The Secret of Good Writing

Had Alice McDermott had a say in the matter, she probably would not have become a fiction writer. The work is too hard, she says, and the rewards too few for writing to be anything other than a last resort among career options. So difficult does McDermott find the muse of fiction that she counsels her writing students at Johns Hopkins University: "If you can do anything else with your life and be content with it, you should do it."

"For those of us who are going to spend our lives in this way, it has to be the only thing you can do," says McDermott, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the 1998 National Book Award for Charming Billy. "I talked about going to law school, I tried working in publishing. I resisted and resisted, but I knew that nothing was sufficiently satisfying except writing."

Although the writing may be personally punishing, the labor doesn’t show in her prose. Critical acclaim followed McDermott through publication of her first three novels: A Bigamists Daughter, That Night and At Weddings and Wakes. That Night was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner and Los Angeles Times book awards as well. At Weddings and Wakes was also a Pulitzer finalist.

By the time Charming Billy was published last year, there were not enough superlatives to go around. In November, that unassuming 280-page novel slipped past Tom Wolfe’s much-ballyhooed tome A Man in Full to scoop up the 1998 National Book Award, and perhaps no one was as surprised as McDermott. "I was joking with my editor that a second nomination wasn’t the time to win," she says, "that you had to sort of accrue a few more nominations and suffer through it a few more times before you get to win."

Beginning immediately after the title character’s funeral, Charming Billy reaches backward to explore three generations of Irish Americans in Queens — from the Second World War to the present — whose lives Billy Lynch and his legendary drinking had touched and transformed. "Billy had drunk himself to death," the narrator recalls. "He had at some point ripped apart, ploughed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great, deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room."

Interested less in the actual events of Billy’s life than in her characters’ perceptions of them, McDermott takes a circuitous route guided by memory to tell her story. The result is what Rand Richards Cooper in Commonweal called "incorrigibly digressive, brash with time, intricately layered and crammed full of life." McDermott’s unchronological approach — employed in At Weddings and Wakes and That Night, as well — can be initially disorienting. Readers find themselves moving from room to room in her characters’ memories, a little unsure of whom they’re meeting and where they are in time. But as the layers accumulate the story becomes dear, and begins to deepen and resonate.

"McDermott keeps surprising you with a voice you haven’t heard before, yet the reader experiences instant recognition," wrote Donn Fry in The Seattle Times of That Night. "As if it were a pearl seed, McDermott adds layer upon layer of memory, finally creating a jewel of shimmering luster."

Nice praise for a modest, self-deprecating woman from Long Island who has been quoted as saying the hardest thing about writing was believing people would want to read her stories.

"I don’t think you ever overcome the doubts," McDermott says. "But I don’t think you can be ambivalent about writing. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing to know it, and a curse to live it, but you can’t do anything else and feel right with yourself and the world."

Fiction Writer caught up with McDermott a week after Charming Billy won the National Book Award. Although her Bethesda, Maryland, home was temporarily transformed into a media hub, she shared a morning talking with us about her development as a writer, and how her fiction succeeds.

Fiction Writer: When you first started serious fiction writing, which elements were effortless and which took the most attention?

Alice McDermott: I don’t think any of it ever felt effortless. I still don’t. I think when I got to college and was writing something that I knew was going to have an audience, I was initially very startled to see that I had done something that elicited a reaction. I didn’t think about writing as a career because I thought it was supposed to come easily if it was going to be a career — and it never felt like it came easily to me. The act of writing did. I had no problems with sitting down with pen and paper, that was sort of the way I worked things out from an early age. But to write for an audience and to try to say something to that audience seemed to me to be tremendously difficult, and that difficulty at first was an indication to me that this sure isn’t something you can spend your life doing. It’s just too hard.

I think a lot of readers and a lot of new writers have that feeling — you read something wonderful and you think “it’s so easy to read, and it seems so perfect, it must have just come out that way.” Then I worked with Dr. Paul Briand who was a writing teacher at Oswego (campus of the State University of New York) in a one-on-one tutorial. He quite literally taught me how hard it is. I would bring in drafts I was writing, and he would go word by word, sentence by sentence, through everything I had written. He would ask, “Is that the best word, is that really what you wanted to say? Why did you say red instead of yellow? What does red mean? Shouldn’t it be yellow? Why didn’t you decide on yellow? Think about it every step of the way — does this sentence really follow that sentence, or does it only repeat it? Do you really need it? Does this paragraph seemed tied to the paragraph before it?" He taught me the nuts and bolts and the hard work of slugging it out in prose. Once I accepted that, I could accept the idea that maybe I could have a career doing it.

FW: How would you describe your evolution as a novelist from A Bigamist’s Daughter to Charming Billy? Are you a different writer now?

McDermott: You’re really a novice each time you begin, because it’s a new story and you have to find a new way to tell it and it makes its own demands. And you hope you’ve never told it before. So I don’t feel personally that I’m accumulating anything here. I’m really sort of stumbling from one novel to another and learning all over again.

When I started A Bigamist’s Daughter, I had only written short stories. And I had the impression that writing short stories was exercise for writing a novel, that with each short story you learned a little bit more so that you were coming closer to being able to write a novel. I very quickly learned when I began trying to write a novel that short stories hadn’t taught me anything because it’s entirely different. Pacing is different, character development is different, structure is different, and you don’t really gain any benefits from what you’ve learned in another form.

So I approached my first novel as “I’m going to learn how to write a novel. Whether I publish it or not is another thing." And that was my main intention, simply to learn how to write a novel — how do you pace it, how do you structure it and so on. And when it was finished and published, I thought the second one was going to be that much easier because hey, I learned how to write a novel. But I quickly learned that that was that novel and this is this one, and in a way you have to kind of let go of any hope of acquiring expertise. You acquire your expertise all over again with each new work.

On the other hand, with each novel I’ve had more life experience. The demands that I make of myself and my writing probably have increased with each novel, so maybe that’s the thing that accumulates or changes. But as far as the craft goes, it’s a new game every time, and you’re just kidding yourself if you think it’s otherwise.

FW: Many critics use the adjective “prismatic" to describe the overall effect of your prose. Do you think they draw this description from the breadth of your sentence structure, or from your lack of chronology in plot?

McDermott: I think the two are definitely related, sure. One of the things that interests me in fiction is to be able to see ordinary things, ordinary moments, in a variety of ways. Clearly that would give my writing the sense of being prismatic, to look at it again and again. I think one of the things that fiction writers can do is open our eyes; they can do the work that we don’t always in the crux of life have time to do, and that is to look carefully, to really see. Fiction writers can help us see in ways we’d be crazy if we even tried to on our own.

There’s a kind of meditation that goes on in the making of a worthy piece of fiction, and I think fiction writers hand us the fruits of that meditation — to look at the world that we all see every day and that we all encounter, but to see it in new ways, or to see it again, in a way that we’ve forgotten how to look at it. I think that’s a great gift that fiction writers give us. And having been given that gift myself, obviously, it’s something that I try to give to my readers as well. It’s a new way to see, to open up life a little bit, and glimpse it in a different way. So I think the sense of a prism is really a way of seeing, and the language reflects that. And I do have a tendency — it’s one I often have to struggle with — of trying to say everything at once, and simple sentences don’t quite have it, so I tend to pile up the clauses.

FW: You’ve said that you’re interested in structure as a novelist, and that straight, realistic narrative leaves something out for you. What does that mean about the actual process of constructing a novel for you? And what does the lack of chronology add to the final piece?

McDermott: I love chronological narrative when I read it, I just find in composing my own work that it doesn’t satisfy my need. I find it more challenging to play with time. But I think a lot of my work is about memory and storytelling, and it’s much more about what characters have to say about what has happened to them and the people around them, rather than the things that have happened themselves. It seems to me that memory is seldom chronological, and even anecdote as we talk about ourselves is very seldom chronological. One event recalls another, and we look back through time at something and see it differently because of intervening events. So I think if I’m writing to give a sense of the importance and validity of not just what has happened to us but what we say about it and how we felt about it, then it seems to me chronology immediately goes out the window. When we tell our own stories we tell them in a variety of ways and very seldom go from A to B to C. So I think it reflects more thematic things that I’m trying to do, but it also gives me kind of the puzzle of the structure. If I’m not telling a story Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then how do I tell it? And how can it work? How can I make Sunday flow into Friday, and then back again into Tuesday, in a pleasing way? That’s a challenge, but it’s fun on another level. It’s intriguing to me.

FW: Then how do you end up, for example, starting with Billy’s death and working backward in time? From a technical standpoint, do you start chronologically and then shuffle your events and characters like cards?

McDermott: No, I couldn’t do it that self-consciously. I suppose I kind of circle around a story for awhile. With Charming Billy in particular, I knew that Billy alone was not the story. It was really the story of the people who surrounded him and made his life possible, so I wanted to hear from them first. Right away chronology goes out the window, because I don’t want to hear about the first thing first. I want to hear about the people who know Billy’s life in total and what they say about it. So having the characters around him begin speaking after he is gone freed them to say what they wanted to say. What I needed to hear about this character so I begin to understand him I had to get from the people around him. And the best way to do that, I knew, was to sit them down, pour drinks and make sure Billy wasn’t in the room. Well if there were drinks around, Billy was going to be in the room, unless he was dead. So there you go.

FW: How do your characters form for you?

McDermott: It’s different every time. With Billy, I was conscious of him as a stock character, and a character I had not dealt with in At Weddings and Wakes, despite all the stock characters that peopled that book, and he was appealing to me. I found him interesting and I couldn’t let him pass. That hasn’t happened that way with other books.

At Weddings and Wakes I approached more on a thematic level. I was interested in what goes on between and among generations in a given family, not so much in what gets passed on but what gets lost, what isn’t conveyed from one generation to the next. And I just had to cast about for quite awhile to find a story and characters who could help to convey that. I really knew very little about the characters in At Weddings and Wakes when I began to write it. I didn’t have a central character as I had with Billy. It was really a "create the world first and see who the characters are who live in it." So literally when in the first chapter I took the three children and their mother to their grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn, I didn’t know who was going to answer the door until I wrote it. I found myself describing a woman opening the door, and as the children file past her she bends from the waist like a nun. It was really just a way to picture her, but as soon as I wrote that her whole character opened up for me. And I thought "Oh, she did that like a nun because she was a nun, and she’s not a nun anymore. I don’t know why — I’ll have to write some more and find out." So that was very much organic. It developed through the writing and I didn’t bring a lot of ready-made decisions to the book. The writing helped me to discover them.

FW: So this relates back to your earlier point that each novel is different. Each also comes from a different place — some are thematic approaches, others are character-driven.

McDermott: Sure. And with That Night, it was voice. I knew that I wanted to write about someone looking back, trying to define across time a certain time and place. I had only a first-person narrator telling a story.

FW: I read that your inspiration for that Brooklyn apartment setting in At Weddings and Wakes came from a poster for Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen in your son’s bedroom, and it strikes me that you’re a very atmospheric writer. Yet while your settings are very evocative, they’re equally light-handed. As a character from Charming Billy says, “enough is as good as a feast.” Is there a technique behind that? Is that something you can teach a writer to do?

McDermott: I see this with my own students. Often young writers don’t recognize what they’ve already accomplished in their work. It’s not excess, it’s just that they tend in their enthusiasm and determination to say what they have to say to miss that they’ve already said it. So I don’t know if it’s so much a technique you can teach, but certainly it’s something that young writers need to look at in their work — to be able to recognize when they’ve succeeded. Maybe the lesson is, "Give your reader more credit. The reader has caught on by this sentence. We don’t need the next two paragraphs. You’ve made your point and it’s there and it’s beautifully done. Don’t dilute it with repetition.” It’s a very difficult thing to learn to do, to trust yourself and your reader, to trust the images. If they evoke something for you as you write them, then trust that they’re going to evoke something for the reader as well.

FW: Are there novels that you’ve worked on in your mind that haven’t come to fruition?

McDermott: I have some things that I’ve started and lost interest in or abandoned for whatever good reason. I think that’s all a part of the process. Even if you’ve been working on something and it’s not working or you lose interest in it or your energy flags or whatever, I feel you’ve gained something. I never feel that a book I began and didn’t pursue is in some way a failure. I think the more you write the more ideas you have for stories and novels. I’m not the kind of writer who can think up great story lines outside of writing. The writing itself is the thing that generates stories for me. The things that begin and don’t continue continue in another form elsewhere. You still have discovered some things. You still have looked at some things in the careful way that you have to look at them as a story is developing and you use it elsewhere, whether you’re aware of it or not.

FW: Were there writers whose work inspired and influenced you?

McDermott: I don’t understand how anyone becomes a writer who isn’t first an avid reader. You read and you see what writing does, and you want to try your hand at it. So writers got me into this in the first place. Novels got me into this. Everything you read and admire I think in some way influences you. But then there are writers who I recognized early on as craftspeople, and those are the writers I go back and look at again and again. I would say first among those is Vladimir Nabokov. I will go back just to admire the craft, and sometimes too, on dark days, to remember why you’re doing this in the first place. Because I do think that’s where it begins—that admiration for someone who writes well and whose work has touched you remains a driving force.

FW: Is there any final advice you’d like to share with fiction writers developing their craft?

McDermott: One thing I think is really important is reading and understanding at least on a very basic level what it is you’re trying to do. If you read and recognize work that pleases you immensely, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to formulate some idea of what it is that pleases you, so you know what you’re after. I think young writers are very hesitant to set goals for themselves, to come out and say, "I want to do this, I want to leave behind a thing of beauty.” You know, Why are you doing this? What are you really after? I think it’s not a bad idea to recognize that and to raise the stakes for yourself, and not just say, "Well, I’d like to see if I can write." I think the way to do that is to read and reread the fiction that moves you, and to understand what’s happening there and to aspire to the same thing.

Anne Bowling contributes regularly to Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, and she also serves as a production editor for Writer’s Market.

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