SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Alice McDermott's new novel, "The Ninth Hour," opens with a depressed young man, an immigrant from Ireland who turns on the gas in the 1900s Brooklyn tenement in which he lives with his pregnant wife and takes his life. Into the lives of his widow, Annie, and the child who will be born without a father sails Sister St. Savior of Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. The way that a suicide and the kindness of faithful strangers nudge and steer a constellation of human lives is the story of "The Ninth Hour." Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award for her novel "Charming Billy" and is a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
ALICE MCDERMOTT: My pleasure.
SIMON: In fact, Annie and her daughter come to live in the convent. Annie works in the laundry. What draws this group of religious women to make a life for this widow and her daughter?
MCDERMOTT: Well, that's sort of the question of the novel itself. The sense of selflessness and sacrifice and selfishness, which is what opens the novel in Sally's father claiming his life as his own by taking it - that's sort of the question that everyone in the novel has. Where does selflessness become self-delusion? Where is sacrifice too much to ask? How much obligation does any one of us have to the selfless among us...
MCDERMOTT: ...In interest of selfishness?
SIMON: And Sister Savior, of course, enters into a kind of small conspiracy with Annie to allow her husband to be buried in the way they would want.
MCDERMOTT: Yes, indeed. Well, in those days, a suicide would not be allowed to be buried in consecrated ground in a Catholic cemetery. Sister St. Savior, being wise, understands that compassion should, in many ways, be the first thought, not rules. And she's pretty determined to break the rule and to keep the suicide story of an accident so that Annie can bury her husband in consecrated ground. But she is thwarted. The New York Times happens to pick up the story of the suicide because it causes a fire in the tenement. And once The New York Times says it's a suicide, the Catholic Church wants no part of the man.
SIMON: Yeah. I was so glad to read a novel set - so much of it - in a convent. So many other treatments in fiction in recent years have been nuns gone bad or...
MCDERMOTT: (Laughter) Yes.
SIMON: ...You know, priests gone bad for reasons I understand.
MCDERMOTT: Of course.
SIMON: But some of the most admirable people I've known in my life have been nuns. And I say this as a reporter who's covered a lot of wars. Anywhere you go in the world, it seems to me, somewhere in there, you find a group of selfless nuns who are risking their lives to help others.
MCDERMOTT: Absolutely. And, you know, the contributions that these religious orders have made have really disappeared from our contemporary consciousness. So many of us had our first encounters as nuns in grammar school when we were small. And that 7-year-old view of them, either as witches...
MCDERMOTT: ...Or clowns, in some ways has risen to the top, has become what the contemporary culture likes to see of them. And it takes away all the credit that they so richly deserve. And one of the reasons why I wanted to deal with a nursing order and not a teaching order - and God bless the teaching orders (laughter). But I thought at least a nursing order would maybe put aside some of those childish views and help to acknowledge what these women did.
SIMON: I gather from interviews I've read with you that you consider - well, I shouldn't put words in your mouth.
You consider yourself to be a Catholic of independent spirit.
MCDERMOTT: (Laughter) Well, I think anyone who's a woman in the Catholic Church has to have some independent spirit, or you would've left long ago. I joke that I'm a practicing Catholic. That means I'm still practicing. I'm not ready for my debut.
MCDERMOTT: It's - you know, for all that annoys me and infuriates me about the church and continues to, I have this sense - and I think this is what shows up in my fiction more and more - that there is much good. There is much of value that needs to be re-evaluated - certainly, the work of these women and the continuing work of these women. It's not something limited to the early part of the 20th century. But also, the great beauty of prayer. The...
SIMON: You talk about how prayer and liturgy has almost - in fact, not almost - an aesthetic power.
MCDERMOTT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for me, that was my first poetry. And I think the beauty of the language, the acknowledgement of the human condition that is given to us in language we would not come up with ourselves - a language of yearning, a language of hope, a language of praise.
SIMON: "The Ninth Hour" is a phrase for when Jesus on the cross cries out, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? And it's in that moment in the New Testament, even if you read it just as literature, which seems to say that we don't become the people we are and want to be without doubt almost as much as faith. Does a writer need both doubt and faith?
MCDERMOTT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It occurred to me that just at that moment, all there is is doubt for believer and nonbeliever alike. I see it as a moment - an hour, perhaps, of great stillness. The life is over. Those who thought this was a special life may have their doubts at this moment. The man has died a terrible death. Suffering has won out. For the nonbeliever, there's the stillness of, maybe, this was something more than it appeared to be. Nothing has been proven. Death is, in some way, triumphant at that moment.
And I see it as a moment when we're all holding our breath. And I think that is indeed what a fiction writer approaches, never trying to tell a story with certainty but approaching it with held breath, some hope, plenty of doubt, fear and optimism that somehow, through the creation of this fictional world, something will be discovered - not just the substance of things hoped for but something that could be discovered in no other way.
SIMON: Alice McDermott - her novel "The Ninth Hour." Thanks so much for being with us.
MCDERMOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.