Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to the author of What About the Baby?, Alice McDermott.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
Alice McDermott: Wuthering Heights.
BM: Favorite re-read?
AMD: Short novels that I can revisit in a day: William Maxwell’s So Long See You Tomorrow, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Wharton’s Summer, Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Morrison’s Sula, Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Cather’s My Antonia, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart . . . I could go on.
BM: What book do you think your book is most in conversation with?
AMD: I confess “in conversation” is not a term I use in regard to inanimate objects. But I suppose my hope is that all literature is always in conversation with itself – everything that’s come before and everything that’s yet to be written. But silently, please, to avoid crosstalk.
BM: Last book you read?
AMD: The Sorrows of Satan by Maria Corelli. From 1895. A penniless writer’s Faustian bargain. A hoot.
BM: A book that made you cry?
AMD: Hamnet. A mother sewing her child’s shroud. How can you not cry? (I also tear up every time I see the grey-muzzled Golden Retriever on the cover of a book called, I’ll See You in Heaven, but I haven’t read it.)
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
AMD: Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. Complex, daring, unforgettable. So exciting to see a writer of McCann’s comfortable renown taking crazy risks. Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle felt like a tonic during last year’s madness. A layered, tender, humane novel. Brian Platzer’s second novel, The Body Politic deservedmore attention. In fact, every novelist who brought out a book last year should get a re-do.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
AMD: Most recently, Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson. Delightful. Diane Johnson’s prose is always elegant and wry, and so smart.
BM: What’s one book you wish you had read during your teenage years?
AMD: Lolita. But only if I could then be in conversation with my teenage self.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
AMD: Don’t have a favorite since it’s more fun to fit the book to the recipient rather than to drop the same book on everyone. Poetry is helpful here. People never expect it. Seamus Heaney’s 100 Poems is great for the poetry-wary. Rita Dove’s recent Playlist for the Apocalypse would be a beautiful gift for the less poetry adverse. I’ve just discovered the work of Major Jackson. I’d give his Hoops to a young writer/artist/musician. Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Mary Jo Salter, all poets whose books I’ve found well suited to certain friends and students. Collected poems are also good gifts: Yeats, Auden, Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Derek Mahon for more Irish brilliance.
BM: Classic book on your To Be Read pile?
AMD: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
AMD: To say no one is a stretch, but perhaps, more precisely, books I wish more people would read: Maude Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. Stig Dagerman’s story collection, Sleet. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. Phil Klay’s Redeployment, especially now.
BM: Favorite book of the 21st century?
AMD: Seems only fair to wait until the 22nd century before making such a choice.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
AMD: A Farewell to Arms.
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
AMD: Dostoevsky’s Demons, which will probably take me into winter. Also The Wanting Life, a 2020 first novel by Mark Rader. And making my through the three Theban plays of Sophocles, a good exercise now and then.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
AMD: Matilda by Roald Dahl. Maybe also Dahl’s The Vicar of Nibbleswicke because of the happy memory I have of my own children absolutely delirious with laughter over the silliness of it all. And When It Snowed That Night by Norma Farber. (Which is a book I love to give as a gift as well, except it’s out of print.) And Charlotte’s Web. Lovely Charlotte’s Web.
BM: Book you wish would be adapted for a film/tv show?
AMD: None. I don’t want anyone messing with my favorite books. I like them to be books. Just books. In silent conversation with themselves. And with me.
Alice McDermott is the author of several novels, including What About the Baby?, The Ninth Hour; Someone; After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes—all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere. For more than two decades she was the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the faculty at the Sewanee Writers Conference. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.
Alice McDermott’s What About the Baby? is out now from