Friday, September 6, 2013

A Love Affair with Alice McDermott...Or Rather Her Books. Someone on Sale Next Week. Our Event is September 28, at a Special Time of 11 am.

A writer once came to me and said, "My editor and agent are pushing me to write more quickly. What do you think?" And I said what I usually say, "You need to decide who and what you are writing for." Financially it is generally better to be on a cycle. Commercial writers really should have a book every year. Literary writers aren't expected to keep to that kind of pace, and aside from John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates (and a personal favorite, Anita Brookner), there are few who could do this and keep up the quality, but I think the perception is that a two year cycle is perfectly acceptable, and three years is about the most.

But let's face it, the best books often come out after long gestation periods of five years, eight years, even longer. Authors without a contract, first novelist perhaps, can toil on their masterpiece for as long as they want, and knowing that they will likely only sell it as finished, have the inclination to make it the best it can be. Truthfully, if it isn't the best it can be, it likely won't even get past the agent stage. That's why a lot of authors say it takes ten years to get your first novel out.

If you're in a contract though, taking too long can get you into trouble. One wonders why Vikram Seth signed a contract for A Suitable Girl, knowing that writing A Suitable Boy took him way longer than he probably expected. It's one of the few novels I've read in my life that is over 1000 pages. Now he's being asked to pay back part of his advance for missing deadlines, a rare occurrence, but one some soapbox pundits have said, could become more common. Read more from Simon Tomlinson in the UK Daily Mail.

But what I said to the writer signing stock at Boswell was, "Take more time and make it a better book." I really feel that too. But there was a part of me that was thinking, "If you take longer, it will likely be a better book, but also, I'll have fewer books on my plate to read." Is that awful? But I think about how I read fewer books than I used to, plus more of my books are driven by our event schedule. Now I'm lucky enough to be able to push for the kind of books I want to read myself, but it still means that other worthy titles fall by the wayside. And there are a number of authors, like Anne Tyler, where I used to read every book released like clockwork, and do so no longer. Heck, I didn't read the last Anita Brookner. And yes, that might be the last Anita Brooker, as she is also no longer on her annual schedule.

So that's why I'm excited that Alice McDermott has a new book coming out after seven years. I can still say that I've read each one of her published novels, and I can say even more enthusiastically that she is coming to Boswell on Saturday, September 28, 11 AM (note the time!) Someone goes on sale next Tuesday, September 10 (it's a really great release date for books, by the way), and I plan to write about her new novel in detail on another post. For now, I wanted to reach into my archives and see if I could locate what I wrote (yes, I used to keep records) about her previous novels. I used to annotate all my reads in something called "Daniel's Booklist" and while my chronicle is no longer annotated (I feel like the blog does this work for me), I still have all the old records.

My first Alice McDermott book read was That Night, in June 1987. The book came out in April, and I went back for A Bigamist's Daughter, her first novel. I used to rank all the books I read that month, though I will admit I would sometimes play with the order to make a bit of a theme. Other books read that month included The Good Mother, by Sue Miller, 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helen Hanff, and Give the Lady What She Wants: The Story of Marshall Field and Co., by Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan.

On That Night: "I Couldn't figure out why McDermott mentioned the title of her book so many times in the text and then it hit me; That Night is a kind of literary 45, a retelling of 'The Leader of the Pack' from the perspective of one of the more minor Shangi La's. Listen. Girl goes out with wrong kind of boy. Girl made pregnant and sent away by family. Boy starts calling furiously. Boy attacks house with his gang. Neighborhood fathers then attack the boys. All this and it positively reeks of 1962. I wonder why none of the reviews I read ever brought this up." Wonder, indeed. I was young.

On April 1992, books reviewed included Francine Prose's Primitive People, Jill McCorkle's Crash Diet, Elinor Lipman's The Way Men Act, and Shelby Hearon's Group Therapy. I took away numbers for this month because reading Neil Postman's Technopoly "made me realize that the ranking system falsely put an absolute scale on my liking of books. I fear that someone somewhere is saying that Daniel didn't like At Weddings and Wakes because it only ranked at #5. Let it be said that I liked eight of the nine books reviewed here."

What I wrote about At Weddings and Wakes: "Like That Night, the tone of Alice McDermott's newest novel is dazzlingly lyrical. Three siblings follow their mother on the long, weekly treks into Brooklyn, where they spend the day with their grandmother and three aunts. Slowly the story is revealed, and the reader pushes on, knowing that tragedy looms ahead. Each character is precisely drawn. Each incident is crisply described. This is not a writer who rushes through her work, as evidenced by her output, which is about one book every four years. I sometimes wish that McDermott was more place oriented, but she seems to feel that keeping things vague gives the story more power."

The write-up of Charming Billy is from January 1998. "Charming Billy is the much-loved family drunk, Billy Lynch, whose tale is told through the perspective of his first cousin's niece. A breathtaking opening description of his wake recalls McDermott's last novel, At Weddings and Wakes. We are swept into the tales and cover-ups that led to Billy's death. It is said that Billy had meant to marry a young Irish housemaid named Eva, and her early death scarred him for life and led him to a life of drink. That, however, is only the beginning of a story that gets told and retold, each giving us slightly more insight into Billy's life. At her appearance at Schwartz, McDermott mentioned that she hoped to write about something other than the Irish American experience, but she felt called back to exploring the prototypical Irish drunk, a type who was often more and not more than what you expected."

I went back to ranking after that short break and Charming Billy was #1. I don't think I would rank books like that anymore. It was give them, paraphrasing my 31-year-old self, a false absoluteness of quality on a relative scale.  And then there's After This and Child of My Heart, but if I started yammering on about them, this blog would never end. But the last two books remind me that I shared my love of Alice McDermott with our late FSG rep, Mark Gates. That's a nice memory.

More on Someone next week. Have us hold a copy for you. And don't forget, our original event was scheduled for later in the afternoon. So if you already marked this down, please recheck your calendar.

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