A hush fell over the room at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference this summer as National Book Award winner Alice McDermott introduced her reading: an excerpt from the middle of her latest novel, The Ninth Hour, slated for release on September 19. In its first chapter, an Irish immigrant commits suicide, leaving his pregnant wife alone in Brooklyn save for the overwhelming assistance of a local convent, The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. McDermott held up a hand, anticipating the audience’s reaction. “I know, I know. I don’t write to type at all.” We laughed; nearly all of McDermott’s eight novels center around the quotidian joy and pain of Irish-American New Yorkers, their families’ stories steeped in alcoholism and Catholicism.
As always, McDermott conjures deep affection and sympathy for commonplace characters whose inner lives take on extraordinary dimensions. For this quality, Booklist’s pre-publication starred review compared her to Alice Munro, who has spent her Nobel prize-winning career portraying the lives of small-town Canadians: “Like . . . Munro, McDermott is profoundly observant and mischievously witty, a sensitive and consummate illuminator of the realization of the self, the ravages of illness and loss, and the radiance of generosity.”
McDermott spoke with SR about her origins, the role of memory in her fiction, and imagining Faulkner in Tibet.
SR: You’ve said that the pre-war Brooklyn of your fiction is a place you “suspect never really existed,” a mythologized version of your parents’ world. Besides its proximity to your childhood, what makes this setting so compelling to you? Is it naturally where your imagination “lives,” or did you consciously decide to go there?
McDermott: The narrator in Nabokov’s wonderful story “Spring in Fialta” says, “Were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.” I think this notion speaks very much to your question about where the imagination “lives.” In my case, a good part of it is memory—the familiarity of a place, but also of the people who inhabit the place (I don’t think a fiction writer can separate the two)—but it is memory filtered, shaped, and transformed by what the heart imagines. For me, character is often first, and then, inseparably, the place the character inhabits—but these choices often seem incidental, material readily at hand. I’m more interested in getting to, getting at, what the heart imagines as the story unfolds. A roundabout way of saying: you begin with what you know to discover all you don’t know.
SR: Has the consistency of “type” in your novels affected their reception?
McDermott: I imagine there is criticism regarding my consistency, because I’m often asked if I’ve considered writing about more exotic cultures and habits—a question that always makes me laugh: Have you ever thought of setting a novel in Tibet, Mr. Faulkner? Just to impress us all with your imagination? But I try not to read criticism of my work, so I don’t know if anyone has actually written about this. I don’t think much about my readership, either. I just pursue the story I feel compelled to pursue, hoping against hope that it’s worthwhile—of some value in and of itself—and then, when it’s finished, I hold my breath to see if the book will find readers. Of course I hope it does, but I do so with a kind of fatalism: it’s the story I had to write, couldn’t have done otherwise, and so how it is eventually received by readers is beside the point—not my problem, as we say.
SR: Do you imagine the settings of different novels in the same imaginary space? Many of those spaces correspond to actual places in Brooklyn and Long Island. How have these real and fictional surroundings converged or remained independent?
McDermott: I suppose I think of each novel I write as such a separate and complete entity—with different music, structure, voices, themes—that the idea of characters from one crossing paths with characters in another just never occurs to me, although, given the time and place it’s very likely they could. My landscapes, although aligned with actual places, are nevertheless fully imaginary—inseparable, as I’ve mentioned, from the characters themselves, but also from the novel as a whole. I don’t think you can form a fictional character and then determine where to put him or her down, like those Instagram photos where people hold up the same stuffed monkey in front of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Taj Mahal, etc. For me, landscape is character and—more importantly, perhaps—character is landscape. Brooklyn through Charming Billy’s eyes, experiences, and personality is not Brooklyn through Marie’s in Someone’s, or the nuns’ in The Ninth Hour. In each case, the place belongs solely to the specific novel—it exists only in that novel’s imagined world. The fact that I use actual place names is only of sleight of hand—aligned, I suppose, to the way a dream uses real details to trick you into believing, while you’re asleep, that this is no dream.