Welcome, Alice! Thank you for joining us in our first Book Club author chat.
Many thanks for the invitation!
And welcome, Tom, our books editor, who will get us started.
Hi everybody, thank you for joining us to discuss "Someone" with Alice today.
Alice, I was struck by the period flavor you captured, too. Did you do research about Brooklyn and Long Island at that time?
I tend to do most of my research after I've more or less completed the novel. Research is seductive. You can spend days and weeks "looking things up" and never actually craft a sentence. I try to discover the story, the voice, the characters first - and then I research place and time.
You've written many times in your fiction about the lives of Irish-Americans in New York and Long Island. What keeps drawing you back to that subject?
Well, part of the draw is that I know this place and these people, so I can spend time on language and sentence and character. But in many ways I think of these people and this time and place not so much as the subject of my novels, but as a means to an end: a way to get at the larger subject: what it is to be human, to be mortal, to be part of a family, a community, a mortal world.
In many ways, this is a novel about memory. But I didn't want to do the familiar: "old lady sitting by a window thinking about the past" approach. I wanted to get a flavor of the way memory works: nonlinear, not always clearly connected . . . the way you sometimes get into a conversation with friends and suddenly ask, "Wait - how did we get on this subject?" I wanted to get the arc of entire life into the novel without the day-by-day familiarity.
BTW: Here's a quote from Hamlet that I have on my desk: "Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason To fust in us unused."
One of my incentives for writing Marie's story was that I noticed novels dedicated solely to a single woman's voice are few and far between in the "literary" world of late. Of course, a wiser writer would take that as a clue NOT to dedicated an entire book to an "ordinary" woman from middle class Brookly and L.I. - but I'm a contrarian.
I don't have personal experience with blindness, but my hope is that the metaphor works on many levels -- I guess that's every writer's hope in some ways. Having decided to give this entire novel over to a single woman, I also wanted to make sure that she didn't become "representative" - that she was uniquely herself -- so having her, literally, see the world in a certain way due to her eyesight was a way to begin to establish that.
And then there are all the other implications: blind faith and blind love . . . the sense of every character here in some way damaged . . . either by experience or by birth . . . the damage in some way confirming that each one is also unique, unlike any other . . .
Good. There is a decision for the careful reader to make here, I think. Does the last chapter describe a miracle -- her son's life restored because she asked -- or an act of salvation - - does she save her brother's life by taking the sleeping pills from his room - or does it describe sheer foolishness, the foolishness of believing in either miracles or in love as redemptive??? I don't set out to tell the reader what to think (I don't work for Fox News), I present the evidence of this single woman's life and ask you to ponder (as I ponder) the question of both the worth of a single life and the meaning of love.
I love Nabokov - his sentences made me want to be a writer way back when I was an English major at Oswego State. I love Yeats, Auden, Wallace Stevens, Millay -- too many poets to name. I love Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Garcia Marquez. Since today is "Bloomsday," I have to throw in Joyce, too. And William Trevor, Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, etc, etc,
Alice, one of the things I love in your fiction is the voices of your characters and the expressions that they use. I'm thinking of the ladies upstairs discussing the deceased with Fagin's mother, for example. They make a novel like "Someone" so vivid. How do you capture those voices?
There is a kind of "channeling" that goes on at a certain point when you're composing a novel - if you're lucky. I don't mean to say that the characters just take over and the writer sits back . . . it only happens after you've done a lot of work and have begun to know your story inside and out. Those ladies upstairs were one of those instances where everything I had learned about this world through writing about it revealed an upstairs room with lace curtains where these conversations were taking place. I have no such experience in my own life - I just had the experience of Marie's life by then, but there they were. No doubt something of my English lit background showed itself because I did think of them right away as the Fates, up there, weaving lives
Twitter user @janiceharayda asks: "The heroine of SOMEONE wears glasses. A metaphor for her effort to “see” the world? Or for something else? #NDbookclub"
Yes, indeed. And something else, too, as all metaphor are . . . as I mentioned earlier, there's also the notion of "damage" - Marie thinks of her poor eyesight as being formed even before she was born - damage and individuality: no one else sees quite the way she does . . . And then there's the era. This is the story of an unremarkable woman coming of age at a time when people said (after Dorothy Parker) "Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses" - and meant it as life advice, not irony. It was important to me to capture Marie's life as a part of another era, as much as her experience may be relevant to any era.
For a long time I thought "Someone" was only the working title - that at some point I'd come up with something sexier, or at least more mysterious . . . but I realized, eventually, that the word meant any number of things within the context of the story. Yes, "someone" to love - as her brother promises her, but also the idea of being "someone" - or a someone - and also her father's definition of the Irish word "amadan." Her father says it means "someone's a fool." Which is the essential question of the novel - who is?
Ha! You know they say that the Irish are the lost tribe of Israel? Yes, you're right about Dickens - but my Fagin turns old Charlie's Fagin on his ear, so to speak. Mine's a good guy who loves children, loves humankind, in fact . . .
Btw: the Dickens reference readers often miss follows Mr. Fagin giving Marie a copy of David Copperfield. She says she never knew if the ghosts in A Christmas Carol were real, or only a dream, and even her English teacher couldn't tell her. Has resonance, I hope, to the last chapter and Marie's own uncertainty if she had dreamt her son's return to life or if it had happened
"Someone" opens with Marie's unlucky childhood neighbor, Pegeen Chehab, who falls down the stairs and dies. Though she might appear to be a minor character in Marie's life, she reappears again at the very end of the novel. Does Pegeen have more significance than we might at first think?
In some ways, the novel is balanced between Pegeen and Gabe - the two poor fools, poor sparrows. I sort of think of Pegeen as Hope and Gabe as Faith - and, not to make things way too neat, because I'm not after neatness, that makes Marie love, right? Pegeen at the start is as nondescript as Marie is, and her very brief life seems to give the lie to Gabe's quote from St. Matthew - that His eyes are on us, even all the hairs on our heads are counted . . . again, the essential question is contained in Marie's little-girl response to such belief: amadan.
What a nice way to put it. I've heard from many readers that they hated Walter Hartnett and his wandering eyes . . . but I've also heard that even those who hated him and the way he dumped Marie reluctantly forgave him when he showed up at Bill Corrigan's wake . . . just as Marie more or less forgave him. As a teacher of young writers, I find that it's much easier to find stories about terrible people doing terrible things and much, much more difficult to find story in goodness, or happiness, or compassion . . . sentimentality is a bigger threat to beginning writers than gratuitous violence, graphic sex and unmitigated callousness . . . interesting, no?
Maybe "symbolize" is not the right word. She is, herself, hopeful. She hates her job, and Manhattan where she works, and is inexplicably falling down in public, but she tells Marie that love will save her - she'll find a husband, a boyfriend. She'll find the man who helped her up and pretend to fall so he'll help her again. Her death is beyond her control - beyond her personality - Fagin says he thinks it was some "burden on the brain." But her life is full of looking forward, to the future. She insists on her own uniqueness - her own happy ending.
Always. But sometimes intentionally avoiding a stereotype is as dishonest as writing toward it. I'm always setting myself the challenge of writing about familiar characters but making them uniquely themselves - I think it's one of the wonderful things fiction does for us. Not generalities about life, but specifics. Marie's father is very much himself as well as being a man who likes a drink - wry, loving, and "blindsided" you could say by the illness that ends his life.
Every novel composes itself in a slightly different way. Sometimes character is primary, sometime it's situation or incident. I had a vague idea of writing about this unremarkable woman's life to begin, but I had no idea what that life would be until I began writing. I think of working at sentences as a kind of incantation. If I do my best to get the rhythm, the precise language, the detail of each sentence right, then character and story will reveal itself to me - much the way a book is revealed to the reader. I guess I always want to be my own first reader. I don't want to know too much when I begin.
I've only read a few of Maeve Binchey's stories and enjoyed them. But I don't have an abiding interest in the world of Irish America - charming as it can be. I'm really more interested in using those brogues, those over a cup of tea conversations, as a means to explore what it is we all hope for, long for, believe in or fail to believe in. My favorite letter from a reader came from a man who wrote of Charming Billy: "change the surnames and change the alcohol to high-cholesterol food, and this is the story of my Jewish family." Fiction is meant to remind us of what we all feel, I think, even as it reminds us of our own individual experiences . . .
Twitter user @janiceharayda asks: You mention a v. large number of smells or scents in SOMEONE, far more than most novelists. Why? #NDbookclub #books
Here's the thing that makes fiction a far superior art form (compared to film, for instance): fiction can make use of all the senses: touch and taste and smell, as well as sight and hearing. It seems to me that any novel that hopes to say something about memory has to make strong use of our sense of smell - perhaps the most evocative of the five senses.
Probably not, not in the long run. But the impulse to ask those questions is important, I think. Because if you're thinking of fiction as an art form - not merely a way to pass some time on the beach (and there's nothing wrong with books that are meant to be beach reads - they're just different) - then the question of meaning is well worth exploring - the meaning of every decision an author makes in composing a novel. If you read every book only to find out what happens, or if you confuse the subject of a novel with the meaning of a novel, then you miss out on the art of it, the thrill of recognizing all the levels of meaning in a gesture, a name, an incident. I dare say, you miss out on the beauty of a carefully composed work of art - but that's the English major in me talking.
My grandparents were all Irish born, came to the States at the turn of the 20th Century and all died young. I didn't know any of them. Both of my parents were raised by widowed aunts. So I don't know much about my genealogy. Maybe I write fiction to provide myself with the relatives I never had. But, as far as I know, there were no Edward McDermotts, or Alice McDermotts before this one, in my family history.
Some of these guides can be helpful, I suppose. Perhaps providing a way to look at the book from a different angle. The question that drives me crazy, however, especially when it's meant of children and young adults, goes like this: Ishmael had a very difficult boss in Captain Ahab - have you ever had an experience with a difficult boss?" Such questions completely miss the fact that to read a novel is to have an experience . . . if you've lived Marie's life, you've had the experience of working in a funeral parlor or being dumped by a boyfriend or having a C-section without sufficient care . . .
I haven't started reading e-books yet. I'm addicted to paper. But I have noticed among my students that those who read actual paper copies of stories have better recall . . . it's an unscientific study but I fear it's valid. We're all losing our attention spans, I'm afraid. Those blinking screens can't be helping.
I love the poetry of "Mary Star of the Sea" - talk about an unremarkable woman elevated to "Someone" status. I think of these instances - that there is a church in Brooklyn with such a name (though perhaps not Marie's specific neighborhood) - as Found Poetry.
Please join us for the next Newsday book club meeting on July 14 at noon, when we'll be discussing "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" with author Karen Joy Fowler. Read the novel and come with more good questions!