Thursday, April 4, 2013

Q&A with novelist Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott, copyright Miriam Berkley
Acclaimed novelist Alice McDermott is the author of six novels, including After This, Child of My Heart, and Charming Billy, winner of the National Book Award and American Book Award
Q: Family dynamics play a major role in your books. Why have you chosen to focus much of your work on the relationships among characters in a particular, or extended, family?
A: Much as I like the notion of choosing to focus my work on family dynamics -- on anything at all, really -- I’m afraid I can’t claim that kind of deliberateness.  I write about characters or situations that interest me, or puzzle me, or -- more vaguely but more compellingly -- seem to offer the promise of some kind of insight into what it is to be human, to be in love, to be alive.  
If, in the pursuit of that interest, or puzzlement or promise, I find myself writing about family relationships, so be it.  But I would never claim to have chosen family dynamics as my “subject” the way a journalist or a social scientist might. 
I see the subject of any novel as a means to an end, not the end in itself.  For me, this is the great and glorious distinction between literary fiction and everything else – except poetry, of course.  It’s appropriate to ask of some books, What is it about?    
But the more pertinent question for literary fiction should be:  What does it do to you?  Subject, story, plot is all well and good, but in literary fiction it’s language, structure, the writer’s art, that makes all the difference.  After all, we are inundated with story, anecdote, reportage, character sketches.   
We have become privy, sometimes on an hourly basis, to one another’s most intimate thoughts and actions.  Fiction that only replicates this onslaught risks getting swept away in it.  Or so it seems to me anyway.  The novelists and short story writers I love have a tale to tell, of course, but, it’s the art of the telling – the voice, the language, the transcendent detail -- that makes their work worth reading and rereading.
Q: Many of your books take place on Long Island, where you grew up, and some involve characters looking back on their childhoods. What from your own childhood has ended up in your novels?
A: First and foremost, I suppose, is the English language – which I learned in my childhood.  I know that sounds facetious but I don’t mean to be.  The rhythms of speech that I learned in my childhood as I learned English (my first and only language) have made me the kind of prose writer I am, certainly more so than any particular childhood event.  
These rhythms include the cadences of New York City, where most of the parents in my Long Island neighborhood had grown up, the echoes of various grandparents’ European accents, since most of the families in my neighborhood were first generation Irish or Polish or Russian or Italian, and, most pertinent, the language of the Catholic Church, of formal prayer and the ritual of the Mass.    
Add to this the childhood experience of parents who liked to read out loud, to tell stories, to sing narrative songs, and you’ll discover what part of my own childhood has ended up in nearly every line of my novels, the experience that’s shaped my prose.
I sometimes tell my students when they fret over what’s autobiographical in their fiction that if they’re writing in their first language, then their work is already steeped in autobiography because the language came to them through experience, not study, so they might as well stop worrying and just write. 
Q: Your characters tend to be Irish-American. What about their experiences is specific to that group, and what is universal? And what role does Catholicism play for your characters?
A: Of course I believe that on some level all of it is universal.  I can’t imagine why I would write about this community, or any community, if I didn’t think so.    
But we get at the universal through the specific, and I suppose an argument could be made that the specifics of the Irish American community that I write about (which is also an Irish American community of a specific time and place) include the way that Catholicism has shaped their sensibilities, giving them not only a keen awareness of their mortality and their hope for redemption, but also a means – a language – with which to consider these things. 
There is also a genetic (or so it seems to me after many trips to Ireland) affinity for story telling, a love of language and song that is contrasted by a deeply rooted reticence to say too much, a distrust of what is stated too directly. 
As I mentioned above, Catholicism gives my characters a language with which to consider their hopes, their longings, their lives and their deaths.  It gives them a language of supplication, even when they cannot articulate what they are asking for, a way to praise even when their own inclination is to balk at any verbal or emotional effusion.   
Their Catholicism leads them to consider life’s meaning.  That’s not to say it provides them with an answer.  The Church proposes an answer.  They, in various ways and sometimes over a lifetime, struggle to learn if it is sufficient, if they can believe it.  
Q: What are you working on now?
A: There’s a new novel, Someone, coming out in September.  And another one under construction.  
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alice McDermott will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

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