By Meaghan Menzel
Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Dr. Robert Mooney introduced Alice McDermott to the Rose O’Neill Literary House on March 18 as part of the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series. She is the author of seven novels including the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1998 “Charming Billy” and the winner of the 2014 Patterson Prize for Fiction “Someone.” Many call McDermott an Irish-American writer, but according to McDermott, she is an American whose parents were first generation Irish, and her grandparents were born in Ireland. They died early on so she never really got to meet them.
“I never really felt a big part of the Irish culture,” she said. “Our parents left Ireland for very good reasons, and there’s no appeal. New York is really the best place to live… so [there was] none of that old country nostalgia.”
She never considered herself an Irish-American writer either. “I have things I want to say about this existence of all of ours, and I want to say it through story, and of course story needs scene and detail,” she said. “It was simply, I think, as any writer does at the beginning, you look for material at hand.”
Her works, according to Dr. Mooney, could still feel like anyone’s story. “Whether or not you share the distinctive heritage that has shaped so many of the characters in these books, Irish-American mostly… you won’t feel out of place… These are novels less concerned about what and where than they are deeply insightful and merciless and loving about [the] who,” he said. McDermott’s novels “have a way of allowing us full citizenship into her community of characters.”
“My intentions were never to say anything about the Irish but always to try and say something about all of us, but the material that I had at hand was a certain generation of ethinc Americans, New York, which meant for me Irish American,” McDermott said.
That being said, McDermott noticed she had absorbed some small things from her Irish heritage without realizing it. One major example included the language. “I think that just those ways of looking at the world, even ways of using language… Never answer a question directly,” she said. “That kind of love of the language but parallel with that a distrust of that, you know, that it’ll never quite say what you want it to say and it’s probably preferable that it doesn’t, that sort of Irish belief in the importance in what’s not said.”
In addition to language, McDermott also seems to focus on voices of different characters and who is telling the story. For “Charming Billy,” she had hoped to avoid first person voice, but she said, “This is a story that wants to be told in this way despite its author’s intentions.” She was also interested in the role of a women’s community. “The women are the ones who gather in the kitchen and remember who dated who and who was in love and… who told that story, so it seemed right that Billy’s entire story should be filtered through this storyteller who’s of a different generation but who’s also a female and in some way has access to both the women sitting around the kitchen table telling stories and through her father, the male side of the story,” she said.
For her novel “Someone,” she said she would constantly want to tell parts of the story through the men’s point of view given that a few of them had very interesting characters, “but each time I realized that my initial impulse to give this story over entirely to the person perhaps the least likely to tell this story was really based in the idea that this a woman who is not much heard from in her own life.”
McDermott’s husband David Armstrong, who also attended the reading, said being married to a writer involves “a lot of fun things. A lot of adventure.”
“You want to write as if you were your own first reader,” McDermott said. “[Write] something you wouldn’t have seen if you haven’t been doing the writing.”