Alice McDermott: “Charming Billy”
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The National Book Awards were announced this week, and the winner in
the fiction category was Alice McDermott. She won for her novel, “Charming Billy,” the story of a lovable Irish-American from Queens who as a young man had lost his first real love. He died an alcoholic, and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented. The chairman of the judging panel said the novel had a voice like nothing we could recall. Alice McDermott is the author of three other novels. She teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us, Ms. McDermott.
ALICE McDERMOTT, National Book Award, Fiction: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I read that you were so sure you wouldn’t win you didn’t even compose an acceptance speech. Why were you so sure you wouldn’t win?
ALICE McDERMOTT: Probably because this was my second time up as a nominee, and I got used to not winning the first time. And it felt quite comfortable, and I realized when you don’t win, you get to finish your dessert, so I was looking forward to not winning.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You had some pretty fierce competition this time too, with Tom Wolfe and -
ALICE McDERMOTT: That as well. And it’s been a wonderful year for fiction all around. From January to now we’ve seen so many wonderful new novels come out by new writers and familiar writers. So it was a busy year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: From reading your novel, I think you like you character, Charming Billy, very much, this charmer who quotes poetry and is a romantic. Why? What do you love about him?
ALICE McDERMOTT: Billy is really the reason for the novel. He was the beginning and the end point. He’s that stereotypical, lovable Irishman, drinks too much, talks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everybody else has gone home and with tears in his eyes tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death, and no one can stop him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read to us from the book, please.
ALICE McDERMOTT: This is a section from Billy’s youth. He and his cousin, Dennis, have just returned from fighting in the second world war. They’re having a bit of a hiatus, they call it, before they go back to work, and they’re out on Long Island at the Coast Guard beach in East Hampton with some girls they’ve met on the beach, Irish house maids. And this is where Billy falls in love. “He took her face in his hands, but even this close he couldn’t tell if it was firelight or tears that made her eyes shine so, or maybe his own muddled vision. He pulled her to him, but carefully this time. There was a vast darkness beyond them and the indifferent pounding of the sea, and adrift in the same world that held their fine future, there was accident and disappointment, a sickening sense of false hope and false promise that required all of God’s grace to keep at bay.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He loves – she goes back to Ireland, and then a big lie occurs. Tell us about the lie, which is really – it’s the lie that sets everything else in the novel in motion.
ALICE McDERMOTT: It does. Eva’s gone back to Ireland, and Billy has promised to send for her andbring her back to New York and make her his wife. And in a year of saving up his money and borrowing some money to send her a ring and get her over here his cousin, Dennis, who’s also his best friend, is informed at the end of this year that Eva has married someone else. And it’s left to Dennis to break the sad news to Billy. And he brings Billy back out to the island – from Queens back out to Long Island, where this summer idle first occurred, and on the way realizes that he can’t tell him this sad tale, this foolish tale of his betrayed love, so, instead, he tells him that Eva has died of pneumonia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you come up with this, with Billy, the lie that his cousin tells him? He believes that his love has died, and it has innumerable consequences, which we won’t go into. We don’t want to ruin it for everybody else. In the book, where does this come from? Where did Billy come from?
ALICE McDERMOTT: Well, I think “Charming Billy” ultimately is a novel about faith, and what we believe in, and above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about. They love him so dearly and are so fond of him and have – they’ve watched him destroy himself – and it’s not enough for them to say, well, Billy’s had an unfortunate life. They need to make something more of his life. And they do that by telling stories about him. They keep the faith that his life was valuable, even though on the surface it seems only pathetic.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the book is almost an elegy, the voice that one of the judges referred to that tells the story, which is a young woman, actually, has a kind of delicate elegiac tone. How did you decide to do that, to make her the storyteller?
ALICE McDERMOTT: Do you know I resisted that voice, that first person narrative, but it seemed to me if you’re telling a story about faith, you’re also telling a story about telling stories, the things that we believe in — our stories that we hear and are told. And so it seemed to me that the entire novel needed to be told to someone, and that was where – the inevitability of that first person voice telling a story that’s not necessarily her own, but putting together, as women do, the various stories in her family and making something of it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re sometimes compared to James Joyce, because also in the book – we haven’t talked about this – the whole family is important. There are many, many characters; they’re talked about in great detail. The whole community is important. Did you set out to write about Irish-American life?
ALICE McDERMOTT: No, I wouldn’t say that I did. I set out to write about the things we believe in, and the way we feel, and things like hope and faith. Being Irish-American, myself, Irish-American material is readily at hand to me. I know Irish-American people. I know what their homes look like. I know what they have for dinner. I know how they turn a phrase. And so since it was readily available, it saves me lots of research time, and I can spend the time instead trying to develop the things that I think are important in fiction, and that is the inner life of the characters.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you don’t sentimentalize any of it. I mean, his death, the terrible discoloration of a body that dies from liver damage is quite graphically described. Did you try very hard not to be sentimental?
ALICE McDERMOTT: Well, that was very important to me, because having an alcoholic – a lovable alcoholic at the center of the novel and someone who was romanticized by the people around him, I didn’t want to romanticize him myself as the author of his book, so it was important to me that we recognize that these people are trying to build a romance around a tragedy. But they’ve also lived with a tragedy, and they know intimately the horror of this kind of life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell me what the award means for you. You’ve had very highly decorated books. You’ve been nominated for national book award before. But what does winning one mean for you?
ALICE McDERMOTT: It means a couple of very busy days and lots of phone calls and a lot of excitement, and I hope a return to work fairly soon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Alice McDermott, thanks very much.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Thank you.