By Lucas Mautner
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Lucas Mautner, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Alice McDermott about her book, The Ninth Hour (FSG), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott follows the lives of several Catholic women living in early-twentieth-century Brooklyn. When Annie’s husband commits suicide, she is left with few choices, especially since she is pregnant with their child. Due to the kindness of Sister St. Saviour, a nun whose vocation is to help the poor and sick, Annie begins to work at the convent, where her daughter Sally is born. The lives of Annie, Sally, Sister St. Saviour, Sister Illuminata, and others reveal pain and suffering, penance and salvation, and, most importantly, the often-ignored sacrifice that these women and their contemporaries made.
Lucas Mautner (LM): There were so many incredible historical details in this book: the description of the chamber pot, the laundry, the information about the various orders of nuns. Can you describe your research process while writing this book?
Alice McDermott (AD): Research is a siren song for novelists—or at least for this one. So easy to be lured into hours and days of research, uncovering all kinds of fun facts, (and feeling like a very serious writer indeed, almost a journalist) while not a single sentence meant for readers gets written. To avoid this, and to avoid a novel chock full of all those fun facts that, in truth, don't need to be in the novel at all, I try to write as much of the story as I can before I start to research—taking a best-guess at historical details just to get the voice and the rhythm and the people of the novel down first. I then have some idea not only of what I'm looking for in my research, but also of who my characters are, whose perception will serve as filter to the historical information. Then I read widely, and, I'll admit, somewhat sloppily. While reading about substitutes in the Civil War, I also read laundry guides from the early part of the 20th Century, newspapers from the era (especially the women's pages and the want ads). I read historical accounts of the founding of any number of Catholic women's religious orders, accounts of immigrant women's lives, and St. Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul. I read about train travel, nursing care, and fundraising. More often than not, I find my best-guesses are pretty good—mostly, I think, because they are informed by my characters and their circumstances. I find that if I labor to get my characters to the page with some vividness, I'm surprised by how much I seem to know about their lives . . . something of the unconscious at work in this, I suppose.
LM: So much of this novel focuses on figures of family myth. Red Whelan, who took Mr. Tierney’s place in the Civil War; Jim, Sally’s father who, unaware to her, committed suicide while she was still in the womb; Sister St. Saviour, who was like a legendary figure to the family of Sisters. Successive generations hear these stories. How does the idea of a family myth travel from generation to generation, and in what ways does it shape a family’s narrative? Were you thinking about these familial stories as you wrote the book?
AM: Very much so. The collective voice of the narrators here speaks exactly to this family myth-making, which I think is akin to faith-making. Faith, much like family lore, comes to us in a variety of ways—through story, anecdote, speculation, imagination, memory, even research—and both require the willingness to believe in things unseen . . . I know with certainty, for instance, that I had a great-great-grandmother, that she lived, walked the earth, experienced childhood and motherhood and death, but I've never seen her, or met anyone who has. That the narrators of The Ninth Hour see a past they didn't actually live through with such certainty and vividness is a reflection, I think, of the capacity of those with religious faith to find the unseen more certain, and more compelling, than the world before their eyes, or in their personal memory.
LM: One of the most memorable quotes in the book is, “There is a hunger,” when one of the Sisters is explaining Annie’s actions to Sally. Is there a relationship between faith and this intrinsically human hunger, and is there a way (or a need) to balance the two?
AM: Sister Illuminata, whose quote this is, also adds, "A hunger to be comforted." I agree that this hunger is intrinsically human. I think it's intrinsic to faith as well. (For who are the faithful if not humans?) Faith arises out of this hunger: the hunger to love, the hunger for justice, and the hunger to redeem suffering, to be reconciled to our mortality.
LM: The women in this book must band together as a community to survive. From the young widows left penniless and with no prospects, to the Sisters whose accomplishments are hijacked by priests, to the abused wives who turn to the nuns for help, women must turn to each other not only for emotional and physical support, but for survival. Can you speak a bit more about this dynamic?
AM: At a time when there was no social safety net, when ordinary women's lives were even less valued than they are today, women were often left to their own devices. The incredible accomplishments of religious women in this country—the schools, universities, hospitals they established, many of them focused on the needs of women—goes grossly unacknowledged even today. (The Mayo Clinic was started by nuns, for instance.) Instead, we still have jokes about nuns in classrooms, hitting kids with rulers. (Looking at you, Saturday Night Live.) I see this as a particularly insidious form of misogyny.
LM: Sister Lucy tells Sally, “If we could live without suffering, we’d find no peace in heaven.” Suffering is central to the Catholic faith, and central to this book as well. What is the relation between suffering and faith, and how do the two affect your characters’ lives?
AM: Suffering is central to the Catholic faith, but suffering is also an inevitable experience for all of us who are human. Those of us without faith either avoid this notion (until we have to) or throw up our hands—what are you going to do? People of faith, it seems to me, are at least willing to acknowledge the injustice of this, the way suffering is visited upon us all, especially the innocent. Sister Jeanne's homely theodicy about justice and suffering speaks to this. Her confidence in eternal life as a recompense for suffering may be an antique notion, but at least she's thinking.
LM: Catholics who commit suicide were ineligible to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. When Jim commits suicide, Sister St. Saviour does her best to deceive the Church and have the doomed man buried in hallowed ground. Why does the Sister work so hard to get Jim buried in a Catholic plot? Is this out of pity for Jim, or Annie?
AM: Sister St. Saviour understands the injustice of the Church's rule regarding the burial of suicides in hallowed ground. Because she understands human nature—because she has spent her life among humans—she knows that his death is not due to lack of love, or faith but, in her own assessment, depression—the suicide's inability to go on through just one more day. I don't see her determination to have him buried in a Catholic cemetery as driven so much by pity (although that's part of it) as it is driven by her conviction that the Church is wrong. That this rule lacks Christian compassion.
Of course, the Church has since dispensed with this rule because science has taught us so much about mental illness. There are other obsolete and unkind rules the Church may yet dispense with—I'm pretty sure most Catholic women know what they are.
LM: Some of the most striking passages were focused on gross details of illness or dirtiness. I’m thinking of the woman on the train, whose dirty mind and unclean body frightens Sally, or of Mrs. Costello, whose illness and all its gory details are presented in vivid detail to the reader. What was behind your decision to ground this book in these physical details? In a book where faith and godliness is central to the story, what is the role of the human body in all its gross detail?
AM: I think all realistic fiction is grounded in physical details. I don't know how I could write an honest novel featuring nursing nuns who care for the sick poor without precise details of their daily work. I guess I don't see these as gory details - only the facts of illness and accident and poverty, of human suffering. I see these physical realities as reason to be astonished by the compassion and the strength of these women—their faith and godliness, if you will. Again, I fear our culture's marginalization of such women—as classroom witches or bodiless singing nuns—allows us to smugly dismiss what difficult work they've done—and continue to do.
LM: Sister St. Saviour utters this utterly amazing quote: “It would be a different Church if I were running it.” How would the Church be different if it were run by women?
AM: For Sister St. Saviour, I think, women running the Church would mean a more compassionate hierarchy, a Church that places love and understanding, forgiveness and patience ahead of dogma and ritual and rule-of-(canon) law. A more warm-hearted, and practical, Church. I agree with her.
LM: The dialogue truly shines in the novel, from the Sister who says pernt instead of point, to the randy woman on the train, who wriggles her pinky finger and asks Sally, “Can you imagine a girl the size of me spending her life riding a thing the size of that?” How did you approach dialogue in this book? How did you strike a balance between historical accuracy and modern readers’ ease of understanding?
AM: I love Elizabeth Bowen's advice that characters should only speak when they have to—it's a reminder to listen for the character's voice, not to manipulate it.
I think the real challenge in writing about the past is not so much vocabulary, context can be a simple fix for that, but the danger of applying a kind of "presentism" to another era. Keeping a larger context in mind is helpful here as well. One must be aware of the breadth of a character's experience in a certain time and place in order to understand her mindset, her choices, her view of the world.
LM: What inspired you to write a book focusing on the community of women in the Church?
AM: I began with a focus on substitutes in the Civil War, as a metaphorical conceit. This led me to thoughts of selflessness, self-sacrifice, how we value these notions in the 21st Century. If we value them. If we even understand them. Which led me to think about the giving of a life so that another might live—and also of taking a life, even if it's your own, with no regard for how others will then live. Story began to arise out of these notions, and along came Sister St. Saviour . . .
Alice McDermott is the author of seven previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; At Weddings and Wakes; and Someone—all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.
Lucas Mautner is an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction) student at The New School in New York City. He is a graduate of Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.