Writer Alice McDermott’s themes are universal


Alice McDermott has been based mostly in Maryland since 1989. (Will Kirk)
September 9, 2013

Irish eyes are smiling.

They belong to Alice McDermott, whose novels about ordinary Irish Catholic families living on her native Long Island strike universal themes of love, longing and loss.

Someone,” her seventh novel, comes out this week. Like her other work, it elevates the ordinary, the unpretentious, into something special. Its message: Every life, however mundane, has value.

Although McDermott’s work is deeply rooted in New York, she has been based mostly in Maryland since 1989. She raised her three children there and lives with her husband, David Armstrong, a neuroscientist, and Rufus, their Labradoodle, in a large but not ostentatious, colonial in Bethesda.

McDermott writes in a room overlooking backyard trees, with overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, at a long, antique-style wooden desk, her laptop surrounded by piles of papers. A creative mess. Some of her daughter’s high school artwork adorns the walls.

As with her other fiction, “Someone” is set in New York. Place is important in her work, but only as a tool, “if I can make use of it to serve the larger purposes of the story, if it has a metaphorical benefit,” she says over a lunch of leek soup and salad at the Irish Inn in Glen Echo. In her novel “Charming Billy,” which won the National Book Award in 1998, the Long Island locale “sets up a nice metaphor for yearning for someplace better, to leave the dirty city for someplace better to raise your children,” she explains.

Her middle-class parents did just that, moving her and her two brothers from Brooklyn to Elmont, in Nassau County, N.Y. McDermott’s move to Maryland was almost accidental: She and David were living in San Diego, where she was also teaching, when he got an offer to do research at Georgetown University.

They chose Maryland over Virginia for the public schools but wound up sending their children to Catholic institutions as the neighborhood school was undergoing renovations just as their oldest was about to start kindergarten: John, now a jazz musician and teacher in New York City, loved the Baltimore Orioles, inspiring a two-way correspondence with Cal Ripken and family outings to see the O’s play.

McDermott never made that leap. “There is a lingering Yankee fan in there,” she admits, and there is also an occasional hint of her native Long Island accent. Reading for an audiobook of her third novel, which took her three days to recite, she said “hid” for “he’d,” and she had to rerecord herself saying “he would” instead.

Although McDermott toils alone, she also enjoys nurturing a “community of writers.” She is proud of the success of her students at Johns Hopkins, where she has taught since 1996.

Former students include Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient whose third novel,Americanah,” was widely praised by critics upon its publication this year, and Matt Thomas, who sold his debut novel, “We Are Not Ourselves,” for seven figures to Simon & Schuster in April.

McDermott, who turned 60 in June, is famously old-fashioned, writing initially with a pen on a pad and then transcribing her first few pages to a computer. Lately, she says, she has been “getting to the computer faster and faster, transcribing almost daily.” She is, however, by no means an enthusiastic user of new technology. She e-mails, but she doesn’t tweet or use Facebook.

“I wouldn’t want to tweet to anyone who would be interested in my tweets,” she says, updating an old Groucho Marx quip.

Responding, belatedly, to a phone message, she writes in an e-mail, “I am trying to cultivate the notion that constantly misplacing one’s cell phone is a charming eccentricity . . . my children aren’t buying it.”

Indeed, at a promotional meeting for her new novel, she was chagrined to learn that “things have changed drastically” since her last one was published in 2006. “At one point,” she says, the head of publicity “said, ‘We should get the online people in here.’ Two kids walked in — they looked 9 years old — and started talking about platforms. It meant nothing to me.”

Nonetheless, she is a good soldier in the publishing trade. On a muggy summer day, she had spent the morning signing separate pages that would be “tipped” into copies of her new novel. She had been given 2,000 pages to sign, and by lunchtime, she was only a little more than halfway there.

“This is a whole new thing, brainless, mind-numbing work,” she says, then smiles. “We all need a sense of humor in this profession.”

Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is a freelance writer.

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