Award-winning writer and Johns Hopkins University professor Alice McDermott's most celebrated works have been set in the world of Irish Catholics in 20th-century New York. The same is true for her latest novel, The Ninth Hour, in which she explores how one event—a man's suicide—reverberates through the lives of those around him. We got the change to talk to McDermott about her latest work, real-life inspiration, and how true friends keep you honest.
It feels like we’re going into welcome familiar territory with the subject matter of The Ninth Hour. You’ve found so much fruit in Irish Catholic America. What is it about that framework that has allowed you to get so much creatively from it?
I never feel like the driving for these novels is the milieu itself. I sort of find myself ending up there. I’m not a sociologist or a social historian that’s particularly interested in those matters. For me, I start out trying to understand something about our common experience and then because as a storyteller you need the details, I am drawn back to territory that I know, but always in such a different pursuit that it never strikes me that I’ve returned to a place I’ve been before. I always feel like this is all brand new to me. Eight books into this job, I’m aware of my readers kind of rolling his or her eyes and saying, “Ohhh, we’re back here again?” [Laughs]
But as my own first reader, I always feel that it’s such new territory because with each book you’re telling a different story, dealing with different ideas, trying to get at very different things. For me, it’s a pursuit of what’s this life of all of ours about not just Irish Americans in the New York area in the early 20th century. What’s experience like? How do we make sense of any of this? There’s a great line, I think I read it ages and ages ago, in Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, and he talks about how we live between two darknesses—the time before we’re born and the time after we’re gone and the only light is whatever time we have here. I go to ficition for anybody who can help me to understand that period of light that we all get, no matter or how brief or long. It’s all we’ve got and there’s a lot to figure out about that.
Why do you think you end up back in Irish Catholic America?
Well, number one it’s material I’m familiar with, being Irish American myself, having grown up second generation. I grew up in Long Island at a time when all of my peers were second or third generation. Almost every grandparent I ever encountered growing up had some sort of accent—Russian, Polish, Italian, Irish. The language of that milieu I already have in my head, I already have the vocabulary, and also writing about characters who have Catholicism as a faith tradition, that also gives them vocabulary, they have ways of talking about things that they might not have the where-with-all to talk about otherwise. A lot of those things are the things I’m interested in—mortality and hope and selflessness, sacrifice, especially in this book.
In this book, you delve into vivid characters who happen to be nuns. Were you waiting for the opportunity to dive into their world with this book?
No, I think I was avoiding it at all costs. (laughs) Oddly enough, the genesis of this book was that I was thinking a lot about the idea of substitutes in the Civil War. I had a conversation with a friend who’d had a substitute in his distant family, someone who went to war so that one of his great-great uncles didn’t have to go. And that conversation stirred my interest, and I started reading historical accounts and trying to figure out how much did it cost, what was it all about? And when you’re a fiction writer, not a historian, as soon as you get something that interests you, you do a little bit of research, but you’re not looking for the historical record. It brings up this whole idea of whose life is more valuable, who puts themselves on the line for somebody else and is going to live? How long do you stay grateful to the person who stepped in?
Once you start thinking about that, you’re thinking about who died so that we all might live. That was really what started the thoughts, and that led to the metaphors of selflessness and who gives up their lives so other lives can be saved, and that led me to nuns, and I thought, Oh my god, here they are. And then, of course, you start reading, trying to make something of what life was like in Brooklyn for these nuns and these poor families, but, again, two, three generations on, how do we look back at those lives, do we forget them, do we dismiss them? The more you read about what nuns have done in this country, the more you realize that the good things they’ve done have been nearly erased and replaced with the crazy, screaming witch or clown in a crazy habit.
Were you drawing on anyone you’d known in particular when you were coming up with the characters?
I was very aware of not modeling them in any way. I went through 12 years of Catholic school, had a lot of nuns in grammar school, a fair number in high school, but I didn’t want to use any of my own experience as models because I really wanted these to be a fresh look and to make sure that each one of them was not in any way diminished by cliché, that they were fully human, flawed, striving, thoughtful. And the thing that I loved was the more that I read, I found that there were so many orders of nuns in the New York area at this time, thousands and thousands of nuns in Brooklyn alone. It was almost like found poetry looking at the names of all the orders. It revealed so much about how they thought of themselves. The order that I created for the novel is an amalgam of a number of orders, like nuns who called themselves Little Nursing Sisters, the Little Sisters of the Sick and Poor.
When you think about women who had such little power at that time, especially in the Catholic Church, claiming this kind of humility, oh we’re just little. But on the other hand, what their ambition is is that they’re going to go up and stand up against suffering, this tremendous egotistical ambition. All of it’s embodied in what they call themselves. That’s what fascinated me, and that’s what reconciled myself that I was writing about an order of nuns. And how much they did underground, it’s not subtle there are lots of themes about being underground in this novel, but it’s sort of the machinery of getting things done, taking care of what needs to be taken care of literally under the radar of the hierarchy of the church. It continues to happen. The role of women in the church, and especially religious orders, is still much the same.
In terms of your writing process, how long does it take you to finish a book like this?
It depends. I established a very bad habit early in my career and I keep falling into it and that is that I always have two things going simultaneously, two novels. And that kind of slows you down, but then it always seems to happen that one pulls ahead. For most of last year, I just knew that I had to stick with this novel, to put my head down and sink deeply into it to understand it. Except for a version of the first chapter that was published as a short story in The New Yorker, my poor, long-suffering editor hadn’t seen a word of it until I sent the completed novel to him in late December 2016. I was sort of emerging into the sunlight when I finished it, kind of blinking and saying, what do you think of this?
Have you had the same editor for a while?
Yes, from the very beginning. It’s very rare in publishing, but I was all of 26 or 27 and I only had written 100 pages of my first novel when my editor Jonathan Galassi, who was at that time probably all of 30 or 31, purchased it incomplete. We’ve just been working together ever since. I feel very fortunate. He’s a great editor because he just lets me go off and lock the door, go underground and write what I feel compelled to write. He’s very supportive.
How do you balance your work with teaching?
I tend to teach one course a semester, so I’m at Johns Hopkins University generally one day a week. It’s not onerous because I still have four weekdays and weekends for my own work, and I find it energizing. I’ve always been a little bit afraid of going too deeply underground to write fiction and to forget the real world and real readers and writers. It’s the same as when my kids were small and I’d have to stop writing to go get in the car pool line. Sometimes I would say, “Well, Tolstoy never had to do this,” but on the other hand, it keeps you real, from getting too full of yourself and your own ideas. And teaching is the same way. I love hearing what my students are reading and thinking about and I love reading their work. And there’s also a reminder that it doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in this career, you’re always dealing with the same things—how to get those sentences right, how to be honest, what’s the best way to tell the story. Every story that you start, you’re a novice all over again, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before.
Do you find that you are drawn to students who have similar interests to you, or who are writing things that are completely different?
For me, it’s what’s on the page, and if it’s wonderful and engaging, then I’m excited about it and if it’s not yet, I think it’s an awful lot of fun to sit with a writer and say, where is it? It’s in there somewhere, how do we find it? I have never taught one of my own books, I would never be able to do that. So in some ways, even if you’re the writer at the head of the table, I think you have to approach teaching. I think it was John Barth who said, “We’re not teachers, we’re coaches.” Here’s a young writer with talent, what can I do to help this writer realize fully the talent that he or she has. I forget about myself. I’ve never been inclined to say, Oh, I wrote a scene like that once, maybe you should go read that. I’m just more like, we’re down in the ditches with these sentences, ok, how come this scene is not completely realized? Let’s figure out how we can fix that. That’s the fun part. The nice part is not thinking about yourself.
Who do you read, and what have you liked reading recently?
Fortunately, I’ve been teaching long enough that it seems like once a week I get galleys from former students who are publishing. It’s wonderful, but it’s the obligatory reading. When I don’t have a pile of obligatory reading, I’m the most scattered reader. I pick up things that strike my fancy or that someone sent me, so I’m all over the place. I do read a lot of poetry because it reminds me of how wonderful and thrilling language can be in a not time consuming way. W.H. Auden’s series of poems on the divine hours was very much with me as I was composing The Ninth Hour. I’ve been re-reading a lot of Elizabeth Bishop just for fun, and I just finished Margot Lindsay’s novel Mercury, which was an interesting novel about a marriage and a horse. I just read a very, very short novel called Sisters by Lily Tuck, which I just found hypnotic. Claire Messud’s novel The Burning Girl, I just read in the last month. It also has wonderful, strong female characters and she’s just a wonderful writer. There’s always something that you just can’t wait to get to.
How do you gauge the opinions of your audience, and is that something that’s important to you?
I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I’m always sure that I’m a reader—there are plenty of days when I’m not sure that I’m a writer. I always feel that you have this dual personality, even as you’re composing, you’re still the first reader of your own work. But you have to get out and talk to other readers and realize where literature stands in the real world. And where it stands is not in a really important place. There are lots of people who are busy with things we really need, and literature is there and for some of us it feels like life’s blood and it feels essential, but I think it’s always a good idea for a writer to understand that there are plenty of people who don’t feel it’s essential. You want to be in some way including them, with the hope that if they do pick up this book, they might be surprised. I think it keeps you honest.
I have a group of old, dear friends, none of whom were even English majors who read all kinds of different things, books I would never read, and I think of them as my touchstone. As the Irish say, don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t be writing just for other writers, don’t be writing to show off how much research you’ve done, or how clever you are. You should have an agreement with all readers that I’m not going to waste your time, I’m really going to get at something that we all want to think about or are puzzled by and I want to bring everybody with me.