National Book Award recipient Alice McDermott has described “getting it right” in a story as discovering “the language that will pierce the heart.” McDermott got it right as she read her new short story, “Our Girls,” to a spellbound audience at the 2008 Morgan Writer-in-Residence Reading on February 26 in Hill Hall. Her narrative gripped the audience and demanded an emotional response from every listener—and got it.
McDermott’s entire week at Carolina as the 2008 Morgan Writer-in-Residence was marked by the same quality of generous offerings and appreciative responses. Writer and Creative Writing faculty member Marianne Gingher says McDermott is “as charming and generous and accommodating in person as she is on the page.” Fellow-writer and faculty member Alan Shapiro agrees: “During her week at UNC, on and off the page, in and out of the classroom, behind the podium and at the dinner table, Alice McDermott taught us all that it's possible to be brilliant and personable, imaginative and down to earth, straightforward and witty. We learned that we can say of her what we can say of too few writers: that the quality of the work reflects the quality of the life lived.”
She spent time with students and faculty, spurring conversations, encouraging young writers, and candidly discussing her own writing and writing process. In turn, Carolina’s literary community responded with enthusiasm. She held two open sessions for creative writing students, visited creative writing classes, and met informally with students at a barbeque, coffee hour, and other gatherings.
Another highlight of McDermott’s visit was “A Conversation on Fiction and Religion.” She joined Doris Betts, writer and faculty emerita, and Ruel Tyson, professor of religious studies, for a lively exploration of the interplay of religion and fiction. One audience member noted that the interdisciplinary and intellectual quality of the session exemplified the best qualities of humanities discourse.
The transformative power of language was a continuing theme throughout McDermott’s conversations during the week, and was a point she drove home to our creative writing students. When introducing McDermott at the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Reading, Gingher highlighted her careful attention to language as one of the great hallmarks of her writing. She quotes McDermott herself: “I wouldn’t want to spend the energy just telling a story. I’ve got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them, but by the language with which they’re described.” McDermott goes on to say that “language can redeem anything . . . can make us see anew anything, if it’s right. And if it’s done with care.
McDermott is the author of six novels. Her fourth, Charming Billy, won the 1998 National Book Award for fiction and the American Book Award. This novel, along with At Wedding and Wakes and After This, appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. Three of her novels have been Pulitzer Prize finalists, including That Night. In addition to her novels, McDermott has published articles, reviews, and stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook, USA Today, and others. She is currently Richard A. Macksey Professor of Humanities in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Established in 1993 by alumni Allen and Musette Morgan of Memphis, Tennessee, the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program brings writers of distinction to campus each spring to teach courses, meet with students and faculty, and give lectures, readings, and symposia. Their goals for the program are to help and inspire Carolina’s writing students and also to provide a way for the campus and town communities to join in a celebration of the literary arts. And Alice McDermott’s visit gave us much to celebrate.