A Bigamist’s Daughter, 1982
That Night, 1987
At Weddings and Wakes, 1992
Charming Billy, 1998
Child of My Heart, 2002
Alice McDermott was born in Brooklyn to Irish Catholic parents and spent her childhood in Elmont, a small town on Long Island. As in her novel At Weddings and Wakes, she and her siblings were often taken to Brooklyn to see their grandmother. McDermott attended the local parochial school and an excellent Catholic girls’ high school. Although books and reading were important in the McDermott household, Alice’s parents did not consider early liking for writing particularly significant. They assumed that she would eventually become a secretary, and it was not until her second year at the State University of New York at Oswego that McDermott began to think seriously about earning her living by writing.
After she graduated in 1975, McDermott’s first job was a clerical one. For one year she worked as a typist at a vanity press in New York, and during this time she accumulated information and experience she later used in her first novel. At first McDermott restricted herself to writing short stories, and eventually she set herself a deadline: If within two years she had not published anything, she would forget about a writing career. Accordingly, she quit her job and enrolled in a master’s program at the University of New Hampshire, where she began reading contemporary women writers. Here she also encountered Mark Smith, a teacher and writer, who persuaded her to begin submitting her stories to magazines.
After receiving her M.A. in 1978 McDermott remained at the university for an additional year, teaching in the English department. She sold her first story to Ms. and before long she had also placed stories with Redbook, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle.
At the celebration following the publication of her first story McDermott met David M. Armstrong, a medical researcher. They were married on June 16, 1979, and moved to Manhattan, where McDermott became a fiction reader for Esquire and Redbook before taking six months off to write a novel. Eventually, following Mark Smith’s advice, McDermott took several short stories and the first fifty pages of A Bigamist’s Daughter to the literary agent Harriet Wasserman. Within a few weeks the still unfinished novel had been accepted for publication, and, when it appeared, this story of a love affair between a naïve author and the vanity press editor who is expected to fleece him was reviewed favorably.
After McDermott and her husband moved to La Jolla, California, McDermott taught at the University of California at San Diego while completing her next novel. That Night was set in suburban Long Island during the 1960’s and dealt with the conflict between young love and parental pragmatism. It was nominated for a National Book Award and for a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and later became the basis for a film. In 1987 McDermott was one of ten winners of the annual Whiting Writers’ Awards.
McDermott has said that she seems to alternate producing books and producing children. In 1985 she and her husband had their first child, Willie. After That Night appeared, the family moved back to the East Coast, this time to Bethesda, Maryland. In 1989 their daughter Eames was born. Another son, Patrick, was born in 1993 after the publication of McDermott’s third novel, At Weddings and Wakes.
McDermott was inspired to write the first chapter of At Wedding and Wakes by a Maurice Sendak poster on the wall in her son’s room. The book has an impressionistic quality, perhaps because events are initially observed by children, who comprehend them only partially, and only later recalled by them as adults, when their recollections are blurred by time.
Charming Billy reconstructs the life of its main character, Billy Lynch, through the efforts of his cousin Dennis’s daughter. Billy had become engaged to an Irish woman who, unbeknownst to him, kept the money he sent her for her fare back to America and married someone else; the novel explores the repercussions of this loss of love in Billy Lynch’s life. The novel won the National Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation in 1998. Child of My Heart is a coming-of-age novel about a fifteen-year-old, Theresa, whose working-class parents moved to East Hampton, Long Island, in the hope that her beauty would catch her a husband among the rich and powerful who frequent that New York playground. Instead of becoming a gold digger, however, Theresa becomes a caregiver. The summer of her fifteenth year is marked by her sexual initiation by a much older famous artist, for whom she baby-sits, and by the illness and, ultimately, death of her eight-year-old cousin Daisy, the “child” of the title.
One of McDermott’s major themes is the limitations of human knowledge. The protagonist of A Bigamist’s Daughter never does find out whether her father was indeed a bigamist, and the narrators of At Weddings and Wakes do not know why their aunt died so soon after her wedding. What happened to her also illustrates how impossible it is to predict the future. Given the intensity of their passion, for example, it is surprising that the young lovers of That Night become so dull in later life. However, though in her novels McDermott emphasizes human limitations and the inevitability of loss, she also stresses the importance of family ties and the worth of love. Her profound insights, as well as her craftsmanship, have brought Alice McDermott respect from her peers and considerable enthusiasm from her readers.