Class Act

Acclaimed author Alice McDermott is also revered in her Johns Hopkins classroom.

When Alice McDermott suggests meeting for lunch at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo, it seems like an obvious choice. Critics often tag her as an Irish-American, or Irish-Catholic, writer, and the proposed setting conjures images of Guinness on tap, shamrock decorations, fish and chips, and a steady stream of stock phrases like “luck of the Irish” and “Irish eyes are smiling.” But it turns out that the Inn, like McDermott and her work, defies stereotyping. Its humble exterior—painted yellow with a dark-shingled roof—is unremarkable. Inside, it exudes carefully cultivated taste, with white linen covering the tables and framed oil paintings lining the walls. It is, indeed, a leprechaun-free zone. The menu lists black-tiger-prawn spring roll and smoked-salmon carpaccio alongside more traditional fare such as shepherd’s pie.

McDermott, who lives in nearby Bethesda, appears to be a regular, greeting the hostess and server with a familiarity that trumps formality. After glancing at the menu, she orders a beet salad and iced tea. A youthful-looking 60 years old, she smiles easily, often, and for good reason—she has, for decades, been acclaimed as a top-tier literary talent.

McDermott’s latest novel, Someone, was recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. (The winner will be announced March 13.) She’s already won a National Book Award for 1998’s Charming Billy and earned three Pulitzer Prize nominations. McDermott’s crisp, purposeful prose has been praised by many publications, including The New York Times, which lauded her for “writing with wisdom and grace and refusing to sentimentalize her characters.”

Peers like Anne Tyler feel similarly. “I am a huge admirer of Alice McDermott’s work,” says Tyler, who cites Someone as a particular favorite. “It was beautifully written and very touching, with its unpredictable landings on different, random times in one woman’s life.”     

McDermott appreciates the acclaim but doesn’t make too much of it, likely the result of a middle-class upbringing and its accompanying don’t-get-too-big-for-your-britches ethos. She often seems more interested in talking about the successes of others, notably her students.

What’s less known about McDermott is that she’s forged a stellar reputation as an educator. She has, since 1996, taught in the Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University, where she conducts graduate and undergraduate fiction workshops. “It’s energizing,” she says. “I enjoy looking at that first draft and thinking, ‘What have we got here? What’s on the page that we can make use of?’ I occasionally feel like I’m more invested in the stories than they are, but it’s always fun because they’re so talented.”

One of those talented students, 2003 grad Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a fellow nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award this year. She came to the U.S. from Nigeria at the age of 19, determined to become a serious writer. In 2008, she won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Another former student, Matthew Thomas, graduated from Hopkins and took a job teaching English at a Jesuit high school in New York. For 10 years, he didn’t publish anything, but worked steadily on his first book, which he recently sold to Simon & Schuster for $1 million.

Listening to McDermott talk about them, it’s apparent she isn’t bragging or basking in some reflected glow. She certainly isn’t competitive, and their awards and advances, though nice, don’t really impress her. On a deeper level, she understands the enormity of how far they’ve come and the sheer improbability of their journey.

She relates to that.

McDermott grew up in Elmont, a Long Island suburb, where she went to Catholic school and read constantly. She had two older brothers. Her mother did secretarial work and kept house; her father was a sales rep for Con Edison. He worked a desk job his entire life, valued the health care and pension it gave him, and expected his children to have similar aspirations. As a result, McDermott’s notion of going to college as an English major and becoming a writer was greeted with eye-rolling doubt.  

“It wasn’t just that I thought it was an impossibility,” she recalls. “I was told it was an impossibility. My parents said it was silly, or, even worse, dangerous.”

But after realizing how serious their daughter was, her folks softened a bit, figuring she could teach or become a secretary in a publishing house. “But you’ll have to get your shorthand and typing skills up,” they advised her.

McDermott graduated with an English degree from the State University of New York at Oswego, where an instructor once took her aside to say, “I have bad news for you. You’re a writer, and you’ll never shake it.”

After a short stint working as (no kidding) a secretary at a publishing house, she went back to school and got her master’s in writing at the University of New Hampshire in 1978. That same year, she sold her first short story to Ms. magazine, an event that proved to be a professional and personal turning point.

McDermott was out celebrating the story’s publication with friends in New York when she met her future husband at the Mad Hatter, a singles bar on the Upper East Side. David Armstrong had just moved to the city from Ohio to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Cornell University. When asked if they started out as friends, McDermott interjects, “This was the Seventies. You didn’t write letters.”

So it was immediate, love at first sight? “Oh, yeah,” says McDermott, with a nod and laugh that drives home the point.

Two years later—after publishing more stories in Mademoiselle, Redbook, and Seventeen—McDermott sold her first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter, to Houghton Mifflin for $12,500. The modest advance “felt like a million dollars,” she says, but even more significantly, it fed her belief that “this crazy idea I had of being a writer could become a reality that was recognizable to the rest of the world.”

Still, her parents cautioned—her chosen line of work didn’t come with benefits.

McDermott and Armstrong married in 1979, and his career researching Alzheimer’s disease has pretty much determined where the family—they have three children, two boys and a girl—has lived. It’s taken them to San Diego, Pittsburgh, and, ultimately, the D.C. suburbs, after Armstrong landed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

While living in Pittsburgh in 1996, McDermott was approached by John Irwin— who chaired the Writing Seminars at that time—about coming to Hopkins for a writing residency. By that time, she’d written three books, been a finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and done some college teaching. “I heard her read at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference [in Tennessee] and knew she’d be a perfect fit,” recalls Irwin. “Her writing was humane and deeply felt. She was a consummate stylist.”

McDermott accepted the invitation, “because it was Hopkins,” she says. “It was the house that Barth built,” referring to longtime faculty member, John Barth, who built up the program and retired before she arrived.

She commuted from Pittsburgh for a year and enjoyed working with serious-minded colleagues like Stephen Dixon, who says that McDermott was, indeed, a perfect fit. “She created a fair, relaxed, and warm atmosphere in the classroom,” says Dixon. “In addition to that, she was incisive and very smart.”    

After the residency was over, McDermott was invited to stay. Around the same time, her husband got the NIH job, they made the move to Bethesda, and she became a regular presence at the university, though her exposure to Baltimore was limited to reading Anne Tyler books, which, she notes, made her “very receptive to the city.” She was named the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities, which is an endowed chair, in 1999, the year after winning the National Book Award.

Since then, she has been Hopkins’ marquee writer, following predecessors such as Barth, Robert Stone, and Mark Strand. “As a highly visible writer, she attracts students to the fiction department,” says Irwin. “And she’s very hands-on once they get here, a truly great teacher.”

“She was very human, kind, and honest,” says former student Adichie. “She had a quiet class and grace and wore her immense talent very lightly. She was also very sharp as a reader—she got things and saw things. I paid attention to the comments she wrote on my stories.” (McDermott, for her part, takes no credit for Adichie’s success, saying she was “almost fully formed when she came to us.”)

Matthew Thomas was similarly impressed. “Alice taught us that every story should be not just one story, but two stories, or more than two if possible,” he recalls. “There should always be a parallel story, she urged. With that in mind, I will say that there is the story Alice’s work tells, and then there is the parallel story of the remarkable person Alice is in the world.

“She is one of those transformative teachers one is lucky to meet even once in a lifetime, a great writer, an American treasure, a gift to readers everywhere. Nearly above all else, what I remember about Alice is her wonderful laugh, which suggested that everything was right in the world, or could be with a little mutual effort.”    

McDermott has long maintained that writing fiction helps her make sense of the world, so it’s remarkable that making sense of others’ fiction holds such appeal for her. “It’s just a matter of getting down and dirty in their prose with them,” she explains. “We’re all there trying to make the story, novel, or chapter as good as it can be. It’s a constant struggle to get it down, get it clear, and understand that your intentions are the same, whether you’re an undergraduate writing a short story or a writer with seven published novels. The continually reassuring thing is that we’re all novices when we start a new work.”

That point gives her pause. She takes a sip of tea and adds: “There’s so much you don’t know until you start writing.”

Read author Matthew Thomas's tribute to Alice McDermott. >>

Issue date: March, 2014
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