by Ana Fonseca
American Catholic novelist Alice McDermott will be on campus for a Reading and Lecture on Thursday, February 26th at 7 PM in BC Auditorium. Alice McDermott is the winner of the National Book Award for Charming Billy, the novel featured in UP’s first annual campus-wide reading program, Read UP. Over 300 copies of Charming Billy were dispersed to the UP community, and several book clubs have cropped up on campus, eager to communally discuss and delight in a rich novel about memory, faith, and desire.
Alice McDermott is the author of seven novels, three of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She also contributes work to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other periodicals. She currently works as a professor of humanities at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Alice McDermott via email, and I asked questions in hopes of getting more insight into Charming Billy and what to look for as I wrap up the novel with Mehling Hall’s Book Club, as well as score a few writing tips from the talented author. Take a look:
What is your writing process like?
I try to write for a full working day (something like 9-5) every day, four days a week. I teach on the other day and live a regular person’s life on weekends.
What works of literature have been particularly formative for you as a writer? What are you reading right now?
Impossible to name one or two. Studying Shakespeare was formative. Reading poetry – Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Millay in particular — was formative. Discovering Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Nabokov, Joyce, was formative.
Right now I am mostly rereading, for a class I’m teaching on the coming of age novel. We’ve begun with Henry IV, are now looking at Portrait of the Artist and The Member of the Wedding.
How does your Catholic faith influence your writing, and how does it influence Charming Billy?
The answer to this question is too complex for a glib email. Or maybe the question is too complex for any one answer. Perhaps this is something for your book group to determine. I would suggest they take a look at Billy’s faith as it figures in the story, and at Dennis’s eventual coming to terms with faith, and go on from there.
What role does your Irish heritage play in Charming Billy?
I’ve never intended to write a novel about Irish Americans. I always intend to write novels about what it is to be human, ethnicity and culture aside. But stories demand specificity and the specifics of the Irish American way of life are readily at hand to me. I’m not particularly interested in these things in themselves, but in the way they can help me to bring a story, and a certain set of human characters, to life in order to examine the experiences that are shared by all of us who are mortal.
How did you conceive the idea for Charming Billy, especially in terms of the time frame and the role of memory?
I wanted to try to write a believable portrait of a character who might easily be dismissed as caricature. I wanted to find the unique individual, the unique life, at the heart of an individual who, on paper, might seem generic. Since he is also a character whose particular life is made possible by the people who love him, who shore him up and care for him, I wanted their memories of him to be the primary source of the story.
How did you choose your narrator in Charming Billy, and what do you think the role of women is in this novel?
The narrator chose me. I didn’t want to write a first person novel, but her voice insisted on itself. It took some time for me to realize that this was because the novel was a novel about memory, about storytelling, and so a story teller was needed as narrator. It also took some time for me to see that this is, after all, the role of women in this novel and this world: it is the women who record, remember, pass on, the emotional history of a family – the stories of who fell in love, who was loyal, who was disappointed, etc. The narrator also supports one important notion inherent in the novel, and that is the choice to believe. It is the choice Billy makes, the choice Dennis eventually makes and it is the choice the narrator makes in presenting this version of Billy’s story, the one the reader holds.
Do you have any advice for young or beginning writers?
Read everything. Learn what moves you. Learn the difference between what’s merely entertaining and what’s great. And only imitate the works of literature that you consider great – the works that you are certain are impossible to imitate. Study Shakespeare.