By KRIS WORRELL, Staff writer
First published: Thursday, September 23, 1999
Irish expression

Alice McDermott, who draws on her upbringing for her fiction, reads tonight at the New York State Writers Institute

There 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 something bad.''

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 redemption.''

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 crown.''

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.''


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Alice McDermott
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