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The Book That Changed My Life
featuring Alice McDermott

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The following interview is taken from The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists, Edited by Diane Osen. If you enjoy this look into the writing life and would like to learn more about other National Book Award Winning authors, you can purchase this book at local bookstores or online retailers.

Alice McDermott

Diane Osen: Reader's Digest can be found in the living rooms of any number of your characters. What was in the living room at the McDermott house when you were growing up?

Alice McDermott: Well, Reader's Digest was there. And Life. And The Saturday Evening Post, from which my mother used to read aloud short stories that I was far too young to understand, but it was her way of getting to read them herself. And we had the typical New York newspapers. Both my parents were always reading something, but we didn't own a lot of books; we made weekly trips to the local library. Since my mother didn't drive, that was my father's job. He would sit in the newspaper section and we would have to bring him whatever we had pulled from the shelves, for his approval.

DO: So what kinds of books came home?

AM: I had two older brothers, so I followed in their footsteps and read all the boys' classics like the Hardy Boys series, The Call of the Wild, and various war stories. I remember one specifically, because someone just a few years ago gave me a copy of it: Fighting Father Duffy. It was in our school library and my brothers took it out any number of times; and when I finally took it out, the librarian said I was the only girl to do so. It's a story about a priest who fights in the First World War and then takes care of these young, tough kids from poor neighborhoods in the city by beating them up. You know, setting them straight by whacking them around a bit and saying, Go to church. But it seemed to me that if my brothers were reading it, then it was worth reading. I was very disdainful of the things that girls were reading, like Nancy Drew; I wanted to read about a man's world. As I got a little older and women became more interesting to me, I began to choose my own books.

DO: When did you begin to think about doing some writing yourself?

AM: I was one of those kids who always wrote. I spent a whole summer writing a novel when I was about eleven, and I kept diaries that were mostly made up. I didn't have a real interesting life.

DO: I bet you did in your diaries.

AM: Exactly. And that's probably where and when fiction began to be appealing to me. I mean, I wrote all the time. My mother told me to. She told me very early, "If you get angry at someone or something's bothering you, don't say anything to anybody because when you're over it, the person you said it to won't forget, and you might get in trouble. But if you write it all down, then you'll feel better." And she used to do that. She used to sit at the kitchen table after dinner and write on paper napkins and then tear them up and throw them away. That was the advice I didn't follow-the "tear it up and throw it away" part. Growing up as a shy kid with two older brothers in a patriarchal, Irish Catholic family, the only time I ever got to complete a thought or to make a statement was if I wrote it down. For many children, I think, writing is a natural way of ordering the world. It wasn't till I got to college that I had the sense that writing was the only thing I wanted to do, not just a way to deal with life while I was doing something else.

DO: As you know, I'm sure, the story of how you came to publish your first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, has taken on the dimensions of legend. What actually happened? And how did that enormous early success prepare you-or fail to prepare you-for the writing life of a novelist?

AM: I still believe I was extremely fortunate in the whole circumstance. I had finished graduate school and I wasn't really planning on writing a novel. When I told that to Mark Smith, a novelist I had studied with at the University of New Hampshire, he said, "Well, you will write a novel. And when you do, call me because I know an agent [Harriet Wasserman] who would be just the right person for you." Some months later I was living in New York, and when Mark was down on business I told him I had started a novel. Now, Mark was the person who had said to me in graduate school, "You know, I'm taking you seriously as a writer, so you've got to start taking yourself seriously." He said he was going to write to Harriet Wasserman and tell her that I'd be in touch. So I hand-delivered the manuscript because I felt so foolish even bringing it to the post office; I literally slipped it under Harriet's door and ran away. Then Harriet called and asked if we could meet, and suggested sending the book to Jonathan Galassi, who had just been made a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin. I had 100 pages, literally only 100 pages, not even page 101, by the time I went down to Jonathan's office. And I had a contract in another week.

DO: And that's why this story has become a legend.

AM: It had very little to do with me. I mean, it was simply good fortune that I had a friend and teacher like Mark to give me the encouragement I needed; and to have as an agent someone like Harriet, who respects writers and knows editors so well, and then to have Jonathan, at a very young age, take on the risk of publishing a first novel on the basis of 100 pages. I think this says there are people in publishing who really do care about books and want to nurture new talent. We don't hear that often enough about publishers.

As for preparing me for life as a novelist, it's hard to say. Certainly, having things fall into place in that way helped me to get that first novel finished-but I don't think it helped me to understand that I was a writer, or that writing was what I would be doing. I think I already understood that somewhere deep in my bones. As Harriet likes to say-wryly, which is her way-writing and publishing have very, very, very little to do with each other; almost nothing. For writers, it's a matter not so much of deciding you will write fiction with the hope that you will publish fiction, but rather writing fiction because there is nothing else you can do that will give you a satisfying sense of yourself or of life.

I often find myself beating the drum about this for my students, because early in your career it's very easy to lose sight of the fact that the work itself is the most essential thing. As frustrating and depressing and discouraging as a day spent writing can be, that day of work is also the best reward this career will give you. That's where your satisfaction has to come from-from creating those challenges for yourself, sentence by sentence, using whatever talent you have. You don't do it because you've got a contract with a publishing house. You do it because you have to, because that's what you're here for.

DO: I know one of the challenges you enjoy is focusing not so much on what happens in a story, but on who is telling the story and why. Emily Brontë was obviously drawn to that same challenge in Wuthering Heights, one of your favorite novels. How did reading the novel inspire that interest in both the storyteller and storytelling?

AM: The more I think about storytelling, the more valid it seems to me that the impulse to tell a story is as essential as the story itself. Just think about that early scene in the novel, with Heathcliff and his daughter-in-law and Earnshaw sitting around the fire, and that poor guy Lockwood trying to figure out who they all are. That's the delight that we get from stories: unraveling the complicated knots of family and relationships, figuring out how one little universe works. And how those knots get unraveled has to do with who is doing the unraveling, because who that storyteller is makes a difference in how the reader interprets who the other characters are. Wuthering Heights is probably one of the first books in which I got so caught up in that unraveling.

DO: Both of the primary storytellers in Wuthering Heights are very clear about accounting for the sources of their information, while in Charming Billy and That Night, the narrators simultaneously belong to and imagine the stories they tell. What inspired you to create these kinds of storytellers for these particular novels?

AM: With That Night, the first-person narrator was there in my original, vague intentions for the story. I had been working on another novel, but the characters were starting to have longer and longer conversations-these great chunks of storytelling and recollections-that were distracting me from what I thought I was supposed to be doing. Obviously I needed to write something about a collective memory, with a first-person narrator casting back over an event and over time, and putting things together.

Now, as soon as you have a collective memory you have various versions of it; and as soon as you have a collective memory over time you have conjecture, because over time what we think may have happened, or what we assume to have happened, becomes as much a part of our memory as those things that were clearly and absolutely observed. None of us, in relating stories, sticks to the facts. So the circling in the structure of the novel was very much a part of that convergence of retelling and imagining.

Having a first-person narrator recalling the past was not my intention when I started writing Charming Billy; that first-person female voice just popped up. I tried to write her out a number of times, because I was very tired of first-person novels-I think they are limiting sometimes-but then as I began to understand what the story was, I began to understand the narrator's role. The memory of Billy is in some way a collective memory, and in his milieu it is women who collect stories and hear everybody's anecdotes and make guesses and pass it on. So it seemed to me that it should fall to a female narrator to begin to put together and somehow figure out Billy's life. It also struck me that while you can find plenty of examples of first-person male narrators who are not trying to figure out their own lives, as soon as there is a first-person female narrator, she is gazing at her navel. So I was tempted by the idea of a female narrator who was more interested in other people's lives than in her own. A narrator to fully enter into Billy's story and reimagine it for the reader.

DO: Storytellers also figure prominently in Absalom, Absalom!, another one of your favorite novels. When did you discover that book, and what was your initial reaction to Faulkner's storytelling?

AM: I discovered Absalom, Absalom! in college, when I was in England for my junior year. Certainly, the initial appeal to me was the onrush of language in the novel, and just like Wuthering Heights, the story it tells is full of passion. But there's nothing more passionate in that book than the relentless demand that the story must be told, again and again. The sentences themselves contain that passion. The breathless desperation to get it told, to pass it on, to explain it to someone else-that's the thing that caught me up. That and the sense that the telling of the story itself is of great value.

DO: That's a quality found in your novels, as well.

AM: I'm not terribly interested in plots, and am always a little skeptical of stories that are too neat or too familiar. It's not surprising then that my interest most naturally goes to the "why" of the storytelling rather than the "how" or the "who" of the plot. That's the thing that Absalom reinforced for me-that the storyteller and the impulse to tell a story are as interesting as the plot.

Interview continued on page 2

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