This Day In Literary History
On June 27th, 1953, the famous American writer Alice McDermott was born in Brooklyn, New York. She was born into an Irish Catholic family, which would influence her writing.
Alice attended Catholic schools until college, where she studied at SUNY (State University of New York) Oswego and the University of New Hampshire.
In 1982, Alice burst onto the literary scene with her novel, A Bigamist's Daughter. It told the story of Elizabeth, a young woman who works as an editor for a sleazy vanity press whose bland office she compares to an unlicensed electrolysis salon.
Tupper Daniels, a handsome young writer, shows up with the manuscript for his first novel, which is about a bigamist. Tupper has a problem - he doesn't know how to end his novel, so he seeks Elizabeth's advice.
As Elizabeth helps Tupper work on his novel, she falls in love with him. The novel's subject matter forces Elizabeth to recall the painful memories of her own father - a mysterious man who may have been a bigamist with two families.
Alice's second novel, That Night (1987), was a haunting period piece set in early 1960s Long Island and based on an incident from the author's childhood. The novel is narrated by 10-year-old Alice.
Sheryl, the nice teenage girl next door, is in love with Rick, a handsome hoodlum who belongs to a street gang. Rick's father is a doctor, his mother a schizophrenic.
Though her parents hate Rick, Sheryl sees the good in him. She also sees him as a kindred spirit who, like her, suffers at the hands of the soul-crushing suburbia they live in.
After Sheryl's father dies and she becomes pregnant, her mother sends her away and orders Rick to never see or contact her again. This provokes the troubled, lovesick boy to violence.
That Night was a finalist for three major awards - the National Book Award, the PEN / Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Her next novel would again be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
At Weddings and Wakes (1992), set in early 1960s Brooklyn, was a melancholic, impressionistic tale that starkly and beautifully captured the poetry of one Irish Catholic family's pain and joy. Mostly pain.
Momma Towne is a widowed stepmother who lives with her three unmarried stepdaughters in a small, gloomy apartment. May is a kindly ex-nun, Veronica is a solitary, alcoholic spinster, and Agnes is a busy career woman.
A fourth stepdaughter, Lucy, lives on Long Island with her husband and children. Twice a week, Lucy and the children visit Momma, to whom Lucy complains about her unhappy marriage and her unfulfilled dreams.
During these visits, Lucy's children Margaret, Bobby, and Maryanne learn from their aunts and grandmother the often painful history of the family, which has been smothered by Catholicism and marinated in alcohol.
Alice's first award winning book, Charming Billy, was published in 1998. In this novel, the Irish Catholic family of Billy Lynch, a storyteller, dreamer, and hopeless alcoholic, gathers for his funeral.
Forty years earlier, Billy had been madly in love with an Irish girl named Eva, who went back to Ireland and tragically died of pneumonia before she could return to him. He married another woman and began drinking to forget Eva. He ultimately drank himself to death.
One of the mourners at Billy's funeral is Dennis, Billy's cousin and best friend. Dennis is accompanied by his unnamed daughter, who narrates the story. During the funeral, Dennis makes a shocking confession to his daughter: "Eva never died. It was a lie. Just between the two of us, Eva lived."
The stunned narrator then takes the reader along on her quest to find the truth and learn how her father could have told such a lie to a man he considered his best friend - a lie that drove Billy Lynch to despair, to drink, and ultimately, to his death.
Charming Billy won Alice McDermott the American Book Award and the National Book Award. Her 2006 novel, After This, takes place from the late 1940s through the 1970s.
After World War II ends, Mary, a 30-year-old spinster, finds herself swept up in a whirlwind romance with John Keane, her true love, whom she marries. The happy couple starts a family that will include four children.
Mary and John see themselves and their children as a good, traditional Irish Catholic family, but as the years pass, the winds of change steer the children away from tradition and faith.
Their eldest son Jacob is killed in Vietnam. Their younger son Michael, racked with guilt over the way he'd treated Jacob, seeks escape through drugs and casual sex. Their eldest daughter Anne quits college and runs off to London with her lover, and teenage Clare becomes pregnant.
Alice McDermott's most recent novel, The Ninth Hour, was published in September of 2017. The novel, which features alternating first-person narration, opens in the Irish Catholic Brooklyn of the early 20th century.
Jim, a young railway worker, commits suicide after losing his job, leaving behind a pregnant wife with no means of support. The girl, Annie, is befriended by Sister St. Saviour, a goodhearted yet unsentimental elderly nun, who offers her a job and a safe place to stay at the nearby convent.
Annie takes the job, which involves working in the convent's laundry, and gives birth to her daughter, Sally, who later takes over as narrator. Now a teenager, Sally, who had grown up around nuns all her life, decides to become one herself and join a convent.
But her faith is shattered by a sudden exposure to the dark side of life, as she's victimized twice on a train. In depicting the lives and the faith of the nuns in her novel, McDermott creates genuine, human characters and shows both the beauty and the ugliness of Catholicism.
Quote Of The Day
"I suppose I've never set out to write a novel in which nothing happens... only to write a novel about the lives of certain characters. That nothing 'happens' in their lives is beside the point to me; I'm still interested in how they live, and think, and speak, and make some sense of their own experience. Incident (in novels and in life) is momentary, and temporary, but the memory of an incident, the story told about it, the meaning it takes on or loses over time, is lifelong and fluid, and that's what interests me and what I hope will prove interesting to readers. We're deluged with stories of things that have happened, events, circumstances, actions, etc. We need some stories that reveal how we think and feel and hope and dream." - Alice McDermott
Today's video features Alice McDermott discussing and reading from her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour, at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC. Enjoy!