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Off the Page: Alice McDermott

With Alice McDermott
Novelist and National Book Award Winner
Thursday, October 2, 2003; 1:00 PM

Alice McDermott's novels about Irish American families unfold in the same way that stories in such families get told: in pieces, the truth revealed bit by bit. It can take the entire novel before a reader has figured what McDermott's book is really about. Just as in life, the stories change as they come more fully to light.

McDermott, who lives in Bethesda, Md., was catapulted to literary fame when her fourth novel, Charming Billy, won the National Book Award in 1998 -- though early lovers of her work like to say that her previous novel, At Weddings and Wakes, is her best book. Last year, she followed Charming Billy with Child of My Heart, whose most devastating section is not the ending (which I won't give away), but the way in which adults so blindly hurt the children of their hearts.

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McDermott was online Thursday, Oct. 2, to discuss her work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or appearing soon in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. She's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Welcome to our debut discussion of "Off the Page." We are thrilled to have Alice McDermott as our first guest. Hello, Alice! Let's get right to the first question.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Ms. McDermott: I really enjoyed At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy -- especially the elegiac themes. I also read a number of reviews of Child of My Heart -- seems like my kind of novel (hope to get to it soon).

Joan Acocella in a New Yorker review called At Weddings and Wakes your "masterpiece," said Charming Billy was "nearly as good," and listed That Night as her "sentimental favorite." Just wondering how close that might be to your own thinking? Thanks much.

Alice McDermott: Many thanks for the kind words. My own "sentimental favorite" is always the novel I haven't yet written -- I suppose that's the one I consider my "masterpiece" as well. As Faulkner said, you always write the next novel in order to get at what you failed to get at in the last one. As soon as I write a "masterpiece" I'll retire to the beach in complete self-satisfaction... seriously, I never look back at finished work, I'm too worried about what's yet to be finished...

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Takoma Park, Md.: I have read Charming Billy twice and still feel there is a richness that I haven't completely uncovered. An amazing novel. Also, I was born in Brooklyn in 1951 to an Irish Catholic family, and moved to Long Island two years later. So At Weddings and Wakes reminds me of visiting my relatives in Brooklyn who "stayed behind." My question: Living in the bland D.C. suburbs that we inhabit, don't you miss that world that you captured so well?

Alice McDermott:As I was growing up, I didn't think there was anything more bland than life on Long Island in a family of Irish Catholics . . . I remember coming to Washington for the first time (on an eighth grade school trip) and thinking, at last -- glamour, history, interesting lives . . .
I suppose I see one of the obligations of fiction as an attempt to discover what, in any bland existence whether it be in the suburbs or the city, among the rich and famous or the plain and ordinary, is worth recalling, is authentic -- what endures . . .

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Boston, Mass.: When I had the pleasure of studying with you at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in 2001, we discussed the challenges that come with balancing motherhood and the writing life (something you've managed with great success). As I struggle to write while raising four young children, I wonder how your experiences as a mother has informed your fiction, and if you feel it has affected your style in any way.

Alice McDermott: I'm sure everything that happens to us while we're living life (rather than writing about it) informs our fiction in some way, but I would be hard-pressed to know precisely how motherhood has changed or altered my fiction . . . I know how it changes my writing life (my ten-year old, for instance, came home from school this moring with a cold, and is, at the moment, trying to tell me something he just read in Lord of the Rings, even as I write this) . . . no doubt motherhood has something to do with all the notes in my journal that tend to trail off . . . but in some way I guess I believe the novels themselves exist in a world that has little to do with my own daily life . . .

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Swansea, U.K.: Alice
Enjoyed Charming Billy immensely, particularly the power of some of the descriptive passages. I'm wondering about the title, Charming Billy. Does it refer to the idea of a charmed life, though the narrative doesn't seem to support that idea, or that other characters were charmed by Billy. Though I must say at times I would have found Billy tiresome - how about Tiresome Billy as a working title.

Alice McDermott: : The title refers to a number of things . . . or so I hope. Billy as a charmer (though tiresome indeed, as even charm can be), the "charmed" life he lived due to the support and tolerance of the people who loved him (and kept him from homelessness or an even earlier death)and, of course, the phrase from the old song, "where are you going, Billy boy, Billy boy, where are you going, charming Billy. I am going to see my wife, etc. . ." ) -- which is, in its own way, a song about a celibate marriage ("but she's a young thing and cannot leave her mother.") I had, I think, six or seven other reasons for choosing the title, most of which I've forgotten now . . . they're in my notes, I suppose . . .

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Washington, D.C.: One of my favorite short stories of all time is your piece "Enough," which was published in The New Yorker. It's incredible that you can condense an entire life into so few words, and with such powerful detail. And yet you are known for your novels. How/when did you decide novel, not short story, was your medium?

Alice McDermott: I'm so pleased you liked it. Publishing a short story can sometimes feel like shouting into the dark . . . your words come out, and then nothing . . . but I don't think that's why I tend to write novels rather than stories. I just like the elbow room a novel gives you -- a chance to work out implications over time and space. I also like the puzzle of structure. Very early in my writing life I wanted to write plays (until I realized I couldn't write, direct and perform them alone -- I'm not one for collaborating) and the novel's structure is more like a play's than a short story's. I do believe a good short story is more difficult to write, however (and a good poem is more difficult still) and I do aim to get some of the short story's more pressing demands into my novels -- which may be why they tend to be short . . .

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Washington, D.C.: Is it true you have never been to Ireland? How is it that you are able to conjure so evocatively a place you've never seen? How do you get a "feel" for a place?

Alice McDermott: Oh, no, I've been to Ireland. Once as a student in Dublin (for a week) and then for two weeks for my honeymoon . . . and then, after Charming Billy was published, on a trip with my family. But place, for me, in fiction, is never a "real" thing, even if I use real place names . . . I write about places as my characters see them (or remember them, which is something else again), not as they really are. This is why I never became a journalist -- I couldn't write about a real place, or person or event if I tried, I'm always looking to get something other than the literal "truth" out of everything I write about. So it's not my "feel" for a place, it's my character's . . .

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Washington, D.C.: When "Charming Billy" first won its awards, the Style section ran a profile of you in which you talked about your "boring, normal"
life as a mother and writer. As I remember it, you emphasized that the writer's life, which is so often portrayed as glamourous and idiosyncratic, is actually an adventure that happens quietly,internally, at the keyboard. As a result, I strive for "boring normality" in my life, hoping for successful adventures in my work -- Question: Do you find your writing process has been changed much by your success? Is life less normal now? And how does that affect your work?

Alice McDermott: I have learned that the most disruptive thing you can do to your writing life is publish something . . . amidst all the other demands of normal living, you carve out some time to sit around and make up stories, and then you publish a book and suddenly you're supposed to travel all over and meet people and give interviews and visit book clubs -- all of which you do, of course, because you're grateful to your readers, and to your publisher, and to anyone at all who feels kindly toward literary fiction . . . but the time and silence and shedding of self-consciousness so necessary to the writing of fiction slowly seeps away. Fortunately, literary novels (and the people who write them) have a short shelf life in the public arena, and eventually, you get to return to the work . . . and on the days it doesn't go well you find yourself thinking, Why doesn't someone call and disrupt me?

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Seattle, Wash.: Ms. McDermott:

Descended as I am from New England-based Irish Catholics, I have to tell you that the set piece of Billy's wake in Charming Billy is a moment I have experienced more than once. Absolutely perfect, down to the ice cream dishes made from stamped aluminum.

Thanks so much!;

Alice McDermott: The great benefit of writing about Irish Catholics is that they're all alike (the Irish are indeed an island race). I once gave a reading from At Weddings and Wakes, and at the q&a someone asked, "Is this your family you're writing about?" Before I could answer someone from the other side of the room shouted, "No, it's mine." But then again, I had a letter from a reader of Charming Billy who said that if I changed all the surnames in the novel, and changed to alcohol to high-cholestorol food, I'd be writing about his Jewish family . . .

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Washington, D.C.: One of the things I found so notable about Charming Billy was that you wrote such a captivating novel in which very little "happens" in the plot sense. Certainly you're not the first to do that successfully; on the other hand, there are many novels out there -- even well reviewed ones -- in which equally little happens and they're (let's admit it) crashing bores. Can you articulate how you trust your sense that the characters' pasts and inner lives and speech and longings, etc., will be enough to engage readers and carry them along the whole way?

Alice McDermott: I suppose I've never set out to write a novel in which nothing happens . . . only to write a novel about the lives of certain characters. That nothing "happens" in their lives is beside the point to me, I'm still interested in how they live, and think and speak and make some sense of their own experience. Incident (in novels and in life) is momentary, and temporary, but the memory of an incident, the story told about it, the meaning it takes on or loses over time, is life-long and fluid, and that's what interests me and what I hope will prove interesting to readers. We're deluged with stories of things that have happened, events, circumstances, actions, etc . . . we need some stories that reveal how we think and feel and hope and dream . . .

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Washington, D.C.: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Alice McDermott: Read everything, write all the time. And if you can do anything else that gives you equal pleasure and allows you to sleep soundly at night, do that instead. The writing life is an odd one, to say the least.

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Sterling, Va.: What would you suggest to someone (OK, me) who reads nothing but nonfiction and would like to get into some fiction, but has a tough time getting past the openings of novels, which tend to start slowly?

Alice McDermott: Patience? I guess I would suggest you begin reading a novel not with the question of What's this about but How does this sound -- to notice language and image and voice before story and plot. Fiction is not merely a palatable way to get the same information you get from nonfiction, it's the way to enter into another universe, a way to see the world anew, to hear an internal voice that is not our own, to make sense of and to find shape in what (in real life) can often seem senseless and shapeless . . . I'm making a pitch here -- I have nothing against nonfiction, but fiction is where you'll find the stuff you can't find anywhere else, the stuff that endures -- or, as our English teachers used to tell us, the eternal truths...

With that bit of hyperbole, I'll sign off. Many thanks to all.

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Carole Burns: Alice, thanks so much for answering questions so thoughtfully, carefully and intelligently. You've been a fantastic guest.

And I hope you all join us next week when we have Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri on "Off the Page" Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET.

Many thanks to Alice and her readers!

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