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Alice McDermott: 'The nuns showed up and took over the damned book'

The acclaimed novelist Alice McDermott doesn’t remember the circumstances under which Sister Mary Rose came into her life when she was a little girl or how many times they met. But more than a half-century later, the author still vividly recalls the old nun’s face.

“My mother was raised by a widowed aunt who had five children of her own,” says the 67-year-old McDermott, who will read from her new book, “The Ninth Hour,” on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at Books and Books in Coral Gables.

“The aunt was a working woman in the early part of the 20th century who had a lot of kids and not a lot of money. If one of the kids got sick or if she got sick, Sister Mary Rose or one of the other nuns would come and take care of everyone. The sight of her came back to me as I was writing the novel, and I ended up dedicating the book to her.”

McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998 for "Charming Billy," and three of her eight novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She has taught at Johns Hopkins University since 1996 and lives in Bethesda, Md.

“The Ninth Hour” is set in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the early 20th century. The novel begins with the suicide of a young working man named Jim, and traces the ramifications of the ensuing secrecy on his wife, Annie, and unborn daughter, Sally. Shortly after giving birth, Annie takes a job in the laundry of a nearby convent.

Sally grows to adulthood under the watchful eyes of three women: her mother; the crotchety, devoted Sister Illuminata; and the “little nun,” Sister Jeanne, who at the novel’s end commits a supreme sacrifice.

“I wanted to convey my experience as a child,” McDermott says, “of being in the presence of what, for lack of a better word, felt like holiness.”

Though “The Ninth Hour” focuses on Annie and Sally, the novel contains glimpses of the third generation (Sally’s adult children) who narrate the story and who , like a minor chord, add to the novel an undercurrent of sadness.

McDermott recently took time to chat about “The Ninth Hour” and the inspiration behind it. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What was your inspiration for “The Ninth Hour” and how did it change?

This is not the novel I started writing five years ago. When I started “The Ninth Hour,” I had a sense of what I was after. That completely got swamped by what I didn’t know I was after.

It was a shift in perspective that I had not planned on. What happened is that the nuns showed up and took over the damned book. I wrote the story almost against my will.

I get very tired of the whole Irish-American Catholic writer thing, though that’s introduced me to a lot of wonderful people. I always say, “My characters are Catholic, but I’m not a Catholic novelist.”

But then the nuns showed up, and I thought, “Damn. This is a Catholic novel.”

You originally planned to write about Civil War substitutes, rich men who paid poorer men to take their place on the battlefield.

I was fascinated by the whole moral dilemma of who would do that for money, and parallels to military service right now. Since the draft ended, we’re all paying substitutes. We’re all putting people in harm’s way in our place.

Thinking about those things, you come to the idea of sacrifice, and if you’re a Christian you come to “I died so that you could live.” And then, you have a Catholic novel. More and more, “The Ninth Hour” became, for me, a meditation on selflessness and selfishness, and whether that’s a gift or burden to the people around you.

Tell me how you came up with these nuns.

There was no historical order [of nuns] that would serve my purposes, so I had to create my own order. I wanted it to be a nursing order and not a teaching order. A lot of the stereotypes and cliches and jokes about nuns come from writers looking at the nuns from 6-year-old eyes and from their childhood memories — that they were mean, they were scary, they screamed at us, that they said stupid things about not wearing patent leather shoes.

That childish point of view has corrupted our understanding of the good the nuns did — tremendous good — and of what an opportunity entering the convent presented for women at a certain time. The nuns weren’t all sadists. … They were ambitious women.

What’s the significance of the title?

In the liturgy, the ninth hour, or “nones,” occurs at around 3 p.m. It’s the hour of sacrifice, the hour of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.

There’s a wonderful series of poems on the hours by W.H. Auden in which 3 p.m. is the moment of stillness. Jesus has just died, and we don’t know what will happen next. Is he really dead, or is he going to come back? It’s the moment in which both believers and unbelievers are holding their breaths.

That’s probably where I exist in my faith.

The story is told by Sally’s children. The more I read the story, the more they functioned for me like a kind of Greek chorus. They aren’t directly engaged in the goings-on, but they observe and comment upon events as they unfold.

I’m always interested in the tension between the story and the storyteller. For me, that’s not the primary mystery of this book, but it had to be part of it.

We don’t even know how many children there are, or whether they’re male or female. We just know there’s more than one.

On initial approaches to this novel, I felt I had to differentiate between the children and give them stories of their own. I wrote quite a bit of that. Then, I realized, “No, they’re a chorus. It’s not about them individually.”

In this book and in your last novel, “Someone,” you seem to have really mastered the art of telling a story in layers. The top layer is made up of all the stuff you write down, but just beneath are the words you don’t write down.

The novel is not about the third generation. But it was important for me that it be filtered through that kind of contemporary awareness without being overshadowed by it. The narrative does this sort of dance between the present and the past.

We in the present age recognize that no one who commits suicide is mentally fit. Now, we’d say that Jim was suffering from clinical depression or Catholic suppression. But those are the kind of terms that put a lid on it. What the present understands about the past can end the story. I wanted to let the past have its own authority.

Alice McDermott will appear 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.

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