Alice McDermott's new novel, "Someone," long-listed for a National Book Award, is a quiet, rich book, the story of an Irish-American woman named Marie who lives in Brooklyn. Last night at Macalester College, in an event sponsored by Common Good Books, she read passages from the novel to a rapt crowd of about 100 people.
She chose three passages that traced Marie's romantic life--from the first time her heart was broken, to the first time she met her future husband, to a frightening but ultimately reassuring and loving incident in middle age. These same passages are the ones she suggested to her jazz musician son, Will Armstrong, when he told her he was interested in setting parts of her book to music.
(The result is a soundtrack for "Someone," issued by McDermott's publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can listen to, or buy, the haunting, Irish-tinged tunes at www.willarmstrongjazz.com)
But back to Will's mom.
After her reading, McDermott took questions--no, she said; her books are not terribly autobiographical. "I couldn't write autobiography to save my life," she said. "I'm a fiction writer to the bone. The impulse to lie is strong."
That said, she added, her own experiences of the world are reflected in her books--that world of Irish-Americans in New York, their traditions and faith, the soda bread, the language and diction.
She wrote "Someone" partly to preserve some of that. "I wanted to get some of the language of the time, the phrases," she said. Not history--the history is easily knowable--but the attitude and vocabulary.
She also wrote it because "I wanted to go against the trend and give an entire novel over to a female character who didn't have much voice in her own life," she said. Her protagonist, Mary, is a nearsighted quiet woman who came of age in the 1930s and married after World War II. Her older brother, Gabe, was the golden boy who her parents were sure was going to become a priest; Mary's role as a child was to sit quietly and listen while he recited poetry at the dinner table.
"She came of age at a time when people said, 'Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses,' " McDermott said. "That was not a joke. Yes, hers is an ordinary life. But what life is ordinary? I wanted to undermine the idea of an ordinary life. None of us is ordinary.
"Detail. That's how we distinguish. The specficity by which we define lives."
And "Someone" is rich, rich in sensory detail--not just sounds and sights, but textures and, especially, smells: the cold smell of winter and the mothball smell of fur coats and the homey smell of soda bread baking. (Which, by the way, McDermott does not bake. She said she doesn't cook; she writes stories about people who do, and that's just as good.)
Literary fiction, McDermott said, is more about language than it is about plot. "The duty of literary fition is to take language to the point where we only intuit the meaning, to the point we have no words for."
The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul was packed Tuesday evening with moms and little girls (and also some dads and some boys)--out on a school night! But surely this was an occasion their teachers would approve of: the book launch of Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo's latest YA book, "Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures," and the author herself in bright and hilarous conversation with Minnesota Public Radio host Cathy Wurzer.
DiCamillo's book, longlisted for a National Book Award, is the story of a little girl named Flora, a neighbor with a vacuum cleaner, a squirrel that develops superpowers (after being sucked into the machine), and the adventures that ensue. She wrote the book shortly after the death of her mother, and, like all good books--and all DiCamillo books--"Flora & Ulysses" has, Wurzer noted, "themes of loss, abandonment, and death." Is this appropriate for a children's book?, she asked.
"I didn't mention themes. You did," DiCamillo said. "It kind of surprises me that they're in there. But they're in everything that I do. Children are human beings and they're going to experience all of those things, and it's nice to have a book that admits those things are out there."
At this, the little girls--or maybe it was their moms--burst into applause.
The idea for the book came from two things: The vacuum cleaner that DiCamillo inherited from her mother, and a dying squirrel that she noticed on the front steps of her Minneapolis home a few years back. "This is a book a lot about a mother-daughter relationship," she said. "That's because every time I pulled into the garage, I'd see that vacuum cleaner and be reminded of my mom."
Though a friend suggested whacking the dying squirrel with a shovel, DiCamillo left it on the steps and, instead, went into the house and re-read E.B. White's essay, "Death of a Pig."
"And I started to think of ways to save a squirrel's life."
The squirrel on her front steps disappeared--crawled off to die somewhere else, she surmises--and she began work on her new book.
DiCamillo read aloud from the first few chapters of the book, and when she got to the part where Flora performs CPR on the squirrel she barely made it through, she was trying so hard not to laugh. "It tasted funny. Fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty."
Wurzer roared with laughter. And, in unison, they read it again.
"That line kept me going through rewrites," DiCamillo said. "It always made me laugh."
There was more--oh, so much more. Discussion of the writing process, and the importance of editors, and then questions from the young crowd. (One of the last questions was from a serious little girl with dark hair who began by saying, "My name is Flora," and the crowd, and DiCamillo, were delighted.)
The evening was taped for broadcast later on Minnesota Public Radio. Watch for it.
Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection, "The Light Around the Body." His latest book contains new and selected poems spanning 50 years and includes selections from his 2011 collection, "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey."
Earlier this year, Bly received the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Frost Medal.
The Oct. 16 event begins at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall and is sponsored by the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, which holds Bly's papers. The event is free but reservations are requested. (Follow this link.)
A reception will follow the reading, and books will be available for sale.
Wednesday (Sept. 18) is the first day of nearly a month of readings, at coffee shops, bookstores and cafes across St. Paul. If you can't make one, surely you can make another.
It's the St. Paul Almanac Literary Festival, a joint venture of the smart folks at the St. Paul Almanac, and the equally smart folks at Cracked Walnut. Cracked Walnut did something similar in the spring, hosting a reading a day for 21 days. Now, with the help of the Almanac, they're going themselves four days better.
Writers who contributed to the 2014 Almanac (on sale now, because, of course, it's almost 2014) include Joyce Sutphen, Carol Connolly, Ethna McKiernan, John Jodzio, Margot Fortunato Galt, and Jim Moore (though there are many, many others).
You can catch them at readings at J&S Bean Factory (6:30 p.m. Wednesday), Subtext: A Bookstore (7 p.m. Sept. 21), Khyber Pass Cafe (7:30 p.m. Sept. 26), and places in between. Check out the full schedule at the Cracked Walnut page.
It can get raucous, what with the book-throwing and all. But if you keep to your time limit, you should come out unscathed, and maybe with a bunch of new fans.
"Words at WAM," the literary open mic program hosted by Hazel & Wren and WAM Collective, will be back at the Weisman Art Museum on Sept. 18. Sign-up starts at 6 p.m., with readings beginning at 7 p.m. It's first come, first reads, and the whole thing ends at 8:30, so getting there early is probably a good idea.
You can read whatever you like -- your latest love poem, your diary entries, a short story, a few pages of that biography of Ayn Rand you've been working on for the last 15 years -- but you only get four minutes. Four minutes and 30 seconds, with the grace period. After that, prepare to get pelted off the stage by a sea of hurled paperbacks.
Featured readers for the night will be Katie Sisneros and poet Dobby Gibson. And, if you're lucky, you.
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