An exclusive Authorlink interview with Alice McDermott
In her latest novel, AFTER THIS, Alice McDermott provides an intimate look at the Keane family, a Catholic family as they deal with the cultural changes in American society from the period after World War Two into the 1960s.
The reader is a witness to John and Mary Keenes tenderness toward their children and each of the childrens unique struggles as they come of age in the tumultuous 60s. Siblings Michael and Anne Keane deal with changes in sexual and social mores. Jacob, the gentle son, goes to war in Vietnam and youngest child Clare strives to maintain her innocence.
The book explores the notion of family as our first shelter. . .|
While the books quiet intensity mirrors the tension that simmered just under the surface during that period, and later erupted full blown, McDermott did not set out to capture an era.
The book explores the notion of family as our first shelter, the place where we hunker down as various storms, literal, political and cultural, come upon us, said McDermott.
She notes that in some historical fiction characters get smothered by what history tells us about a place.
For novelists, McDermott observes, the question centers not on the influence of an era but on the foundations of being human.
The impulse of parents to protect their children and hunker down in this first social unit goes beyond the events in the world.
As a reader I become disappointed when I feel a character has been manipulated for something other than the pursuit of his or her authentic self. |
This search for authenticity in character has been a focus of writers for centuries. Nabokov and Cheever are authors who believed in the full humanity of their characters. You are drawn to their characters, even if you dont like them. I dont want to be them, but they are me, said McDermott.
She notes that she writes as a reader first. As a reader I become disappointed when I feel a character has been manipulated for something other than the pursuit of his or her authentic self.
So McDermott saves her research until the novel is well underway so that the research doesnt smother the characters or thwart the natural development of the story. I get a good solid sense of the voice of the novel first.
Adherence to the characters authentic nature set up a challenge for McDermott.
"I didnt want to write a novel about a kid who goes to Vietnam and gets killed . . ." |
I found myself dismayed at what was becoming the central event of the book Jacobs death. I didnt want to write a novel about a kid who goes to Vietnam and gets killed, but I realized it would have been dishonest for me to bring Jacob home, said McDermott.
However, the grief over Jacobs death was not played out on the page to the extent the reader might expect.
Trusting the characters and choosing what to include for me is guided by an authentic belief in the characters as fully formed beings. . . |
The loss of a child is the greatest grief a couple will ever experience. I would have felt I was degrading my characters emotional dignity to have dwelt on that sorrow more than I did, she noted. Trusting the characters and choosing what to include for me is guided by an authentic belief in the characters as fully formed beings whose lives have been fully created.
The creation of compelling characters that draw the reader into their world is the writers greatest challenge and one that McDermott says a writer never really knows if they have quite achieved.
Joseph Conrad said, Above all make the reader see. It is about detail, but it is also about rhythm. |
Joseph Conrad said, Above all make the reader see. It is about detail, but it is also about rhythm. There is a music to our language that we can use to say things we dont know that we mean, said McDermott.
She mentioned Eudora Welty, who discussed a writers proclivity for knowing the rhythm of the next sentence before they know for sure what the words will be.
This is the nice territory that fiction inhabits. Life isnt lyrical. We need fiction and poetry to turn it into something lyrical, said McDermott.
Known for her novels, McDermott first aspired to write plays. As a student in an all girl Catholic high school she was the go to person for short skits to celebrate everything from the beginning of the school year to teacher appreciation day.
She was encouraged to write by one of her college instructors when she majored in English. After graduating with a B.A. in 1975 from the State University of New York at Oswego, she worked for several publishers, including a vanity press. She attended graduate school at University of New Hampshire, where she wrote short stories. She received her M.A. in 1978 from the University of New Hampshire.
She was married and living in New York City when she decided to write her first novel.
Novels have more mystery in their development, more elbow room, more room to make mistakes. . . |
I discovered that I liked the form. Novels have more mystery in their development, more elbow room, more room to make mistakes, McDermott observed.
Her first novel, A BIGAMISTS DAUGHTER, was published in 1982. Her second, THAT NIGHT, was published in 1987 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her third book, AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES, came out in 1992 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times bestseller. Her fourth book, CHILD OF MY HEART, came out in 2002. AFTER THIS was named a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize, making McDermott a three-time nominee.
You should put yourself at the service of your characters. . . |
Success can have a terrible effect on your psyche. As a fiction writer the last thing you should have is a sense of self-consciousness. It shouldnt be about us, it should be about the language. You should put yourself at the service of your characters, said McDermott.
She avoids reading reviews and reminds herself of her first stories that were written without the expectation that others would read them.
McDermott keeps regular hours when writing, working from 9:00 to 3:00. The rhythm of working as if I had a 9 to 5 job is helpful to me. I am a slow writer and throw out more than I keep. It is also helpful to those around me to know that I have these boundaries, said McDermott.
She advises beginning writers to read.
I still believe there is no handbook for fiction writers other than fiction itself. Reread the books you love, said McDermott.
Youve got to see it done, she continued, Would a musician read a book on Itzhak Perlman or go see him play?
It is lovely to have lots of readers|
and hear that people have been
touched by your work.
To write, McDermott says, is to recreate the world in your own vision.
It is lovely to have lots of readers and hear that people have been touched by your work. It is great to sell lots of books, but that is fleeting and not enough of a reward for all the sacrifices you will have to make. At the end of the day I put my best effort forward. The satisfaction of that is the only reliable satisfaction.
About Regular Contributor|
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.