Familiar suburban turf leads Alice McDermott to her unique novels

April 01, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Bethesda -- Alice McDermott is 38 and her three novels have earned her an enviable literary reputation, but family members back in New York still think that fiction writing is a pretty strange profession to have chosen. The truth is, she's inclined to agree.

There was, for instance, that day last fall when she drove from her Bethesda home to the Sudbrook Park area of Baltimore County to watch the filming of "That Night," which was based on her second novel. She was fascinated seeing how Adana Road had been re-created into an archetypal Long Island suburban street of the early 1960s.

"I got the strangest emotion going to the sound stage and seeing the homes reconstructed," says Ms. McDermott, whose third novel, "At Weddings and Wakes," has just been published. "The detail of the time was phenomenal. They had a kitchen, and if you opened up the cabinet they would have cereal boxes and salt shakers exactly like those of the early '60s.

"One of the people on the set was showing me the 10-year-old girl's room, and was proudly showing me the dolls in it and telling me they tried to make them exactly like I had in the book," she says, her mouth curving into a slight smile. "And I was so struck by that: When you write a novel, you take the details from real life but then transform them -- they're not the same. I had wrested these things from real life and put them into the novel as something else, and now they've come along and ripped them out and put them back into real life.

"Really, that's why I got out of journalism," she continues in her easy-going, straightforward manner. "I like writing fiction because I can make things up, make them different from real life."

Ms. McDermott showed that talent early on, getting her first novel, "A Bigamist's Daughter," published when she was 28 -- a few years after graduating from the State University of New York College at Oswego. A comic novel about a young editor of a vanity press in New York, "A Bigamist's Daughter" gained mostly rave reviews, including Anne Tyler's in the New Republic: "Impressive. . . . She writes with assurance and skill, and she has created a fascinatingly prismatic story."

Ms. McDermott drew from her Long Island childhood in writing her second novel "That Night," which portrayed a teen-age love affair with haunting sensitivity; it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1987 (the movie, starring Academy Award nominee Juliette Lewis, is scheduled for release this spring). And she has mined her Irish-American Catholic background for "At Weddings and Wakes."

It tells the story of an Irish-American family in the New York area as seen through the eyes of three children, and what gets passed from one generation to the other: the family lore and traditions, certainly, but also the resentments and feelings of being trapped in a close, sometimes oppressive, situation.

One ritual -- the children and their embittered mother's visiting their grandmother and three aunts in the family home in Brooklyn -- is particularly well rendered:

Their father had a song that began "Mrs. McCarthy, hale and hearty, well she held a birthday party," and included a verse that listed the schedule of events: at nine o'clock they all sat down to supper, at ten they cleared the floor to have a dance . . . at twelve o'clock the fighting began, and it seemed to the children that the only way they could clearly account for the sudden anger that struck the four sisters at this time of day was that it was somehow prescribed, part of the daily and necessary schedule, merely the routine.

As for her own background, "we were aware that we were Irish, and that our grandparents had come from Ireland, but that was about it," says Ms. McDermott, who has lived in Bethesda since 1989, when her husband, David Armstrong, took a job as a research scientist with the Georgetown University medical school. "We didn't do real 'Irish' things -- St. Patrick's Day was not a high holy day in our house."

"She writes about things that she knows, but they always hav universal applications," says Jonathan Galassi, who has been Ms. McDermott's editor at first Random House and now Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "Every book is a total surprise. I never know what to expect, but the results are always staggering."

Ms. McDermott agrees that though she has written of situationfamiliar to her -- the suburbs, about being Irish and Catholic -- she is aiming for much more.

So while she acknowledges one of the obvious underpinnings of "At Weddings and Wakes" -- Catholicism and the Irish-American experience -- she adds quickly:

"But that actually wasn't the first thing that started this novel. One of the original things I was looking for was not so much about family, al

though that was the impetus, but a lot of it was being caught up in the idea of children losing their mother. I've talked to so many mothers about this -- when you first have children, it strikes you: 'What if something happens?' "

As for "That Night," she says, "What I was interested in was the idea of memory, and how memory is reconstructed, and how close that is to fiction. With all that in mind, I didn't care what the context was.

"But I did feel that if you were writing about the ghetto to show what life was really like for the people living in it, or about corporate America to show what life was like for the rich and famous, then why not do that for the people in the suburbs?" she continues.

Ms. McDermott is working on a fourth novel, one that she bega some years ago but dropped. "The biggest problem I have in writing is keeping my own interest," she says with a shrug. "Once you figured it out and know how the story is going to go, why go through all that to findthe right words?

"You're not being surprised or intrigued then. When you go back toyour desk in the morning and there are things you don't know -- that's what keeps you going."

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