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?