In her first nonfiction book, "What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Elmont-raised Alice McDermott offers a master class in writing through a collection of sixteen illuminating craft essays.
McDermott, whose penned eight novels, including the National Book Award-winning "Charming Billy," spoke by phone from her home near Washington, D.C. about her two decades of teaching writing at Johns Hopkins University, the ways in which teaching is like coaching and her start as a middle-class Catholic school kid.
What is the story behind this title?
This line speaks to the essential connection between a reader and the characters in a novel. A friend of mine was guiding a film club for a group of elderly senior citizens and she thought the movie "Julia" [based on Lillian Hellman’s memoir Pentimento] would be perfect to evoke their own memories of World War II. In the movie, Julia tells the Lillian character that she had a baby and that she had to leave this baby with a baker’s family just over the German border. Later in the film, there is a search for the baby, but the baby is never found. This is a very small part of the movie, but when the film was over, the only thing the old ladies wanted to talk about was: what about the baby? They decided this was a terrible story because you can’t introduce a baby and just have it disappear.
When readers enter into a story, they say: I am going to believe in this. On one level I know it is fiction and someone is making it up, but I am going to believe. You can’t just lose characters because they are fully human for your reader. You need a writer and you need a reader. The writer alone is just marks on a page.
How did this book come about?
The bulk of the essays were lectures I delivered at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference [at Tennessee's South University] where I taught for almost two decades of summers. My editor, Jonathan Galassi, … would now and again say, what do you do with those lectures? And I said that maybe when I retire from teaching at Johns Hopkins, I will look at them and put them all together. After I retired last year, I reluctantly dug them all out and I think the thing that surprised and delighted me most is how wonderful all the passages are that I quoted. There is Conrad and Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf — there’s not a one that was not as good as I thought it was. That’s how I teach. The best guide is: here, read this. You can only talk about and around the magic and the mystery of the creative process so much. Finally, you have to say: I can’t explain it, here, read this!
These lectures span 20 years of teaching. How has the teaching informed the writing and vice versa?
John Barth said that writing teachers aren’t really teachers, we’re coaches. And young writers are also my coaches. These lectures were initially composed to be delivered to a group of people who love literature — a particular audience of fellow sufferers, people who are dedicated to the creative arts. There’s this sense — and I think this is true of all of us who teach — that this is our shared passion, and now how can I help you with yours? This is a matter of coaching; the best coaches don’t necessarily have to have been the best athletes, but they have to have been at the business a while.
Has being a novelist changed since you started teaching?
I think there is more of a sense and pressure of how quickly things are shared. We are barely past the experience and we are posting our thoughts about it. Younger writers feel that pressure to address what’s going on simply because everyone is. This leads a writer to lose sight of posterity. I see this in so much contemporary fiction, trying to write to the subject of the moment. There is no subject that is not ripe for fiction, but the topical can sometimes distract the young writer from the eternal, which is what we are supposed to be after.
You’ve described yourself in the past as a middle-class L.I. kid. How has this informed your writing life?
I read my third novel, "At Weddings and Wakes," for the audiobook, which I had never done before, and the producer kept stopping me. "He would" came out as "hid." … I never realized I had such a Long Island accent! There are some things in your DNA when you grow up on Long Island, especially in Irish Catholic Long Island. There’s that sense of "Who the hell do you think you are, Miss Smartypants?"
I went to Oswego State and loved my education there; I was introduced to writing and books in a marvelous way. I was told, this is yours, this belongs to all of us. That’s when the L.I. kid comes across, that belief that I have every right to read these books and talk about them, even if I went to Oswego, even if I don’t look or sound like the sort of person who should have good ideas about these heady works.