Arts & Culture

Class Act

Acclaimed author Alice McDermott is also revered in her Johns Hopkins classroom.

When Alice McDermott suggests meeting for lunch at the Irish Inn at
Glen Echo, it seems like an obvious choice. Critics often tag her as an
Irish-American, or Irish-Catholic, writer, and the proposed setting
conjures images of Guinness on tap, shamrock decorations, fish and
chips, and a steady stream of stock phrases like “luck of the Irish” and
“Irish eyes are smiling.” But it turns out that the Inn, like McDermott
and her work, defies stereotyping. Its humble exterior—painted yellow
with a dark-shingled roof—is unremarkable. Inside, it exudes carefully
cultivated taste, with white linen covering the tables and framed oil
paintings lining the walls. It is, indeed, a leprechaun-free zone. The
menu lists black-tiger-prawn spring roll and smoked-salmon carpaccio
alongside more traditional fare such as shepherd’s pie.

who lives in nearby Bethesda, appears to be a regular, greeting the
hostess and server with a familiarity that trumps formality. After
glancing at the menu, she orders a beet salad and iced tea. A
youthful-looking 60 years old, she smiles easily, often, and for good
reason—she has, for decades, been acclaimed as a top-tier literary

McDermott’s latest novel, Someone, was recently
nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. (The
winner will be announced March 13.) She’s already won a National Book
Award for 1998’s Charming Billy and earned three Pulitzer Prize
nominations. McDermott’s crisp, purposeful prose has been praised by
many publications, including The New York Times, which lauded her for “writing with wisdom and grace and refusing to sentimentalize her characters.”

like Anne Tyler feel similarly. “I am a huge admirer of Alice
McDermott’s work,” says Tyler, who cites Someone as a particular
favorite. “It was beautifully written and very touching, with its
unpredictable landings on different, random times in one woman’s

McDermott appreciates the acclaim but doesn’t make too
much of it, likely the result of a middle-class upbringing and its
accompanying don’t-get-too-big-for-your-britches ethos. She often seems
more interested in talking about the successes of others, notably her

What’s less known about McDermott is that she’s forged a
stellar reputation as an educator. She has, since 1996, taught in the
Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University, where she conducts
graduate and undergraduate fiction workshops. “It’s energizing,” she
says. “I enjoy looking at that first draft and thinking, ‘What have we
got here? What’s on the page that we can make use of?’ I occasionally
feel like I’m more invested in the stories than they are, but it’s
always fun because they’re so talented.”

One of those talented
students, 2003 grad Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a fellow nominee for
the National Book Critics Circle Award this year. She came to the U.S.
from Nigeria at the age of 19, determined to become a serious writer. In
2008, she won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Another former student,
Matthew Thomas, graduated from Hopkins and took a job teaching English
at a Jesuit high school in New York. For 10 years, he didn’t publish
anything, but worked steadily on his first book, which he recently sold
to Simon & Schuster for $1 million.

Listening to McDermott
talk about them, it’s apparent she isn’t bragging or basking in some
reflected glow. She certainly isn’t competitive, and their awards and
advances, though nice, don’t really impress her. On a deeper level, she
understands the enormity of how far they’ve come and the sheer
improbability of their journey.

She relates to that.

grew up in Elmont, a Long Island suburb, where she went to Catholic
school and read constantly. She had two older brothers. Her mother did
secretarial work and kept house; her father was a sales rep for Con
Edison. He worked a desk job his entire life, valued the health care and
pension it gave him, and expected his children to have similar
aspirations. As a result, McDermott’s notion of going to college as an
English major and becoming a writer was greeted with eye-rolling doubt.

wasn’t just that I thought it was an impossibility,” she recalls. “I
was told it was an impossibility. My parents said it was silly, or, even
worse, dangerous.”

But after realizing how serious their daughter
was, her folks softened a bit, figuring she could teach or become a
secretary in a publishing house. “But you’ll have to get your shorthand
and typing skills up,” they advised her.

McDermott graduated with
an English degree from the State University of New York at Oswego, where
an instructor once took her aside to say, “I have bad news for you.
You’re a writer, and you’ll never shake it.”

After a short stint
working as (no kidding) a secretary at a publishing house, she went back
to school and got her master’s in writing at the University of New
Hampshire in 1978. That same year, she sold her first short story to Ms.
magazine, an event that proved to be a professional and personal
turning point.

McDermott was out celebrating the story’s
publication with friends in New York when she met her future husband at
the Mad Hatter, a singles bar on the Upper East Side. David Armstrong
had just moved to the city from Ohio to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience at
Cornell University. When asked if they started out as friends, McDermott
interjects, “This was the Seventies. You didn’t write letters.”

So it was immediate, love at first sight? “Oh, yeah,” says McDermott, with a nod and laugh that drives home the point.

Two years later—after publishing more stories in Mademoiselle, Redbook, and Seventeen—McDermott sold her first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter,
to Houghton Mifflin for $12,500. The modest advance “felt like a
million dollars,” she says, but even more significantly, it fed her
belief that “this crazy idea I had of being a writer could become a
reality that was recognizable to the rest of the world.”

Still, her parents cautioned—her chosen line of work didn’t come with benefits.

and Armstrong married in 1979, and his career researching Alzheimer’s
disease has pretty much determined where the family—they have three
children, two boys and a girl—has lived. It’s taken them to San Diego,
Pittsburgh, and, ultimately, the D.C. suburbs, after Armstrong landed at
the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

While living in
Pittsburgh in 1996, McDermott was approached by John Irwin— who chaired
the Writing Seminars at that time—about coming to Hopkins for a writing
residency. By that time, she’d written three books, been a finalist for
the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and done some college
teaching. “I heard her read at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference [in
Tennessee] and knew she’d be a perfect fit,” recalls Irwin. “Her writing
was humane and deeply felt. She was a consummate stylist.”

accepted the invitation, “because it was Hopkins,” she says. “It was
the house that Barth built,” referring to longtime faculty member, John
Barth, who built up the program and retired before she arrived.

commuted from Pittsburgh for a year and enjoyed working with
serious-minded colleagues like Stephen Dixon, who says that McDermott
was, indeed, a perfect fit. “She created a fair, relaxed, and warm
atmosphere in the classroom,” says Dixon. “In addition to that, she was
incisive and very smart.”

After the residency was over,
McDermott was invited to stay. Around the same time, her husband got the
NIH job, they made the move to Bethesda, and she became a regular
presence at the university, though her exposure to Baltimore was limited
to reading Anne Tyler books, which, she notes, made her “very receptive
to the city.” She was named the Richard A. Macksey Professor for
Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities, which is an endowed chair, in
1999, the year after winning the National Book Award.

Since then,
she has been Hopkins’ marquee writer, following predecessors such as
Barth, Robert Stone, and Mark Strand. “As a highly visible writer, she
attracts students to the fiction department,” says Irwin. “And she’s
very hands-on once they get here, a truly great teacher.”

“She was
very human, kind, and honest,” says former student Adichie. “She had a
quiet class and grace and wore her immense talent very lightly. She was
also very sharp as a reader—she got things and saw things. I paid
attention to the comments she wrote on my stories.” (McDermott, for her
part, takes no credit for Adichie’s success, saying she was “almost
fully formed when she came to us.”)

Matthew Thomas was similarly
impressed. “Alice taught us that every story should be not just one
story, but two stories, or more than two if possible,” he recalls.
“There should always be a parallel story, she urged. With that in mind, I
will say that there is the story Alice’s work tells, and then there is
the parallel story of the remarkable person Alice is in the world.

is one of those transformative teachers one is lucky to meet even once
in a lifetime, a great writer, an American treasure, a gift to readers
everywhere. Nearly above all else, what I remember about Alice is her
wonderful laugh, which suggested that everything was right in the world,
or could be with a little mutual effort.”

McDermott has long
maintained that writing fiction helps her make sense of the world, so
it’s remarkable that making sense of others’ fiction holds such appeal
for her. “It’s just a matter of getting down and dirty in their prose
with them,” she explains. “We’re all there trying to make the story,
novel, or chapter as good as it can be. It’s a constant struggle to get
it down, get it clear, and understand that your intentions are the same,
whether you’re an undergraduate writing a short story or a writer with
seven published novels. The continually reassuring thing is that we’re
all novices when we start a new work.”

That point gives her pause. She takes a sip of tea and adds: “There’s so much you don’t know until you start writing.”

Read author Matthew Thomas’s tribute to Alice McDermott. >>