It's a Willy Loman kind of thing: Attention must be paid.

Even though "Someone" has just been released, there's already talk that it may be Pulitzer-worthy. Does it bother you that you've been a finalist multiple times but haven't yet captured the big prize?

It's lovely to be nominated, and it's more fun to win.

John Updike has this great line about being "in the outer darkness of the un-nominated." You're a human being, and every time a list of prize nominations comes out and your name isn't on it, you do have that thumb-in-the-eye feeling.

The first time I was nominated for a National Book Award, I didn't win. The second time I was nominated, I didn't expect to win in the slightest — I was up against Tom Wolfe — and I did win.

But when you're back at your desk, you realize that it doesn't mean anything. It's all out of your hands. Winning a major award doesn't even guarantee book sales the way it once did.

Why do your novels double back on themselves and jump back and forth in time?

Much of my experience with language was formed in the church, which has an oral tradition. There are lots of repetitions in prayers and song refrains. There's a sense of incantation, that if you call not once and not twice but for a third time, the spirit appears.

There's also an Irish tradition in which everyone sits in a circle and one person begins telling a story. After he finishes, the next person starts talking, and what he says seemingly has nothing to do with the previous story. But, slowly, it all comes around and connects.

I love it when I come across that in fiction, and I find myself trying to do the same thing in my books.

You've been described as a chronicler of Irish-American Catholic life. But, you've said in interviews that you weren't raised to be either especially Irish or Catholic. How did you decide to portray that particular group?

I wasn't raised that way myself, but it was part of my background. My parents were first-generation Irish-Catholic. My grandparents were born in Ireland. I was 10 or 11 before I realized that all grandparents didn't have accents. I honestly thought that to be a grandparent you had to have a foreign accent — not necessarily Irish but Russian or Italian or German.

I can use the particulars at hand to get at the stuff that I'm really interested in: Does love make a difference in our lives? Does God know about our suffering?

I believe that the interior life is the same for all of us. And because they're steeped in faith, Irish-American Catholics are a people who have a language for the examined life.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"Someone: A Novel" by Alice McDermott was released Sept. 10 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages, $25.