Charming Alice

  • March 15, 2011

Q&A with Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award for Charming Billy.

Alice McDermott of Bethesda is the author of many novels, including A Bigamist’s Daughter, That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, Child of My Heart: A Novel, and After This. She won the National Book Award in 1998 for Charming Billy and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize on two occasions, with At Weddings and Wakes and After This.  McDermott is the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.  An adaptation of Charming Billy recently made its world premiere at the Roundhouse Theater in Bethesda, Maryland.  You also can listen to a live interview with her at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

David Stewart Q&A’s with Alice McDermott

Plainly you have mastered the novel and story forms — have you ever tried to write directly for the stage or movies?  If so, how did it go?  If not, why not?

I’m not so sure I’ve “mastered” anything – every bit of fiction I write makes me feel that I’m starting anew:  new story, new voice, new structure, etc.

But I’ve never tried to write for the stage or movies and I have no desire to.  I love what John Gardner called “the continuous dream” of fiction.  I love the incantatory nature of the written/read word, the intimacy of the shared voice: the writer’s voice shared silently with the reader’s.  I guess I prefer to have my work whisper in a single reader’s ear rather than emote from stage or screen.  Not that I don’t love the theater and the movies – theater especially – I’m just born to do otherwise, I think.

How deeply were you involved in this theater adaptation of Charming Billy?  Were there points in the process where you couldn’t help objecting, ‘I don’t think he would say this’, or “Oh, my God, she just can’t look like that’?

Just enough to keep any of it from feeling like work.  Blake Robison and I had our initial meeting about the adaptation and then, about a year later, I sat in on the first read through.  We chatted again after that, and then touched base now and again.  There was another read through with the current cast, we chatted again, and then we exchanged some e-mails as rehearsals progressed.  It’s all been great fun.  Because Blake’s adaptation honed so closely to the novel, there was never, for me, a glitch in the sound of the play.  And the actors, whether they fit my description or not, quickly demonstrated that they could make the characters their own.  Billy, in the novel, sort of looks like James Joyce.  In the play, he looks like David Whalen.  A movie director once suggested to me that Johnny Depp would be the perfect Billy . . . I suppose any skilled actor, regardless of his looks, could create a Billy of his own.

Another of your works, That Night, was made into a movie.  How did the adaptation process for that project differ from the theater adaptation of Charming Billy?

The director/screenwriter simply went off and made the movie he wanted to make, more or less based on the novel.  I had very little involvement.

Your writing has such a distinctive voice and sensibility.  How can that be preserved in adaptations?

Blake Robison’s adaptation is very true to the language of the novel – which is, by far, the most important thing to me.  He has, very skillfully, I think, found the pieces of dialogue, and even paraphrase, in the novel that ring true as spoken language on the stage.  What I think of as the “cringe factor” whenever I see an adaptation of my work usually involves clunking sentences I know I wouldn’t have written (and of course, the thought follows – vanity being what it is:  “But how will anyone else know I didn’t write that howler?”)

You have said you tend to have several writing projects going at the same time.  To some of us, that sounds like a writer’s version of The Three Faces of Eve, having multiple groups of characters and settings floating through your mind at the same time.  How do you keep them straight?

It’s more like Annie Get Your Gun . . . more like straddling two galloping ponies.  It’s a terrible way to work and I discourage anyone from trying it.  But it seems it is my way of working.  I’ve never had a problem with keeping things straight because they are always, to my mind at least, very different novels.  Which is why, I suppose, I’ve fallen into this bad habit:  one project serves as a delightful change of pace from the other.

Has there ever been an imaginary event or scene that could have appeared in every story that you were concurrently writing? If so, please describe it for us.

I’m afraid not – although I like the premise.

I read your interview in the Huffington Post where you describe the moment when Dr. Briand gave you the bad news – “you are a writer and you’ll never shake it.”  Have you had this occasion with one of your own students?

I have.  But of course, the young writers showing up in my classroom of late are of that generation that has always been told they are whatever they want to be . . . you know, with helicopter parents who send them to famous novelist summer camp the moment they put crayon to paper . . . so the impact of the news is not quite what it was for me, or even for earlier, less sure of themselves, generations of my students.  For me, being told I was a writer was a life altering transformation:  a gloriously impossible and utterly unspoken ambition suddenly made . . . well, possible, if not yet probable.

How does your real family show up in your fiction?

In the language I use, the shape of my sentences – since I first learned that language, as most of us do, from my family.  And since I write so much about family, I suppose my experience of my own will always influence my fictional worlds, but always, I think, as only a starting point: characters in fiction can never be the same as characters in “real life” because fictional characters serve the higher purpose of the novel as a whole.  Most of us in real life aren’t so sure of what purpose we serve.

When is the last time one of your characters surprised you and why?

If my characters don’t continually surprise me, I’m preaching a story, not composing it.  Writing fiction, just like reading fiction, should be a continual act of discovery: if as I write I’m not discovering something I wouldn’t have known had I not taken the trouble to labor over one sentence after the other, then why bother to labor over one sentence after the other?  I could have just tweeted my brilliant pre-made insights and been done with it.

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