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Alice McDermott, Tilling Her Green Literary Fields

Monday, March 17, 2008

Alice McDermott, the nationally acclaimed novelist and writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University, infuses her fiction ("After This" and "Charming Billy," among others) with the emotional flavorings, both sharp and subtle, of her own Irish American heritage. We caught up by phone with the 54-year-old mother of three at home in Bethesda, where, as is her habit, she is working on two new books at once, because "it's nice to have a fail-safe."

-- Tamara Jones

Can you tell us a little about either one?

No. I never talk it out. I'm very superstitious about that.

Your novels are always infused with Irish American Catholicism. Do you see that as a subculture still, or is it dying out?

I think there's more and more a sense of a culture the like of which we will not see again. But that's not why I write about it. . . . So I always feel a little fraudulent in claiming Irish American or Irish Catholic themes. To me, they're just a means to an end . . . So I still have this idea of literature being not so much about its subject but about the great, human truths. . . . I think on a very basic level, we all want redemption.

What was the first story you ever wrote?

Oh, my goodness. I was one of those kids who wrote all the time. . . . Some kids draw, some kids write -- it's just a way of taking control of the world when you feel helpless. I had my secret writing life for a very long time, well into my 20s, when no one knew I was writing. You know -- diaries I would fill with things that never really happened.

So you were a false memoirist before it became trendy?

From the very beginning, yeah.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Because a good part of my career was spent with raising children, and moving around a bit, I have very few requirements and I like it that way. That's why I write many first drafts still in longhand. Because I like that original romance of having a pen and a legal pad and going anywhere in the world and being able to write a novel with just those two things.

Do you have a thing for funerals?

There's a lot of characters who die, yeah. I don't know if I'd say I had a thing for funerals. I think it's handy for a dramatist of any sort, if I can call myself that, to make use of weddings and wakes, to make use of those moments and those rituals that cause us to pause and look back or look forward, and understand that life has changed.

What do you think peace and prosperity is going to do to Irish literature? Not to wish ill on an entire nation, but sorrow is a really important element there. I can't imagine Joyce writing "The sunshine was general all over Ireland."

Oh, they'll be writing just as all my students are -- lots of minimalism. It'll be interesting to see. But of course now, Irish literature can become multicultural because finally now the Irish have got their own immigrants for the first time. The Eastern European influence in Ireland is amazing. We were there about three years ago and had the funniest conversation with this Irish couple we were seated next to at dinner and they were saying what was wrong with the Polish people was, "these people, they go to the grocery store to buy their liquor, and then they drink at home. What's wrong with these people? If they want to drink, they should go to the pub." The looks on their faces. They just couldn't understand. Really, they were just flabbergasted. It was the only thing about them that just, culturally, they could not compute.

Did you go to Catholic school?

Yes, all 12 years. And my children have gone to Catholic school. . . . Part of their whole education is talking about the inner life and looking at your life, even though you're only 15 or 16 -- thinking about your mortality, thinking about the value of your life, thinking about your obligations. Those things were deeply underlying the dogma that made up most of the conversation when I was in Catholic school. Now the dogma is there, but I think those conversations are in the forefront. . . . They're much more focused on the world and understand their faith in really a much healthier way.

Do current events ever worm their way into what you're writing about?

Oh, yeah. Writing "After This" in the current atmosphere made it clear to me that this was very much a book not about the times, clearly, but influenced and focused by the times, the two different wars. This war we are so detached from, though. . . . It seems to me that when a popular culture has become so excessively violent, so numbingly violent, it doesn't even seem to be a glorification anymore of violence, it just seems to be the only means of getting our attention by the entertainment industry. And yet we're not paying attention to the violence in this real world that we're responsible for.

Do you consciously not put any violent scenes in your novels?

I don't want to write about violence and I don't want to hang a plot on a murder. I think it's cheap. I think there's enough of it.

It makes me think of big, fat, classic older novels, where the beauty and mystery was in what the writer chose not to paint, not to tell, in precise detail.

Right! And there's also that sense that after a certain point, language fails, and image fails. And again, that goes back to the life of the spirit, the things that we like to presume true of anyone who is human. It's poetry. The writer can only give you so much, but if it's right, then what's not said has far more impact. Isak Dinesen called it the silence at the end of the story. That's where the story speaks.

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