Alice McDermott on life and faith
On a gray afternoon this winter, novelist Alice McDermott paused for a pint of Guinness at the Irish Inn in Glen Echo, Maryland, to chat with a reporter about, among other things, life, literature and what it means to be an American.
“What makes all Americans Americans, regardless of the hyphenation, is that they are from someone, or are someone, who left [their home], whether for reasons of ambition or desperation,” said Irish-American McDermott, 66.
“That is the essence of the American character. It’s a kind of contrariness — and, at the heart, a certain optimism and imagination,” she said.
McDermott is a National Book Award winner, bestselling author and three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and elsewhere.
She also teaches writing as the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
McDermott will speak about matters Irish and literary at the 42nd Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society (HoCoPoLitSo). The event will take place on February 21 at Howard Community College in Columbia.
From Ireland to Maryland
McDermott’s parents emigrated from Ireland to Brooklyn, where she was born. She was raised on Long Island before moving to Maryland in 1989. Her husband, David Armstrong, is a retired National Institutes of Health neuroscientist. They have three grown children.
McDermott was only 12 years old when she finished her first novel — “a romance featuring a singing group that vaguely resembled the Beatles.” Even then, she said with a smile, “I had an appreciation for storytelling.”
She had to wait another 19 years before her first (real) novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter, was published in 1982 by Random House. (The Beatles were not mentioned.)
Charming Billy, her fourth novel, won the National Book Award in 1998. The story about an Irish-American family was adapted for the stage in 2011; the play debuted at RoundHouse Theater, in Bethesda, Maryland.
NPR reporter Alice Leccese Powers once described McDermott’s tone and her place in today’s literature: “With pitch-perfect voice, she claims Long Island her territory, just as surely as Faulkner’s was Mississippi. No detail escapes her.”
Her eight novels about the ups, downs and sideways moves of seemingly ordinary Irish-American families are known for “closely examining the cracks and crevices of the human heart” (O, The Oprah Magazine).
“Ordinary life is made extraordinary” by her “tender characterizations of women, of husbands, of sons, of parents,” according to The Kansas City Star.
Musings on great writers
McDermott said that like many other American writers, she came of age with appreciation of “the big three: Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.”
Now, she said, her students want to read more than just books by those “three white men.” Young writers today, she said, seek out books by minority writers from other countries.
“It’s no longer just Dickens, Conrad, Bellow — the wonderful writers who young writers can still learn from — but also non-mainstream writers.
“In the long run,” she added, “I think this is a good thing, trending in the right direction.”
How did Ireland inspire so many great writers, from Irish-Americans like Flannery O’Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O’Neill, to those born on the Emerald Isle — Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett?
“When oppressed people struggle to keep their culture, they do it through language, written and spoken,” McDermott said. “There is power in telling a story, controlling the telling, mastering the means of expression.
“The Irish did it. So did the Jews,” she said. “Both have a respect for the power of humor, which is a way for the ‘underdog’ to undercut the powers-that-be, bring them down a peg.”
A tough, smart nun
The Irish evening at the Smith Theater on the Howard Community College campus will feature live music and dance, as well as a reading by McDermott.
She plans to read from her most recent book, The Ninth Hour, published in 2017. The book, which has received mostly rave reviews, goes into the heads, hearts and souls of nuns who work as nurses, tending to needy families in an Irish Catholic neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early 20th century.
McDermott said she never expected to write a book about nuns. “I just wanted to create one nun who embodied someone tough and smart.” But, inspired after learning about two religious orders from France and Ireland who moved to Brooklyn, she ended up inventing her own Brooklyn-based order for the novel.
She hopes the novel will help dispel a still-prevalent notion that the sole occupation of nuns is to whack Catholic school students with rulers.
Like all human beings, McDermott said, nuns are complex characters.
“They are wonderful; they are selfish. Some have a real vocation to help the suffering of others. Some are power-hungry when running schools and hospitals Some even have a complicated sexuality.”
Faith during hard times
McDermott said her Catholic upbringing has played an essential role in her development as a writer. Prayers and hymns “were, in many ways, my first poetry,” she noted.
She remains a practicing member of the church, attending mass at St. Bartholomew Church in Bethesda. She regularly prays. But she is also critical of the church in general.
“I’m discouraged and dismayed and often disgusted by the failings of the institution and the hierarchy,” she said. “I don’t know a Catholic who isn’t.”
Last year, she published an op-ed in the New York Times in which she urged the Catholic Church to accept female priests. She considers barring women from the positions “a moral error.”
She has also been involved with a group called 5theses.com, which she described as “a reform movement that started in my dining room.” She continues to be outspoken about the church’s failings. “I’m not terribly optimistic, but stubborn, I suppose.”
Still, McDermott retains her faith because it “offers something really essential to us human beings.”
“How do we deal with our mortality? How do we make sense of and reconcile the briefness of life with how deeply we care for one another?
“That’s what I often think about and want to write about.” she said.
Does McDermott believe in an afterlife?
“I don’t know. It could be a glorious delusion. But I live in hope.”
In addition to McDermott, the Feb. 21 HoCoPoLitSo event will feature music by O’Malley’s March and step dancing by the Teelin Dance Company, and be followed by a book signing. For tickets ($40 plus service fee), visit hocopolitso.org.