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. Within a few weeks the still unfinished novel had been accepted for publication, and, when it appeared, this story of a love affair between a naïve author and the vanity press editor who is expected to fleece him was reviewed favorably.
After McDermott and her husband moved to La Jolla, California, McDermott taught at the University of California at San Diego while completing her next novel. That Night was set in suburban Long Island during the 1960’s and dealt with the conflict between young love and parental pragmatism. It was nominated for a National Book Award and for a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and later became the basis for a film. In 1987 McDermott was one of ten winners of the annual Whiting Writers’ Awards.
McDermott has said that she seems to alternate producing books and producing children. In 1985 she and her husband had their first child, Willie. After That Night appeared, the family moved back to the East Coast, this time to Bethesda, Maryland. In 1989 their daughter Eames was born. Another son, Patrick, was born in 1993 after the publication of McDermott’s third novel, At Weddings and Wakes.
McDermott was inspired to write the first chapter of At Wedding and Wakes by a Maurice Sendak poster on the wall in her son’s room. The book has an impressionistic quality, perhaps because events are initially observed by children, who comprehend them only partially, and only later recalled by them as adults, when their recollections are blurred by time.
Charming Billy reconstructs the life of its main character, Billy Lynch, through the efforts of his cousin Dennis’s daughter. Billy had become engaged to an Irish woman who, unbeknownst to him, kept the money he sent her for her fare back to America and married someone else; the novel explores the repercussions of this loss of love in Billy Lynch’s life. The novel won the National...
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