Before I met Alice McDermott, I’d heard a story: when her students became distracted with excitement after she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy (1998), she settled the class down by offering a hundred dollars to anyone who remembered the last winner. As the rumor went, she kept her money. Not one M.F.A. student of fiction could recall the winner or the book (Charles Frazier, for Cold Mountain).
This is a revealing wager from a writer as recognized by awards committees as McDermott; her novel That Night (1987) was a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize; At Weddings and Wakes (1992) was also a finalist for the Pulitzer. Charming Billy won an American Book Award as well as the National Book Award. Child of My Heart (2002) was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. After This (2006) was yet another finalist for the Pulitzer. Someone (2013) was long-listed for the National Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The French translation of her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour (2017), received the Prix Femina étranger.
And yet McDermott is the one wryly reminding her M.F.A. students of Ozymandias.
McDermott was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island; she attended Saint Boniface School in Elmont, Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, the State University of New York at Oswego, and the University of New Hampshire. She has taught at the University of California, San Diego; American University; and, before she stepped down this past June, for twenty-three years at Johns Hopkins. Her three children are grown and she lives with her husband, David Armstrong, a retired neuroscientist, in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were to meet last December.
But the doorbell didn’t seem to work at the house where the Uber dropped me. Stately homes were set far back on lots with deciduous trees and we’d found no numbers on the curb. Through a front window, I could see a large, decorated Christmas tree as I rang the bell again. The Uber made a U-turn and was driving away.
McDermott finally answered, seeming unsurprised that her bell hadn’t rung. “You could recognize it for being the house with the most Christmas decorations,” she said. Once inside, I noticed that there were indeed two fully decked trees, a cedar bough in the bathroom, and an Advent calendar hanging from a doorknob on a piece of red yarn.
We settled around the kitchen table and continued a conversation that had begun as a discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum the previous April, following a reading McDermott gave from The Ninth Hour. We talked most of the afternoon, roving from books to teaching to real estate on New York’s Upper East Side, the iPhone recording failing only when we discussed a public interview Alice had conducted with Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Divine intervention, she claimed.
We finished the evening in a nearby Irish pub, where Alice and her husband ordered Guinness with dinner and everyone seemed to know them. They told me the story of an Irish musician friend, a well-known box player who worked by day as a high school janitor. When an acolyte wondered whether he would ever learn to play as well, the janitor/box player asked him, “Do you like what you do?” The would-be apprentice answered that he liked it well enough. “Then you’ll never be as good as I am. I hate what I do.”
A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), your first novel, feels different from your later books. It’s longer and the atmosphere is more emphatically contemporary. It’s about the vain hopes of writers and the economic realities of a vanity press. Can you talk about the genesis of this first book?
Context is everything, I suppose, whether the history is personal or ancient. To say I was tentative about my ability to make a career out of this longing to write fiction hardly captures the despair/determination/hope/anguish of starting out without pedigree or connection or even much encouragement. I was an excellent English major at Oswego State, and a marvelous professor there told me I was, indeed, a writer. But everyone else I knew, family and friends, was wary of my ambition. And so was I. So, following my parents’ well-intentioned advice, I looked for an entry-level position in a publishing house after college. I quickly learned that all the entry-level positions at the real, glamorous publishing houses were well stocked with Ivy Leaguers, but I did manage to get hired by Vantage Press, a vanity publisher on way West Thirty-Fourth in Manhattan. In many ways, the experience was a parody of that “real” publishing world: vain and hopeful authors paying to have their books published, publishers and editors who stroked these poor souls’ egos even as they bilked them. A year of this and I fled to the woods, to the University of New Hampshire for a master’s in English. Said my dear, worried father, You already have one degree you can’t do anything with, why would you want two? I took a course in long-form journalism, and one of the first investigative pieces I wrote was about the world of vanity presses. I had no intention of publishing this piece, well aware that my fiction-writer’s impulse to finesse every quote, to reshape every anecdote, to sacrifice what actually happened for the aesthetic shapeliness of what should have happened, barred me forever from the reporter’s trade. But I did enjoy the research.
Two years later, I was back in New York and newly married. My husband was in a Ph.D. program that gave us subsidized housing, and I had part-time work reading unsolicited manuscripts for Redbook magazine—the pay was forty cents a manuscript—and young-adult novels for Disney, which paid about twenty-five dollars a synopsis. I had by then published a couple of stories, here and there, and saw myself as a short story writer. It was that tentative thing. But I also had more time to write than I had ever had, and so I thought, I might as well write a novel. This was 1980, a time when, it seemed to me, all the contemporary novels by and about young women were about feminist awakenings of one sort or another: Surfacing, The Women’s Room, Final Payments, Fear of Flying. I couldn’t help but believe I should go and do likewise. But what would the story be about? Well, I had one year of experience at a vanity press, and, better yet, all this research . . .