Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, Alice McDermott attended the State University of New York at Oswego and the University of New Hampshire. Her novels include A Bigamist’s Daughter; That Night, a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize; At Weddings and Wakes, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Charming Billy, winner of the National Book Award; Child of My Heart; and, most recently, After This. She is currently Richard A. Macksey Professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She has three children and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband, a neuroscientist. She was interviewed in her home and at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing by Paul J. Contino, professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University.
Image: What brought you to writing? How did you discern the calling to be a writer?
Alice McDermott: The short answer is that I grew up with two older brothers who have since both become lawyers. As a child, it was difficult to complete a sentence at the dinner table. But if I wrote, I could not only complete a sentence, I could make up brothers who were in awe of the brilliance of their younger sister.
It’s not terribly unusual that I wrote as a child. For many children, writing or drawing or making up songs is a way of getting hold of the world when you feel you have very little power. This doesn’t mean that you’re sentenced to a life of being a fiction writer; it’s simply a ready way of making sense of the world. It wasn’t until I got to college that a professor who, in many ways, remains my inspiration as a teacher, told me I was a writer. I was a vague English major—I chose my college because that particular school had been rated the number three party school that year by Playboy magazine. It was the early seventies and I wanted to do something good for the world, so I thought maybe I’d be a social studies major and go off and be a social worker. But I liked to read, so I ended up in the English department. I knew that I liked to write, and my family was saying, “Gee, writing? Well…maybe journalism.”
My first creative writing course was called “The Nature of Nonfiction.” It seemed there might be a career in there, but not in fiction, since all fiction writers were dead white British males as far as I knew. The first piece I wrote was an autobiographical essay. Nothing in it had actually happened to me. In class, the professor would project our writing onto a twelve-foot screen—talk about having to account for every word you’ve chosen. He went over what I had written, this made up story I was passing off as autobiography, and when he was finished, he said, “McDermott, talk to me after class.” I thought he was going to remind me that this was a nonfiction course. So I sheepishly went down to the front while everyone was running out—it was happy hour—and he said, “I got bad news for you, kid. You’re a writer, and you’re never going to shake it.” It’s what great teachers do. I both knew that I had known that before he said it, and also knew I would never have known it if he hadn’t said it. It changed my life.
Image: What was it like to grow up Catholic in Long Island when you did?
AM: If you’re raised in a devout Irish family, Catholicism is there from the beginning of time. You don’t think much about it. It’s your tradition. It’s what you are.
Coming up through the sixties and seventies, we questioned and thought we were the first people in the history of the universe ever to question. This was at a time when everything was changing. When I started at Catholic school, nuns wore long habits and were mysterious. By the time I finished, they were in business suits and were taking us to Greenwich Village to art galleries and soup kitchens. I have to say, my faith was something that I took for granted. I did not feel terribly religious or terribly identified by it.
I found myself edging back to the formal church as my children were born. You grow up a little more, you get married and have children, and you see the world out there and think, how am I going to make any sense of this to them, and how will they get along when I’m not making sense of it to them? Then you look back at the church and think, if I give them this, at least they’ll have something to rebel against. I say, give them faith; let them have the same journey my contemporaries had, even if it’s toward a rejection of it.
Image: Could you talk a little about those Catholic moments that stand out in your own childhood? What tone do those have for you?
AM: On one hand, there’s the collection of lived clichés: frightening nuns and wonderful nuns and distant priests and marvelous priests and the rituals and the formality. If it was Sunday morning, you were at ten o’clock mass. You went to Catholic school. These things were taken for granted. But on the other hand—and maybe this is something I appreciate with distance—both my parents, although they were Catholics to the letter of the law, were extremely tolerant, discussed things, and did not worship the clergy.
Image: Were there parts of church teaching that you especially bridled under when you became an adolescent?
AM: When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, a young priest, right out of seminary, came in to teach us about reading the Bible as allegory. This was the first time that a priest actually taught us. The others came in only to give out report cards, and to be fawned over by nuns twice their age. He said, “Look. You have to understand that the people who wrote the Bible used the language of their day. So if I’m writing today, and I write, ‘A beautiful tomato came walking down the street,’ you and I know I don’t mean a literal tomato, I mean a beautiful woman. But in a couple of centuries, someone might find what I’ve written and say, ‘Back in the 1960s, tomatoes walked the streets!’”
Of course he never thought that maybe we shouldn’t refer to women as tomatoes. But he gave us permission to think about what the Bible meant, not merely what it said. Suddenly, religion class wasn’t about simply memorizing; it was about understanding.
I went to an all-girl Catholic high school in the early seventies. In my freshman year, the nuns had gotten out of the old habits and gone into the new. They were full of enthusiasm. Vatican II had set a fire under these women. They were very sincere, and they wanted to engage us in discussions about everything. Our turning away, or scorn, or intolerance, had more to do with adolescence than theology. Of course we made jokes. One nun had a question box so that we could write any question—and our challenge was, who could make her blush? Having been raised in a family where Catholicism didn’t feel like a burden made things easier.
Image: You could talk frankly with your parents when you were in adolescence and starting to ask questions?
AM: Sure. That’s not to say that we didn’t have our arguments. I stood fast against many of the things they believed in, but I think once they realized they had teenagers in the house—much to their chagrin—they cleared the way for that. For first generation, bred-in-the-bone Irish Catholics, they were not intolerant. They did not see the ritual of the church as the center. They had a reasonable attitude about it. As a result, they made it something I could think about and reject at times and go back to, and not something so controlling that I would either have to accept it fully or reject it fully. They conveyed a sense of what is essential to the church, and what is part of but not essential to it.
I see the church not as something that can evolve, but something that must evolve. The church has been so wrong so many times, and has corrected itself, sometimes more thoroughly than others. The church is human, you know.
Image: But don’t we believe the Holy Spirit is also working through it?
AM: Exactly, but look what the Holy Spirit has to work with—us. It’s a tough job. When the church digs in and says, “No more discussion, no more thought,” it’s cutting itself off from what is required of it. In its attitude toward the ordination of women, I have come to believe that the church is in grave moral peril. I think this is the crack in the foundation that could take down the church. And it’s very frustrating.
Image: But you’re still there.
AM: A lot of women are. What the church hierarchy doesn’t understand is this: when they see women running things and being faithful and still practicing, they think that’s a sign that they’re right, and that those who have left because they can’t tolerate it are wrong. What they miss is that many of us can’t leave the church. It’s us; we are the church. It’s almost genetic. There’s no place else for us to go.
Image: You couldn’t just become a Lutheran, or Episcopalian?
AM: No. I mean, I could do it—I could do anything, for the most part. But I would feel in permanent exile from where I should be. And the church hasn’t recognized this. What should be an urgent, ongoing, passionate discussion is shut off and dismissed.
As a result, many of us keep our anguish to ourselves. It’s a real anguish, and the hierarchy’s refusal to acknowledge it diminishes the church. Most of the practicing Catholic women I know dismiss the church’s rationale for an all-male clergy as bunk. They roll their eyes as if the church in this regard is a dearly beloved spouse who’s also a bigot: “I love him, he’s a great guy most of the time, so when he talks about ‘niggers,’ just don’t listen to him.” This diminishes the church and it diminishes us.
Image: What feelings do you have about Humanae Vitae? Is there anything prophetic in the idea that there is a kind of contraceptive mindset that creates a distortion of what sexuality was meant to be, at its best?
AM: When the church holds tightly to laws that don’t always give compassion its due, I’m worried. Our church is based on the importance of the single individual. Christ died for all of us; every life is valuable. That’s what compels us to look at every single individual with compassion.
Image: In your Commonweal essay on abortion, you talk about every life mattering. You write that you want to do without the sloganeering of pro-life versus pro-choice. But is it possible that this issue could be a nonnegotiable?
AM: No, I don’t think so. There are always individual cases that will defy us. And we are not looking at each individual as a true human being if we make sweeping statements and allow no discussion.
And this brings out other contradictions. The church hasn’t been able to weave a seamless garment out of its pro-life stance: war sometimes can be justified by a single politician, and yet the ending of an unborn life can never be justified by a single man or woman, according to the church. That’s a contradiction to me. If the church says to the individual, “You may die if you deliver this child; your other children may be made motherless or you may be burdened beyond your capacity, but you have no right to end this unborn life. You must find an alternative solution,” then it must say to a government, even after an event like 9/11, “There will be more people flying planes, and more people will die, but you have no right to kill over this.”
Image: You’re raising children now, as Catholics. Are your kids taking it in? Do you hope that it will stick, or are you ambivalent?
AM: When I had children, I saw the wisdom of my parents’ faith about the church, that the church was a sanctuary, a community, a way to shape your thoughts about the world. I wanted to give my children that. My oldest son is not only a better Catholic than I’d ever hope to be, he’s a much smarter Catholic. It is the way he sees the world, the way he thinks about the world. I feel more amazement than pride. I don’t feel that it’s anything I did. My own irreverence has never been disguised, and could have corrupted as easily as it could have encouraged.
My older brothers and my girlfriends from high school still chuckle when they find that I’m representing the Catholic voice to anyone. They ask me if the Catholic Church knows I’m speaking for it.
Image: You say Catholicism is the way your son sees the world. If you had to pick three or four aspects of a Catholic way of seeing, what would they be?
AM: He’s generous with his compassion; he has a sense of obligation, a sense of the essentials, and the Spirit. He reacts against bigotry and any kind of economic unfairness in a visceral way. Social service is something that his generation has all over our generation. For them, it’s not rhetoric. They look at us arguing over women priests and birth control, even the priest scandal, and they shake it off. They are more of a doing than a talking generation in their faith. We’re the generation who watched our parents struggling with the vernacular mass, the nuns shedding their traditional habits, meat on Fridays. Our children didn’t have to struggle with so much nonsense. They seem to me to be more readily able to connect their religious education to their lives in the real world.
My son is a jazz pianist. I think he sees the hours he’s put into practicing and perfecting his piano as part of his spiritual life.
My daughter is a complete iconoclast. She gives her religion teachers a run for their money. In fifth grade, when Sister Nina asked how many sacraments there were, she answered, “Seven for men and six for women.”
Image: Did she get that from you?
AM: No, she did not hear that at home. When I heard about it, I thought, “Oh no,” remembering the nuns I had. But Sister Nina, who has been teaching forever, said, “Good for you, you’re thinking.”
Image: Catholic writers like Andre Dubus and Ron Hansen have written about the importance of sacrament in their work. What do the sacraments mean to you and your writing?
AM: The Eucharist has to be essential for those of us who believe. The idea of sacrament—an outward sign elevated into something else, the ordinary made into occasions of grace—is essential. It becomes a way of thinking about the world, rather than just the way a religion is run.
Ritual has a value; it transforms the ordinary. The liturgical year makes you stop and think about things. You may come to your own conclusion about the meaning of that ritual, you may reject it, but to perform it is to have it work into your daily life, and work into the way you live year to year. You pause and think about the death on the cross, the resurrection, the birth, the parables.
The Catholicism in my writing is not there because I’m interested in Catholicism or even because I was raised Catholic. I have used Catholicism simply to give my characters a vocabulary that they might not otherwise have. These are people who would not know how to give language to their experience, who would not know how to say, “There’s got to be something more than this,” or “I’ve found something more than this,” if they couldn’t also say “redemption” or “ascension.” My sense of all religions is that all we’re doing is giving language to our common experience of uncertainty, of yearning.
Image: In your first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter, an editor, Elizabeth, meets a man named Tupper who wants to be a writer. In an early scene, as she prepares to meet him, she’s writing on a pad: “This is the day that the Lord hath made.” She wonders where the phrase came from—“remnants of Catholic brainwashing or God trying to get a message to her?” Of all the sentences that could have come out, there it is, this verse from the Psalms.
Has the faith you imbibed in an unconscious way informed what you’ve written about and how you’ve written?
AM: I don’t claim this as any kind of unique experience, but for me, the transition away from the church was accompanied by a discovery of literature. The questions that the church taught me to ask and, it seemed, was refusing to answer, or was giving answers that did not satisfy—I discovered that these same questions were being asked in more complex ways in literature. And not necessarily faith-based literature. There was a time in my life when I would have run for the hills if anyone had asked me to read faith-based literature. But the great writers were talking about death, suffering, the meaning of life, and how we get through and live. They were also reiterating the sacredness of the individual, and the individual mind. Great literature allows you to forget your own mind and enter into the life of another human being, to recognize our common humanity and hear their inner voice, to glimpse their soul. It wasn’t that I rejected one and found the other. The church only took me so far, and literature itself was addressing all these same things.
Also, the church gave me that sense of language used well. Though some things were falling out of the liturgy at that time, the church had prepared me for literature through chant, repetition, set prayer. Even though you say something a hundred times, the language transcends itself. I was finding that in literature: the pattern and the rhythm, language that casts a spell, calls forth spirits.
Image: Throughout your second novel, That Night, there’s an incantatory invoking of this crucial evening, a repetition of the phrase “that night.”
Do you ever find yourself praying as you write, or after you write, or before you write? You mentioned this incantatory quality of words, and in your writing you seem to have a sense of there being more than just what is right in front of us—a sense of the mystery of things. Do you find yourself tapping into that through prayer?
AM: Yeah. There are different kinds of prayer. There’s the substantial work, and there’s “knock on wood; don’t let me screw this up today.” There’s a scene in the movie Amadeus, when Salieri is composing a little piece that’s going to celebrate Mozart. He writes it, and it’s beautiful. He looks at the crucifix and says, “Thank you.” Then Mozart comes in and destroys the piece. He plays it himself and Salieri sees how mundane it is. The next scene is the crucifix being dropped in the trash. There’s a wonderful irony and fear there. The moment I think “God has blessed my work” is the moment I’m in trouble. As if God doesn’t have better things to do than worry about whether I can pull off this character or this chapter or not. It seems to me that if I’m asking for God’s favor, I’m not humbled by the work before me.
When I invoke God in my work, it’s after I’ve done a lot of it, and I’m worn out, and I’m totally uncertain. I’m in the dark about not only this particular scene or this particular novel, but life in general, and whether I should be doing this or not. If I can say, “I labored at this, Lord, eight hours today, doing my best,” then I can say, “Bless my work.” But to say it before it seems like presumption.
Image: You mentioned that your son is a musician. I recently heard Bobbie Ann Mason comment on how important the musical metaphor is for writing. She says a writer often begins with a certain tone, more than with words. Do you find that’s true? I seem to sense that in your books.
AM: I think it was Eudora Welty who said that you know the sound of the sentence before you know the words. I think that’s true, not just for a sentence, but for a scene, even for a work as a whole. There’s the sound of it, indefinable and not given to language yet.
Image: In your novel Child of My Heart, Theresa, a lovable teenager, does something rather surprising: she chooses to lose her virginity to an old, egocentric Abstract-Expressionist painter on Long Island. You’ve said that one of your readers came up to you in a bookstore and said, “How could you do that?” Were you surprised by Theresa, and, more generally, do your characters surprise you?
AM: My husband is a neuroscientist, and he gets very impatient with these discussions. “I didn’t know they were going to do that,” I’ll say. He’ll say, “Of course you knew! You couldn’t have written it if you hadn’t known.”
Early in my career I was on a panel with two other writers, and someone asked us where we got our inspiration. The elder illustrious writer said, “The Holy Spirit,” and the younger one said, “Me too.” Years later, someone showed me a photo of the panel, and everything I was thinking was on my face: I don’t know what they’re talking about. I haven’t seen any flames of fire over my head when I’m writing. I’m just clutching at straws. So I hesitate to make it sound too cosmically surprising. I’m not channeling anyone.
But on the other hand, the glory and the redemptive quality of literature, of the creative act, is that something is there that we don’t totally apprehend. That is true of us as readers, and so it must be true for the creator of the piece as well. There’s the sense of writer as instrument. On the secular side, you could say it’s the subconscious working through.
It seems to me that when you start a piece of fiction, in that first line, you can say anything. You are God in his heaven. You are creating the world anew. But once you’ve written that first line, the second has to follow. And what you’ve said in the first two limits what you can say in the third. So, forty pages into a story, you don’t have every option. You have to be true to the story and the characters as you’ve created them. You might want a character to act one way, but that’s not the character you’ve created thus far. You’ve limited your own options, because you’ve defined the character. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the character came out of the blue, or appeared on my desk and said, “I won’t do that.” Options begin to shut down as you develop a situation and a character. It comes to a point where, as a writer, you feel as if you’re not the one making choices for the characters. There’s inevitability. The character must do this based on what has come before.
All of the novel has come to a point where there’s a sense of inevitability, where I would not be true to the characters or the story or my own vision—even if it’s not the vision I intended to convey when I began—if I changed or imposed something. When I found out that Theresa was what she was, the whole abuse scandal was breaking in the Catholic Church. Here I am, supposedly a Catholic writer, and I seem to be condoning molestation. But all that stuff has to stay outside the door. It’s the story and it’s the character. I need to believe in this character so fully as to say, “She has to do that and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Image: The way Theresa treats children in the book is beautiful. She struck me as saintly—not only because she’s so full of life and joy, but because she’s so deeply lovingly attentive to these children, especially Daisy Mae, who is terminally ill. Dennis Lynch in Charming Billy also strikes me this way. He’s deeply attentive, and yet he does something that’s pretty egregious. Would you be comfortable with me canonizing Theresa and Dennis and Pam, who takes care of the pregnant girl in That Night, or Clare, the youngest daughter in After This?
AM: It may be just that they’re becoming saintly. I’m more comfortable with the idea that these characters are working at it, than with canonizing them. Eudora Welty says that she loves all her characters. I love all my characters. I want to give each one his or her due. They’re muddling along, battered by forces they can’t control. They love maybe not so well, but as well as they can. They are doing their best, but often their best isn’t good enough. They fail, and they make wrong decisions. But it’s the underlying assumption that whoever they are, and whatever the ramifications, they are doing their best. Dennis chooses to lie to Billy because he thinks it makes for a better life for him, or eases the pain. This is the wrong choice, perhaps, but well-intentioned in its own way. That’s where characters interest me. Theresa is saintly in some ways and selfish and awful and fifteen in other ways. None of us is all one or all the other. Not even the saints.
Image: In Charming Billy, there’s the character of the good priest, who has a way of reaching people in their grief. One of the characters says that you can see the holiness in this guy. Would you agree that some people, through grace and effort, have some quality that most of us aspire to?
AM: I think so, but irony always rears its head. That priest comes at just the right time. No one knows what to say after a wake and a funeral, and there’s a sad scene with the widow, and he knows exactly what to say. He’s the pro. He’s done it before. Strictly speaking, is he doing it out of the goodness of his heart? He didn’t show up for the funeral itself. He’s probably been to a couple of such gatherings, and it’s his job. Can you call him a holy man, or is he just going through the motions? This is where those easily explainable miracles come in. No matter if he’s doing it with half a brain and saying the same platitudes he said last night. In this moment, in the events of this day, he gives them exactly what they need. And it doesn’t take away from the beauty and the miracle of that to say, “He didn’t think about what he was doing.”
Image: I think there’s more to this fellow. In The Brothers Karamazov there’s a scene where Father Zosima ministers to five women, something he’s done many times before. There’s something about him, an attentiveness he’s gained through habit and practice, that has enabled him to bring what is most necessary to these women. I think your priest is like that.
AM: I agree, but to me it’s not the saint who is always on target, always holy. Sometimes it’s just rote. It’s not that he intends it to be rote; he isn’t a lesser man of the cloth because of it, but it’s the circumstance of our lives. And in fact it’s more wonderful, and more praiseworthy to me, if he was really thinking about the oil change that he had to bring the car in for, but he walked into this room full of people who didn’t know what to say, and understood the situation, and in that time and place, with those particular people, things converged, and he said the right thing and gave comfort. That’s what takes my breath away.
Image: Of course, irony can be used in the wrong way; it can undercut things that should not be undercut. But the wonderful Jesuit writer William F. Lynch says that faith is educated by irony. Irony is always occurring in the life of Abraham, and in the apostles’ reaction to Christ: “This is the Messiah? From Nazareth? Who dies this way?” Irony is an overturning of expectation, and that can, itself, be gracious.
AM: That’s the purpose of art. But you find it in the piece as a whole; it’s not in the single scene. It builds sentence after sentence, and then something happens that neither the writer nor reader expected, but that grows out of what came before. That’s so much more fascinating to me, and something I’m more willing to credit a superior being with, than something that happens out of the blue. Just recently there’s been a debate over the theory that Jesus didn’t really walk on water, but over ice floes. The idea is that every once in a while, the Jordan froze over, and Jesus probably walked on the ice. To me, that’s wonderful. The river froze at just the right moment so that Jesus could walk on the ice floes and the apostles would think he was walking on water. To me that is so much cooler than a miracle that requires the overthrow of nature. A real miracle is not an aberration, an intrusion, but a result of the confluence (Eudora Welty’s word) of time, place, character, nature, of ordinary circumstances—a confluence that produces something remarkable, something transcendent. This is what the artist does: takes the ordinary, finite, daily stuff of our condition and shapes and reshapes it until it goes beyond itself, until it yields a larger meaning.
Image: You’ve spoken about your love for the image of the pietà—a central image in After This—how it brings us into the reality of death. You’ve said you don’t want any art that shrinks from the fact that we die. I wonder about that other crucial image in the Christian faith, the resurrection. How does that figure into your work? Is that something you resist because you want to plunge so deeply into finitude, or is it something that opens up?
AM: We’re in danger when we deny suffering or turn our eyes from it, because it’s only through suffering that the glorious and impossible are available. It seems to me that in understanding that part of our condition, in understanding that man loves what vanishes, that we are mortal, in looking at that hard truth carefully, we discover hope. That’s when the Easter message begins to shine through. But we have to get through Golgotha. If we turn our eyes from the reality of our mortality, if we bring the Easter message in too easily, we run the risk of self-delusion, and faith becomes only a very fragile stay against despair.
By acknowledging our suffering, by taking advantage of the artist’s ability to individualize it for us—the artist’s ability to make us share in the suffering of others, to see from another’s perspective all the ramifications of what it is to be mortal—we give ourselves opportunity to move through despair to hope. Something in us says that we need redemption, that we are incomplete without it, that the door is not permanently closed, because if it were we would have stopped knocking a long time ago. We continue to stand at that door and call, and say, “This is not all. I’ve looked suffering in the face, and I’ve suffered for my fellow man, and still I have the conviction, more so than ever, that this is not all.” That’s as far as I want to take it. Because the shimmer of hope is in there. We have to recognize that we are in need of redemption, and once we do, then God can take over. To me the Easter message is very much contained in the pietà, but to leap to it too quickly would be false. It will not have been earned.
Image: If there is one thing that you wish writing students would get through their heads, one thing that would let them take off, if they got hold of it, what would it be?
AM: My throwaway line about the profession is, if you can do anything else, do it. If there’s any other profession that will make you happy, then do that. But if there’s nothing else, then write fiction. But that doesn’t address craft.
I think what has amazed and heartened me in all my years of teaching fiction—and this is not hyperbole—is that I have never read a first draft of a piece of fiction that did not contain in it something remarkable that the writer didn’t realize was there. Even in a first draft by a young writer writing for the first time. You could say it’s the subconscious, or you could say it’s the Spirit, but there is something that moves any piece, even the most elemental, beyond what the writer thinks it is. What young writers need to learn is not only to read other writers, but be open to that mystery in their own writing. Seamus Heaney says about poets, “We must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment.” If young writers can look at their own work, put all their intentions for it aside, lock out their relatives and teachers and future audience, and just see what’s happening in the words they’ve chosen thus far, they’ll find something new and surprising. And they will see the source of their own inspiration.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.