‘The Ninth Hour’ author Alice McDermott opens Winter Words author series in Aspen
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: Alice McDermott, presented by Aspen Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Jan. 9, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: McDermott opens the Winter Words series, which continues with Tracy K. Smith on Jan. 23, Christina Baker Kline on Feb. 20, William Finnegan on March 20 and Luis Alberto Urrea on April 3; www.aspenwords.org
Novelist Alice McDermott, the National Book Award winner and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, will open the 2018 Winter Words author series at Paepcke Auditorium on Tuesday.
McDermott will read from, discuss and take questions about her latest novel, “The Ninth Hour,” which was among the most acclaimed American novels of 2017.
Set in Brooklyn’s tight-knit Irish Catholic community in the early 20th century, the book opens with a young man’s suicide in a tenement, widowing his pregnant wife.
Neighborhood nuns from the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor come to pick up the pieces, giving the widow, Annie, a job in their laundry room and building her daughter, Sally, a future. This story of faith, love, sacrifice and our unknowable debts to the past follows Sally into adulthood, and is narrated by her children.
McDermott crafts complex, memorable characters out of her nuns, exploding the cliches and caricatures that have persisted in literature and popular culture.
“I had grown tired of the way religious women have been portrayed in the broader culture,” McDermott said in a recent phone interview. “Nuns as jokes — mean nuns, guitar-playing nuns.”
The nuns in “The Ninth Hour” — members of a fictional order that McDermott invented as an amalgam of Brooklyn-based orders of the 19th and 20th centuries — spend their time with the sick and the poor, doing the kind of work we today associate with social workers. Exploring their rich inner lives, their deep and at times conflicted faith, and their devotion to duty, for McDermott, began with asking some simple questions.
“It just takes a moment and you think, ‘Wait a minute, who were these women? What were they like? And weren’t they all different?’” she said. “I was interested in that phenomenon of women who dedicated themselves to others, just thinking about what that would involve, how complex those women must have been, in a way that the contemporary world has dismissed or forgotten.”
Writing “The Ninth Hour” didn’t begin with the nuns, surprisingly, but with the stories of men who were paid to substitute for others on the battlefields of the Civil War. Remnants of that original intent for the book remain in the minor but memorable character Red Whelan, who lost limbs as a Civil War substitute for Sally’s husband’s grandfather.
“For me, it was the implications of metaphor — of somebody saying, ‘You stay. You stay alive, procreate and have children and grandchildren and I will risk all of that for you,’” McDermott recalled. “So I guess you can see how that, in the time and the place I was writing about, allowed the nuns to come in. In a way, they say the very same thing.”
Though her book is rooted in history, McDermott’s research was secondary to her imaginative work, she said.
“I don’t think of myself as a historian or a historical novelist, even,” she said. “I have to start writing and find out who the characters are, what the voice is, who is telling the story and what the language is. Once I have all that down, then I can do research with the idea of ‘I know what I need,’ rather than generically researching a place and seeing what comes up.”
For atmospheric detail, she immersed herself in the newspapers of the day — The New York Times and the World-Telegram and the Brooklyn Eagle — looking not at the political events or front-page news but at what were then called the “women’s pages” and the advertisements.
“It gives you a sense of how differently language was used,” she said. “We’re not that aware of how our public discourse has changed in 100 years.”
She also relied a bit on her own memories and family stories. McDermott grew up on Long Island, but had a grandmother in Brooklyn.
“I was aware from my own experience just how many nuns there were on the streets in those days,” she said.
To free the narrative from the musty, mothballed scent of historical fiction, McDermott wanted to freight it with contemporary resonance. Her unique choice of narrator — Sally’s children on Long Island, looking back over a century — were key to pulling that off.
“That’s all related to why I don’t see this as historical fiction,” McDermott said. “It was important to me that it was not just a story of ‘Once upon a time these things happened.’ It’s a question of ‘What does that mean to us, who haven’t lived through it?’ It’s how our lives are made possible by people who lived in the past.”
Reading this book will send you looking back in wonder at the people and the choices of generations past who shaped your life. It compelled me to pull out a family album of my own Irish Catholic ancestors in Brooklyn in the era of “The Ninth Hour,” and to see their lives more vividly, more intimately connected to my own.
McDermott — whose previous books include “Charming Billy,” “After This” and “Someone” — always works on at least two novels at a time, so there’s never truly a break between her projects. She’s unsure which of the projects she’s currently working on will pull ahead to completion first, though she’s currently “deep in the weeds” on a book she was writing concurrently with “The Ninth Hour.” But, as she often puts it to students when she visits schools, her work is never done.
“To be a fiction writer is to have homework due for the rest of your life,” she said. “You’re never finished.”