Arts and Culture

Grisham and McDermott talk their craft

by Janet Smith

McDermott and Grisham

SUMMARY: In the second installment of the John Grisham Writers Hour, the award-winning author interviewed National Book Award winner Alice McDermott.

National Book Award-winning writer Alice McDermott talked about writing—from character development to making time for writing—with author John Grisham at James Madison University on March 20 as a guest of the John Grisham Writers Hour.

McDermott is the author of eight novels, “each a major publication event,” Grisham said. Charming Billy earned the 1998 National Book Award for fiction and three of her other works, That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992) and After This (2006), were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her other works are A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), Child of My Heart (2000), Someone (2013) and The Ninth Hour (2017).

She revealed to Grisham that she will retire from teaching at Johns Hopkins University, where she is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities, to write more. Grisham, who has published 41 novels, all of which have become international best-sellers, good naturedly mentioned that he was glad to hear the news because he “wanted to talk about her writing pace.”

Known for her Irish-Catholic characters, McDermott said, “I always start with the characters and then do research because I know what I am looking for.”

Once the characters for her most recent book, The Ninth Hour, were identified, McDermott turned to the archives of The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, complete with its flowery language of the day, to research daily life in the city. Amid the accounts of human tragedies, some written in a style in which “the racism is astounding,” she said, she found settings and drama for her characters.

“The characters are not me or people I know,” McDermott said, adding that she did not know any of her grandparents, who emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in the early 1900s. “[As a writer] you put yourself at the service of your characters,” she said.

In contrast to Grisham, who said he was a 30-year-old attorney when he started writing fiction, McDermott said, “I always wrote as a kid.” Skits were popular at her school and she was the chief writer of them. After reading a three-page essay for a college course on nonfiction writing, a professor told her, “I’ve got bad news for you, kid. You’re a writer.”

Responding to audience questions about their individual writing processes, McDermott and Grisham concurred that an author must make time for writing. McDermott compared the commitment to an accounting adage: Pay yourself first. “Treat writing as a real job,” she said. “Tell yourself, I’m giving myself an amount of time to write.”

Grisham prescribed a two-part regime: writing at least one page a day and committing to a ritual to write. For him, as a young attorney, that meant rising at 5 a.m. to be at his office by 5:30 (with a cup of coffee) to write his first word of the day. “Do whatever it takes,” he said.

Prior to their public dialogue, the authors met with JMU creative-writing students to discuss the craft of writing.

The John Grisham Writers Hour builds on the author’s practice of interviewing local writers while on book tours. Encouraged by his friend Inman Majors, a JMU English professor and novelist, Grisham began the series at JMU on Oct. 17, 2018, when he interviewed New York Times best-selling writer James McBride.

During his introduction of Grisham Majors announced that the writer would interview Jon Meacham, renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, in Fall 2019.

To view the entire conversation between McDermott and Grisham, click here.

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Published: Monday, March 25, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2021

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