Because the Baltimore-area novelist Alice McDermott possesses a painterly eye that delights in the way things look and sound and smell and taste, it can be easy to miss her underlying focus.
For the National Book Award-winning author, each small sensory jolt that originates in this world is a gateway to a more incorporeal realm.
"Marie takes a spiritual journey in this novel," McDermott says of the heroine of her newly released book, "Someone: A Novel."
"She goes from not understanding at all to not quite understanding to understanding a little bit. Early in the book, her brother makes an absolutely outrageous proposition from the Gospel of Matthew, that all the hairs on our heads are counted and that we're not alone.
"By the end of the book, Marie realizes that her life has had a shape."
The 60-year-old Bethesda resident and mother of three has been wondering since she was a child about the beliefs that propel different people down different paths.
"As soon as I could write a sentence, I was writing stories," McDermott says. "I kept a journal, but it wasn't about me. Or, if I wrote about me, none of it really happened."
Since McDermott published the first of her seven novels in 1982, she has been met with almost uniformly positive reviews. The best-known, "Charming Billy," won the American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1998, while three other novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
"Someone" is the first book that McDermott has published in seven years. She kicked off the national reading tour Tuesday — the date the novel was released — at the Johns Hopkins University, where she has taught creative writing since 1996.
Why such a long gap between novels?
At one of the first readings I did before the book was even published, a student asked, "Why did you stop writing for seven years?" [McDermott laughs a big laugh.]
I'm writing all the time. I tend to work on at least two books simultaneously. I'll spend time with one, and then I'll spend time with the other. Finishing takes whatever time it takes.
The best part of this profession is when you're alone, working with words. ... Every time a book comes out, I lose three months of good writing time. After a while, you drag your feet and say, "Maybe this isn't a good year to go on a book tour."
How did "Someone" first come to you as a novel?
It started in an odd way. In 2005 or 2006, I found myself meditating on a phrase that came from another era. In the 1920s there were apartments in Brooklyn brownstones that were referred to as "parlor floor and basement."
It was a phrase I'd heard growing up and there was something very antique about it. Who says "parlor" anymore?
I liked the contrast: You preserve the parlor for company and no one sits on the chairs. The lower level has the kitchen. It's where you put the garbage cans out on the street and where more of the stuff of life happened.
Your main character, Marie, suffers from poor eyesight. Was that a metaphor?
I was trying to tease out a way of looking at the world. I was interested in what it was like to be powerless in a world that didn't even know you were powerless, when you didn't even realize it yourself.
I wanted to write this book from the point of view of a character who isn't heard from very much in life or in fiction. She's not particularly attractive or well-educated, and she's not talented in any way. She's just an ordinary, middle-class woman, the child of immigrants, who's making her way through the 20th century. She's living in a patriarchal, Catholic society at a time and place when her opinion wasn't very much sought.
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.
About the book
"Someone: A Novel" by Alice McDermott was released Sept. 10 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages, $25.