Alice McDermott signing a copy of “The Ninth Hour.”
Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
On Thursday evening, Feb. 28, novelist Alice McDermott will be presented with the Seamus Heaney Award for Arts & Letters at Glucksman Ireland House’s 7th Annual Gala at the Kimmel Center for University Life, NYU.
It’s not the first time she’s been given an honor bearing the name of a literary heavyweight of the past, being also the recipient, for instance, of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for American Literature and the Mary McCarthy Award from Bard College.
McDermott’s fiction, though, in contrast to that of fellow Irish-Americans Fitzgerald and McCarthy, is often set in immigrant neighborhoods and in families that have one foot in Europe.
That was the case with the National Book Award-winning “Charming Billy,” which the Philadelphia Inquirer called an “astoundingly beautiful novel about the persistence of love, the perseverance of grief, and all-but-unbearable loneliness, as well as faith, loyalty and redemption."
And it’s true, too, of “The Ninth Hour,” which is her eighth novel.
“Selflessness, sacrifice, and the generation-spanning implications and obligations brought about by both,” McDermott replied when asked to describe it. “Which, I know, tells you nothing. So: it’s about an order of nursing sisters in Brooklyn, in the early part of the 20th Century, and the men and (mostly) women they serve, the lives they change.”
Reviewers, it seems, have been as impressed with the sisters as much as with the novelist.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the sisters’ “moral sense is made flexible by what they've learnt in the slums. They know when to speak, and when to shut their mouths and roll up their sleeves.”
In the view of O Magazine, these religious “are revealed as heroines, unflinching in their devotion to the flawed humans around them.”
The reviewer in London’s Mail on Sunday commented, “Dealing in simple lives and small dramas, the prose displays an unerring sense of detail, mood, and emotion. A masterful American writer at her best.”
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe’s wrote that McDermott’s novel “reminds us of the pleasures of literary fiction and its power to illuminate lives and worlds.”
Date of birth: June 27, 1953
Place of birth: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Spouse: David Armstrong
Children: 3: Will, Eames, Patrick
Residence: Bethesda, Md.
Published works: Novels: “A Bigamist’s Daughter,” “That Night,” “At Weddings and Wakes,” “Charming Billy,” “Child of My Heart,” “After This,” “Someone,” “The Ninth Hour.”
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I’ve always tried to act as if writing fiction is a real job. I try to be at my desk every morning and to write through the day. Stop at dinner time, take most weekends off. Being able to do this is as ideal as conditions get, I suppose. Life does intervene.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
If you can do anything else, do it. If you can’t, write regularly, read everything.
What book are you currently reading?
Because I’m currently teaching a class in the short novel – a delightful form – I am revisiting my favorites. Among them: Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.” “Mrs. Dalloway.” William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow.” “Maude Martha” by Gwendolyn Brooks. “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Garcia Marquez. “Ethan Frome.” “O Pioneers!” “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson. “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka. Philip Roth’s “Everyman.”
The new work I’m reading right now includes novels by two former students of mine: a wonderful first, “Wyoming” by J.P. Gritton, and Chris Cander’s intricate “The Weight of a Piano.”
Is there a book you wish you had written?
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, and/or W.H. Auden, and/or Seamus Heaney, and/or Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Mary Oliver, Edna St. Vincent Millay . . . you get the idea. I’d have preferred to be a poet.
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
A few months ago, I found a college copy of Aeschylus’ the “Oresteia,” and reread. Good stuff.
For years, decades, I resisted Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” – don’t know why, maybe death and archbishop in the same title. Finally read it a few years ago, and have read it twice since.
What book changed your life?
Of course I couldn’t have known it at the time, but a collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov, a book I plucked off the shelf at the Elmont Public Library one summer when I was 19 or 20 (I recognized the author’s name, but didn’t know his work) made me want to be a writer. Such sentences! All these years later, Nabokov’s prose still makes me want to be a writer.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
There are many, but Inis Meain (middle island of the Aran Isles) is at the top.
You're Irish if...
A friend (Polish American) once told me that you’re Irish if when someone steps on your foot, you say, “I’m sorry.” I apologize if that impulse to apologize seems a dated ethnic stereotype.
For more information about the gala on Feb. 28, call 212-998-3955 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.