No one can deny that Child of My Heart is an important novel for Alice McDermott. Readers have been waiting for a follow-up since she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998. McDermott, however, isn't one to be ruffled by all the hoopla that descended upon her after the award or the resulting pressure to publish.
She's got more pressing, day-to-day worries: a fourth-grade son, a 15-year-old daughter, a 17-year-old son, their homework, after-school activities, a neuroscientist husband, a house to run in Bethesda, Maryland, and writing seminars to teach at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Despite all this, McDermott is easy to talk to and, yes, completely charming. She seems a woman who can be relied on to remain calm and resolute amid almost any storm.
Certainly a storm of publicity rained upon her when she won the National Book Award, a big surprise to many in the literary world, who expected Tom Wolfe to walk away with the honor for A Man in Full. McDermott was so unassuming she didn't even have an acceptance speech prepared.
But then, lots of things happen unexpectedly for McDermott—like her latest novel. The author is quick to admit that Child of My Heart isn't the novel she intended to publish. She was working on two other books, as is her habit (if one isn't going well, she'll switch to another). And then September 11 happened.
As for many of us, McDermott found the world as she knew it turned upside down. Gradually, she started to write again, abandoning the two books she had been working on and launching a new project. Child of My Heart took only six months to complete.
"This was definitely the fastest I've ever written a book," she says. "I had the voice," she adds, and the words came pouring out. The voice belonged to a teenage girl, but McDermott didn't quite know how to categorize what she was writing. "At first I wasn't sure what this was: a short story, a novella, a novel."
Then her longtime agent, Harriet Wasserman—to whom the book is dedicated—stepped in. "I have a wonderful agent who has been by my side my whole publishing career," McDermott explains. Wasserman asked what she was working on, heard her discuss the story, demanded to see the manuscript and decided to publish it right away. McDermott remembers sitting in New York with Wasserman and having her shuffle through the pages, deciding immediately on the title by pointing to a phrase that appears early in the novel.
The book is definitely a child of McDermott's heart, and in the aftermath of 9/11, it's a story about mothering and nurturing, as well as the absence of those things. While nothing in the book is related to terrorist events, many of the themes seem to make sense when viewed from those shadows.
Child of My Heart takes place in East Hampton during a long-ago summer, a season of innocence, comfort and change. There's a pervading sense of melancholy—a sadness that appears in much of her writing, McDermott admits, despite her exceedingly cheerful demeanor. With no chapter divisions and few breaks, the novel reads much like a long short story, a sort of time capsule of a forgotten summer. Unlike her previous novels, it's a purely chronological narrative, but like the previous books, it's all about memory and storytelling.
"Yes, the story really did come out chronologically," McDermott says, "which is also very unusual for me." McDermott shares several traits with her protagonist, a smart, literary 15-year-old named Theresa, the only child of doting parents who left the city so their daughter might have better opportunities in life. (McDermott was born in Brooklyn in 1953, the daughter of first-generation Irish Catholics who later moved to Long Island.) Theresa is named after a saint, and she definitely has saintly qualities. As she explains in the book's first sentence, she is a nurturer: "I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin; and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist."
Theresa, Daisy and Flora form the heart of the novel. Daisy is the ignored and resented middle child of a big Irish family, who is further plagued by ceaseless bruises and an ongoing fever that no adult notices. McDermott acknowledges that Child of My Heart shows the influence of many of her favorite writers. First and foremost is Nabokov and Lolita, as Theresa becomes Lolita to young Flora's father, a famous, aging painter at the end of his career.
"This was a great opportunity for me to pay homage to some of my favorite writers, especially Nabokov. I think of this book as how Lolita herself might have told the story," McDermott explains, adding, "It's also a story that's all about high summer and enchantment.
But all is not fun and games as Theresa's budding sexuality takes control of her relationship with Flora's father. McDermott admits with a laugh that even she, the mother of a teenage girl, became a bit uncomfortable with the way the plot unfolded at times. "My daughter hasn't read the whole thing yet," she says, apparently thankful.
Just as she didn't plan to write this novel, McDermott didn't exactly plan her literary career. She wrote plenty of skits as a student in Catholic schools, and her mother always encouraged her to write down anything that was bothering her. Nonetheless, she claims she wasn't a particularly good student and chose to attend the State University of New York in Oswego only because she heard it was a good party school.
After graduation, McDermott went to work as a typist for a vanity publisher. Later she received a graduate degree in writing from the University of New Hampshire, and the faculty there put her in touch with Wasserman, her agent. In 1982, Random House published her first book, A Bigamist's Daughter, a novel about an editor at a vanity publisher who falls in love with a Southern author.
Today, after two decades of success as a novelist, McDermott remains gentle and approachable, unlikely to intimidate. Asked, for instance, whether she belongs to a book group ("yes") and what they are reading, she doesn't spout literary theory or try to sound scholarly. Instead, she replies, "Oh, just the same things other fourth-grade moms are reading."
When told that many will soon be flocking to read Child of My Heart, she says with heartfelt gratitude: "Thank goodness for book groups!"
Writer and outdoor enthusiast Alice Cary is the author of Parents' Guide to Hiking and Camping.