Written by Joanna Monaco, class of 2017
For the past few months, students, staff, and faculty have been reading and discussing Alice McDermott’s novel Charming Billy as part of the University of Portland’s first annual ReadUP event. Large and small reading discussions have taken place in the library, study rooms, and residence halls across campus in an attempt to relate to the words of Alice McDermott. On February 26, McDermott visited Buckley Center Auditorium on the University of Portland campus as part of the Schoenfeldt Distinguished Writers Series to read and discuss her writing.
Charming Billy details the struggles of loss, grief, and addiction while also describing the power of love and the implications of human relationship. It takes place in an Irish Catholic community, and although McDermott is described as being a Catholic novelist, during her time on campus, she explained that although she is titled as a Catholic writer, that title does not define her identity as a writer. She describes this title as a “means to an end, not an end itself.” She was raised in a Catholic household, but sees herself as a “mediocre Catholic,” explaining that she practices the morals and values of the faith system but is sporadic about the amount of Sundays she spends at mass. Her honesty and transparency about her experience as a Catholic made her evermore relatable to both the Catholics and non-Catholics in the audience.
During the reading, McDermott read an excerpt from a current work in progress. She read just enough to acclimate us with the story, and in the small
sample of this piece, much like in Charming Billy, she was able to write fictional characters that were much more than just ink on paper. She made her characters and scenes relatable and wrote with such detail that it allowed the reader to feel transported in to the scene in which she was describing. She took us back to our childhoods, a place of comfort and relief, which was very much welcomed during the stress that takes place in the mid-semester crunch.
McDermott writes with such relatability that both entertains the reader and forces them to reflect on their own experiences. McDermott’s art of words is one of the main reasons why human to human relationships and dialogues have taken place about Charming Billy— it is her collection of words that has brought the University of Portland together as a stronger and more connected community. While answering questions about her writing, McDermott stated that she “sees story as a meeting place for us to figure out what our lives mean.” I believe McDermott’s novel exceeded this expectation and was the perfect choice for the University of Portland’s first annual ReadUP.