I love the gifts of the church and am constantly dismayed by its failings
Alice McDermott interview: ‘The Ninth Hour is about nuns. And laundry. Sacrifice and selflessness and how the past reverberates’
Alice McDermott: My younger son plays Irish music, and through him, I’ve discovered a vibrant Irish-American (with much 21st-century diversity) community that’s thriving throughout the US. Photograph: Patrice Gilbert
Alice McDermott is a bestselling and awardwinning author, whose works, many of which have an Irish-American theme and setting, include That Night (1987); At Weddings and Wakes (1992; Charming Billy (1998; Child of My Heart (2002); After This (2006); Someone (2013); and The Ninth Hour, which is published today. She talks here to Adrienne Leavy, the founding editor of Reading Ireland magazine, in whose current issue this interview appears
Could you describe your upbringing? How much, if any, of your early life and background is used as raw material or inspiration for your novels?
I sometimes tell my students that everything they write is in some way autobiographical because our first language is learned through experience, not study. The words we chose, the phrases we use, the rhythm of our sentences, the voice of our prose – all of it reflects how and where, and from whom, we learned to speak. I grew up in post-second World War suburban Long Island, where most of the parents were city-bred, and most of the grandparents had accents – Irish, Polish, Russian, Italian. My parents were first-generation Irish, but were more proud of their city smarts than their Irish DNA. They were not college grads, but they were readers, talkers, storytellers and philosophisers. Realistic, if devout, Catholics. I guess that description alone reveals how I’ve made use of this background in my novels.
What Irish writers were influential to your development as a writer?
I wanted to be a Russian writer long before I wanted to be an Irish writer. Tolstoy, Chekov, Nabokov. (I visited the then Soviet Union before I ever visited Ireland.) But, inevitably, I was directed to Joyce and Yeats, Frank O’Connor, Synge, Beckett, and then discovered William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Brennan, Mary Lavin, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, etc, etc.
What American writers have influenced you?
I was an undergraduate English major at a time when all of us were obsessed with the triumvirate of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Add Henry James to the mix (I also spent a year in England before I ever visited Ireland), and I suppose you’ve got my earliest influences as a writer.
Much of your fiction concentrates on a specific strand of American society: the predominantly Irish-American, lower-middle-class world of Brooklyn, the Bronx or Long Island dating from pre-World War II up through the Vietnam War. How much of this milieu is an imaginative construct and how much of it is based on your memories of the lives of your parents’ generation?
I wish I could say the middle-class milieu of Brooklyn and Long Island between the second World War and through Vietnam was my own imaginative construct – something like Hogwarts or Middle Earth – but, alas, it comes to us courtesy of the real world, not my imagination! I have only imagined the characters and the stories within.
Was there every any concern that your novels might reveal private family details?
After my third novel, At Weddings and Wakes, was published – the first novel I wrote that dealt with this Irish-American world, my mother asked me, “I know this isn’t our family, but how will anyone else know this isn’t our family?” Actually, my family sorely lacks private details that would be rich fodder for a novelist – we’re pretty dull.
Do you think that the close-knit Irish-American community you portray in your novels is disappearing?
My younger son plays Irish music, and through him, I’ve discovered a vibrant Irish-American (with much 21st-century diversity) community that’s thriving throughout the US. Honestly, it’s a kind of community I’ve had no personal experience of until recently – although they tell me I’ve been writing about them for decades.
Not all of your fiction involves your Irish genealogy. Is this a thematic issue you decide consciously to either incorporate or jettison at the onset of beginning a novel?
I try to make very few conscious decisions about anything when I begin a novel. I start writing and see what I have to say. If Irish-Americans are required for the story to be told, I sigh deeply but keep writing.
In both Charming Billy and Someone, the second World War casts a shadow on the periphery of the characters’ lives. The Vietnam War intrudes more directly in another of your novels, After This, in which a Long Island family struggles to deal with the death of its eldest son in Vietnam. Was the Irish-American community of your youth involved in the widespread protests against the Vietnam War?
Since I didn’t grow up in an Irish-American community but in a kind of suburban melting pot of children and grandchildren of mostly European immigrants (see above), I suppose I can only speak for my generation, not my genealogy. Nearly everyone I knew of my generation was in some way drawn into the protests against Vietnam. It was both a moral exercise and a coming-of-age kind of thing.
Billy’s a Roman Catholic romantic; after all, what he desires cannot be achieved through wealth, only through death
Critic Sinéad Moynihan sees a connection between your work and that of F Scott Fitzgerald, specifically in regard to Charming Billy and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Moynihan reads Billy’s idealisation of an imagined ancestral homeland in Ireland in the context of Gatsby’s idealisation of the American Dream. Can you speak to this comparison?
Of course, I hoped to play out Gatsby’s romanticism in Charming Billy. As much to pay homage as to riff on the Great American novel. But I’m not sure Billy’s idealisation is of an ancestral home in Ireland. His green light across the bay is heaven itself – the afterlife where he believes he will be reunited with his lost love. For Billy, Ireland is a cold place where she’s buried, where he goes not to win her back, a la Gatsby, but to visit her grave. Billy’s a Roman Catholic romantic; after all, what he desires cannot be achieved through wealth, only through death. A very big difference between him and Jay Gatsby. (Although if you read Fitzgerald’s story Absolution– once meant to be a part of Gatsby – you’ll learn something about the kind of Catholic Gatsby might have been.)
It comes down to asking yourself again and again, is this authentic, fair, honest? Is the novel about my characters and not me – that egotistical writer self who hopes to impress?
You write sympathetically and with great empathy for your characters; however, your novels do not romanticise or glorify these individuals. How hard is it for you as a writer to resist the pull of sentimentality?
No harder, I think, than it is to resist the pull of cynicism, easy irony, mockery, wry disdain. It comes down to asking yourself again and again, is this authentic, fair, honest? Is the novel about them – my characters – and not me – that egotistical writer self who hopes to impress?
Your novels are populated with vividly realised male and female characters. Is it difficult for you to write a male character or does it not make any difference what the gender of the character is?
I don’t even think about it. Again, you write whatever it is the story demands.
Do you think there is a literary generation gap between your work and that of younger Irish-American writers?
Not sure what a literary generation gap would look like. Each generation, each writer, writes what he or she is compelled to write. I think of younger Irish-American writers like Matthew Thomas, Eddie Joyce, Siobhan Fallon, J Courtney Sullivan, Brenda Matthews, each following his or her muse to create a work of art.
I love the gifts of the Church, and I’m constantly dismayed by its failings. Kind of the same way I feel about people
The characters in your novels are often Irish-American Catholics, and in Someone, the brother of the main character, Marie, has left the priesthood less than a year after being ordained. How big a part does religion play in your life?
In my life as a writer, Catholicism certainly has shaped how I use language (see question #1) and metaphor. Not incidentally, it has shaped how many of my characters see, and speak of, their experiences. (See Gatsby answer.) I’m a practicing Catholic myself – though I probably don’t practice enough to be really good at it. I love the gifts of the Church, and I’m constantly dismayed by its failings. Kind of the same way I feel about people.
The recent scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church both in the United States and elsewhere have been a watershed moment for Irish-American Catholics. Have you thought about setting a novel in this context?
No. One way or another, it seems to me, the story would be rigged – ie, too consciously manipulated to make a point of some sort. I’m not interested in making a point. I’ll let the journalists and memoirists, lawyers and theologians handle the subject for now.
In another interview you described how you wanted to give voice to an “unremarkable woman”, which is what you do so well in Someone, where the main character Marie looks back over her long life with all its attendant joys and disappointments. This novel was published seven years after your previous book, After This. Did it take you longer to write Marie’s story than your other stories?
Not really. I was working on two novels at the same time. Something I always do. Not a good habit if you want to finish a book quickly.
For me, some of the most interesting passages in Someone are the scenes where Marie spends time with the elderly mother of her boss Fagan, the local undertaker. Mrs Fagan and her visitors, mostly nuns, discuss the lives of the recent dead whom her son is attending on below. The small vignettes about Big Lucy and Mrs Meany, Redmond Hogan and Florence Hogan and Bishop Tuohy and his sister Margaret Tuohy, take up only a few pages in your novel yet there is a lifetime of love and pain encapsulated in each of their stories. How long did it take you to sketch out their backgrounds?
I never have any clear idea about how long it takes me to write a paragraph or a scene, or even a novel. I write and rewrite every day. There does come a point in the process when you feel that the story is nearly writing itself, but the truth of the matter is that it’s taken years of writing and rewriting, tossing out and putting in, to reach that (delusional) sensation.
In the pursuit of honesty, authenticity – of putting yourself at the service of your characters – if you’re not finding humour, you’re not creating human beings, only vehicles for ideas
What role does humour play in your novels?
In the pursuit of honesty, authenticity – of putting yourself at the service of your characters – if you’re not finding humour, you’re not creating human beings, only vehicles for ideas. This, I find, is especially true of writing about Irish-Americans. If someone among them isn’t funny, you’re not telling the truth.
When you begin a novel, do you have the ending already etched out in your mind or does that emerge as the story evolves is finished?
The more I do this writing thing, the more I learn to distrust anything I’ve sketched out in my mind beforehand. Only the real, wondrous, difficult work of writing sentences yields anything worth keeping.
You are the Richard A Macksey Professor of the Humanities at John Hopkins University. Is there any advice about writing that you give to your students that you would like to share with our readers?
As far as the writing of literary fiction goes, I tell my students that if they can do anything else and still lead a happy life, they should do that other thing.
You have a new novel; can you talk a little about it?
It’s called The Ninth Hour and it’s about nuns. And laundry. Other things, too, of course – notions of sacrifice and selflessness and how the past reverberates, or doesn’t. I’ve always balked a little at being labelled a Catholic novelist – much as I balk at being labelled an Irish-American novelist (sorry) – but there were times when I thought about this one, “You want a Catholic novel? I’ll give you a Catholic novel!”
Being in Ireland reminds me every time of just how very Irish my family has always been – when all the while I was growing up, I thought we were just New Yorkers
I understand that you spent some time in Ireland on Inis Meain this summer. How often do you visit Ireland and when did you first start travelling there?
After visiting Russia, and spending a year in England, and travelling through Spain (Cervantes!) as an undergrad, I finally visited Ireland for the first time as a grad student. I’ve been back quite often since, for work and pleasure, and to accompany my Irish music playing son to various fleadhs. That same son lured us to Inis Meain, where he was doing an internship. We fell in love with the island – and I got to reconnect with good old Synge. Being in Ireland reminds me every time of just how very Irish my family has always been – when all the while I was growing up, I thought we were just New Yorkers.