Editor’s Note: The Polytechnic solicited Francesca Huber ’16, president of Comma, RPI’s creative writing club, to interview Alice McDermott, the 2015 McKinney visiting author. The contents of the written interview are below.
Question: What was your reaction the first time you learned that one of your books was a New York Times Best Seller?
Alice McDermott: “As I recall, I was impressed that my publisher was able to make this happen—I always knew I was a very un-best-seller list writer. I was also wary, because making the New York Times: Best Seller list had never been a particular goal for me and I didn’t want it to become one. In other words, I didn’t want the whole notion of selling to influence the books and stories I had yet to write.”
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer; was there some “defining moment” when you came to this realization?
AM: “I’ve written about this often, I guess because it’s true. I was in my sophomore year at Oswego—just down the road from you—and took a writing class called, “The Nature of Non-Fiction,” because I always wrote but seldom shared my writing with anyone. The first assignment was a short autobiographical essay. I wrote a piece of fiction—totally made up, none of the events described actually occurred – and submitted it as an essay. The professor, Dr. Paul Briand, after discussing my piece, asked me to see him at the end of the class. I thought he was going to give me a hard time about fiction versus nonfiction. What he told me was, “I’ve got bad news for you, kid. You’re a writer and you’ll never shake it.” That was the defining moment when I knew I was a writer, knew I had always known I was a writer but also understood I might never have acknowledged this if he hadn’t told me so.”
Q: What topics/ideas/concepts would you still like to write about that you haven’t touched on yet?
AM: “Topics, ideas and concepts don’t spark stories for me—characters and situations do. I write to discover what ideas/concepts might be contained in those characters and situations, not the other way around. So while there are thousands of characters and situations I haven’t touched on yet, I don’t worry about using my fiction to cover any particular ideas or topics. There are plenty of other writers to do that for us—writers interested in topics. I’ve never written to convince or convey, only to see what’s there.”
Q: Have you ever gone back and reread one of your early works and wished to change aspects of it? How would you change them?
AM: “I try not to go back and read my own works—mostly because the impulse to change them would be so great. I believe each completed novel represents an author’s best effort at the time, but any of us who writes fiction understands that no work of art is every finished—only abandoned, as the saying goes.”
Q: This is a technical school, so not many have the experience of writing in college. Did you enjoy your college experience?
AM: “I suppose my second reply addresses this. I enjoyed my college experience immensely. I had wonderful, supportive teachers and made many life-long friends. I received plenty of encouragement, but was always challenged as well to be demanding of my own work. I was also encouraged to study literature intensely, with utter seriousness, to understand the tradition my own writing would arise from, to recognize greatness when I read it. Having said that, I’m somewhat dismayed to learn that being in a technical school might deprive you of the chance to write in college. It seems to me that scientists and engineers and computer scientists should consider writing skills to be essential to their work, their careers, their place in society. I also believe that to write well, and to read well, is one of life’s great pleasures—one of life’s great learned pleasures. It takes work to learn how to appreciate fully any art—literature, music, the visual arts but once learned such an appreciation endures throughout a lifetime—offers insight and consolation and ways to think about the world, ways to enjoy life, forever. No one should be deprived of that, certainly no educated person. End of sermon.”
Q: As a follow up: do you feel your professor taught you well? Do you mimic some of the ways they taught you, or have you come up with many brand new methods of your own?
AM: “Again, as indicated above, I am very grateful for the education I received at Oswego, and later, at U. of New Hampshire where I got my M.A. in English. I suppose I do mimic my own professors in that I take every one of my students, and the work they produce, very seriously. I also expect a great deal from them. I once heard Claudia Emerson, a marvelous poet and teacher, say that she believed poetry should be studied with the same rigor with which students study medicine. I agree.”