Alice McDermott was born in Brooklyn to Irish Catholic parents and spent her childhood in Elmont, a small town on Long Island. As in her novel At Weddings and Wakes, she and her siblings were often taken to Brooklyn to see their grandmother. McDermott attended the local parochial school and an excellent Catholic girls’ high school. Although books and reading were important in the McDermott household, Alice’s parents did not consider early liking for writing particularly significant. They assumed that she would eventually become a secretary, and it was not until her second year at the State University of New York at Oswego that McDermott began to think seriously about earning her living by writing.
After she graduated in 1975, McDermott’s first job was a clerical one. For one year she worked as a typist at a vanity press in New York, and during this time she accumulated information and experience she later used in her first novel. At first McDermott restricted herself to writing short stories, and eventually she set herself a deadline: If within two years she had not published anything, she would forget about a writing career. Accordingly, she quit her job and enrolled in a master’s program at the University of New Hampshire, where she began reading contemporary women writers. Here she also encountered Mark Smith, a teacher and writer, who persuaded her to begin submitting her stories to magazines.
After receiving her M.A. in 1978 McDermott remained at the university for an additional year, teaching in the English department. She sold her first story to Ms. and before long she had also placed stories with Redbook, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle.
At the celebration following the publication of her first story McDermott met David M. Armstrong, a medical researcher. They were married on June 16, 1979, and moved to Manhattan, where McDermott became a fiction reader for Esquire and Redbook before taking six months off to write a novel. Eventually, following Mark Smith’s advice, McDermott took several short stories and the first fifty pages of A Bigamist’s Daughter to the literary agent Harriet Wasserman....
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