Tag Archives: Charming Billy

Author Spotlight: Alice McDermott

In a 2006 review of Alice McDermott’s novel After This, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Ms. McDermott gives us an affecting meditation on the consolations and discontents of family life — the centripetal and centrifugal forces that bind husbands and wives, parents and children together and fling them ineluctably apart.”

That astute observation applies to all of her brilliant work. Alice McDermott is a master at the craft, an author who never wastes a single word. Her novels are not long (most are under 300 pages), but are packed with penetrating insights into family, loss of innocence, dreams and disillusion.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Alice McDermott is the author of six novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998), Child of My Heart: A Novel (2002) and After This (2006).

McDermott is best known for Charming Billy, winner of an American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1999. In an interview with National Public Radio, McDermott talked about the character, Billy, who is introduced to the reader at a dinner held in his honor after his funeral. “He died an alcoholic and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented,” she said. That dream centered on a girl from Ireland, who Billy fell deeply in love with and vowed to marry. His best friend told him a white lie about the girl when Billy asks what happened to her and why she failed to respond to his inquiries. The girl’s ghost haunts Billy all his life, even after he later finds out the harsh truth.

Speaking about Billy, McDermott said, “He’s that stereotypical lovable Irishman, drinks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everyone else has gone home and with tears in his eyes, tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death and no one can stop him.”

Charming Billy is “ultimately a novel about faith, and what we believe in and, above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about…They need to make something more of his life.”

Her stories are rooted in the Long Island suburbs where McDermott grew up as an Irish-Catholic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The themes of faith and loss run through McDermott’s work. Family members grow up yearning to break free, but them find themselves trapped by circumstances and loyalties, bound to a life they never envisioned. Billy is a dreamer who pines for his lost love in Ireland, while struggling to cope with his every-day existence.

There is a sense of duty and decency to her characters that, in spite of their flaws, evokes sympathy in the reader.

McDermott once described writing as an obsession. In a New York Times interview after That Night was published, she said, ”I suppose I don’t know any other way of living. Not even just making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers. But I just don’t know any other way of getting along in the world…When I’m not writing -and I have considered many times trying something else – I can’t make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and writing fiction is the only way I’ve found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I’ve made that much of an attempt.”

Alice McDermott’s novels make sense out of the frailties and mysteries of family life.

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Think Big. Write Small.

My alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, launched a branding campaign a few years ago that featured the tagline, “Think Big. We Do.” When it comes to fiction writing, the “think big” approach has great appeal, but it’s a double-edged sword. Writers want to write about big things: universal themes, stakes that matter, larger-than-life characters, wars, planets colliding, magic.

However, I believe some writers, especially novices, would do well to “think small.” Huh? You might be thinking I’ve lost my mind. Why should you as a writer limit yourself when the world is your canvass?

Let me share a cautionary tale. When I launched my “starter novel” in 1997, I yearned to write a big novel, grand in scope and concept. It was a story about baseball and politics, two of my passions. This story had everything: murder, kidnapping, extortion, political machinations. And it was terrible. I didn’t know enough about the craft. I got caught up in the giddiness of telling this big, complicated story. I figured if I piled on enough plot twists, mayhem and upheaval, I would have a runaway bestseller on my hands. It doesn’t work that way. I forgot about some important fundamentals, like story structure, character development, and theme. It was one 300-page, far-flung mess that will never see the light of day.

My second attempt at a novel was equally futile, though I had the wisdom to pull the plug a lot sooner. It was a political novel that I abandoned after 150 pages when I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate. It hit me then that Klein’s novel was exactly the kind of story I was trying to write, except that I lacked his skill, experience and knowledge.

At that point, I took stock. I didn’t even think about writing a novel for three years. I wrote some short stories and took part in my critique group. The fire to write a novel still burned in me, though. So I asked myself some hard questions:

Why did my first two novels fail?

Was it the subject matter? The story? The characters?

Was I just not that good?

These led to a tough self-diagnosis and then it hit me. These were the wrong questions. What I needed to figure out was this:

What do I really want to write about?

In pondering that question, I thought about what I liked to read and why. At the time I was reading Alice McDermott’s masterpiece, Charming Billy. I had read nearly every Anne Tyler novel and most of Alice Munro’s work. And that’s when it hit me. I knew what I wanted to write about: families in crisis. I didn’t write anything right away, but I waited for an idea to take hold. Two years later, I came up with the idea for Small Change. It was, pardon the pun, a small idea and a small story. I wanted to write about one family and their struggle to keep from falling apart. But I soon discovered I needed a second family that was the opposite of that family. And the two families would become connected in some way and there would be family secrets and the bonds would fray. For the first time, I was writing with passion. There are no spaceships or wizards or battles or vampires in this story. No hocus pocus. No kidnappings or murders. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

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