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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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