She Writes What She Knows: Alice McDermott
By Chuck Leddy
February / March 2008
More than any other writer over the past quarter century, Alice McDermott has chronicled the joys and tragedies of Irish-American families. Alice McDermott’s novels explore love, loss, faith and family in the world of Irish Catholics living in post-World War II suburban Long Island, New York, where the author grew up.
Charming Billy tells the story of Billy Lynch, his lost love, and how his friends and family cope with his doomed hopes and alcohol addiction. It won the National Book Award in 1998. In her prize-winning remarks McDermott joked, “I wouldn’t be true to my Irish heritage if I thought this was entirely a good thing. . . . I will clutch onto my Irish humility with great vigor.”
In her latest novel, After This, McDermott shows how love and faith endure through two generations of the Keane family. Once again, with beautifully crafted, lyrical prose, she shows how community, Catholicism, and small acts of kindness help the family cope with the devastating loss of a son killed in the Vietnam War. Typically, McDermott never describes the tragic event (young Jacob Keane’s death), but explores how the family finds the strength to move forward against the tide of suffering.
McDermott, whose grandparents came from Mallow, County Cork, and Bundoran, County Donegal, now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Married to David Armstrong, a neuroscientist, she is the mother of three sons.
How did your upbringing instill in you a love of words and stories?
Much credit goes to my Irish heritage. Growing up [with two older brothers], talk and storytelling were a big part of my family. We argued about politics over dinner and told stories, though not all of them were good ones. There was also an emphasis on reading. I believed in fictional characters as if they were a part of real life. Poetry was important too. My parents had memorized poems from their days attending school in New York City and loved reciting them. We all enjoyed listening to these poems and to music as well. Catholicism was a part of it, too: the beauty and repetition of those words.
Do you get comments from readers from other ethnic groups saying that “you’re really writing about my family too?”
I hear that a lot. One of the best letters I’ve ever received came from a reader of Charming Billy who said that if I’d simply changed the surnames and changed the alcohol to high-cholesterol food, I’d be describing his own Jewish family. Family dynamics are true over time, across generations, and different cultures. The sense of family tells you “this is where you began and this is what you’re stuck with.” You can’t rewrite that beginning – you can leave it, yes, and you can complain about it and analyze it for the rest of your life, but you can’t change it.
What was it like growing up as an Irish-American on Long Island in the 1950s and ’60s?
All my friends had grandparents who had accents. I thought all grandparents were supposed to have accents. My friends were all second-generation, as I was. It wasn’t all about being Irish. There were Polish, Italians, and Russians too. We didn’t close the doors and windows of our house and tell ourselves that being Irish was better than being anything else. That would have been boasting. Growing up, though, it was a long time before I ever met anyone from the Midwest [McDermott laughs].
What’s universal about the experiences of Irish-American families?
I’m not sure if I’m qualified to make any sweeping sociological statements about that. When I hear the phrase “Irish-American family,” I think “family” first. For immigrant generations especially, family is the first structure, or shelter, for a people who are in exile. I didn’t know my immigrant Irish grandparents. An Irish aunt raised my mother, and she never expressed any nostalgia for Ireland. She left, after all. The implication was that “if it was such a great place, I’d be there now instead of living here in Brooklyn.”
After This begins and ends in a church. What role does Catholicism play in the novel?
I don’t love hearing myself described as an “Irish Catholic writer,” though I do think the “Catholic” part of that phrase is far more apt. Through their Catholicism, my characters have been given a language of the spirit to express their existential longing, fear, doubt, and hope. Perhaps they would have discovered a way to think about these matters without Catholicism, but the Church provides them with that readymade language.
Your novels aren’t so much about tragedy, but about tragedy’s aftermath of memory and endurance. Why do these themes continually fascinate you?
I think these themes are part of the human condition, not to sound too much like a boring college English professor. What people endure amazes me. I’m amazed at how we go on despite suffering. As I was working on After This I’d read about people losing their lives in Iraq, and thought about their families. We somehow go on, and not just with the resilience of getting through the day, but with a resilience of spirit – even if what we tell ourselves in order to be resilient doesn’t always stand up to analysis or can’t be proven as absolutely true. We give birth again, we love again, all despite the possibility of losing everything. We should feel fortunate for all the small moments of kindness and grace.
Is the way that dark secrets get covered up and slowly revealed in Charming Billy a product of how an older generation of Irish Americans dealt with tragedy?
Certainly. To Billy’s generation, it’s what’s not said that’s important, where maybe later generations speak their minds and express their feelings too much. It’s also important who you say things to. In After This, for example, Mary Keane can only tell Pauline [Mary’s office mate and friend] that “I’ll never get over this” [meaning the death of Mary’s son Jacob in Vietnam].
In After This, are you making some political statement about subjects like the Vietnam War and teenage abortion?
Not really. I worry about trying to make any kind of a “statement” through my fiction. I certainly have lots of opinions on many things, but I don’t think these have a place in my work. But given the era covered by After This, the 1960s, those subjects were inevitably going to touch the characters in the novel. It’s the way they deal with these incidents, the meaning they give to them and stories they tell about them, that interest me.
What was it like when you won the 1998 National Book Award for Charming Billy?
Tom Wolfe was supposed to win – everyone expected it, including me. I had been nominated for awards before, had not won, and was used to being just a nominee. At the ceremony, it was a very relaxing evening for me. Right until I heard my name announced. That was an out-of-body experience, like being called on in school and not having your homework ready. I hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech, and just had to get up there and wing it. My publisher Roger Straus was sitting next to me.
He had Tom Wolfe’s acceptance speech with him because Wolfe couldn’t attend the ceremony. I turned to Roger and jokingly asked to borrow Wolfe’s acceptance speech.
What have been your experiences visiting Ireland?
I’ve been there on a number of occasions. Visiting has helped me understand why all four of my Irish grandparents loved the East Coast and Long Island. Seeing the coast in Donegal, Kerry, and Connemara, I said to myself “Oh, that’s why they liked Long Island so much.” At an event in Dublin, a man once asked me in an amused voice, “Why don’t you sentimentalize the Irish like all the other Irish-American writers do?” In Ireland, it seems that literary writers have a place to belong. Here, that’s not quite the case: people ask you when you’ll be appearing on Oprah or how many weeks your book has been on the New York Times bestseller list. You have to justify what you’re doing.
What keeps you motivated to write the next book, and the one after that?
William Faulkner once said you always write the next novel in order to get at what you failed to get at in the last one. I suppose I can retire when I’ve gotten everything perfect, but novels don’t generally lend themselves to such perfection.