Alice McDermott Is OK With Being Called a Woman’s Novelist

From a Wall Street Journal story by Emily Bobrow headlined “Alice McDermott Is OK With Being Called a ‘Woman’s Novelist'”:

Alice McDermott recalls reading the novel “The Quiet American” as a college student in the 1970s and being struck by the ridiculousness of Graham Greene’s female characters: “They were clichés, childish and unbelievable.” Although she was impressed by how “brilliantly” he foresaw the “political fiasco” of America’s time in Vietnam, she bristled over a scene in which the book’s narrator, a grizzled British journalist, gazes at some clean-looking “American girls” eating ice cream in the Saigon heat and envies their simple “sterilized world.” “It was so dismissive,” she says. “I remember, even at 19, thinking, ‘No, that can’t be right.’”

“Absolution,” McDermott’s ninth novel, considers the rich interior lives of some of these seemingly ordinary “girls.” “Telling a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective appeals to me,” says McDermott, 70, who lives in Bethesda, Md., with her husband, David Armstrong, a retired neuroscientist and the father of her three adult children. She says that reading Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play about Hamlet’s friends, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” reinforced her fascination with what she calls “the underside of a story.” “I want to know what the minor characters are up to behind the scenes,” she says.

Set mostly in Saigon in 1963, “Absolution” traces an unlikely friendship between two young American women whose husbands are either supporting the war effort or profiting from it. Charlene is “fox-like,” elegant, wealthy and cunning, with three young children and a head full of schemes “to do some good.” To “close your eyes at the sight of this suffering is, to my mind…a kind of evil,” she declares as she raises money to bring dolls to sick Vietnamese children and tailored silk clothes to a colony of lepers. Tricia, a shy young newlywed, gets caught up in Charlene’s passions and becomes a kind of sidekick on her missions. Although little was expected of these women beyond raising children and looking immaculate at cocktail parties, they reckoned with a part of Vietnam mostly unknown to the men they were meant to serve.

McDermott’s interest in overlooked stories means her fiction often mines the lives of women—nuns, daughters, unexpectedly pregnant teenagers, forlornly infertile wives—most of them from unremarkable, middle-class Irish-American homes not unlike her own. She insists that she does not worry about being called a woman’s novelist. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve been ‘the soccer mom novelist,’ I’ve certainly been ‘the Irish-Catholic novelist,’ so to be called a ‘woman’s novelist’ is about the broadest category I’ve found myself in so far,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe if I keep it up I’ll be everyone’s novelist.”

McDermott, who taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for 23 years before stepping down in 2019, notes that many of her female students wrote in the voices of men in the hopes of being taken more seriously. “A woman narrating the story of her life with an annoying boyfriend was chick lit,” she observed in “What About the Baby,” her 2021 book about writing. “A man narrating the story of his life with an annoying woman was, well, literature.” As it happens, although several of McDermott’s novels were shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, the book that actually won a National Book Award was about a man: “Charming Billy” (1998).

Early in her career, when she despaired of earning a living from fiction, McDermott says that she pondered law school. She quips that when the writing feels tough, she still wonders if she made the wrong choice. Yet she “always knew” she was a writer. “Like many who are stuck in this profession, I felt it was the only thing I could do that seemed worth my time,” she says.

McDermott observes that children often draw pictures and scribble stories “to manage their world.” In her case, she says that she often felt silenced at the dinner table by her more boisterous older brothers and her “old-fashioned” Irish Catholic father, so writing was a way “to get it down, to pretend I had an audience.” She admits, however, that her brothers remember things differently, with her chattering away with “stories that went on and on and had no point.” Given McDermott’s interest in the mutability of memory in her fiction, these dueling tales feel apt: “We tell the stories we need to tell,” she says.

After years of being taught by nuns on Long Island, N.Y., where she grew up, McDermott says that she chose Oswego State College because of its reputation as a party school. She studied English but felt her life take shape when a professor confirmed that she was, in fact, a writer. With a master’s degree in writing from the University of New Hampshire under her belt, McDermott was a newlywed living in Manhattan when she began writing her first novel in 1980.

Anne Tyler promptly hailed “A Bigamist’s Daughter” (1982) as “fascinatingly prismatic” in a prominent review. When her second novel, “That Night” (1987), earned even more rhapsodic praise and a place on the Pulitzer shortlist, she says that her longtime editor, Jonathan Galassi, cried happily on the phone. “He said, ‘I never expected this,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, you’re supposed to tell me you did expect this.’”

With the success of her early books, McDermott could ditch her side jobs of reading unsolicited manuscripts for Redbook magazine and young-adult novels for Disney, though she still taught to make a living. She admits that the strain and uncertainty of writing spurs her to work on two stories at the same time, even now. “It’s such a stupid thing to do, but it’s a kind of fail-safe,” she explains. “If I have to jettison one novel, I’m not starting over again. Maybe the other one will feel more convincing.”

As in many of McDermott’s books, the narrators of “Absolution” tell their stories retrospectively. Readers learn the details of Charlene and Tricia’s lives in Saigon through a series of confessional letters—sometimes wistful, sometimes judgmental—between Tricia and Charlene’s daughter many decades later. In this way, McDermott layers the events with the wisdom and distance of time. “What fascinates me is not just the thing that happened but what we say about it, how we remember it, how we manipulate it in our own lives to fulfill what we need at any given moment,” she says.

Tricia recounts her life from an old-age home because Charlene’s daughter asks her to. McDermott says that this is typically the only way to get a personal narrative out of a woman who came of age before the women’s movement. “Women from this generation would never offer their stories unbidden, and many are still waiting for someone to ask,” she says. “Not to generalize, but most men think you want to hear their story, whether they’ve been asked or not.”

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