As described at Bryn Mawr’s most recent edition of the Creative Writing and Reading Series, visiting author Alice McDermott is among the “finest fiction writers today.” McDermott’s list of awards and nominations is extensive and includes a National Book Award for her fourth novel “Charming Billy” and two nominations for a Pulitzer Prize for her novels “At Weddings and Wakes” and “That Night.” In addition to her novels, McDermott has also contributed articles to The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. In addition to her writing, McDermott is the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.
McDermott, slim and dressed in a blue-violet dress and smart black pumps, stepped up to a particularly eager audience in the Goodhart Music Room. Despite her impressive accolades, McDermott was strikingly frank, funny, and grounded during her leisurely reading of her yet unpublished short story “A Nice Kid.” McDermott explained to the audience that the story came about during a conversation with her students in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins. The conversation concerned simple versus elaborate story titles; the three simple story titles the class agreed upon were “A Good Dog,” “A Happy Day,” and that of McDermott’s story, “A Nice Kid.”
“A Nice Kid” is narrated by a teenager named Kevin who is interning with Mr. Albert Burke, an old high school friend of Kevin’s father from their days at St. Ignatius Prep. Kevin, who is ostensibly a regular teenage boy, takes on the rather dull internship as a “resume builder” as his own father describes it, an opportunity to work with someone who has been successful in business, law, real estate, and philanthropy. Mr. Burke is a wealthy but impatient and often, unpleasantly honest man Kevin regards with a mix of contempt, respect, and fear. Kevin accompanies Mr. Burke on a trip to the hospital emergency room when Mr. Burke’s former mother-in-law experiences a serious fall; it is during this event that Kevin begins to see a different side of the difficult Mr. Burke.
McDermott’s language in her short story is simple enough but effectively detailed and nuanced. The humor puncturing “A Nice Kid” is a pleasant counterpoint to its more austere revelations. Among the most memorable excerpts from the reading included the biting statement “your work sucks, God; it blows” and the story’s central question, “Would it kill you to acknowledge the presence of a human being?”
The questions during the Q&A following the reading covered a range of topics concerning McDermott’s career as a writer and instructor. McDermott described the process of writing a difficult one, particularly for beginning writers with a case of the nerves. She explained that teaching students to “write into the darkness” and to “let go of first intentions” among the most important lessons she teaches. When asked about her early ventures in writing, McDermott told a story about a non-fiction writing course she took as an undergraduate. Following the first assignment—an autobiography that McDermott laughingly admitted was apocryphal—McDermott’s professor gave her a then surprising comment. “I’ve got bad news,” he said to McDermott, “You’re a writer and you’ll never shake it.” As McDermott’s well attended reading suggests there are many readers of fiction who are happier for it.