The Heart of The Drama: An Interview with Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is a National Book Award winner and the author of eight novels. In 2013, she was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, and she is currently the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. In September, McDermott visited The Ohio State University campus to give a reading and teach a weekend writing workshop. During her visit, McDermott spoke with PhD student Christofer Johnson about her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour, which was a National Book Critic’s Circle Finalist for Fiction and a New York Times Book Review Notable Book.

Christofer Johnson: So I’ve had a chance to read through The Ninth Hour, and I really enjoyed it. It felt like an optimistic—I read it as optimistic at least—portrayal of Women’s Religious Communities, especially. Where did that interest come into the process? The interest into women’s vocations?

Alice McDermott: Oddly enough, it came in the process of composing the novel, almost as a second or third thought. I was interested in the whole idea of self-sacrifice, of substitutes in the Civil War, when people could pay someone to go and serve in the Union Army in place of a favorite son or husband or father. Sort of metaphorically, I was interested in that whole notion of giving up of life so that others might live, and what we think about that in the 21st century. Do we really trust that anymore? Do we see it as a good, or as a mitigated good? “What’s in it for me” is really still the presiding question.

Thinking about those things thematically brought me to something I only knew vaguely from my own experience with the Nursing Sisters in the New York area, where I grew up and where my mother grew up. Sort of being there when there was no social safety net, especially to take care of women and children. And the idea that those women did indeed give up their lives for others with no “What’s in it for me?” except in the afterlife.

So as I said, I just had sort of vague recollections that those women were there. And then I started reading. As the story was developing, I realized that I had to make up my own order—there was no historical order that would fit the things I needed for the story. And then I started reading about religious women all over the world, but especially in the United States. The amazing things they have done and continue to do. And how they’ve been marginalized in the culture. You know, the culture’s portrayal of religious women is really flat. They’re either witches, or comics, or guitar strumming virgins. All of them are alike in some way. And the more I read about the orders, the founding of the orders, the way these women went into battlefields, they went into the inner cities, into tenements, into the homes of the sick and the dying, into epidemics, the more I realized it’s ridiculous to ever imagine that any one of these women is the same as another. And that’s rich material for a novelist. They are misunderstood, and yet they have to be so unique. So the novel, much to my surprise, started being about nuns.

CJ: That’s interesting that you say it just sort of developed that direction later, because some of the nuns you introduced very early on develop into larger-than-life characters in just a few pages. How did you go about making that transformation for the characters in such a short space?

AM: In some ways, it’s sort of basic as to what I think of as the duty of the novelist or fiction writer. That is, no stereotypical characters. You need to understand and then attempt to take the measure of every human character who appears on the page, with that notion of this one is not like any other. None of us is. It wasn’t so much that I thought I needed to enlarge these women and make them seem larger than life. It’s just all you have to do is pause and say, who would they be? What would have brought them to this? To this life? I mean, no power. No credit. And really the worst situations, the poorest of the poor, to go to places nobody wants to go. To leave your family, to leave your life before that, to know your future is only going to be this. You’re not going to become a cardinal, you’re not going to live in a gold-plated apartment, this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. And it’s all about caring for others. It doesn’t take, I think, a lot of introspection or even research to say, “Wow, every single one of these people must come to this place from a different route.” And if you look at them carefully enough, they become larger than life. I think that’s probably true for everyone. We all think we’re larger than life in our own little dramas.

CJ: When you approach a character who’s in that kind of situation, who’s made that kind of lifetime commitment, are there any specific personality types that you think of as being attracted to vocations? How do you think about the process of moving into that particular kind of religious arena?

AM: I think the more that I read about the women who founded these orders, especially since the time that most of these women were active was the early part of the 20th century, it doesn’t take a great imaginative leap to think these are women who have some ambition. The route that was open to women when they were coming of age was pretty limited: marriage or spinsterhood. If you got married, you were just going to have a pack of kids and hope you survived every childbirth. And you were going to care for your husband. If you didn’t marry, you could be a school teacher. You could be a nurse, but even in those days there was some kind of suspicion about what kind of woman you were if you wanted to be a nurse and you were a single woman. And with those kinds of limitations, when you think about a woman who’s drawn to this kind of life, not only is there some kind of worldly ambition—you know, “I want to go out, I want to take care of the poor, I want to alleviate suffering”—there’s a tremendous amount of personal ambition in even positing the possibility that you might be a person who could alleviate suffering.

But also, it seems to me, these women must have really rich and complex inner lives because there is the huge spiritual aspect of it. And they must have great imaginations because really, they believe there will be a reward for them personally, after this life of hard labor. And they must believe in that very vividly. So, it just seemed to me it’s not a great surprise, if you just pause and think about it, that these would be very complex women, and each would be an individual. And some would be easy to get along with, and some would be difficult, just like all of us, and for some the ambition would be more apparent, and for some the humility would be more apparent—you know, that self-effacing feeling of “This isn’t about me, this is about you and what I can do for you.” Going back to that idea of selflessness.

CJ: That leads into my next question, which is about the spiritual nature of all this. The spiritual component features very prominently in the novel. Was that your initial drive to capture this spirituality, or is that something that came out through the process?

AM: Well, I think that being a born-and-bred Roman Catholic myself, I don’t think you can be a Christian, certainly not someone educated in a Christian church, without thinking about someone who sacrifices himself so that someone else can live. You’ve got to be like, “You know, I know a guy. I’ve heard that story before.” It was almost inevitable talking about self-sacrifice. Here’s a religion that is all about self-sacrifice. Its reason for being is self-sacrifice. So, it seems inevitable, again, to have this group of women, who did exist in a real time in the real world, who took that notion so seriously and modeled their lives on it. There was a point when I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to write about nuns. I’m going to write a Catholic novel. Uggghhh.”

CJ: It was honestly really refreshing to read because I was talking to my wife as I was reading through it; her mother is a youth minister at their local parish. She has a number of qualities about her and a kind of drive that I saw echoed in some of the nuns’ perspectives. But it was interesting to see how much her role in that community, and the way she lives her life and looks at her vocation, matches the way the nuns in the novel serve their communities. In different ways, because she’s not a member of an order.

AM: Right, but it’s that notion of service to others, without looking for what they would call earthly rewards. And that became really interesting to me, that notion of “Oh, well, what kind of reward are you looking for?” And is there such a thing as being so selfless that you say, “I don’t want any reward at all.” Then we’re out of Christianity, because Christianity is all about the next world. So, that became really sort of fascinating. Is there such a thing? Are we capable as human beings to make a sacrifice for someone else that we aren’t able to see any benefit to ourselves in?

CJ: So, when you were writing this novel, how much of our tumultuous times entered into the writing process and influenced the way you were thinking about the trajectory of the novel, but also character development?

AM: Very much so. I knew from the very beginning that this was not a historical novel about these women, or this time and place. I knew certainly that was a setting for things to happen, but I’m not a historical novelist, and I didn’t really have any interest in just trying to recapture. Which is a fine thing for a novelist to do, but it’s just not enough to keep me interested. I really wanted it filtered through a 21st-century voice, three generations down from the stories that are told. And I always had the sense that this is a voice both astonished and skeptical. Astonished that there was this kind of belief, that there could be this kind of faith, that people could be that selfless. And yet skeptical. Were they deluding themselves? I mean, again, do we really trust, in the 21st century, people who are selfless? We kind of say, you know, get a life. Or, what are you really doing? What’s in it for you? And we respect what’s in it for you. So, I had a real sense not that I wanted to come to any conclusions, but just to look at the notion with a 21st-century eye. Not with nostalgia, not like the historical novelist would do, you know—“That was another time and we don’t have to make sense of it”—but with a subtle and underlying voice that’s saying, “I don’t know if I get this.”

CJ: You know, as a folklorist I hear family stories all the time. Whenever I sit down with someone, I hear family stories. And all too often, there is that tendency to look back on things either with a sense of nostalgia, or a sense of not understanding, or not really wanting to try to understand. And in that way, I really appreciated the multi-generational approach you used. What led you to that initially? I know you mentioned that you wanted to have this 21st-century view looking back. With skepticism, not with cynicism, though it never quite reaches that level. How did the idea initially come? Or did you take inspiration from somewhere?

AM: I think for me, it was almost something—not to make this sound, you know, intercession of the Holy Spirit or anything, I’m not claiming that—but I do think, and I think this is something that separates fiction from nonfiction and memoir and creative nonfiction: there was a voice. The telling, it seemed to me, belonged to a voice. Not to a distant narrator. Not even to the people whose points of view were being looked at. I sort of heard a voice that said, “Okay, we’re going to imagine what happened. We’re going to re-tell what we know.” And sometimes that can be very vivid, when you apply imagination to stories and open them out. It kind of gave me the freedom to be free-ranging through generations. And I think as a novelist—and I’m sure you’re interested in this too, as a folklorist—not only what gets passed on, but what gets left out.

CJ: Absolutely.

AM: Yeah! What never gets told. What never is fully understood. The stuff that’s lost, it’s fascinating to me. So, it was just the sound of the prose, and the technical opportunity that voice gave to me. And again, one generation, even if they’re observing the generation before them, they are clueless about a lot of things. I think that’s exactly like what you say. Maybe one of the reasons that I sort of shy away from historical fiction is that there is a great risk of presentism. That we take our experience and think, well, a hundred years ago is pretty much the same. And you leave out the context; you leave out the sense that here are women who did not have opportunities. Some of them didn’t have an education. There were a lot of these women who were barely literate, and then they’re thrown in to teach. It’s that sense that you have to take in the whole context to begin to get a sense of what these lives might have been like.

CJ: But you still get to see these moments of pushback. Sister St. Savior, I get the sense reading her character that she bristled a little bit under the patriarchal rule of the Church.

AM: Yes, yes! Which, historically, I mean, you don’t have to go very deep into the research. A lot of the nursing orders for instance were founded by women, and they stayed independent. They were not associated with a parish, as the teaching orders were, so they did not have priests telling them what to do on a daily basis. They had to get approval from the bishop, and for a lot of them, they had to have a priest to help them rent a convent, and all the things that men could do that women simply couldn’t do. But the day-to-day living belonged to them.

You still see that kind of “leave us alone.” And I’ve heard from a lot of religious women; it’s been so much fun. One Sister of Mercy in DC, she said, “We get away with so much because the priests know we deal with women and children. And there’s a power there, so they’re not jealous.” And this is in the 21st century. They’re not envious, they’re like, “Go ahead. Women’s things… oh, go ahead. You take care of it.” It’s kind of what the Republicans did, having a woman ask [questions at the Kavanaugh hearing], you know, “We don’t want to mess with that. You go do it.”

CJ: Taking things back, your faith really comes through in this novel especially. How much of your Catholic upbringing has influenced your growth and development as a writer?

AM: You know, I think it’s inevitable. I’ve said it many times, and I’ve heard many other Catholics especially, but other Christians say it: when you’re raised in a faith tradition, prayer is your first poetry, you know? Hymns are your first songs. So, it shapes the way you use language. I mean, it comes down to your basic DNA as a writer. Pattern and repetition and chant. I think it’s all influenced by the Church. And then it does come down to the questions that a religious faith asks us to entertain. Whether we’re on our way in or on our way out of any institution. It seems to me that those are the kinds of questions great literature asks as well. It’s meaning-of-life stuff. I think in many ways, up until this novel—which I admit is a Catholic novel—just because I’ve had characters who are Catholic doesn’t mean they were Catholic novels. But I think I found an affinity with characters who had the Catholic faith because that’s material-at-hand for me. I understand the rituals. I understand the prayer-in-the-language and all of that. For me, any faith gives characters a vocabulary to ask the questions they might not have the vocabulary for without it.

A bunch of second-generation Irishmen sitting in a bar in Queens aren’t going to say, “Huh, you know, what’s the meaning of life?” But they might say, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, wasn’t that a terrible thing?” And, “Well, God is good.” “God will provide.” “God works in mysterious ways.” It’s just a vocabulary, not that it gives answers. That, I would not be interested in. I’m not interested in trying to convince anybody that here is the place for all the answers. But as a way to think about, why are we here? What’s a good life? Do we believe? Does anybody think we’ve got anything more than the time we have? Are we more than just biological entities moving around a piece of rock? Any kind of faith, I think, gives you access to those themes, and those are the ones that are interesting to me.

CJ: Those are the fundamental questions. The big questions.

AM: Exactly. Fiction and poetry is the place where you can say not only, “Look, that happened, isn’t that interesting?” but, “What does it mean? Why did it happen?” Why spend time making things up when we’ve got this crazy world full of things? Things that nobody would believe if you made them up.

CJ: That kind of leads into my next question. What is your perspective on the role and the power of stories in a 21st century? Because we do have everything all the time now—at least it feels that way.

AM: Yes, yes we do. I think in some ways we can overdose on stories, but not on that “Yes, but why?” question. And I think not only are our attention spans shrinking, our sense of things being meaningful is shrinking. I’m always hitting my writing students over the head with Frank O’Connor’s definition of a short story. He says, “It’s the moment after which nothing else is ever the same.” More and more because we are so bombarded, and because our attention span is shrinking, I’m not sure we believe there are such moments. It’s all, “You’ll get over it. That was last week.” The Supreme Court, you know, in two weeks we’re not going to be obsessed with it.

That’s the heart of drama, that there can be moments in our lives that change everything. That change the way we see things, and cannot be undone. And I think we’re losing faith in that. I mean secular faith, that there can be those kind of moments. Everything tells us, “Closure. Healing.” But I think in our human experience, we understand, “No. It’s not. I will not get over it. Everything is utterly changed.” That’s Yeats.

CJ: Do you have any advice for MFA students, or anybody really, who’s looking at writing as a vocation?

AM: You know, I’ve been teaching at Hopkins for 20-plus years, and every year my faith in art and our need for story is renewed when I look at graduate applications and I see brilliant young people who could pretty much do anything they choose to do, and they want to write poetry. They want to write fiction. And they know the odds, they know it’s a tough row to hoe. But there’s that perpetual belief in it. I think keeping your eye on that as a young writer, reading everything, always keeping that fire of, “I love this stuff, I love this novel, I love this poem, I love this story. I love it!” It’s very easy to forget that when you enter the profession, and you’re thinking about who’s getting published and who’s not getting published, and about editors, and what’s popular, and “should I write something about that because everybody’s talking about it?” Just to constantly go back and see that nobody enters this profession because somebody asked them to. No one ever went up to someone and said, “I know you’ve never written a short story, but would you please write a short story for us?” It’s that fire to create, no matter what art you’re in—and I think it’s true of the sciences as well—that feeling of “Despite everything else, this is what I must do.”

CJ: It sounds almost like a faith experience itself.

AM: I think it has to be. A little bit delusional, there’s always that. A sense of inevitability, but joy, too. I don’t know anyone who becomes a writer who didn’t first fall in love with something somebody else wrote. And, you know, that’s a great gift. No matter how it all works out professionally or in other people’s eyes. I think the people who have that fire to do something in that way, no matter what it is, are very fortunate.

Christofer Johnson is a PhD candidate concentrating in folklore. He is primarily interested in the political agency of folklore and folksong in the Anglophone world, the cultural dimensions of power in the contemporary period, and the way that cultural artifacts impact and shape the development of national identity. His dissertation work centers on the idea of cultural resilience and the self-conscious ways that communities (especially communities of work) adapt (or don’t), cope (or don’t) and change (or don’t) in the face of an increasingly globally integrated and connected world.

Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in September 2017. Her seventh novel, Someone (2013), was a New York Times bestseller, a finalist for the Dublin IMPAC Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Patterson Prize for Fiction, and The Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Three of her previous novels, After This, At Weddings and Wakes, and That Night, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harpers, Commonweal and elsewhere. In 2013, she was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.