AuthorsFrom the Wire

Alice McDermott, Artful Author

In the world of literature, one name stands out for her impeccable sentences and authentic characters – Alice McDermott. With eight previous novels under her belt, including the National Book Award-winning “Charming Billy,” McDermott has established herself as an artful author. Her latest novel, “Absolution,” takes readers to Saigon in 1963, delving into the lives of two American women during the Vietnam War era. Breaking away from the usual narratives surrounding this tumultuous time, McDermott’s novel sheds light on the experiences of women who were often overlooked in literature and history. McDermott’s unique approach to plotting, discovering the story as she writes, adds a sense of spontaneity and freshness to her work. As a writer, McDermott keeps her works in progress close until she’s finished, refusing to show anyone until then. With the praise of her editor, Jonathan Galassi, and the recognition of fellow author Ann Patchett, McDermott’s latest novel, “Absolution,” solidifies her position as a masterful storyteller.

Alice McDermott, Artful Author

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Early Life and Background


In this article, we will explore the life, career, and literary achievements of Alice McDermott, an American author known for her impeccable sentences and authentic characters. McDermott has written eight previous novels, including the National Book Award-winning “Charming Billy,” and an essay collection on writing. Her latest novel, “Absolution,” is set in Saigon in 1963 and focuses on the lives of two American women during the Vietnam War era. McDermott’s unique approach to storytelling and her exploration of overlooked perspectives make her a standout figure in contemporary literature.

Family and Upbringing

Alice McDermott’s upbringing and family background greatly influenced her writing style and choice of themes. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, McDermott’s childhood was steeped in the rich culture of an Irish Catholic family. Her experiences growing up within a strong, close-knit community instilled in her a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling and the importance of community in shaping one’s identity.

Influence of Catholicism

One of the key influences in McDermott’s life and writing is her Catholic upbringing. Catholicism plays a significant role in many of her novels, as she often explores the lives of characters who come from immigrant families with strong ties to the Catholic Church. McDermott’s writing delves into the complexities of faith, tradition, and the moral dilemmas faced by her characters. Through her nuanced portrayal of Catholicism, McDermott adds depth and richness to her novels.

Career and Novels


Over the course of her career, Alice McDermott has established herself as a masterful storyteller, weaving compelling narratives and creating memorable characters. Her writing style is characterized by its precision and attention to detail, enabling readers to immerse themselves fully in the worlds she creates.

Writing Style and Themes

McDermott’s writing style is often described as exquisite, with a keen eye for detail and a focus on the interior lives of her characters. She has an uncanny ability to capture the nuances of human experience and emotion, making her novels resonate with readers on a deep level. McDermott’s themes often revolve around memory, identity, and the impact of familial and cultural ties on one’s sense of self.

National Book Award-winning Novel: Charming Billy

One of McDermott’s most notable achievements is winning the National Book Award for her novel “Charming Billy.” This beautifully crafted novel tells the story of Billy Lynch, an Irish American man haunted by his past and the secrets he carried with him. McDermott’s exploration of family, love, and the power of forgiveness in “Charming Billy” captivated readers and established her as a literary force to be reckoned with.

Exploring Overlooked Perspectives: Absolution

In her latest novel, “Absolution,” McDermott takes on the task of giving voice to the often-overlooked perspectives of women during the Vietnam War era. Set in Saigon in 1963, the novel delves into the lives of two American women and the challenges they face in a tumultuous time. McDermott’s ability to bring to life the experiences of those who have historically been silenced or sidelined in literature adds a refreshing and necessary perspective to the genre.

Focus on Immigrant and Working-Class Characters

McDermott has a particular affinity for characters from immigrant families and working-class backgrounds. Through her novels, she explores their struggles, dreams, and aspirations, shining a light on the often-unseen realities of these individuals. McDermott’s portrayal of immigrant and working-class characters is imbued with empathy and an understanding of the nuances of their experiences.

Discovery and Plotting Process

Unlike many authors who meticulously outline their novels before they begin writing, McDermott takes a unique approach to the plotting process. She often discovers the story as she writes, allowing her characters and their experiences to guide the narrative. This organic approach to storytelling lends McDermott’s works an authenticity and spontaneity that readers find captivating.

Alice McDermott, Artful Author

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Craftsmanship and Writing Process


Alice McDermott’s craftsmanship and writing process are integral to the success of her novels. Her dedication to honing her skills and her ability to manage the complexities of the writing process contribute to the depth and quality of her work.

Keeping Works in Progress Secret

McDermott has a tendency to keep her works in progress close to her, sharing them only when she feels they are fully developed. This practice allows her the freedom to experiment and explore different directions without external pressures or influences. By keeping her works private until they are complete, McDermott is able to stay true to her artistic vision and create works that are wholly authentic.

Editor’s Praise: Jonathan Galassi

Jonathan Galassi, McDermott’s editor, has praised her craftsmanship and writing, noting her unique voice and mental toughness. He believes she is coming into her own as a writer, showcasing her growth and maturity with each new novel. Galassi’s endorsement highlights McDermott’s talent and the impact her work is having on the literary world.

Devotion and Mental Toughness

McDermott’s devotion to her craft is evident in the depth and complexity of her novels. Writing is not merely a profession for her; it is a way to manage the world. McDermott’s perseverance and mental toughness allow her to tackle difficult subjects and navigate the intricate web of human emotions and experiences. Her dedication to the art of storytelling is unwavering and infuses her work with a sense of purpose and authenticity.

Writing as a Way to Manage the World

For McDermott, writing is a means of managing the world and making sense of the complexities of life. Through her intimate exploration of characters and their experiences, McDermott offers readers a way to understand and connect with the world around them. Her ability to create authentic and relatable narratives is a testament to the power of storytelling as a tool for understanding and healing.

Critical Acclaim and Recognition


Alice McDermott’s literary achievements have not gone unnoticed, with her work receiving critical acclaim and recognition from both her peers and the literary community at large. Her unique voice and masterful storytelling have earned her a place among the most respected and influential writers of her generation.

Ann Patchett’s Endorsement

Fellow author Ann Patchett has bestowed high praise upon McDermott and considers her latest novel, “Absolution,” to be McDermott’s crowning achievement. Patchett’s endorsement speaks to McDermott’s skill as a writer and the impact her work has on readers. Patchett’s acclaim recognizes McDermott’s ability to tell compelling stories with depth and nuance.

Reception and Awards

McDermott’s novels have consistently received positive reception from readers and critics alike. Her ability to create authentic characters and beautifully crafted sentences has won her numerous accolades, including the National Book Award for “Charming Billy.” McDermott’s talent and skill as a writer continue to garner recognition and praise within the literary community.

Influence on Contemporary Literature

McDermott’s impact on contemporary literature cannot be overstated. Her ability to delve into the complexity of the human experience and create authentic narratives has inspired and influenced numerous writers. McDermott’s unique perspective and dedication to craft set a high standard for excellence in storytelling, making her a trailblazer in the world of literature.

Alice McDermott, Artful Author

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Alice McDermott’s life, career, and literary achievements are a testament to the power of storytelling and the impact one writer can have on the literary landscape. McDermott’s ability to create authentic characters, explore overlooked perspectives, and tackle complex themes with grace and precision make her a standout figure in contemporary literature. With each new novel, McDermott continues to push the boundaries of literary excellence, captivating readers and earning critical acclaim. Her dedication to her craft and her unwavering commitment to telling stories that matter make Alice McDermott a force to be reckoned with in the literary world and a writer whose impact will be felt for generations to come.