Alice McDermott, who
draws on her upbringing for her fiction, reads tonight at the
New York State Writers Institute
is a sense in Alice McDermott's four novels that passionate
love exacts a price, often a tragic one. Characters swoon and
rage, the broken-hearted drink themselves to death, lonely
women die shortly after being wed.
It is not, insists the author (who has been happily married
for many years), because she is cruel or unromantic. If
anything, it is because she is Irish.
"I think if there's any genetic Irish feeling it is that
bad always follows good, and the fates will get you,'' said a
laughing McDermott, in a recent phone interview from her home
in Maryland. "Too much passion, too much anything leads to
So far, that maxim has not held true for McDermott herself.
All four of her novels have been published to wide critical
acclaim. Her second, "That Night'' (1987), was nominated for
the National Book Award and for the Los Angeles Times Book
Prize, and was made into a film in 1992.
Then last year, her fourth novel, "Charming Billy,'' a
lyrical and sad story of a sweet drunk undone by a lie, was
selected for the National Book Award in fiction. The New York
Times proclaimed it "magical,'' and The Philadelphia Inquirer
called it "an astoundingly beautiful novel about the
persistence of love, the perseverance of grief, and
all-but-unbearable loneliness, as well as faith, loyalty and
Despite the glowing reviews, McDermott was so sure she
wasn't going to win the National Book Award (for which Tom
Wolfe's "A Man in Full'' was the popular favorite) that she
did not prepare a thank-you speech. At the ceremony, McDermott
said her Irish mother would have found such an award "not an
entirely good thing,'' because it could lead to a swelled head
-- but she promised to try not to show it.
McDermott, who will read from her work tonight at 8 p.m. in
the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center on the University at
Albany's uptown campus, as part of the New York State Writers
Institute visiting writers series, kept her promise.
"There are so many fine writers, languishing, out there,''
she said, adding that receiving the National Book Award was
"like winning the lottery.'' "I'm really happy to pass on the
For McDermott, success is something to eye somewhat
suspiciously, as if it were a hungry, wild cat in the corner.
"Faulkner talks about you only write a second novel to do
what you didn't in the first, and you only write a third to
improve on the second,'' she said. "In some ways, we sort of
fear the satisfaction. If you achieve it, then what?''
The youngest of three, McDermott was raised on Long Island
in an Irish-American family. "I was the only girl with two
older brothers and rarely got to complete a sentence,'' she
said. "Writing was a way of completing sentences.''
McDermott, 45, knew she wanted to be a fiction writer when
she studied English at the State University College at Oswego.
She got a master's degree in English from the University of
New Hampshire, then published her first novel, "A Bigamist's
Daughter,'' in 1982. She and her husband, neuroscientist David
Armstrong, live in Bethesda, Md., with their three children,
Will, 14; Eames, 11; and Patrick, 6. McDermott teaches a
writing course at the University of Maryland, and writes
during the day while her children are at school.
While her own life seems to be that of an ordinary suburban
mom, in her work she tries to show "that sense of striving
beyond the ordinary. And for many of the characters, their
only metaphor for talking about it is romantic love. It's a
striving for some sense of what will last beyond all else.''
In "Charming Billy,'' the object of Billy Lynch's affection
and affliction is a young Irish lass vacationing on Long
Island, with whom he falls madly and swiftly in love. But the
young man later learns that the girl has died in Ireland
before she could return to him in the States. The story,
written in spare, luminous prose, is told by Billy's niece,
after he drinks himself to death.
"I really hadn't intended to use a first-person narrator.
Yet the voice insinuated itself almost immediately, and when I
tried to beat it down, it didn't work,'' said McDermott.
She knew she couldn't have Billy tell his own story, she
said, speaking affectionately of the character as a mother
might speak of a child. "He'd never get around to it, and you
couldn't believe a word of it anyway.''
She said she was interested in writing "Charming Billy''
from a woman's point of view. "An authoritative female
narrator who has wisdom and can make some observations that
aren't about herself was missing'' from the current literary
scene, she said. It seemed natural to McDermott that a woman
would retell Billy's tragic tale.
"This is the woman's role in the family. Women are the
keepers of the emotional history of the family.''