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The Book That Changed My Life
featuring Alice McDermott

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DO: What else about Faulkner's approach to his work, or his beliefs about literature, have influenced your own writing life?

AM: His language-the permission he gives us to let language be lush but not wasteful, the passion for language contained in each sentence. And the idea that there are many ways to tell a story. You don't have to have a rising action and climax.

DO: Your own books, certainly, don't depend on that kind of structure, or even on a logical chronology.

AM: But in all honesty, I don't proceed with any literary theory in mind. All I have is a guess about what the story requires. There's something Eudora Welty said, about how when you're writing well you hear the sound of the next sentence before you know what the words are. In some ways there's that same sense in the structuring of a novel: before you even know exactly what the next step is, you have a full sense of what the next step needs to be. That's not to say that your instincts are always exactly right; finally it has to come down to what the work requires. So I would never say, "Well, I don't like chronological narratives," or "I will never write a chronological narrative." I would love to write a chronological narrative; I love reading them. But the stories I've told thus far have demanded something else of me.

DO: One of the other challenges you enjoy creating for yourself is taking stock characters and making them fresh and surprising. How did you first become interested in this? And what were some of the special challenges of reimagining the two stereotypes at the center of Charming Billy and That Night-Billy, the kindly Irish-American alcoholic, and Cheryl and Rick, the alienated teenagers in love?

AM: I think my initial interest in stereotypes had a lot to do with contrariness. I have this reluctance to write about a character who sounds really interesting, and a reluctance to write a novel about anything that I can summarize in three or four lines. But to stay with a character over the course of time it takes to write a novel requires more than just contrariness. The ability to individualize a character, to know another life as intimately as we know ourselves, is one of the marvelous gifts that fiction gives us.

Billy was a big part of my initial impulse for the book, because there seems to be just such a stock character in so many extended Irish-American families. But the challenge that appealed to me was not taking someone who appears to be a stereotype and revealing him to be much more complex, or ironically, quite the opposite, of what he seems. To me, the challenge was to take a character who is deep in his soul all the things you would assume him to be, and still to make him an individual, and to make clear the very particular and important role he plays for the other people in his life.

As for Cheryl, the fact that she is stereotypical in her description and circumstances gave me the courage to make her more complex in her personality. The fact that she is outwardly stereotypical frees her to be something else, to have a quasi-spiritual inner life that is completely separate from the way she appears. I liked the odd, unexpected strength of someone who conforms in that way to ensure her privacy. And it makes her that much more appealing to Rick, the single person that spiritual life is revealed to. But Rick is more like Billy. The stereotype goes deeper; he's more what he appears to be. And yet he recognizes that thing in Cheryl that's unique and scary and fascinating, and it makes her that much more appealing to him.

DO: Many readers assume that your novels are autobiographical, so let me ask you this on their behalf: To what degree is your fiction shaped by your own experiences?

AM: You know, I had a great experience in a bookstore in La Jolla, California, when I was doing a reading to promote At Weddings and Wakes. On one side of the bookstore, a guy raised his hand and said, "Is this your family?" And from the other side of the bookstore a woman yelled out, "No, it's mine!" And I have to confess that I like fooling people into thinking I write about my family, but in fact I don't write about my own immediate experiences. Certainly, I write about what I guess you could say I know, as far as setting goes. And certainly I write out of my experience of hearing how people talk to one another, and seeing how people deal with each other. So I don't write characters who are totally detached from myself and from my own experience.

Actually, my students and I talked about this just this past year, and we came to the conclusion that really what writers want is the aura of autobiography. You want the reader to have a sense that you know these characters so well you must know them in your own life. I think a lot of us who write fiction are probably reformed liars, because the impulse to lie is awfully close to the impulse to tell stories. And any good liar knows that you always mix up something that really happened into the story of something that didn't happen because it gives your lie authenticity. I couldn't write anything that actually happened because the impulse to change it would be too severe. That's why I write fiction, because fiction is a way of ordering the world, and in making the world orderly you have to change it, because it is not orderly on its own. Fiction is art, and the demands of art don't allow for anything to be taken whole cloth from real life. The color of a character's blouse and the wave of her hair and the shape of her cheek are not arbitrary decisions. They're part of the author's intentions for the entire work, so each detail must be chosen with those intentions in mind. If a book is any good, there can't be any irrelevant detail anywhere-and life is full of irrelevant details.

DO: They may not be inspired by your own relationships, but I think it's fair to say that your characters reflect your own interest in what it means to be part of a family. What is it that attracts you to that theme?

AM: Well, I suppose that writing about Irish Catholics in New York is writing about material at hand; I don't have to consult with anyone to find out what jokes they would tell each other at somebody's funeral. So in some ways, writing about family is the same. I know something about families. But I have no inherent interest in Irish Catholic families in New York as such. I think the great drama of most of our lives takes place in families, and my interests as a writer really come down to how we live, how we deal with one another, how we make sense of our brief lives. And one way to begin to write about that is to write about an Irish Catholic family in New York.

DO: As Dennis points out in Charming Billy, "It's hard to be a liar and a believer at the same time," and all of your novels, in one way or another, address the difficulties of finding and sustaining religious faith. How have your own attitudes toward faith come to shape your work?

AM: I think there comes a point in your writing life-and it comes again and again-when you're able to divest yourself of all other concerns about your career, your readers, your publisher, about paying the bills, and you understand that the work is the only thing that matters. It follows very quickly that since the work is the only thing that counts, you must write about the truest things you know. And time and time again what it comes down to for me is that faith-our need for it, our struggle with it-is the most important thing. But as I say, it's not something that you decide once, nor is it something that you're sure to achieve again and again. You never have the sense that, "Ah, I have now said the truest thing. And I'm going to go and say it again." It's more like, "I'm attempting to say the truest thing I know about us, about our existence, about life, and I'm attempting to do it in the best way I know through language. And of course I haven't done it yet."

Understanding the value of literature, and taking on a vocation of trying to add some small piece to its value, has helped me to understand my own faith. Recognizing the things that make literature a work of art-its essential truths-has made me a Catholic, or made me a Christian, in a way that being raised as a Catholic and a Christian was never able to do. That's just a personal outcome, but I think it says something about the value of art that when we're able to recognize its truth, it speaks to the things that make this short and often annoying life worthwhile.

This goes back to what we started out talking about, Wuthering Heights and Absalom and the impulse to tell the story. Because I'm interested in that impulse, I've come to regard it as something more than a kind of personality tic among humans. I'm loath to put it into language, because it sounds a little bit too touchy-feely even for me to bear, but the impulse to make art, to use language to offer our experiences to one another through fiction, and the almost breathless, passionate desire we have to tell and retell a story, says something to me about how we have been provided with the means of our own redemption. There is an answer to our cries into the darkness of "What is this all about, and why are we here?" Art is an answer. And literature is an answer. Not a blatant one, and certainly not a simple one, but an answer.

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