Alice McDermott’s newest masterpiece, The Ninth Hour, examines how one man’s suicide ripples through various lives and generations, illuminating the worlds of the man’s widow and daughter, as well as the nuns of Catholic Brooklyn who take them in. The book was described by The Boston Globe as “[reminding] us of the pleasures of literary fiction and its power to illuminate lives and worlds.” With elegant writing and a sympathetic gaze, The Ninth Hour explores the limits of love and sacrifice, forgiveness, and forgetfulness. Alice McDermott joined Eddie Joyce in conversation at Books Are Magic to discuss the evolution of religion, unrecognized acts of defiance, and the benefit of separation between a book’s narrator and subjects.
Eddie Joyce: It’s not every day you get to interview one of your idols. When I’m reading a McDermott masterpiece, I feel it running through a groove in my head that I didn’t know existed. They feel very familiar but also like revelations and I’m happy to report that The Ninth Hour is no different. It’s wonderful. And it’s about nuns. When Alice sent me a copy, she said, “Sorry about all the nuns doing laundry.” I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. There are a lot of nuns, doing laundry.
The book opens with a suicide, and I think that’s a good place—not a cheery place—but a good place to start. How did you make the decision to start the book with a character that was so quickly going to exit?
Alice McDermott: First, thank you for this beautiful store and for keeping books and literature alive. The inspiration for the novel was not nuns or laundry. The novel had its first seeds many years ago with a conversation with a lawyer friend over dinner. He mentioned that in his family history there was a guy who had served as a substitute in the Civil War for one of his great-great-uncles. At the time, I knew a little bit about substitutes, how a draftee could pay another man to serve in the Union Army for him. I remebered this history had come up often during the Vietnam War, as well.
And the idea just stuck with me. I started reading about it. Not being a historian or even a historical novelist, I found I wasn’t looking for real stories from the past, but for metaphors; the idea of substitutes—of someone putting themself in danger to save someone else, even if only to make a salary. I found myself wondering: if someone does that for you, if someone puts themself in harm’s way and you survive because of it, how long do you have to be grateful? Two generations? Three generations? This brought me to the idea of selflessness, the giving up of the self for another. And, being a Catholic, I came soon enough to the idea of “He who died so that we all might live.”
One of the most puzzling pieces of advice I give to my students is, “Don’t let your story be too much about what it’s about.”
One of the most puzzling pieces of advice I give to my students is, “Don’t let your story be too much about what it’s about.” And they nod, “Oh yeah.” And then they go, “What the hell does that mean?” Without overdoing Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” I thought, what would be the opposite of total selflessness? What would be a totally selfish act? What would be an act by somebody who totally claims his life for himself and doesn’t give a damn about anyone else’s life? I thought that someone who takes his own life rather than gives his own life could be the opposite. I started exploring a character who would do that.
EJ: That is interesting because this novel brings back memories of Catholicism and different superstitions and ideas that go along with it. My recollection as a kid was that suicide was one of the worst sins one could commit, because the sin was committed at the end of one’s life and you never had a chance to atone for it. Today, we associate suicide with depression and mental illness. What’s interesting in the character here is that he seems to be doing it in defiance and that theme of defiance to God and to the church runs through the novel. Were you thinking about it that way?
AM: That’s exactly how the characters began to develop, with those ideas in mind. People willfully claiming their lives. Making their own lives. The women of that time who gave up their lives to enter the convent were also claiming themselves in a way they might not have been able to do as wives or as mothers. It’s both a defiance and a submission. This is why I couldn’t keep the nuns out of the book. They came in, and they took over.
There were thousands of nuns living, working, and teaching in the early 20th century all over the country—and certainly concentrated in Brooklyn—and you start looking at the names of the orders that they chose for themselves. The order in The Ninth Hour was a fictional one that was a conglomerate of many real orders. It‘s called “The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross.” But really there were lots of “littles” in the names of the orders of the time. They called themselves “little” and yet in the naming of themselves they declared as well that they were going to end suffering in the world. There is incredible ambition embodied even in the name of the order. Again, it’s that act of claiming your life even though it might appear you’re giving it over. I think it’s possible to do both those things.
EJ: It’s fascinating, with respect to the nuns, what happens when the man commits suicide in a way that puts others in danger. He fills his apartment with gas and lights a match, and a nun happens on the explosion—an older nun, Sister St. Savior, who makes the decision that she is going to screw what the church wants and make sure this guy gets a Catholic burial for his widow and for his family.
AM: Sister St. Saviour is pretty confident because she’s an older nun, and she’s been working in the neighborhood for a very long time. She thinks she has enough connections in the neighborhood that she can tell everyone that the pilot light went out and this man fell asleep and it was an accident, not a suicide, so that he can be buried in the cemetery where he’d already bought a plot. Apparently, many Catholics, even poor Catholics in those days, would get married and the first thing they would do is buy a burial plot together. Which takes “until death do us part” to a whole new level.
EJ: You’ve got to wonder, if after a few minutes of marriage they were like . . .
AM: “Okay, we’ve got the marriage thing taken care of. Now, how about the death part?” [laughs] So Annie, the newly widowed young woman, has already bought a plot and the Sister thinks, well if she’s already paid for it she should be able to use it. So she thinks if they bury him quickly enough they can get away with burying a suicide in consecrated ground.
EJ: That to me captures something very Catholic, but the idea is more Protestant. Sister St. Savior has this direct relationship with God and says that she’ll sort it out with him once she gets there. That defiance made me think about how in recent years nuns have become slightly askance from the church because they’ve taken positions that the church are against. This is a strange comparison to take, but there’s something in there that reminds me a little of The Handmaid’s Tale.
AM: It’s the hats.
EJ: [laughs] It’s that subservient and quiet aspect we assume in nuns. But Sister St. Saviour has a very strong personality and a rebellious streak.
I wanted to write about the nursing orders that took on the care of the sick poor as they promised to do in the naming of themselves, just to avoid those worn out nun stereotypes.
AM: Sure, and in reality, how would these nuns get anything done if they didn’t have that? One of the reasons I wanted to make this a nursing order instead of the teaching order is that so many of us carry the clichés of the crazy nun screaming in front of a classroom, (which I experienced myself, so that’s not to say it didn’t happen—most clichés do carry truth in them.) I wanted to write about the nursing orders that took on the care of the sick poor as they promised to do in the naming of themselves, just to avoid those worn out nun stereotypes. And how would these women get anything done if they didn’t have that kind of internal determination? Taking care of the sick women, sick children, the sick elderly in these immigrant neighborhoods. There was no social safety net. These nuns were there to do what needed to be done: to babysit and get the children to school if the mother was ill, or to provide for the family if the father had spent all his money. They brought food in. They cleaned homes.
But history is on Sister St. Saviour’s side when she stands against Church rules. If there’s any redeeming quality to what we have to put up with, those of us who stick with the Catholic Church despite being dismayed by the institution, it’s that the Church can change. The Church was wrong in declaring that suicide was a sin and that suicides shouldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. Now, in the 21st century, the Church understands the role of mental illness and the suicide is no longer condemned. Sister St. Saviour was right, a hundred years ago, to believe that compassion was more important than dogma. As a Catholic, I have hope that there are other archaic rules the Church is holding on to now that, with a little understanding, they might be moved to change. Outdated notions of human sexuality come to mind.
EJ: The other part about that, actually, is that they are nursing and they have to clean the laundry of sick people and of women that have given birth. I kept having this image that is central to Catholicism of the body and blood. The priests, during Mass, repeat this image of the body and blood, body and blood, but the nuns are the ones who are actually dealing with the body and blood in all their unpleasantness. The priests can talk about all the rules, but the nuns are out in the real world. Priests are not really featured in this book.
AM: There’s nuns and priests, and there’s doctors and nurses. There is the tension between what you have to say about theology and ritual and dogma, and the practical things that have to get done, minute by minute in the physical world. There’s a great deal of unacknowledged expertise in that practical work. Just doing the laundry, for instance.
Sister Illuminata is the laundress, but she has a PhD in laundry. She knows how to get rid of stains—and for nursing sisters that means blood, vomit, and pus. She knows how to eradicate all kind of stains to make clothing and bedclothes fresh again, and she labors mightily, many hours a day, underground. Again, when you’re a fiction writer, you go for the metaphor as well as the fact. So yes, in fact, many of the laundry rooms in Brooklyn convents were underground, in basements, but metaphorically, this is the work that goes unseen.
EJ: Right, and the book moves forward with the family of the man who commits suicide. His wife is expecting and so her life gets entwined with the order, and she has a daughter who has aspirations to be a nun. But there’s a few different scenes where the reality of the human condition runs up against her aspirations for holiness, and the human condition wins out. She learns that she might not be up for this.
AM: Well, her mother and Sister Illuminata know she wants to be a nun because she likes the clothes. They understand she’s a child who is a mimic. Someone said to me that it was perfectly clear that Sally is meant to be an actress. I sent her to Chicago, where she is to start her novitiate, just so she would have to get on an overnight train. It seemed to me that if there’s anything that’s going to test your love of humans beings, it’s to be on an overnight train with strangers.
EJ: It seemed like a pretty fun train, but she does have a pretty bad encounter. And I think now the equivalent to us would be going on a Greyhound bus for 5 hours.
I’m going to ask you a craft question now, because I’ve always wondered about this. Often I’m halfway through your books and realize, either I thought it was third person but it’s actually first person, or I thought that it was first person and it’s actually third person. You do this wonderful thing where there’s a story going on behind the narrator who is telling it, who is hidden by decades. In this situation, it’s the unnamed grandchildren of this man who committed suicide telling their story. Does that happen organically or do you plan these things out?
AM: I would like to plan things out someday, I would feel so much more confident when I woke up in the morning. It goes back to that initial question of how many generations need to be grateful, what are the reverberations of a selfish or selfless, act. How much attention needs to be paid? When can we say, “Oh that was then, forget about it?” So originally, I was interested in those grandchildren, the third generation—or the fourth generation when it came to that substitute in the Civil War.
No one among the faithful has met Jesus on the road, even if they believe they have met him in all kind of metaphorical ways. And yet they see his life vividly.
As I wrote about them, I realized that I also wanted to shape the novel in a way that parallels faith itself. No one among the faithful has met Jesus on the road, even if they believe they have met him in all kind of metaphorical ways. And yet they see his life vividly. (You could also argue that nobody alive can say, with the confidence of an eye witness, that the Civil War really happened. We can read about it, hear stories, even visit battle sites, we can imagine the experience with great vividness, but ultimately, there’s a kind of faith involved in accepting even history as truth). I wanted that 21st Century generation—the generation that is puzzling out how grateful to be—to narrate the story, which is an amalgam of memory, evidence, family lore, imagination, and in doing so experience the past – what remains unseen – with more vividness than the present. Which is how the faithful see.
Sister Lucy, one of the other nuns of the order, spends her childhood being dragged from church to church around Chicago by her devout grandmother. And young Lucy’s experience of the artwork in these Churches, the image of Christ on the Cross, the depictions of the Assumption, or the Stations of the Cross, becomes more vivid and more real to her than everything else in life, everything in “the real world.” So in some ways, Sister Lucy is the clue to the role of the narrators of this novel who see the past more vividly than what they actually experience.
EJ: I went to a nuns’ book club, which is very interesting because there was this nun who goes around the country and shuts down convents because the sisters are aging out, essentially. She had an expression: “The sisters will be here until they turn up their toes.” And I was driving home thinking, that’s a very funny, morbid nun. She said that the women went into it because they wanted a place to teach, and there’s also a sense of devotion and sacrifice in going out of the world. But what is taking the place of that? I’m a Catholic who’s very skeptical of the church, but there’s an emptiness that can’t seem to be filled now that the sense of devotion is going. So, what’s going to happen?
AM: That’s my next book. [laughing] I think maybe this is one of the things that keeps me hanging on to this flawed institution. We still don’t know what to do about suffering, and we don’t even talk about it anymore. To be human is to suffer. It’s not that if we cure all our diseases we’ll be fine. Cure all the diseases and step off the curb and you’ll still get hit by an SUV. There will always be suffering. This is the fire of Sister Jeanne’s vocation in the book—that there’s so much suffering in the world, how can there be justice?
EJ: She’s my favorite.
AM: She has this theodicy of sorts that argues that children know, from the time they can speak, what is fair. How did they learn that? If we have this sense of fairness that’s innate, why is there so much unfairness and suffering? We don’t talk about this—the inevitablity of suffering—in public discourse. We want closure, we want all grief to end. But all of us as human beings know that there are griefs that don’t end, and we wouldn’t even want them to. That became the illuminating moment in writing this novel, in some ways—to take seriously a character who believes without hesitation that the way the world is made requires eternity, requires that suffering be amended in Heaven just as Christianity promises. She doesn’t say we’ll meet all our relatives again. She says that the unfairness in the way suffering is unavoidable, and distributed so unevenly around the world, can only be amended in eternal life.
There was a moment that brought this home for me, when I was just starting this book, a story that was in the Metro section of The Washington Post. It was right after a storm came through the Washington area, a violent summer storm. It was a Sunday afternoon and a family was walking through a park. It was a mother, a father, and their young two sons. They saw the dark clouds and knew they had to turn back. Then the rain started falling, and they were running and laughing, getting back to the car, and then a branch fell on the six-year-old son. The father turned and went to his son and knew immediately that the son was not going to live. And in this report, the father was quoted as saying, “I held him and I said, ‘It’s OK. Go to Jesus.’” And the boy died in his arms.
Take the whole, sometimes awful, history of Christianity and put it up against its value at that moment, its value to that father, and I’d say it’s been worth it. Who would want to take that comfort away from that man? Who would argue that it would have been better for that father to say to his dying child, “Hey, life’s unfair. You know, you had a good six years. You can’t expect eternity after that.” We don’t talk about this. We don’t talk about the restoration of justice against the injustice, the unevenness, the unavoidability of suffering that comes along with being human.
Alice McDermott is the author of seven previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; At Weddings and Wakes; and Someone—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. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.
Eddie Joyce is the author of Small Mercies. He was born and raised on Staten Island and now lives with his family in Brooklyn. He is at work on his second novel.