Between the lines
Alice McDermott is a writer who likes to get to the heart of things. With her captivating prose and her ability to walk the fine line between nostalgia and the eternal call to “make it new,” McDermott explores the impulses that lead us back again and again to family, to faith, to ourselves. Ultimately her stories offer an opportunity for hope. We can’t help but fall in love with her characters, even as we long for more of the details of the story than McDermott is compelled to give. She leaves us haunted as much by what she says as by what she doesn’t say, which offers us a remarkably imaginative experience and keeps us coming back for more.
In her latest novel, After This (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006), McDermott charms her readers again with her masterful rendering of an Irish American family and its inner workings set during the Vietnam War and Vatican II. Her novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and Charming Billy (Dial Press Trade Paperback, 1998) won the National Book Award.
A few hours spent getting lost in the words and worlds Alice McDermott creates is not just time well spent; it is in itself a call to growth.
When and why did you start writing?
I always wrote from a young age. It’s a very accessible way for people who are powerless, such as children, to take control of their world. That was my way of taking control as a child, writing a lot. Pursuing the career, the novel, is something that only occurred to me when I was in college and studied literature as an English major. I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged my fiction writing.
I write because nothing else satisfies. There is no other way that I could spend my days that would give me the sense of doing what I should be doing as much as writing fiction does.
Would you say it’s a vocation?
Yes. There were a number of other careers I was capable of doing, but there was no other career that I either tried or considered trying that held off that existential dread as much as spending a day working with words.
What about that is so gratifying?
It’s very similar to the gratification I get as a reader. It doesn’t feel so much like personal gratification as much as the work before you has found itself, and you simply have been a conduit for it.
Is there anything in that experience of writing that relates to your sense of spirituality?
I suppose I don’t initially think of it in those terms because I don’t think of the success of any given work so much as a personal success but as the work itself finding its true form.
But prior to that is the sense, which must be a personal sense, that true forms do exist and that they are there to be discovered. This is very much a part of what my last novel, After This, is about: when those moments are discovered. When the work seems to come together, when it finds its true form, it feels like a moment of grace. In any of our experiences those moments can come through, and they don’t feel as if they’re coming from us. There is some sense that they’re provided to us. As a Catholic, the vocabulary I use for it obviously is the Christian vocabulary. But I think all of us are aware of that even if we don’t quite have language for it.
Would you call it holy or sacred?
It’s not simply individual or personal. It’s about the mystery of what it is to be alive. I’m not original in this. Leo Tolstoy talks about true impressions, those moments when we seem to comprehend something but only fleetingly. That’s the wonder and the beauty of it. If we try to comprehend it fully and count it in a philosophy, language is inadequate and it begins to break down.
Grace arrives in many forms. It’s not permanent. It comes and we’re sure, and then it leaves and we’re in doubt again.
You seem to capture these notions in your work by not telling everything. Why do you do this?
There have been a lot of readers who ask, why didn’t you tell us? Or why didn’t you show us that funeral? I consider a novel a kind of collaboration between reader and writer. I don’t want to have to lead a reader to a conclusion I’ve already come to. We get enough of that in popular culture, where subtlety is a long lost art.
It comes back to the sense that language can’t quite get it. We can’t quite put our finger on what this experience is, so we have to find other ways to look at it, and sometimes the silence speaks more eloquently than any words could. We can’t get beyond the limitations of words if we feel everything has to be dramatized, laid out, and defined. Then we’re back to dogma, to someone saying this is how the universe runs. We recognize our common experience and yet, as soon as we try to define it, it no longer seems to be a common experience.
Does attempting to describe loss of such magnitude, like the loss that takes place in the face of war in After This, diminish it?
My impulse then is to leave such subjects alone and point to them without dramatizing them. We can’t abandon those subjects—we simply need to find another way to encounter them and to make them new again.
When I was writing After This, I went back and reread every war novel I have read in my career. I went back to The Red Badge of Courage. I went back to Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon and Ernest Hemingway. I wasn’t so much looking to see how to deal with this subject, but to reassure myself that it’s already been said, so I don’t have to write about it.
Were you thinking about our present situation in Iraq and elsewhere?
As I was writing this, bodies were being returned to our shores. The world was telling me: We need to hear it again. We need to find another way to confront the awfulness and the sorrows. Unfortunately there was no getting around it for me. War was something that this novel had to be about. The challenge is, how do you make us hear again what we already know—that this is a great tragedy?
The book starts in World War II, and then we’re taken through Vietnam. How do you make that relevant for readers today?
There’s the risk of the appeal of nostalgia. There’s the risk of the appeal of a period piece that only takes us back to a lost time and does no more. That certainly is something that keeps me awake at night when I’m thinking about my work. The point is not to simply recreate or bring back a time, but to use that as a means to get beyond, to what feels always true. That’s where you need that idea of looking back, with a certain distance between the reader and the events that are being narrated.
So much drama is about the details of what happened and that’s the end of the story, rather than the idea that something happened and then we went on.
The worst thing that can happen to a family happens to the Keane family in After This, and the story is about the fact that they go on.
You set your stories firmly in the family unit, with all of the flaws and the beauty of family life. Why do you do that?
My original idea for this novel was very much that sense of family as shelter. It’s the first place we gather, no matter what’s going on around us. The family is the first place of safety and comfort, flawed as it is.
The beauty, irony, and sorrow of it is that families need to break apart in order for other families to be formed. It’s like life: There’s no life without death. There are no families without the destruction of the family. But the family is where we first felt it, together, and then we have to learn to leave it. Yet we may find family inadequate and often it doesn’t provide the shelter that we had sought. Family members fail each other.
What interests me as a writer is that impulse to gather, to believe that we can keep each other safe. We want to be good to a person who perhaps is not so good to us in return. We turn to prayer, whether those prayers are ever answered. Still the impulse is there.
There’s a steady thread of Catholicism woven into your stories, and ultimately it seems to play a big role for you as a writer. You once said that the church is like a lovable old Irish uncle who might have a lot of flaws, terrible flaws like bigotry, but we love him anyway.
[laughing] And he’s a good person. In After This you get this blatantly, with the tearing down of the old dilapidated church and then the building of this monstrosity, which was very much of its time and immediately became dated. It was not what the people wanted. Yet the intention for it, the goal for it, was noble. The monsignor was preparing his people for the future. It was just the wrong future. But his intention was good.
I don’t find any news in being told that institutions like the church fail. Of course they fail. What interests me is the urge to build the church in the first place. It is the understanding that Jacob, in After This, has and tells his brother Michael: People need a place to go to. Jacob understands that in a very simple way. He’s right, they do need a church, but do they need it in the round with no statues? That was just wrong-headedness. But the basic impulse is so right and that endures.
How would you feel if someone called you a Catholic writer?
[laughing] I’m OK with that. I remember when I was a new English major, it took me a long time to figure out how Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic writer. She’s got this guy blowing away this old lady on the side of the road, and yet she’s a Catholic writer. I didn’t get it.
Would your writing be different if you weren’t Catholic?
I think if I weren’t Catholic, my language would be different. It’s not so much the institution itself that interests me as a writer, but the impulse that gives rise to the institution. And it’s the language.
There’s a benefit for the kind of writer that I am to write about characters who are Catholic, because I tend to write about characters who are not particularly articulate about their inner workings. They’re not people who would sit around and talk about existential dread over corned beef and cabbage. The church gives them language for those things.
Still, it’s not the particulars of the language that interests me; it’s that this language speaks to their deepest hopes and longings for which they have no language.
Does the Catholic imagination help you go deeper into your subject?
Very much so. What seems always true is our longing for something transcendent, no matter what vocabulary we give to that.
Our editor, Father John Molyneux, C.M.F., is a huge fan of yours. He grew up in Queens in an Irish Catholic family, and the idea of place in Charming Billy was quite evocative for him. He wants to know if you grew up in Queens, too, since your sense of local color there is so clear.
I actually grew up on Long Island, but I visited Queens a lot. The easy answer is that it is a place I’m familiar with, so I don’t have to do a lot of research to hone the details that I need. But also metaphorically it works. That place provides something for the characters, speaking to the characters’ longings and inner lives.
If I can make use of place in order to do that, then I have justified using a place simply because I know it. In Charming Billy it seemed to me that the geography of that 100-mile stretch is really a metaphor for longing, striving for what we want for our children and their children.
You make quite a few references to literature in your books. Why do you do that?
It’s equivalent to the language that the church provides. Poetry or a novel might give a character access to his or her own inner life.
Certainly in Charming Billy, the fact that Billy reads the poetry of William Butler Yeats is unusual for his milieu. None of his other relatives read; they think that since he read Yeats, they didn’t have to. Just to know somebody who read poetry—you were covered. You bask in the glow of knowing somebody who reads poetry!
Here we’re speaking to something that the characters don’t have their own language for. All the arts, for example, are represented in After This. There’s music, art, reading, film, and comedy—these are the ways that in which grace is revealed to us.
As a college professor, you spend plenty of time with young people. What do you see in their reading tastes and their writing abilities?
I probably have more optimism about the world when I’m with my writing students than I do at any other time of the week. My students are reading avidly. They’re also reading skeptically. They’re looking for a way of understanding the world, which is exactly what they should be doing.
There’s a real sincerity, especially among my graduate students, who have already gotten their first degrees from good institutions and who are resisting the call to become stockbrokers. They are embarking on this career that’s not about making the New York Times bestseller list. It’s about writing what they feel compelled to write and giving voice to their experience and what it is to be human—all so that we can see it anew. That’s how I see their motivation, and it’s thrilling. There is a wonderful belief in the power of the written word among these young writers. They haven’t lost their faith in that.
What do you think your own readers are hungry for?
I can only extrapolate from my own experience as a reader. I want to be shaken out of the doldrums, to be arrested in time and forget that I’m mortal and that I’m me as I enter into another person’s experience. I seek glimpses of grace, when we seem to connect with something larger than ourselves, something benevolent that wants us to see and to understand.