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Alice McDermott invokes a voice little heard in life or literature for ‘Someone’

October 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In her first novel in seven years, National Book Award winner Alice McDermott set out to tell the story of a character who most people pass over in favor of "more appealing characters." She talks to Jeffrey Brown about her book "Someone," and how she tapped into the character's voice.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: National Book Award winner Alice McDermott has written her first new novel in seven years. Titled “Someone,” it’s a finely drawn account of one ordinary woman’s seemingly unremarkable life.

Jeffrey Brown talked with McDermott recently. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.

ALICE MCDERMOTT, “Someone”: I understood that this was a character who in her own life her voice hadn’t much been heard and in literature her life isn’t much heard, so…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were conscious of that or thinking about that, yes?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Yes. Yes.

So, for me, it was resisting all the more appealing characters and listening to the voice that hadn’t been much heard from.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have read that this story began as something bigger, that I think you referred to another interview as a teeming novel you were working on, and somehow it was scaled down to the story of this one, again, quoting you, remarkable woman.

ALICE MCDERMOTT: That’s right. Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s true?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Yes. Well, the sense of her voice alone, to give the entire novel to her voice, to her character, to the way she sees things and doesn’t see things, to hear her voice, the way she uses language.

She’s a shy child. She’s a plain woman, yes, an unremarkable, unremarkable on the surface character, but with a very active internal life. And I wanted to capture that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where does she come from? There are some connections, family connections to your own life in — at least your parents’ life in Brooklyn, right?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Irish Catholics?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Absolutely, yes.

My parents were both first-generation Irish Catholics raised in Brooklyn. But it was more for me — it was that women of that generation were even less likely to express themselves, more likely to have that active interior life that they didn’t dare speak out.

 

So I was interesting in women of that era. I was interested in the language of that era. There’s so much. And, certainly, this is cultural, so much there wasn’t spoken about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in that time?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Just in that time, yes.

And with — it’s not just the Irish, but the Irish do have a propensity for saying less than they mean.

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE MCDERMOTT: So to capture what’s going on inside her life, but also what the world around her is keeping her from seeing and saying.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did she unfold for you as you wrote? Or did you know going in that there — was where this was going to end, her story?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: She very much unfolded for me.

And this is the first time in my writing career that I wrote a novel mostly in third person, and then very, very close to finishing the novel, I thought, no one’s listening to her and neither is her author.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

ALICE MCDERMOTT: I need to give her the first person. I need to let her tell her own story that directly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? So you went back and rewrote the story in the first…

ALICE MCDERMOTT: I went back. And I’m always telling my students, don’t — don’t worry so much third person, first person. It doesn’t make that much difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just for you as a writer, when you’re writing something that isn’t — it doesn’t grab the reader by the throat because of the — you know, we’re waiting breathlessly for the big how did she get to be so famous or something like that.

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Right. Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have to do it through the writing.

ALICE MCDERMOTT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have to do it through beautiful sentences, which is what you do.

ALICE MCDERMOTT: That’s what one hopes.

We are surrounded by story. Story is very accessible to us, more so than ever. But what I think literary fiction is raise the level of the sentence to be as important as the story the sentence tells. The rhythm, the beauty, the music of it is as important as character and plot.