Writer, takes shots of poetry

Alice McDermott

jamie schoenberg

Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award for her novel “Charming Billy,” says when she reads the voice she hears is that of her mother, who read out loud to her from the Saturday Evening Post. McDermott was recently in town on tour to promote her first novel in seven years, “Someone.”

BOOKS: What books are you carrying in your bag?

MCDERMOTT: I am reading a Peter Carey novel, “His Illegal Self,” which is very good. I haven’t read anything of his since “Oscar and Lucinda,” which was a while back. At the beginning of every semester I ask my graduate students whether there is something I should read that will help me understand their work. One of my new students suggested this book.


BOOKS: Are there books that your students suggest often?

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MCDERMOTT: I get a lot of Alice Munro and John Cheever, which pleases me. I get a lot of the writers you’d expect, such as George Saunders and Karen Russell.

BOOKS: Any strange ones?

MCDERMOTT: Not lately. One student recommended a Muriel Spark short story that I hadn’t read, “The House of the Famous Poet,” a wonderfully weird one.

BOOKS: Is summer when you read just for yourself?


MCDERMOTT: My gift to myself is the month of the June. I thought I was going to Italy and didn’t, so this past June I reread E.M. Forster’s “A Room With a View.” It didn’t feel like traipsing a well-worn path. It felt very fresh. I also finally read “Independent People” by the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. I had picked it up numerous times and just never could get into it. Then I finally fell into it. It was just the right time.

BOOKS: Do you find the timing of when you read a book influences how much you engage with it?

MCDERMOTT: Yes. It worries me that undergrads and high school students are forced into books they aren’t ready for, like Faulkner’s, and then they are afraid of putting their toes in the water again.

BOOKS: Do you read nonfiction?

MCDERMOTT: I read a little bit of nonfiction and a lot of poetry. I think of poetry as my shot of whiskey when I don’t have time to savor a whole bottle of wine. Since Seamus Heaney died in August, I’ve read his work to pay homage. I’ve skipped around in “The Spirit Level” and went through “District and Circle.” I read his beautiful poem “Anything Can Happen” at one of my own readings. As far as nonfiction I recently read George Packer’s “The Unwinding.” It was fascinating and beautifully done, but my bias is so much for fiction that when I read a book like this I think, “Oh, a novelist could really get at the heart of this.” The thing that fiction can do is look from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Even memoir leaves me somewhat frustrated. I think now we need a poet to uncover what isn’t on the surface.


BOOKS: Is there anything you won’t read?

‘I’ve read [Seamus Heaney] to pay homage. I read his beautiful poem “Anything Can Happen” at one of my own readings. ’

MCDERMOTT: I will not read novels about dead young women anymore. I’m tired of that. A few years ago I felt like everything I picked up had a dead, dismembered woman. Certainly there are legitimate books that have rape and murder in them, but I don’t like what it says about our culture, that this is our entertainment. I might have missed a few good books. I didn’t read Emma Donoghue’s “Room” for example. I don’t need to read these kinds of books to be outraged that young women are raped and left for dead. I am outraged.

BOOKS: So “Room” isn’t on the stack for next summer, but what is?

MCDERMOTT: One I started but had to set aside for now, “The Violet Hour” by Katherine Hill, which has a wonderful opening, Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic,” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland.” They’ll be many more by next June.

Amy Sutherland is a writer in Charlestown. She can be reached at