For McDermott, a dream scene finally works Author: The Hopkins writing teacher remained calm in the glow of the National Book Award, but friends and family let out a whoop.

November 20, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF Sun writer Laura Lippman contributed to this report.

Groggily she answered when the phone rang at 7:45 a.m. yesterday in her room at the New York Helmsley Windsor.

Alice McDermott? This year's winner of the National Book Award for fiction? The Bethesda mom of three, wife, teacher at Johns Hopkins, Irish Catholic girl from Red Hook, L.I.?

Was that really her in the spotlight Wednesday night at the Marriott Marquis Hotel? Her husband on the right and Roger Straus, chair of Farrar Straus & Giroux, on the left, Straus pushing her for her next book already.

"How wonderful it would be if you won the award," Straus was telling her over and over again, though she knew, and Straus knew, the big prize might well go to another -- Tom Wolfe. In fact, she was absolutely sure she wasn't going to get it.

But it was her, McDermott, watching as her longtime editor, Jonathan Galassi, started nodding at her from across the table. The fiction category was up, and the chair of the judges, writer Thomas Mallon, was speaking of how the winning novel "ticked." The disbelief on McDermott's face gave way as she heard her name.

Yes, it's her!

Dream scenes never work unless you are Nabokov, McDermott always tells her students, but don't let this one end.

"It was a big surprise," McDermott said on her end of the phone yesterday.

The rest of the night McDermott won the 1998 National Book Award for fiction went like this:

The spotlight on her, she rose and worked her way through the crowd to the podium. It was true, she had given no thought to an acceptance speech, "so she got very Irish," Straus said yesterday, telling the crowd she could hear her grandmother say, "Don't get a swelled head about this." "She was keeping her cool," Straus said.

Her husband, David, who others said looked proud, ran out to dial home before the champagne reception at the hotel. McDermott's two oldest kids were at a friend's house in Bethesda when the phone rang just after 10 p.m.; they heard their friend's mother scream, "She won!" By the time Will, 13, and Eames, 10, arrived home, Patrick, 5, was outside screaming, too. "She won!"

Yesterday, the thrill continued at the McDermott household while the family waited for the honored author to fly back. Will answered the phone all day and took messages from well-wishers and magazines. "It's so exciting," he said, between rings.

The author's mother, Mildred McDermott, 79, said, "I was praying for it." She said Alice takes after her own sister, Mary, who once took first prize in a borough-wide contest in grammar school.

The senior McDermott, the baby sitter yesterday, was a bit excited for another reason, too. At 11: 30 a.m. Patrick was still in his pajamas. "He has a mind of his own. I can't get him dressed." (Tell him the television cameras are coming!)

McDermott friends delivered balloons and champagne as the author did New York interviews in the morning and flew home about 3 p.m. to be with family before appearing on the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" last night.

One of McDermott's students at Hopkins planned to bring a bottle of champagne to class today -- it was rescheduled from Tuesday.

"It's a wonderful victory," said the student, Georgia English, an Australian who applied to the writing program after reading McDermott's winning book, "Charming Billy."

"The hype that Tom Wolfe had before, it was a little overdone and there wasn't much said about McDermott," English said. "She is not somebody who demands attention, but yet she deserves it."

Mallon, the judge who announced McDermott's award, said he was amused by second-guessing about the upset of Wolfe. Even Don Imus, the book-loving New York disc jockey, reportedly expressed his displeasure with Mallon's committee yesterday.

"Alice McDermott won the prize because of the judges' runaway enthusiasm," Mallon said in a telephone interview. "That's the absolute truth. We honored this book because it's a work of art."

"Congratulations to Alice McDermott," Wolfe told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in yesterday's edition. "I love awards when I get them, but I don't sit around wringing my hands when I don't."

McDermott's colleague, Jean McGarry, chair of the Hopkins writing program, said the author recently made fun of herself while recalling being put under the spotlight 10 years ago when she didn't win the award. One year ago, McGarry said, McDermott worried aloud that her book wasn't ready when Roger Straus pushed her for it.

As with previous winners, McDermott can expect a spike in book sales. Her editor does not expect her to change because of it.

"Alice has a very serious head on her shoulders. This will not turn her head in any way," Galassi said. "She's such a craftsman, such an artist. I'm just thrilled that people have recognized her greatness."

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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