From her fresh “Art of Fiction” interview, Alice McDermott discusses religion and writing, and her reluctance to be labeled a “Catholic writer.” She also reveals the origins of her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour (2017), which follows the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor, a group of nuns with all sorts of personalities, in the early twentieth century. A gentle but confident illustration of the church’s humanity (for better and worse), The Ninth Hour, and McDermott’s writing in general, testifies to the unexpected grace-in-practice that can rise from the static of everyday interaction. Without further ado:

INTERVIEWER

I was fascinated to learn that The Ninth Hour started with the idea of the substitute Civil War soldier. I would never have guessed that that was where you started.

MCDERMOTT

Every novel has its own genesis. This novel began with an after-dinner conversation with a friend. He mentioned a memory he had of an old man who lived with his great- or perhaps great-great-aunt—a man who had served as a substitute in the Union army for some great-uncle. The notion intrigued me. Not so much as a historical fact—that the Union army allowed citizens, mostly wealthy citizens, to hire substitutes to go off and fight in the place of a beloved son or father or husband—but the metaphorical implications of one life substituted for another. Who would offer himself for such a sacrifice? What might be the implications for the one who was allowed to avoid harm? What would the implications be for his progeny, for those whose very lives were also made possible by the substitute? Of course, historically, not all substitutes were altruists, many were in it for the payment, some were escaped convicts or immigrants looking to disappear into the military. But the idea of substitute as metaphor—as a Christian metaphor—appealed to me. And so I began to pursue a story that might consider this whole notion of self-sacrifice.

[…]

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a bit about the title of The Ninth Hour?

MCDERMOTT

In the liturgy of the hours, the cycle of prayer in religious life, the ninth hour is equivalent to three in the afternoon. In Old Testament tradition, that’s the hour of evening sacrifice. In New Testament tradition, it’s the hour of Christ’s death on the cross. As a practicing Catholic who has often been in church on Good Friday, I’m aware of the stillness and the silence of that hour. As a reader, I’m aware, too, of W. H. Auden’s beautiful poem cycle Horae Canonicae, and his description in the poem for the ninth hour, “Nones,” of a “silence so sudden and so soon.”

I think of the ninth hour, then, the moment Christ dies on the cross, the moment of sacrifice, as a moment in the Christian tradition when all is uncertain. Among believer and nonbeliever alike, there is a collective holding of breath—the man has sacrificed himself, was it worth it? He promised eternal life, was it true?

[…]

INTERVIEWER

There’s something you do with doubleness, say in Charming Billy, where there’s a psychological world and also a mythic realm. I’ve wondered whether that doubleness originated in a conversation.

MCDERMOTT

My mother was a great reader. She read everything, classics, best sellers, whatever novels I brought home from school or placed on my shelves. Her most caustic criticism was this utterly dismissive phrase—It’s a lot of nonsense. She’d leave it at that unless you pressed her, and if you pressed her she could dismantle a plot with a few precise arguments about how people really behave. So I learned very early the value of authenticity. There’s the challenge, then—to discover the mythic, the romantic, the transcendent, while at the same time remaining completely authentic to the experience of being human. You’re always seeking  Joyce’s epiphanies, Proust’s “true impressions,” Flannery O’Connor’s moments of grace, or, as Saul Bellow put it, “the essence of our real condition,” but you also have to get your characters through their days, through their lives, through the story, honestly, without manipulating them for some intention—i.e., your plot, your point—that is not their own.

INTERVIEWER

Earlier you alluded to the Catholic-writer label as something stuck on you—gum to a shoe. To me, the label has a beautiful lineage—I think of Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff. Let’s parse what it means to you.

MCDERMOTT

What I find oppressive is the implication that a “Catholic writer” writes from certainty. I have no such certainty. Oppressive, too, is the notion that a “Catholic writer” must be out to convince or to convert, to define or to defend. And then there’s just the “no fun here” aspect of it all. A Catholic novel just sounds so damn boring. Stale doughnuts and weak coffee in the watery light of the church hall after Sunday mass. Of course, to read any one of the Catholic writers you mention is to discover something else entirely—I remember being hard-pressed to figure out how O’Connor’s brutal stories were those of a Catholic writer—but the “branding” itself offers little promise to the uninitiated, not to mention the anti-religionists.

In a broader sense, I object to seeing any serious novel defined by its subject alone. The whole “a book about a whale” dilemma. I suspect it’s a problem more women writers must endure than men. We’re all familiar with the “another quiet domestic drama of ordinary lives” label slapped on so many novels by women, and less so with the similarly apt “another raucous wet dream of boyhood” that might define, by subject, the work of many males.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of Catholic upbringing did you have?

MCDERMOTT

I had a happy childhood in a traditional Catholic household of the era: mass every Sunday, confession once a month, Christmas, Easter, benediction now and then, nightly prayers. Catholic prayer was my first poetry. I couldn’t be an altar boy, but I loved the Latin responses in the mass that my brothers had to learn in order to serve. I went through the usual, stereotypical Catholic-school torments and delights—there were scary nuns and good nuns, indifferent priests, charming priests, awe, impatience, rebellion, as well as glimpses of the transcendent, the smell of incense, of old churches, rumors of miracles or angelic visitations. I experienced the soothing power of meditation, of saying a rosary, a gift that stays with me still. Of course, I also felt the burden of Catholic guilt over lies, unkindness, anger, homework undone. To some extent, this, too, stays with me. I’m feeling guilty, in fact, about the wet dream crack above.

My love for the church was wrapped up in my love for my parents. I understood without anyone saying so that they gave me this faith out of their desire to do their best for me, out of love. And yet we were not a pious household of priest worshippers. Weak sermons were roundly criticized on the way home from mass. My father loved to point out that priests had Sunday afternoons off “to go home to their mothers and take a nap,” while Catholic parents still had households to run. Cruel or silly nuns were treated to choice words from my mother. As were holier-than-thou Christians of any sort. The implication was always that the church was doing its best to follow the will of Christ but, being full of flawed humans, it would not always succeed. When my brothers and I grew old enough to rebel, my father would warn us not of the fires of hell but of the times ahead when we might need the comfort faith provides.