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Alice McDermott's Newsday Book Club chat: 10 takeaways from her novel 'Someone'

Author Alice McDermott and the cover for her

Author Alice McDermott and the cover for her 2013 novel "Someone." Credit: Handout, left; Jamie Schoenberger

The Newsday Book Club held its first online chat with Alice McDermott, author of the novel “Someone” (FSG), on June 16. McDermott, winner of the National Book Award, had a lot to say about how she writes and how we can read her fiction. Here are 10 things we learned:

1. She does research after she’s already developed the story. “Research is seductive. You can spend days and weeks ‘looking things up’ and never actually craft a sentence.”

2. She doesn’t consider Irish-Americans to be her true subject. “I think of these people and this time and place ... as a means to an end: a way to get at the larger subject: what it is to be human, to be mortal, to be part of a family, a community, a mortal world.”

3. She doesn’t think there’s a “right” way to read her work. “I don’t set out to tell the reader what to think (I don’t work for Fox News), I present the evidence of this single woman’s life and ask you to ponder (as I ponder) the question of both the worth of a single life and the meaning of love.”

4. Among her many literary inspirations is Vladimir Nabokov. “His sentences made me want to be a writer way back when I was an English major at Oswego State.”

5. Stories about good people are harder to write than stories about villains. “Sentimentality is a bigger threat to beginning writers than gratuitous violence, graphic sex and unmitigated callousness.”

6. A writer can’t simply ignore cultural stereotypes. “I’m always setting myself the challenge of writing about familiar characters but making them uniquely themselves — I think it’s one of the wonderful things fiction does for us.”

7. She often discovers the story as she writes. “I think of working at sentences as a kind of incantation. If I do my best to get the rhythm, the precise language, the detail of each sentence right, then character and story will reveal itself to me.”

8. Fiction is built on specific details but speaks universally. “Fiction is meant to remind us of what we all feel, I think, even as it reminds us of our own individual experiences.”

9. Fiction can do it all. “Here’s the thing that makes fiction a far superior art form (compared to film, for instance): fiction can make use of all the senses: touch and taste and smell, as well as sight and hearing.”

10. A novel is much more than just the plot. “If you read every book only to find out what happens ... then you miss out on the art of it, the thrill of recognizing all the levels of meaning in a gesture, a name, an incident.”

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