The Writer’s Hot Seat: Alice McDermott

09 March 2018 on Blog, Fiction, The Writer's Hot Seat  

National Book Award Winning author and UNH alumna Alice McDermott recently visited University of New Hampshire as part of UNH’S Department of English Writers Series. Enshrined in the glow of the newly restored mural of Hamilton Smith, room 210, Alice read from her most recent book, The Ninth Hour, “a powerfully affecting story spanning the twentieth century of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn,” as described by publisher MacMillan. Fiction reader Catherine Deiley had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about writing, craft, and the MFA program in general.McDermott, Alice (c) Epic Photography Jamie Schoenberger (1)

Catherine Deiley: You described getting in the habit of sort of "overwriting" details--if you have three details, make it five--so that when it comes time to revise, you'll be able to see what is too much and which details work best. Can you talk a little more about this process? How do you know when too much is too much? Has that skill of realizing when to trim developed over time, or have you always had a good eye for it? I feel like we talk at length about the writing process, but this is an area of revision not often touched upon.

Alice McDermott: I think of it as a matter of seeing a character or a scene, and then trying to see it again, and again - scanning your own sentences for vague words or incomplete images, aiming always for precision of both description and meaning - which involves both cutting out and adding in. What I look for, as a reader and as a writer, is the telling detail - the detail that both clarifies and adds complexity. But there's also the matter of rhythm and music, the sound of a word, a phrase, a sentence. I think this "musicality" is a skill that develops over time, through reading and writing, but I believe it's also intuitive, somehow - a inevitable part of every writer's distinctive voice.

CD: Perhaps on the note of revision: How do you know when a project is finished?

AM: I'm of the "never finished, only abandoned" school, I suppose. But I do think there's a sense that the structure is complete, the connections all made, the story told as best it can be told, and so the work - or I should say this work - is complete . . . time to move on to the next one.

CD: How much of your writing process is you telling the story how it's going to look, and how much is the story telling you how it's going to look?

AM: Love the way you put this. I'm not sure I know how to calculate the difference. I do know that if I'm not discovering things about the story - discovering with surprise and delight, just as you hope a reader will - I'm not much interested in going on with the hard work of shaping sentences.

CD: What is a project you've had in the back of your mind for a while, maybe something you've tried writing that wouldn't come out, or a flicker of an idea that didn't present itself fully but captivated you somehow?

AM: As with so many things that are, as you say, captivating, to describe it would be to see it evaporate forever. I'll only admit I've got all kinds of things in the back of my mind - don't we all?

CD: What is a question you always hope someone will ask at a Q&A or during an interview, but no one ever does?

AM: The rare and wonderful questions are those that indicate the questioner has read your book carefully, with full attention. A comment from an astute reader that I received just this morning (regarding the connection between the overcoat in the first chapter of The Ninth Hour and the old coat mentioned in the last) made me remember a quote from John Updike, "I can't imagine being a writer without wanting somehow to play, to make these patterns, to insert these secrets into my books . . . " Those questions that indicate someone has recognized the play, the patterns, the secrets woven into my book are the ones that make me want to hug someone, buy them a beer.

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