The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 7, 1998
Dec. 7, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 14


Charming Alice McDermott

Writing Sems professor brings home National Book Award for fiction

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The scene: A black-tie affair at New York's Marriott Marquis hotel, with more than 800 in attendance.
The event: The National Book Awards, viewed by some as the Academy Awards of literature.
The date: Nov. 18, 1998, a day Alice McDermott won't soon forget.

It was nearing the end of the night and the question was still unanswered: Who would be this year's winner of the National Book Award for fiction? Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, a story of Irish Catholics in New York, was one of the five nominated books in the fiction category, but even McDermott admits that her odds of winning seemed like a less than 1-in-5 chance.

That was because all bets that night were on Tom Wolfe, the renowned author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, whose epic new novel, A Man in Full, was seen as the favorite.

McDermott, a visiting professor in The Writing Seminars, was seated at a table with her agent, her editor and her husband, neuroscientist David Armstrong, when the chair of the fiction judging panel stepped up to the podium to introduce the winner. In his introduction, the presenter first spoke of the author and the novel without revealing the identity of either, a speech that McDermott thought rather beautiful and eloquent.

Alice McDermott's Charming Billy was one of five books up for the National Book Award for fiction, a prize that most publishing-followers thought would go to Tom Wolfe. The inspiration for the book, the Writing Seminars professor says, came from something left out of her previous novel.

"I was appreciating his language and not really absorbing what he was saying. And, for a moment, I thought, this doesn't sound like Tom Wolfe he's talking about," McDermott says. "Then my editor, who was across the table, sort of turned to me and said, 'It's you, It's you.'"

As good editors tend to be, he was right.

After a series of hugs around her table, McDermott made it up to the stage, where she just "winged it."

"I had no speech prepared," McDermott says. "My writing time is somewhat limited, and it just didn't make any sense to spend any of it writing an acceptance speech for an award I was certain I wasn't going to be getting."

Such is the modesty of McDermott, wife, mother and the author of three previous novels.

McDermott, 45, a native of Long Island, N.Y., has been writing for the better part of her life. As a teenager, McDermott had written skits at her all-girls Catholic high school, where she claims theatrical devices were part of the experience.

"Every week you needed to do a skit about something. In that era, [skits] were really big. When you had teacher appreciation day, you had a skit; career day, you had to do skit . . . ," McDermott recalls.

The skit writing led McDermott to have somewhat of an interest in becoming a playwright, although, she says, "not in any serious way."

It wasn't until she entered the State University of New York at Oswego, McDermott says, that she began to take her writing more seriously. She entered SUNY an undeclared major, although she did consider sociology because it sounded "college like." Then she enrolled in her first writing class, taught by Paul Briand. It was under Briand's tutelage that McDermott began to understand the work that went into fiction.

"I took a tutorial with him one year, and we would take an hour in his office and go over a draft. And he would say, 'Red dress. Why not yellow? What are you thinking? Why not a comma there? Now read the sentence through,' " McDermott says. "I realized that writing was sentence by sentence work."

Following graduation, McDermott went to work for a vanity publisher in New York. She then won a scholarship to the writing program at the University of New Hampshire, where she met another mentor, Mark Smith. Smith would go on to introduce McDermott to her future agent, Harriet Wasserman. At the urging of Smith, McDermott gave Wasserman the first 100 pages of a novel on which she was working. That first book, A Bigamist's Daughter, was published in 1982 and was very favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review by novelist Anne Tyler.

McDermott says of that first review, her mentors and the recent National Book Award that she's had a bit of luck on her side

"A lot of this is just good fortune," says McDermott, whose second book, That Night, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1987. "It's the right person at the right time. They gave my first novel to Anne Tyler, and she was kind in her review. I also have a wonderful agent who has been by my side my whole publishing career, and an editor who was with me when I just had 100 or so pages of that first novel, and that was about the size of my literary career. I've had lots of support and been tremendously fortunate."

It's in part due to this support that McDermott chose to become a writing teacher, to give back some of what she has received. She has taught at American University, the University of New Hampshire, the University of California at San Diego and the Sewanee Writing Conference.

McDermott came to Hopkins in 1996 at the request of Jean McGarry, chair of The Writing Seminars. At the time, McDermott was living in Pittsburgh with her husband and three children and not teaching. McGarry was looking for someone to replace the retiring John Barth and had recently become aware of McDermott's work, especially her novel At Weddings and Wakes, a story about five Irish Catholic women.

McGarry, an Irish Catholic like McDermott, says that as a writer, she, too, was very taken with the Irish-American experience.

"I realized that her material and my material were basically the same, but her treatment is just so eloquent, whereas mine is more rough. I saw her as a kindred spirit, and I thought she would be a wonderful teacher," says McGarry, who was unaware at the time of McDermott's classroom experience.

"I was surprised to find her such a devoted teacher," says McGarry, adding that being a first-class writer doesn't automatically make you a good instructor. "She is such a beloved teacher here. She meets with her students individually, sifts through their work and works through their stories. She's unusually generous as a teacher."

That sentiment is echoed by her students.

"She's a great teacher," says Blake Radcliffe, a graduate student in The Writing Seminars. "What I really appreciate about her is that she's very encouraging but pushes you to try your hardest. She wants you to put your whole heart into the story."

On McDermott's winning the award, McGarry says the attention is certainly a plus for the writing program. Yet on a personal note, McGarry says she is truly happy that a wonderful book didn't go unnoticed.

"We already knew Alice was a fabulous writer. But the person with the greatest talent doesn't always win. It's good when others make claims for you," McGarry says.

McGarry and fellow Writing Sems colleagues and students will salute McDermott's achievement at a party to be held in her honor on Dec. 8. McDermott started Charming Bilyl in 1995, while living in Pittsburgh. The story is of Billy, who in his youth falls in love with a girl who has to return to her native Ireland. He works to earn money for her return to the States but later finds out that the girl has died. This leads him to years of alcohol-soaked depression. Later Billy marries Maeve, who loves and cares for him despite his alcoholism. Then one day he learns the Irish girl didn't die after all but rather had taken the money he had sent her, married and with her husband opened a gas station.

McDermott says the inspiration for the book arose from something left out of her previous novel.

"At Weddings and Wakes was also about an Irish Catholic community. I really thought that was the only book I would write on the subject. But I realized that there was one stock character, one stereotypical person that didn't appear in the book." McDermott says. "[Billy] interested me--the romantic alcoholic, which in that ethnic group is a very familiar figure."

McDermott's first reaction to writing about such a character was that it was not a subject for fiction, but her Irish stubbornness told her otherwise.

"Someone who is such a stereotypical and stock character struck me as something that would be very difficult to individualize in fiction. One approach would be to break down the stereotype, show that it's not stereotypical at all. But Billy is that stereotype, right down to the bones. The challenge still was to allow him to be an individual," McDermott says. "That is what is appealing to me in fiction: what on the surface doesn't sound like a novel or a good idea. If it sounds too good, I'm wary of it. Billy just got to be too much of a challenge."

Of all the attention that has come her way in the past two weeks, McDermott says it's been as if she'd been crowned Miss America.

"But in the back of my mind I'm thinking that this is the same book as a week ago and six months ago. It's not like the re-edited Charming Billy or the superior re-cut," McDermott laughs. "I look at all of this with a bit of wry eye. These things pass rather quickly, and soon there will be other awards that will get their own attention."

McDermott, who now lives in Bethesda, Md., says that normal life has already poked its ugly head. On her first day back to Hopkins following the awards ceremony, she was late because she had to pick up two of her children from school because they were sick, and then she got caught in traffic.

"It doesn't take long for life to come back to you like that," McDermott smiles. "If you really want to be brought back to Earth, have a 5-year-old throw up on you at 8 o'clock in the morning. Then you can say, National Book Award, my eye."