I’ve been reading some literary journals lately and was pleased to come across an excellent interview that Shelagh Powers conducted with novelist Alice McDermott in the Spring 2008 issue of Folio, a journal published by American University. (Full disclosure: back in the day, when I was an MFA student, I was one of the founding editors of Folio. That first issue was, to put it kindly, something else, held together by staples and prayers. The MFA program has done a GREAT job of moving the journal forward from its salad days.) McDermott is the author of, among other books, the National Book Award-winning Charming Billy and, most recently, Child of My Heart.
The web site’s a little out of date, but for more information about Folio, go here. Unfortunately, the interview isn’t online, so here are some excerpts:
FOLIO: How do you go about beginning to write a story? Do you start with a character, an image? Do you tend to plot things out, or do you just begin writing and see where your characters take you?
AM: It intrigues me that this is the question I’m most often asked. I wonder if it doesn’t reflect some yearning we all have to figure out some shortcut to getting a story written. As in: if I can just find the right way to begin, all the rest will fall into place, maybe even be easy. Well, my experience is, you begin by writing, choosing the words that make up the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene, etc. Sometimes those words describe character or place or situation, sometimes they conjure a voice speaking into a reader’s ear. Sometimes you think you know what you’re doing, sometimes you just close your eyes and jump in. Every story begins differently because every story makes its own particular demands. The only thing that’s always true about beginning a story is that it’s never as easy as it seems.
FOLIO: When is one of your pieces “finished”? Specifically, how long is your editing process? Does it ever conflict with choosing to move on to your next project?
AM: I tend to work on at least two projects at a time, so there’s never that kind of conflict. I also edit as I go, constantly. A project is finished, I suppose, not when I’ve finished editing it, but when I believe that I have done the best I am capable of doing with this particular story, at this particular time in my career. The sense that I’ve used my best energies, such as they are or were, and brought the story to what seems the only conclusion possible, and now it’s out of my hands.