet. Maybe fiction is not usually comfortable with that — the idea that somehow you, reader, will get what I mean, without my having to footnote it all, just through the sound of the language and the words themselves.
I guess that was my hope for this novel as well.
Alice McDermott kindly fielded my phone call at her home on the morning of December 2, 2002. Her son is applying to college near where I went to graduate school so we talked a bit about state schools and triple majors before getting down to brass tacks.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State