Alice McDermott: "We lived in La Jolla for five years, from 1984 to 1989. And soon after we arrived, I showed up in the UCSD English department and said, ‘Anything I can do?’ "
Child of My Heart, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002; 240 pages; $22.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: Alice McDermott’s haunting new work of fiction is narrated by a woman who was born beautiful. Her parents decided that her best chance in life was to marry a wealthy man, so she was raised on the east end of Long Island, among the country houses of the rich. On the cusp of 15, she is the town’s most sought-after babysitter—cheerful, beloved, a wonder with children and animals, but also a solitary soul with an already complex understanding of human nature — when her favorite cousin, Daisy, comes to spend the summer.
The narrator’s witty, piquant, deeply etched evocation of all that was really transpiring under the surface during that seemingly idyllic season gives her wry tale — infused with suppressed passion, disappointment, and enduring hope — its remarkable vividness and impact. Once again, Alice McDermott explores the mysterious depths of what seems like everyday life with unforgettable insight and resonant emotional power.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: From Booklist: One of McDermott’s many gifts is her ability to portray adults, the poor clowns, as seen through a child’s or teenager’s clear-sky eyes, an illuminating and unsettling feat she performs with tender wit and quiet soulfulness in her exquisite fifth novel, the first since her National Book Award-winning Charming Billy (1998). McDermott has established early 1960s Long Island as a redolent fictional universe, “the kingdom by the sea” where ambitious working-class Irish Catholic escapees from Brooklyn keep an assessing watch over the island’s elite. Fifteen-year-old Theresa’s parents moved there to increase the odds that their exceptional daughter will attract a well-off husband. Meanwhile, this princess-in-waiting, who is every bit as shrewd as she is lovely, keeps herself busy during this eventful summer, her season of passage from girl to woman, by caring for her self-centered neighbors’ woefully neglected pets and children. Her sweet little city cousin, Daisy, a poetically minded stoic with unruly red hair and one of fiction’s most captivating girl spirits, is visiting, and the two share a magical world in which lollipops grow on trees and pretty plastic shoes have cosmic powers. But Theresa soon realizes that Daisy is ill, and the cousins’ intuitive complicity in concealing her condition infuses this magical novel with a profound poignancy. Resilient toddler Flora is Theresa’s primary babysitting responsibility, and of all the men who circle Theresa, aroused by and wary of her dawning sexuality and self-possession. Flora’s father, a famous abstract painter and still a hard-drinking womanizer at age 70, is the one this resourceful and pragmatic young woman is drawn to. Just as the calm and sparkling sea can conceal a tricky undertow, McDermott’s gorgeous novel is laced with sly literary allusions and provocative insights into the enigma of sexual desire, the mutability of art, death’s haunting presence, our need for fantasies, and the endless struggle to keep love pure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alice McDermott was born in 1953 in New York, New York. She grew up in suburban Long Island. After graduation from the State University of New York at Oswego, McDermott took a clerk-typist Job with a Manhattan-based vanity publisher (an experience that shows up in Ms. McDermott’s critically acclaimed first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter). But she’d always wanted to write. So after a year at the vanity publisher’s shop, McDermott enrolled in the
University of New Hampshire’s writing program. She decided, when she entered UNH, “I’m going to give myself these two years, and if I haven’t published anything by the time I leave, then I’ll know I’m not a writer.” While still at UNH, McDermott sold short stories to Ms., Redbook, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle. She graduated from UNH in 1979; her first novel was published in 1982.
Ms. McDermott’s husband, David Armstrong, is a neuroscientist. In 1984, Armstrong’s work brought the couple to San Diego. Ms. McDermott explained on the day we talked, “My husband was with a fairly big group that came to UCSD from Albert Einstein Medical College. So we lived in La Jolla for five years, from 1984 to 1989. And soon after we arrived, I showed up in the English department and said, ‘Anything I can do?’ And they said, ‘As a matter of fact...’ So, pretty much the whole time we were in La Jolla, I taught one course a quarter. And I had my first two children at U.C. San Diego Hospital. We loved California, and we miss it.”
Ms. McDermott’s second novel. That Night, written while she lived in La Jolla, was published in 1987. The book was nominated for a National Book Award and made into a film. Her third novel, At Weddings and Wakes, was published in 1992. Charming Billy, her fourth novel, was awarded the 1998 National Book Award for Fiction.
The recipient of a Giles Whiting Foundation award, Ms. McDermott teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. Ms. McDermott and her husband now live in Bethesda, Maryland. They have three children.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Ms. McDermott’s title comes from this, in Isaiah:
You will rejoice in Me.
You will know it was I who made you strong, who blessed you with might.
Never doubt it, child of My heart:
You are indeed strong in Me.
Those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
“This wonderful title, from Isaiah, how did you come by it?” “Well, interestingly enough, this is the first title that I did not choose myself. My agent, Harriet Wasserman, who was urging me to publish this book because I’ve been working on a much longer novel that I’m still involved in, she suggested this title. This book kind of snuck up on me, it was something that I began late in September of last year. So it’s very quick. I wasn’t sure when I began it if it was a long short story or what. I didn’t know what it was. It was just unclear to me. I think it was a way of getting back to work after September 11 and that long pause we all took in our normal lives.
“My agent and I met in January, and she was urging me to get this book out first. I said to her, ‘Harriet, I don’t really have a plot. I don’t know what it is and I don’t even have a title for it.’ She flipped through the manuscript and saw the line ‘child of my heart,’ and she said, ‘There it is.’ ”
“I notice you dedicated the book to her.”
“I did. She’s been a wonderful friend and supporter from the very beginning. Especially in the case of this book. As I said, 1 was just following the voice and not thinking about what I was going to do with it. Once the story was finished, Harriet did all that thinking part for me and left me free just to write.”
Child of My Heart opens with this: “I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits, three of them, that had been left under our back steps.”
I said how much I liked the summer setting — all that deep green, the leaves, the characters’ scanty dress and bare skin. “Summer,” I said, “is fun to write.”
“Yes. And I think it was, for me, kind of a relief to dwell not only in childhood but in a beautiful place in that kind of magical moment of early summer. But, as you know. I’m always hesitant not to do too much self-analysis about where the story comes from. But now that I have a short distance from the book, not really as much distance as I usually have when something finally gets published, I see that I needed it, as I say, after the terrible things that went on on the 11th and afterwards. Clearly, I think I was looking to share something away from all that.”
“One thing that right away came to me,” I said, “is that this book, in addition to being an intricate and quiet and strange and wonderful story, is also a story about the imagination and the imagination’s power. Is that true?”
“I hope so. I certainly hope so. If I had any goals for the book, that would be primary. Yes. I really saw the story was celebratory, although it’s a sad story. But for me, it was a way of paying homage to what Art gives us.”
“Is beautiful, young Theresa a bit of a muse to the old painter? Or am I still under the spell of Francine Prose’s wonderful The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired?”
“I think she’s much more primary. I think that she is more the artist than the muse. I see her much more as not the inspiration to the artist, but the artist herself.”
I asked about Theresa’s statement, “My advantage was that I knew what he was trying to do, here in his kingdom by the sea, where art was what he said it was and the limits of time and age were banished and everything was possible because everything that mattered was inside his head. My advantage was that I knew what he was trying to do — and I was better at it.”
Ms. McDermott responded, saying, “I think that passage is probably as pointed as anything I’ve ever written. In some ways Theresa is the typical coming-of-age heroine. But I suppose I wanted to bump her up a bit. She was more aware of what she was doing and she was more intelligent and more in control than what we’re accustomed to in such heroines. I think she is the artist. And I think she is the artist of the novel. And maybe it’s more of a performance art than anything else, but she orders the world, and she orders it for the children in her care, and she orders it for herself. She makes of what she finds something else again. “I don’t see her as so much a muse as he [the elderly artist] maybe is her muse — a kind of reversal, I suppose. I think she is the artist in that she also understands what is needed, and I think this is what her impatience with the rest of the world is, that she’s surrounded by adults who are busy getting what they need arranged in their lives to suit themselves. And they’re a bunch of pretty self-absorbed adults and she isn’t. She’s willing to give others what is needed through her art.
“I suppose, though, that we’re more familiar with the artist as self-absorbed. But I don’t think that’s true as much of women who are artists — at least the ones who have not had to follow in the male model. I think that she is both a caretaker and an artist, and that interests me about her. She is an artist, and she’s also ordering things and not simply just taking care of what she finds, but making changes in it. And maybe, the business that I’m getting at — and again, bumping up, raising the stake for this particular heroine — is that she can be the Mary Poppins or the Jane Eyre, the caretaker, and also she is making use of the world as she finds it to turn it into something else again. And she does this not only for her own sake, not out of self-absorption or selfishness. It’s a side of the artist we don’t have enough appreciation for, that there is a kind of gift-giving in the artistic endeavor.”
“That gift-giving sense of the artistic endeavor,” I said, “is what I sometimes call ‘making ashtrays for your mom in nursery school.’"
“Exactly. The art is always for someone else. Or else, if not, then there’s no reason to do it. You might as well keep the image inside your own head. The artist is so often portrayed as selfish and beholden only to the work itself, and yet in the wake there is something more generous. That make sense?”
I said that it did make sense. I said that I was always a bit reluctant to question fiction writers and poets too closely about their work. To do so, I added, feels like snooping and prying.
“Exactly. Exactly,” Ms. McDermott said.
At a point in the novel the elderly painter takes St. Joseph’s aspirin for the pain in his teeth. Theresa gives aspirin from the same bottle to her ill cousin, Daisy. I said to Ms. McDermott that I enjoyed the details of the aspirin. “I could just see,” I said, “those little orange tablets and the little bottle in which they come."
“And isn’t it nice,” Ms. McDermott said, “that there are St. Joseph’s aspirins, and I was able to again talk about found art and St. Joseph, the older husband of the Virgin. It worked out very nicely. I’m glad, I’m glad they decided to give the aspirin that name all those years ago.”
“Did your tongue find its way a bit into your cheek when you came to the aspirin detail?”
“And isn’t it interesting how you’re working away, writing, and things like that orange aspirin come to you out of nowhere, and you don’t know from where they came or how?”
“Yes. And you know, for the hundreds of things that come to you that you have to discard, there is the one that fits. And that seems inevitably part of the story that we’re trying to tell. And, too, that’s when you’re having a good writing day.”
The relationship between Theresa and her young cousin, I said, seemed perfectly portrayed.
“The story, I think, was always about the two of them. I don’t think I had one without the other at any moment. I’m not sure exactly why. I certainly had the sense of that kind of infatuation that takes place between young girls and slightly older girls and how many people have told me stories that involve that infatuation, and yet it seems to me it’s not often as celebrated as it should be.”
Ms. McDermott writes in Child of My Heart a horrible, grisly, bloody scene with a cat. The scene was so well-wrought in all its bloodiness and horror that I found myself looking away from the page. I asked Ms. McDermott if she’d ever seen something like that.
“Yes, I suppose. Again, I can’t think of a specific instance, but I think I have had enough glimpses of such things that, again, somehow seem part of that world as well. There’s always that bond of the marvelous time apart, the kingdom by the sea, the high summer. There’s all that, and yet there’s so much else that needs to be acknowledged at that moment, and somehow the blood and the death and the tragedy of that moment [with the cat] fit, as a way of looking at the whole piece, the whole life.
“And, again, the acknowledgment that at this moment, this high summer, in this enchanted place, that there is also death is important. And that’s something Theresa understands intuitively, even before the novel begins. This is in a line that she uses, when she says, ‘That I was up against.’ I think it ties in as well with what she feels for the artist. She secs him as an old man, fading. And that’s unacceptable to her. That should not be in this world that she’s the queen of.”
“The way in which Theresa helps the elderly artist,” I said, “is almost like a virgin sacrifice.”
“Yes, yes. Once again, it’s the sacrifice without self-annihilation to be the caretaker, to put the care of others first and yet not to eliminate yourself in the process."
“The Irish family that everyone expects to be in your novels was only at the very edge of the page in this book.”
“Right. They crept in here and there through the cracks. Theresa is above and beyond all of that. That’s the French blood that crept into the family.”
“And that poor homely, angry, overweight Bernadette, Daisy’s sister, about whom you’ve written that heartbreaking line — ‘There is no misanthrope like a chubby misanthrope.’ What a child. Everyone has known a child like that.”
Ms. McDermott agreed, saying, “Actually, it’s very funny. My 14-year-old, this summer, when I was going over the proofs for this while we were on summer vacation, picked up the first few manuscript pages as we were sitting out by the ocean. She read it through. She kind of chuckled a little bit and then didn’t read any more. And it must have been a month later, I think, school had started. She was talking to me about something, and all of a sudden she stopped and she said, ‘You know, it is true, there is no misanthrope like a chubby misanthrope.’ That’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me about my writing. She remembered that line.”
“Does it surprise you when people talk with you about your characters as if those characters were their family members or close friends? When people recall details of your novels that perhaps even you have forgotten?”
“It does. But it’s delightful. It’s the best reward. It’s the thing that gets me back out on the road again when the time comes. My most primitive criteria for judging a piece of fiction is, ‘How does it return to me? What bits of it come back to me, what phrase or image or detail returns when I’m doing something else and not even thinking about the story?’ And when that happens, 1 think it’s so satisfying. So to hear that I’m able to do that, or to produce that effect in anyone, is thrilling to me because that’s what I go to fiction for. I love that — just an echo. And sometimes you have to think and say, ‘Where did I see that?’ But you know, somehow, you know you’ve been changed by it. Something has been introduced that would not have been there if you hadn’t done the reading, and to me that, all intellectual criteria aside, is a great reward for reading. And isn’t that the wonderful thing about reading that nothing else can replicate? It is just your mind communicating with a writer’s mind. And nothing else.”
As 1 frequently do, when interviewing an author, I asked Ms. McDermott if there were any other questions I should ask her.
“No. I usually have more time and space between finishing a novel and having it out. So I feel like this book is still in my head somewhere, and I’m still just sort of delighted and amazed that I can talk to people about it.”