An Interview with Alice McDermott

  • By Virginia Hartman
  • February 6, 2024

The novelist talks Saigon Barbies, not-quite-epistolary stories, and what Graham Greene got wrong.

An Interview with Alice McDermott

Bestselling author Alice McDermott has written multiple novels, one of which, Charming Billy, won the National Book Award. Each of her works, in its own way, is an exploration of what it means to be mortal, often through a Catholic lens. My class of fiction writers at George Washington University recently met McDermott and asked about her latest offering, Absolution, an extended correspondence between two American women — Tricia, a young wife, and Rainey, the daughter of an American expat — who lived in Saigon in 1963. What the book ultimately reveals is a landscape of questions surrounding U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the complicity of those adjacent to it.

What made you take up this time period and this story?

I had a longstanding argument with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I first read his novel as an undergraduate in the 1970s, while the Vietnam War still raged, and we knew [the war] was a catastrophe. Greene wrote The Quiet American in the mid-1950s, and it completely predicted the failure of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. I thought, why didn’t Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson read this novel? Greene nailed all the things America thought they were going to do and the absolute failings of the initiative to stop communism.

At the time, the women’s movement was also happening, and I saw that Greene’s female characters were flat. There’s one scene in which the narrator, a middle-aged, cynical British journalist, observes two young American women in a milk bar in Saigon finishing up their ice cream. He describes them as passionless, clean, and uncomplicated. Even as a 19-year-old, I knew he’d gotten it wrong. If these young American women were in Saigon in the 1950s, they must have been really interesting people.

Fast-forward: Living here in DC, I’ve met women who could have been models for those female characters, who during that time had fascinating lives all over the world, many of them as State Department wives, and every time I would meet a woman like this and hear her stories, I would think somebody should put the spotlight on [them] and correct Graham Greene. So, in the back of my mind was the idea that I wanted to give voice to such characters, to see what was going on in the domestic background while the men were busy messing things up in Vietnam.

Then I had a conversation with one of these spouses, who said they made Vietnamese clothes for their children’s Barbie dolls out of scraps of leftover silk. And I had a flashback to a nearly forgotten little girl I was sent to play with one day, and she had one of these Saigon Barbies. So, I started writing an origin story for the girl on Long Island with that Barbie doll, and that eventually became Rainey.

How did you decide on the book’s three-part structure?

Tricia’s first line is a reply to a question that has been asked before the novel begins. The reader understands Tricia is responding to someone, writing what I call a “faux” letter to Rainey, the daughter of her friend Charlene. After meeting women from Tricia’s era, I understood that they wouldn’t sit down and write a memoir. They would have to be asked a question they then had to answer. So, Tricia is asked to remember that time.

It’s not a true epistolary novel because nobody would write a letter that long. Still, my impulse was, “Just let her talk. Don’t disrupt it.” What started to evolve was this very long response to Rainey’s question unfolding as memory viewed through subsequent years. And after Tricia’s long response, I needed Rainey’s voice, the child now grown, who was a real innocent in Saigon in 1963. These two voices are essential, and the story changes as they tell it. In that long recounting, Tricia tells the story she didn’t know she was going to tell. And Rainey, in a different way, does that, too.

What is the Irish-Catholic angle on 1963 Vietnam?

There was a joke at one time that the CIA was referred to as the Catholic Intelligence Agency because they knew that Catholic recruits brought a religious fervor to their work. The political landscape in 1963 Saigon was infused with Catholicism. President Kennedy was the first Catholic president of the United States, and Diem, the president of Vietnam, was also a Catholic. And the CIA was full of Catholic men. At that time and place, the fight was very much driven by a sense that godless communism must be stopped. And Peter, Tricia’s husband, being a devout, old-school Irish Catholic, truly believes that he has a mandate from the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appeared in a field in Fatima, Portugal, to tell three little children that communism must be defeated. So, anything that he’s doing as an American CIA agent is spurred and foundationally driven by a sincere faith that if we don’t stop communism, God will be eliminated.

It’s important to understand the historical context of those efforts that went so wrong in Vietnam, and Catholicism is a big part of it. And Catholic-school-educated Tricia has a core value of preferential treatment for the poor. Some of the acts of charity the expatriate women perform have a parallel in American political actions in Vietnam. There’s a lot of conversation around selflessness and obligation. What is an actual good versus an inconsequential good? In Vietnam, a desire for something good could turn into a very bad thing.

But I didn’t want to solve the problem or answer all the questions; I wanted the characters to leave the reader with these complexities. Isak Dinesen says that if the storyteller is true to the story, then the silence at the end of the story speaks. I like a story with something that reverberates at the end that doesn’t need to be said. That’s a signal that the work is complete.

[Editor’s note: Alice McDermott will appear at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 18th in Gaithersburg, MD. Learn more here.]

[Photo by Jamie Shoenerger.]

Virginia Hartman is the author of the 2022 novel The Marsh Queen. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University.

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