Mothers Who Write: Alice McDermott

by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.

Photo of Alice McDermott
Author Alice McDermott
"My parents, I have to believe, had a marriage that ran the typical course from early infatuation to serious love to affection occasionally diminished by impatience and disagreement, bolstered by interdependence, fanned now and then by fondness, by humor. That they loved each other is a given, I suppose, although I suppose,too,that there were months, maybe years, when their love for one another might have disappeared altogether and their lives proceeded only out of habit or the failure to imagine any other alternative."
--From Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is a writer who has made a long career of fiction: she knew she wanted to be an author for many years before a husband or children arrived in her life, and was actively pursuing that goal when she met the man she would marry. Now, decades later, in addition to her long list of literary achievements, she has several family milestones to be proud of: an enduring marriage, and three children who range in age from nine (son Patrick) to seventeen (son Will). In between is a daughter, Eames, age thirteen. Ms. McDermott lives with them not far from Johns Hopkins University where she works part-time. During the academic year, she regularly teaches one graduate seminar and one undergraduate class.

Her books include The Bigamist's Daughter (Random House), That Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), At Weddings and Wakes (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux), and Charming Billy (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). That Night was even made into an HBO movie which reruns from time to time.

Newsweek calls The Bigamist's Daughter "a wise, sad, witty novel about men and women, God, hope, love, illusion, and fiction itself"." The New York Times describes Charming Billy as "Magical…Ms. McDermott's people, unlike so many characters in contemporary American fiction, are defined largely by their relationships to other family members, relationships that are delineated with unusual understanding of how emotional debts and gifts are handed down, generation to generation."

As an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Oswego in 1975, Alice admits she took writing courses so she could ''coast.'' Then one of her teachers said: ''I've got bad news for you. You're a writer,'' and she was hooked. Before that, being an author had never occurred to her. In Elmont, Long Island, where she grew up, writing was not ''something people did or even thought about,'' says Ms. McDermott.

After she graduated from college, her family advised her to avoid further school, which would be ''education you cannot use.'' Taking that advice to heart, she decided to work at Vantage Press, which became the model for a vanity press, the setting of her first novel. Her job there involved typing and filing; in between those duties she would write short stories, but wasn't thinking about publishing them -- her interest was more in trying to figure out how it was done. This led to the realization that if she was working all day, she wouldn't have time to write, so after a year when she was offered a teaching assistantship at the University of New Hampshire she returned to school to earn an M.A. in a writing program.

To her family that was a good move because ''teaching was almost as good as being a secretary.'' In her three years at New Hampshire her first stories were published in Ms. and Seventeen magazines in 1978. She met her husband in a singles bar in New York, while celebrating the publication of her very first story. In 1979, they married and he continued his graduate training as a neuroscientist while she freelanced and started work on her first novel, all the while saving money with the thought that someday, she would try full time writing. In between her other jobs, she read Walt Disney Young Adult books and reviewed manuscripts for Redbook.

When she gave the first 100 pages from her book to Mark Smith, one of her former professors, he read them and suggested she contact his agent. After the agent asked read 50 pages, she called Ms. McDermott and asked to see everything she had. Next came a summons to the agent's office, where she was surprised to be queried about her preferences for a publisher. The book was sent to Houghton Mifflin; a short time later the editor called Ms. McDermott and offered her a contract. Looking back, she believes a combination of the right agent and publisher were essential first steps, commenting: "I was very fortunate to find the right agent who knew the exact right publisher for me."

With the contract and advance from that book (The Bigamist's Daughter), her dream of being able to write full time finally came true. In addition, the experience taught her ''how to work at writing -- word, semicolon, period -- and to give up the notion that if you have to rewrite it can't be good.'' In 1987, her second novel, That Night, was nominated for a National Book Award; in 1998 her fourth book, Charming Billy won the National Book Award.

What inspired you to write?

Cover of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
I suppose I don't know any other way of living. Not even just as a way of making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers, but I just don't know any other way of getting along in the world. It's organic, as we say in California -- it's just there. I've always done it. When I'm not writing -- and I have considered many times trying something else -- I can't make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and creating fiction is the only way I've found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I've made that much of an attempt.

Although I was always writing, in college, when my professor read what I wrote and gave me positive feedback, I realized it was what I really wanted to do, and that it was possible I might succeed at it.

How old were you children when you started to write?

I never stopped writing. We were living in San Diego when I started having children, and it never occurred to me to change anything. I taught part-time at UCSD, and my students went through pregnancy with me. I had them over to celebrate my homecoming with a new baby and to make up for our lost class.

From the beginning, my husband knew how important my writing was to me because of the way we met -- he was clear on how serious I was about my writing.

From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?

I can't clearly point to anything that changed except I became much more efficient with my writing habits. I became more focused when I wrote, and had less time to wander. Once children came, my habits shifted: when the time was available, I went directly to writing, and didn't take breaks or write notes about what I was writing like I used to. Although I could think about writing while watching Sesame Street, the actual process changed.

I did always get a babysitter or day care so I had time to write. Sometimes, I had someone come to house, which was when being a writer proved a great advantage because I could be there to monitor things if needed. I always appreciated that: being a writer offers great time and space flexibility.

Now that my oldest two are teenagers, it brings a whole different set of obligations and is even more complex! I'm monitoring different things. I was asked to go to the West Coast for my new book on the night of my daughter's first dance, so that had to be negotiated differently. It's an ongoing challenge.

The year a book is out, I go on the road for the signings, and that's hard, but my publisher has been really wonderful, and limits my time away from home. I told them I can't be away more than a few days, but even if I'm just gone for one night, I leave pages of instructions!

I can't say that becoming a mother has changed the topics I wrote about, at least overtly. I'm sure in some subtle ways my topics changed.

Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?

Cover of That Night by Alice McDermott
I haven't seen it. They have always lived that way. I have always gone off and done this. They're very blasé; it's just something their mother does, although they did get a kick out of all the publicity over the National Book Award. I was at a friend's house when they got the news, and there were all these pictures in paper. My oldest son fielded all calls, and when I came home, he told me he had washed the kitchen floor in preparation for people coming over! It was a big celebration, and they were part of that.

My kids don't read my work -- they aren't much interested. One time my daughter sat down and read a few pages, then didn't go further. I guess they figure if they don't have to read it, they don't have to comment on it.

Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?

Maybe in twenty years I'll write about my children, but now I write to get away from them! My newest book is almost all about children, which I think I am a little smarter about how children are in this world after living with them on a daily basis! But none of it is from real life, although I don't censor. I know I'm shaped by my own experience, but I'm not tempted to write about things I'm actually living right now.

That being said, my novel That Night came from an event in my childhood in the suburbs where my parents, a Con Edison worker and a secretary-housewife, had moved to raise children. The main event of the book happened in our neighborhood, during my childhood, but my parents told me I didn't remember it clearly. A dramatic "street fight" in my memory was in reality only a shouting match. Still, the essence of the story was that even places we think are safe and happy aren't always really that way, which is true regardless of the details.

I've never been tempted to write nonfiction or memoir, in fact, writing nonfiction is torture for me. I like the freedom to manipulate fiction.

How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?

My mom gave me the propensity to write at an early age, and advised me to use writing to deal with problems. Then she suggested I tear everything up after I had written it all down! I encourage my kids to do the same and they have journals for writing. Both of my parents were great readers. They read and talked a lot to us as we were growing up. My mom would read short stories out loud from magazines, so that these fictional characters became real to me. The journaling I did to work out my thoughts in writing and problems with other girls was very therapeutic, and helped me with that need I have to figure things out.

My mother is quietly thrilled with my writing career. She is normally a late sleeper, but when I got the National Book Award, a sound bite was on NPR from my speech, and she woke up at 6 AM to hear it, and called me right away.

I have two older brothers who are both lawyers, so they write in that capacity.

Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?

There are family benefits to having a mother as a writer, too. This was my eighth summer at Sewanee Writers Conference [held in July at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN], and I take my kids and husband along every year. They love going there, and the conference director, Cheri Peters, is very accommodating. Otherwise I wouldn't go -- I couldn't be away from my children for two weeks.

What are you working on now?

Cover of Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott
My new book, coming out around November 2002, is Child Of My Heart, and it's about a lot of children. It's a very short story, an odd "coming of age" novel with an unusual fifteen year old girl as narrator. That book took six months to write.

I also have a longer novel I'm working on. I usually start one novel, then a second so I'm working on both at the same time until one takes over. But I'm always working on two.

What are your writing habits?

I write every day. During the school year I write four days a week during school hours and teach one day a week. When my kids were little, I used to go back and write more when they were in bed, but I don't do that as much now. I revise what I wrote the day before every day. I occasionally write a short story, but usually my stories become longer and then turn into short novels.

I'm not in a writing group. My agent and editor are my first two readers, and I don't give them something until there's a good chunk of material. My husband waits until it's finished.

Do you have any advice for other mothers/writers?

Some of the best advice is pay yourself first, and when you start to have children, take time for yourself even if it's only an hour or two. Make space for your writing. Sweep things away -- you can pick it up when everyone gets home later, but as soon as they leave, clear off the table and get to work, even if it's just for an hour a day.

Actually I'm lucky to be in a position where I can write fulltime, because I know for some other working mothers, especially single mothers, it so much more difficult, if not impossible. I'm a very fortunate person!

**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, writer, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, PA. Her book, Surviving Ophelia, will be published in Fall 2001 by Perseus Publishing. She can be reached by email at

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