Alice McDermott and her new novel, “The Ninth Hour”

Delight Is Where the Mystery Lies

An Interview with Alice McDermott

Readers of Commonweal will need little introduction to Alice McDermott—a frequent contributor and one of America’s greatest living novelists. Her eighth and latest novel, The Ninth Hour, displays all of the typical McDermott virtues: a plot that moves across decades and braids together several different plotlines and characters; a richly textured imagination of time and place (the novel opens in early twentieth-century Brooklyn); a sympathetic and complicated representation of religion and desire, family and community, memory and hope.

The novel begins with a death—to be more precise, with the suicide of a thirty-two-year-old man named Jim—and follows the ripping effects of this act on a host of characters: Annie, Jim’s young and pregnant wife; Sally, the daughter born in tragedy’s wake; and a group of nuns from the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor, an order of nuns who aid Annie and care for Sally for many years to come.

I have loved all of McDermott’s novels, but I love this one with particular force. Despite the lightness of touch—and there are few writers who write more lucidly or precisely than McDermott—there’s a solidity to The Ninth Hour, the sense that McDermott has created a world that the reader can enter into and live within. Towards the end of the novel, one character tells another character a story about the past: “And he ended it all with a flourish, indicating with a sweep of his right hand the tin ceiling of the kitchen and the fine, five-bedroom house above it, as if the house, the brick and stone of it, proved the validity of all he had told her. As if the tale itself, only talk, only breath on air, had nevertheless brought both to this solid and irrefutable present where they were alone together in the middle of the night, alone and awake and—true for him, at least—in love.” Out of words McDermott likewise has built something solid and irrefutably present. I recently spoke with McDermott about her novel over email.

Anthony Domestico: What in particular drew you to the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor?

Alice McDermott: The naming of such religious orders has always intrigued and enchanted me. I love the way the quaint humility of a name like “the Little Sisters” (or the Sister Servants or the Poor Clares or the Little Company) is juxtaposed with the ambition of the nuns’ mission and the difficulty of their work. Initially, I set out to create a character, Sister St. Saviour, who embodies this contradiction: a woman who can embrace the tremendous humility inherent in the very name of her order, and yet has ego enough to believe herself fully capable of taking a stand against human suffering—against her Church as well, whenever its rules and traditions contradict compassion, and common sense.

But as I composed the novel, I saw that a single example of this, a single character, would not do justice to the complexity, the variety, of such vocations. I confess I was reluctant to add more—more nuns. As weary as I was of the Catholic writer label, and of the Irish American writer label, and the New York writer label, I nevertheless found myself writing a novel about Catholic nuns serving a good many Irish Americans in Brooklyn simply because I wanted to write about selflessness and ego and the work women do. And so, in some way, the nuns took over, despite my efforts to resist them. I ended up creating, in fact, my own order of nuns—The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross—simply to accommodate all those aspects of the novel that I once promised myself I’d avoid.  

A. D.: The Ninth Hour opens with a death. So, too, did your previous novel, Someone. Why begin this way? Cormac McCarthy has said that real literature deals seriously with “issues of life and death”; anything that doesn’t—and his examples include the work of Proust and Henry James—doesn’t really count. Would you agree? Does the novel have to play for existential stakes if it’s to be great?

The dead, the dying, and the acquaintances of the dead pretty much accounts for all of us.

AM: In my experience, it’s the novel itself, the story being told, that dictates how it opens. I can’t imagine choosing to begin a novel with a death scene simply to signal to the reader that I’m out for greatness here—brace yourself. I agree that literature does indeed deal seriously with issues of life and death, with what it means to be human, which includes, of course, what it is to be mortal. (I recall once being asked by a reader, “Why do all your novels deal with someone who is going to die, or who knows someone who died, or with someone who is already dead?” Obtusely, perhaps, I replied that to my mind, the dead, the dying, and the acquaintances of the dead pretty much accounts for all of us.) But novelists should be free to let the emphasis fall where the story demands and greatness can be achieved by stories that deal predominantly with life (Proust? James?) as well as those that open or close or are generously scattered with death and dying (McCarthy). I can’t recall offhand how many birth scenes Cormac McCarthy has written, but surely if we’re playing for existential stakes, birth is as necessary a subject as death—and so, I suppose, an argument can be made that childhood and adolescence, love, romance, sex, marriage, middle-age, old age are all fodder for real literature, since, being the stuff that takes place between life and death, they too are a part of the existential mix.

In my own case, the deaths that open both Someone and The Ninth Hour are very different: an accident due to illness in one, a suicide in the other. In Someone, the death serves as a memory marker for the narrator and as a thematic chord for the author, but is of little consequence to the events that follow. (In fact, its lack of consequence is the point.) But in The Ninth Hour, the suicide that begins the novel is, in many ways, the inciting event for all that follows.

AD: Where your novel begins with death, it ends with delight. “We felt her delight in us, which was familiar as well, delight in our presence, our living and breathing selves—a tonic for all sorrow.” Delight is a word that comes up frequently in your work. What role does delight play in your writing life? And what kinds of delight do you look for in your reading?

AM: In the reading and writing life, delight, for me, is where the mystery lies. Easy enough to figure out how scenes of violence or tragedy or titillation or grossness or even sentimentality can move us, but how the written word elicits delight—what Nabokov calls that shiver in the spine— is much harder to calculate and define. What makes a sentence, a phrase, a moment, or a scene delightful? Something about recognizing the truth in it, something about hearing the music in it, something about understanding, intuitively perhaps, that the words are just right. It’s not a matter of content, or even context—delight is not limited to scenes or descriptions of happiness or beauty—but of aesthetic appreciation of the thing (sentence, phrase, scene, detail, story) itself, the art of it. As a reader, I find it’s that moment when I want to stop reading, and also that moment when I know I can’t; it’s when I want to buttonhole someone and say, “Listen to this,” while at the same time hoping that no fellow human will intrude and make me lift my eyes from the page. It’s recognizing something you’ve always known—or have always seen or have always felt—as if for the first time, all the while understanding that you would never have known or seen or felt this if it weren’t for the writer’s words. I can’t say delight is what I look for in my reading, more accurate to say that it’s what takes me by surprise and reminds me why I love the literary arts above all others.

As a writer, I’m too busy (and worried) to experience that delight while composing my own work, although, of course, I hope a reader will find something of it when the work is complete. But I do try to figure out where in their experiences certain characters of mine, who are not necessarily readers, and certainly (so far) not writers or artists, find an equivalent sensation: of delight, of astonishment, of whatever it is that briefly—and brevity seems essential—reassures us, connects us, sends a shiver of inarticulate recognition down our spines: Oh, yes: life.

AD: In a lovely essay in Boston College Magazine, you talked about the astonishment involved in writing a novel: “if in the course of delineating this fictional world, of making you see, I should discover, even as my narrator discovers, as my reader discovers, something absolutely astonishing … well, I’m as surprised at this as you are.” What most surprised you in the writing of this novel? Was there a particular character or plotline that moved in an unexpected direction? 

AM: As I mentioned, the nuns more or less took over this story, which meant, of course, that pretty much everything about the novel began to move in an unexpected direction. And the direction it moved in was, in many ways, underground—not merely to the realm of the dead, where Jim, the suicide, resides for much of the book, but to the mostly unseen realm of women’s work—literally, the convent’s basement laundry and figuratively the sisters’ daily care for the poor: poor women and children, especially. The story moved underground thematically as well: to the idea of buried truths, lost histories, great sacrifices, and sins gone unnoticed, unrecorded, unsung.

AD: The Ninth Hour is deeply interested in time, and my first question about time is technical. How did you discover what kind of narrative structure this novel required? There’s a relatively linear ordering of time here: we start with Jim’s suicide and then follow how this death affects various lives—Sally’s, Mrs. Tierney’s, Sister Jeanne’s—over the yearsin the novel. Yet at various points, you flash forward, sometimes decades into the future, showing us, for instance, what Sister Jeanne will look and sound like when she’s “an old woman.” You’ve done such flash forwards before; I’m thinking in particular of After This. What risks and rewards do such temporal jumps offer?

What makes a sentence, a phrase, a moment, or a scene delightful?

AM: I’m not sure I would call the more contemporary scenes here flash forward, as was the case in After This, but rather I think of the bulk of the novel as a long look back, through the scant recollections of childhood to a more expansive, more thorough, more vivid, perhaps more “present” depiction of the past. After much trial and error, I discovered that I was looking for a structure that would align itself in some way with the faith of the nuns—religious faith in general, I suppose. I was looking for a way to convey the certainty, the vividness, with which the faithful regard things unseen (which includes the past), while at the same time acknowledging the somewhat patchwork and uncertain way in which such faith is achieved—the whole through a glass darkly part of belief. The novel is built on the collective narrators’ own experiences, on the stories they’ve been told, phrases they have heard, anecdote, speculation, even a bit of research, but none of these elements can completely account for the vividness and the certainty of the story’s linear narrative—a narrative that must, in some ways, be taken as “accurate” on faith alone.

The technical risks of such temporal jumps are many: an author can appear manipulative, the shifts can seem arbitrary, and the poor reader can get lost. The rewards, as far as this particular novel is concerned, remain to be seen. I hope there’s a sense of both historical narrative (without the “hey, I researched this” excess) and memoir (without the “ain’t I fascinating?” narcissism), but also an impression that the fiction—the reconstituted, the imagined past—has more authority, is more compelling, than the facts as they are known by the current generation.

AD: Another question about time. Within the first few pages, we learn that Jim “liked to refuse time”: “Sometimes just the pleasure of being an hour or two late was enough to remind him that he, at least, was his own man, that the hours of his life—and what more precious commodity did he own?—belonged to himself alone.” How do you yourself find ways to refuse time, to keep this precious commodity your own? Do you, like Sister Lucy, see a conflict between “the ordinary hour” (the time you spend, say, as a teacher, mother, and citizen) and “the silence and beauty of the contemplative life” (the time you spend as an artist)? Or would you want to refuse such a distinction?

AM: I’m as grateful for the time I spend as an artist—alone at last—as I am for the time—what’s for dinner?—that relieves me of that obligation. The fact that I don’t always get to choose when I can have an artist’s life and when I have to be a teacher, mother, citizen seems a small price to pay for the privilege of getting to spend some hours in both worlds.

But, of course, to consider your question another way: writing fiction is, in and of itself, a way to refuse time. In literature, no scene—no now—is ever lost because it can always be revisited. To put it very simply: old Sister Jeanne is young Sister Jeanne again when you turn the page. Uncertain, or even partial, recollection is restored as vivid moment. Fiction (and poetry, of course) preserves not only forgotten details, or lost communities, or days gone by, but the precise emotional experience as well—or, to borrow from Wallace Stevens, fiction and poetry preserve what we felt at what we saw. In this way, the novel, the story, the poem is itself a stay against time. 

AD: A few final time-related questions. At one point, the narrator writes, “For Sister Jeanne the first hour of any day, the hour of Lauds, was always the holiest. It was the hour she felt closest to God, saw Him in the gathering light, in the new air, in the stillness of the street.” Do you have a favorite time of day, a time that you find holiest or most alive? And how do you think Catholicism has affected your own understanding and experience of time?

AM: I’m no morning person, so I probably gave Sister Jeanne her preference for Lauds out of envy and admiration and in an effort to understand a character who entered the story as an enigma to me. I can’t say I have a favorite hour myself; every time of day has its appeal. My complaint is simply that there are never enough of them.

But certainly Catholicism has affected the way I think about time. To have been raised in a tradition in which the phrases “daily bread” or “now and at the hour of our death” have been on my lips since I was very young; to have attended mass all my life, where—even on Christmas, even at weddings, even in the glorious days of high summer—Christ’s suffering and death, his last supper, is recalled and reenacted; to have the course of every year marked by the forty days of Lent, Holy Week, Ordinary Time, the four weeks of Advent, etc—I don’t know how you can be a Catholic and not have your faith traditions shape how you think about, and write about, time.

I don’t know how you can be a Catholic and not have your faith traditions shape how you think about, and write about, time.

One of the characters in this novel, Mrs. Tierney—perhaps a character whose faith I best understand—loves the church for the way it orders the passage of days, even as she is grateful that her busy life allows her to fall asleep before she gets to the part of the Hail Mary that reminds her that her joyous and full-blooded now will at some point be met by the hour of our death.

AD: The Ninth Hour is when the church remembers Christ’s death on the cross—when, as Sister Jeanne puts it, we remember “the madness with which suffering [is] dispersed in the world.” If you had to name some great Ninth Hour works of art—novels, poems, paintings, or films that ask how we account for evil and suffering in a world that has been made out of love—what would they be?

AM: The poems of W.H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae come to mind—especially, of course, his Nones, with its emphasis on an uneasy silence in the aftermath of great suffering (it is barely three/Mid-afternoon, yet the blood/of our sacrifice is already dry on the grass; we are not prepared/For silence so sudden and so soon). It is this sense of stillness and uncertainty that intrigues me about the Ninth Hour, the time immediately following Christ’s death—the time when even the faithful must hold their breath, wait in the sudden stillness to see if their belief will be justified  or defeated.

I see in this stillness and uncertainty a parallel of sorts to our post-religious world, my own post-religious generation. There’s the wariness, if not outright dismissal, of the promises of faith, or of the beliefs of an older generation, and at the same time a kind of dumb silence before the question of suffering, before the meaninglessness death brings to the human enterprise. A reluctance even to speak about such things. I think of this silence as either hope holding its breath, or cool logic acknowledging that there’s nothing to be said: we are physical creatures who suffer and die.

On a somewhat lighter note: I wanted to title this novel, The Hour of None, mostly because I liked the way the words looked on the page and how None played off the sound of no one, while also evoking the idea of knowing/not knowing. But I had to consider the reality that some readers would not understand that the Latin None is pronounced known, and thus they would misread the title as a very bad pun for a book about nuns. Language, I’ve learned, does not always cooperate with a writer’s intentions.

AD: In that same essay for Boston College Magazine, you describe “the simple miracle brought to you by that trinity of writer/narrator/reader, that miracle of seeing together what does not exist in the real world.” What does your ideal reader look like? What habits of mind or soul do you think the best readers possess?

AM: I certainly appreciate the virtue of patience in a reader. (In exchange for which, I won’t let my reader run the risk of mispronouncing None.) Oddly enough, I like a little reluctance, too. There should be, at the start, some wariness on the reader’s part, some hesitation to be taken out of “the real world,” to be taken in by a story. Fiction that intends to be something other than entertainment has a certain obligation, I think, to convince the reader, every time, that what is to be evoked—character, experience, idea—is worthy of his or her consideration, intellectual energy, close attention. I’ve always been the kind of reader who must finish every books she begins, but more and more I find I’m with the reader who says to an author, affectionately, if impatiently, “Look, I’ve got too much to do today to just stand here watching you do handstands and back flips. Either we’re in this together, looking for something essential, or I’m gone.” (So maybe I agree with Cormac McCarthy after all.)

I suppose I believe the best readers are those who understand we’re in this together, writer/narrator/reader, all looking to discover whatever it is that brings us to say (sadly, bitterly, joyously, amusedly, resignedly), Ah, yes: life.

Published in the December 15, 2017 issue: 
Also by this author
Intelligible Mysteries

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