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The Transformative Power of the Word

The new novel Someone, by Writing Seminars faculty member Alice McDermott, was inspired by several seemingly innocuous words.

In McDermott’s deft hands, however, those words spin into a tapestry that explores the joys and pains of a woman living in mid-20th-century Brooklyn.

“I was initially intrigued by a very simple phrase that seemed to characterize the time and place I wanted to write about: ‘parlor floor and basement,’” says McDermott. “It’s a familiar phrase to Brooklynites of a certain generation,” she says, noting that many brownstones were constructed with a stoop from the street to the parlor, or second, floor—which was the entertaining space—and with the basement, or the first floor, a few steps down from the sidewalk. “I heard in it both a lost language—who says parlor anymore?—and a subtle metaphor, something to do with propriety: parlor floor, and utility: basement; what’s meant to be seen and what’s hidden away.”

Published in September, Someone is McDermott’s seventh novel and follows the myopic Marie, her family, and her colorful Irish-Catholic, Brooklyn neighborhood through the World War II years and beyond. In the novel, McDermott takes the reader back and forth from one time period to another in Marie’s life.

“My goal in this book was to convey the breadth of a single life, but to do that in a chronological way seemed to miss the complexity and the wonder of even Marie’s simple history,” she says. “What I was attempting to do here was to give the reader a sense not only of the events, the day-to-day, that made up her life, but of the shape, and the meaning, of the whole; the way—to paraphrase Nabokov—you step back and take in a painting all at once.”

In Someone, McDermott uncovers the beauty and poignancy beneath the stuff of everyday life—birth, death, love, marriage, faith, work. Here is narrator Marie after being dumped by her first love:

someone book cover

I sat on the edge of the bed. I wanted to take my glasses off, fling them across the room. To tear the new hat from my head and fling it, too. Put my hands to my scalp and peel off the homely face. Unbutton the dress, unbuckle the belt, remove the frail slip. I wanted to reach behind my neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of my spine, step out of my skin and fling it to the floor. Back shoulder stomach and breast. Trample it. Raise a fist to God for how He had shaped me in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.” 

The middle-class Irish-Catholic family living in Long Island or New York is not an unusual context for McDermott. She was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, and neighborhoods in those areas provide rich backgrounds for several of her books.

“I suppose I return to familiar settings so I can be free to discover something unfamiliar about the individuals who inhabit these worlds,” she says.

This past summer, McDermott was inducted into the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony she was introduced by Dan Barry, reporter and columnist for The New York Times.

“Alice McDermott is not an Irish-American writer, or a Roman Catholic writer—or a New York writer,” said Barry. “She is, simply, a brilliant writer. A writer of international standing. A writer for the ages.”

McDermott has won numerous awards for her work, including the National Book Award and an American Book Award for her best-selling novel Charming Billy. Three of her books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. At the Krieger School, McDermott is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities.

When asked what advice she gives to her Hopkins students, McDermott says, “That’s hard to summarize. To be true to themselves, of course, to their own voices, to their own vision. To work hard, to push their boundaries, to never be satisfied, but also, to never forget the thing that drew them to this mad art to begin with—the joy of reading a story well told, the transformative power of the word.”

What’s next for McDermott? For starters, a book tour to “hawk my wares. The whole smiling public person thing. And then back to my desk and the next novel. Always the next novel.”