This year, Alice McDermott is publishing her first work of nonfiction, a collection of thoughts on the art of fiction entitled, What about the Baby? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The book is based on two decades of talks given at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and on her career as Academy Professor and Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In 2002, I was fortunate enough to be a student of McDermott’s fiction workshop. Aside from critiquing each other’s work, our weekly assignment was to discuss the latest story published in the New Yorker. I’d never before been asked to read any contemporary short fiction, and I was distraught when I often badly disliked the week’s story. I was convinced that the stories must actually be perfect, but that I was too dense to grasp their brilliance.
Each time, McDermott would unerringly lead us in an intense critique of the story, demonstrating that it was not only fine to dislike even what the most famous magazine in the country was publishing—but that we should always read with the most critical of eyes. She taught us that we should “never write badly,” be it a grocery list or a note to our mothers. I remember only one other thing about the class vividly: that, as a response to a prompt she gave us, I wrote part of the first short story I’d ever finish—though it would take me another year to do so. The prompt was simply this: “Write a short description of your character either sitting down or standing up.” It is with pride and gratitude that I give the same assignment to my own students today, and with the same feeling, last month, that I sat down to speak to McDermott over the phone at her home in Maryland, where she is now retired from teaching.
Kristopher Jansma You’ve now published eight novels but this is your first work of nonfiction. Why did you decide to collect these thoughts on the art of fiction together in a book?
Alice McDermott A lot of these were lectures that I gave at the Sewanee Writers Conference. Every summer for twenty-some years, I’d write a craft lecture, give the craft lecture, and then never look at it again. My editor, Jonathan Galassi, finally said, “Why don’t you do something with these?” We have been working together from the very beginning of my career but this was the first time he ever directly asked me to do something. So, I said, “When I retire from teaching I’ll take them out and you can look at them and see if they’re worthwhile.”
KJ The opening section is called “What I Expect” and you lay out a series of things you want to see in a work of fiction: it should create solace, have scenes that burn through our temporal concerns, address the pain and sweetness of life, be honest and true… and then you have about ten more. Why is that bar of expectations so high for fiction?
AMI don’t know that it’s a higher bar than is set by anyone who’s trying to create authentic art. We can engage with art to just escape the world, or to hang something on our wall that matches our couch, or to have a beat that we can exercise to. There’s all that. But then there’s the essential thing. The thing that makes this art feel like the thing we live for. The thing that drives the artists, the thing that you sacrifice for—that you take great risks for. This art is my reason for being. And if I can do it as well as I can possibly do it, maybe I can give you a glimpse of something that makes life reasonable. Sometimes when we’re wrapped up in craft and “How do you get an agent?” it’s easy to forget that it does something for our soul.
When I was in graduate school, this wonderful laidback Southern writer named John Yount told us in our first workshop, “If there’s any altar I worship at, it’s the altar of literature.” And suddenly, the entire semester, we had the sense that we were doing something really important, something essential to our fellow human beings in some way. So, I think it’s good to be reminded of that. Plenty of people don’t see it. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, says if we don’t get that tingle in our spine from literature, get it from something else. But those of us who do, we have to remember that this is the only altar at which we worship.
KJ Later in the book you have a whole section on faith in fiction, and you talk about your life as a Catholic writer. That theme stretches across all of it.
AM It’s important and it’s a difficult distinction to make, especially now in our kind of post-faith post-religious culture. It’s not that this will make you a better person. It’s not a “How To.” It’s the experience of transcendence—even if that experience only lasts for as long as your eyes are on the page. It doesn’t mean when you close the book, you’re going to go and be altruistic or more pleasant to your spouse.
KJ In the section, “Sentences,” you tell this wonderful story about realizing that you are “sentenced to sentences.” Is the sentence the basic unit in fiction, rather than words or paragraphs or pages?
AM I always get impatient when people ask, “What’s your favorite word?” No… give me a word in context! You need the sentence to hear the music. To get a sense of rhythm, you at least need a sentence. There are lovely individual words, but any individual word can be corrupted.
That first sentence is a huge commitment. You have point of view, you have rhythm. You may even have theme or metaphor. You have something visual. The little film in the reader’s mind has some light shining through. For me, it is down to the level of sentences. That’s how we work. Hand by hand by foot.
KJ So, talking about one word is sort of like talking about a single musical note, rather than a whole sentence which can be a melody?
AM And voice! I mean, it’s music but it’s voice and that’s the power and the glory of it. You can look at a single sentence and see all those things operating in it.
KJ In that same section you talk about loving beautiful sentences but how there’s also a sort of trap in beautiful writing. That focusing too much on trying to create beautiful sentences obscures something else. How do you know if you’re tilting too hard towards beautiful writing?
AM It’s a great danger for those of us who love language. It’s a great danger in workshops. It’s the dilemma of, “Yes, focus on the sentence but don’t focus too much!” Self-consciousness is the great risk that we run. The sentence needs to be at the service of the story and the story has to be at the service of the characters. But if the language is elbowing out the story and suppressing the characters…
Don’t strain after the beautiful language. The language will find you if what you’re going after is something true and authentic. Auden said, “Truth, like love and sleep, resents approaches that are too intense.” Straining after beauty is the same thing. Don’t do it too directly. Let the language find you, rather than chasing after it too directly and self-consciously.
KJ On the topic of self-consciousness, you talk about the story Eudora Welty tells about W.C. Fields who, once he learned about how juggling works, he couldn’t juggle anymore. As a teacher, I spend so much time explaining how it all works. Sometimes I worry I’ve exposed all the mystery and now I can’t do it myself the way I could before. You’ve been a writer and a teacher for a long time, do you have to find a way to leave some of that mystery on the table?
AM The most exciting revisions that I’ve seen, after a workshop or a conference, are those where you can barely detect what advice you gave. The story has become something else entirely. You’ve managed to help the writer find the right direction, but not with a map. You free the writer to think about what he or she is writing in a new and different way. And the most confining advice that you can give is when it must be followed exactly. Then you’ve lost the mystery, you’ve lost the heart. You’ve lost the thing that brought you to the page as the writer in the first place. It’s that ability to step back and see it: “Now because of what you said as a teacher or as a fellow member of this workshop, I’m looking at my story in a different way. And I see what I’ve always known about it, not what you told me about.”
KJ The title of the collection is “What About the Baby?” and in that piece, you talk about reading a string of works that center on misogynistic violence and rape and murdered women and girls in particular. You do a wonderful job of interrogating why it’s there and all the good reasons why it is important to talk about in fiction. You say you don’t want to be a sentimental or simplistic reader, but you hit a point where you just can’t read any more of it.
We encourage writers to try to push into uncomfortable territory and not shy away from exploring dark parts of life, but at the same time, I’m in the same boat as you. I just can’t read it sometimes.
Is it a matter of how we treat the subjects in a better way so that it doesn’t feel exploitative? Is it just always going to be too much for some people?
AM It is a balance, and back comes that self-consciousness. You know, “I can’t write a story about rape, although it’s the story I want to write. And it seems true and authentic. But I can’t do it because I’m tired of these stories or I’ve seen too many of them.” It’s separating the motive. If you’re putting yourself, as the writer, at the service of character and story with something that feels true and authentic, then subject shouldn’t matter. It’s not about the subject, it’s about your story, it’s about this particular story, these characters. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to separate that from “we’re all living in the world and reading in the world.”
If I had another craft lecture to give this summer, I would give something like What About the Baby? except, I would talk about ageism and how tired I am of seeing every character over seventy come down with Alzheimer’s. You know it’s not inevitable, right? But in fiction, you know, a young woman walking down a dark street at night is definitely going to get raped by the time she gets to the end of the block, and the seventy-year-old character who can’t find her car keys is definitely going to be in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s by the end of the story.
KJ Which isn’t just inaccurate to the real world, it also becomes a cliché. It ends up making boring fiction.
AM Exactly. And we should be contrarians. That’s why we need so much fiction. The writer can say, “Okay, yes, there’s a lot of that in the world, but what about this guy? This guy is unlike anybody else. Let me tell you about him.”
There is something in us that will turn our gaze to the most awful thing and the question becomes: Is this in the story because we understand how we can turn a reader’s gaze to the most awful thing? Or is it in the story because the story requires it?
Sometimes I have gone on in workshops about characters who show up and are just dispensed with. I say, “Think about your character’s mother! She went through labor to deliver this child, raised him, just so that you could introduce them into this story, and then kill them off. A lot of work went into creating that person! Have some sympathy.”
KJ You talk about how, as younger writers, you and your peers would try to emulate writers that were already established like Margaret Atwood and Ann Beattie. As a teacher, you must have watched this play out over and over in your classes, each generation copying the voices from the last one that they admire. You end up giving this advice then, to your younger self: “be aware of the temporary within the contemporary.” How can that help a writer maybe shake off some of the influences they’re under?
AM There’s the benefit of influence, that we all are writing in a tradition. Especially for young writers, imitation can be very instructive. I have a little story out with One Story, that I wrote to imitate Katherine Ann Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I wanted to pay homage to a story that I love, so I wrote a COVID story that takes place in March of 2021. So, it’s not just young writers! Of course, we study the people who came before us and who are writing with us. There’s imitation and there’s inspiration. But the real writer, the writer who is going to be a writer no matter what damage we teachers do, will always—even in doing a conscious imitation of another writer—transform it. The voice will out, the vision will out. And yet, sometimes you might learn something about structure, you might learn something about character, or even just to want to do a tip of the hat. That’s not a bad motive for telling a story.
I’m sure you found this sometimes with writing workshops. The best work comes from exercises that I’ve defined. There’s a kind of freedom to that. If it turns out to fall flat on its face, the writer can say, “Don’t blame me, blame the person who made me do this stupid exercise.” Sometimes a conscious modeling of your own writing with another writer’s work can be freeing. And yet, it’s the nature of the beast, the nature of who we are—you’ll always make it your own.
There is also the pressure though and we’re all aware of that. Who’s being talked about who’s being published? What are they writing? What are they writing about? We’re back to the rape and carnage things. They are getting attention. You think, “Maybe if I did that and stopped writing my quiet little stories…” And that’s where we need to be careful. Yes, of course you want to be timely in your writing. You’re writing out of your time—can’t help it. And you’re writing out of your own experience—can’t help it. But it just goes back to the question: What are we after here? We’re after truth. We’re after beauty. All those big things, and everything else, has to eventually fall away or you’ll never get there.
KJ In “Starting Over” you talk about hitting a kind of block after writing your first novel and actually writing all the time, but just not really wanting to write. Eventually, you end up reading Middlemarch and something there helps. You end up writing something completely different from what you started out to do. Is that something that still happens?
AM I’ve always had two novels going at the same time. Sometimes one starts and then I sneak away and do another one. It’s the nature of the work. It’s work. You write badly, you know you write badly, and sometimes you write badly for a very long time. Then you discover something you didn’t know you were looking for and that helps you to write a little less badly. It’s kind of like moving from adolescence into adulthood, “This is as tall as I’m ever going to be. This is as smart as I’m ever going to be. This is where I was born, these are the languages I can speak. This is me.” I can look around and envy everybody else and wish I was that person, but once you get out of your teenage years, you realize that’s not going to be very helpful.
It’s nice to think there’s a moment where you say, “It was all worth it,” but I don’t know any of us ever really reach that? I think Faulkner said, that’s why you write the next one. You’re so aware it wasn’t as good as it should have been, but you’re going to try again. It’s this constant going after it. This actually goes back to Faith. We all have some sense of an ideal for a story, an ideal for a poem or a play or painting. It’s somehow incoherent and yet we’re very sure it’s there somehow and that’s what we’re trying to get to. And we approach it. I don’t know that we ever say, “There it is” because that would be too clarifying. It’s always just a little bit out of our reach, and that’s what makes it worth pursuing.
KJ John Barth once said something about how teaching writing is more like coaching than teaching. We’re there to cheer people along and to help them locate their potential. And we have to keep asking writers to answer this question, “Is it clear? Are you being clear? Can we see?” Why is making things clear so central to great fiction?
AM Maybe this goes back to that sense of transcendence in the moment of reading—to the moment of encountering the story, encountering the sentences, encountering the scene. We need that kind of absorption to do it. The absorption is visual. The other senses should be involved as well, but it’s that encounter with only words that let us feel like we are dwelling in a world. I mean, that’s huge. The difference between a couple of words and a world. So, you’re conjuring a world, even in the simplest and the shortest short story. And what we know of our world, we only know through our senses. The difference encountering the world through fiction rather than simply walking out your front door, is that when we walk out our front door and we look around—we can have an argument if everything we see indicates creative intelligence behind it. But in fiction, we don’t have to have that. We know, that everything in this world was chosen by a creative intelligence, there is a God in every novel. That’s the author.
So, is your God arbitrary? Is your God just throwing things around? That’s interesting, and that tells you something. Or is your God trying to convey something through the world, that he or she is conjuring? That’s the marvel of it. You can’t really be a literary atheist. You can’t say, “I read this novel, but I don’t really think anybody made it.”
As readers, even if we’re not aware of it, we understand, that there’s an author there. I may have forgotten the author’s name because I’m more interested in the characters. I don’t know anything about the author, but I know somebody wrote this. And now I’m in the bottle factory in London and I’m not thinking about the author at all.
When I close the book, I understand that world was created by another human being. That’s the creative intelligence behind the experience of life that just happened through reading, just through words on the page. Wonderful.