The Mission Hill section of Boston, where novelist Pat McDermott grew up, was mostly an Irish neighborhood. She lived on the top floor of a three-decker house with her parents, grandparents, and her mother’s two sisters.
“I am blessed to have two wonderful aunts who happen to be devotees of Irish history,” says McDermott. “When I was a little girl, they entertained me with all sorts of legends and assured me that we were descended from Irish royalty. (Isn’t everyone who’s Irish?)”
As a child, McDermott loved listening to the tales that her father made up and told her and her siblings at bedtime. “His tales often kept me awake for hours,” she recalls. “They left me so enchanted. I wanted to tell enchanting stories too.”
Now McDermott spins her own tales of enchantment for adults and young adults, setting her Band of Roses trilogy and her Glimmer Books for young adults in her beloved Ireland.
McDermott says she starts a story with research, which gives her plenty of ideas for subplots. “The outline approach helps organize my thoughts,” she says, “but outlines aren't written in stone, and they become quite useless when my characters take over the story.”
McDermott attended a number of writing classes over the years, but she says it wasn’t until her own children were nearly grown before she started putting ideas on paper seriously. When one of her short stories in the 74th Writer's Digest Annual Writing contest received an Honorable Mention for children's fiction, her confidence was given a big boost.
Her stories, which include all sorts of genres--fantasy, action/adventure, sci-fi, and romance—compel her to write every day. Beginning early in the quiet of the morning, she doesn’t have to worry about interruptions, except perhaps when one or two of her cats come into her office in need of a gentle hug.
“I host a writers’ group on Monday evenings, which gives me a deadline to get at least a few pages spruced up,” she says, “and I attend a writing class on Tuesday nights to give some extra polish to those pages.”
McDermott now lives near the New Hampshire seacoast with her husband and three Tonkinese cats. When she isn’t writing novels or dreaming about taking another trip to Ireland, McDermott is usually reading or cooking. Recently, she pulled herself away from her desk to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer’s readers.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
McDermott: Depends on what I’m writing and where I am in a story. Most days I tiptoe in, though I make my share of graceful dives. At times, I’m reluctant to even get wet, or I’ll sit and wait for the water to pour over me and let me steep like a tea bag. My latest release, a YA set in Ireland, features a troop of water fairies who live in a palace beneath a lake. For the better part of a year, I swam with them nearly every day, sometimes jumping right in, sometimes wading, always wishing I had their webbed toes and fingers.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
McDermott: Different swimming styles do the trick for different types of work. For short work, where the opposite shore is in sight and a good sprint will help me reach it, I might swim like Tarzan, knife lodged between his teeth to save Jane from the crocodile. Most of my works are longer, novels I sometimes feel will sink me for sure before I write “The End.” Yet I glide along, treading water or diving for research as necessary, taking breaks by doing laundry or planning a meal. Cooking is one of my favorite hobbies. I have my own cooking blog and love to explore different ethnic cuisines.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
McDermott: I slosh through shallow water, inspect the edge of the lake bed, and poke the rocks to see what they’re hiding. Reading helps refuel my imagination, and so I’ll raid the public library or go to Boston to visit my aunts. They have one of the finest collections of antique Irish books this side of the Atlantic, and they graciously let me borrow whatever I want. I admire poets and enjoy finding unique images in nature poetry. I also belong to a writing group whose weekly deadline compels me to write something, anything, for the next meeting. And I always have writing-related tasks, such as transcribing my research notes or favorite descriptive phrases.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
McDermott: Ah yes, a monster does lurk in the lake. The fairies work hard to keep him asleep, but I’ve heard him roar at times. Or perhaps that was me, bristling at another rejection letter, an overwhelming schedule that fails to pay the bills, or a mediocre review whose inaccurate details hint at a careless reader/reviewer. At times, when I want to rest, I’ll stand in a spot where the water looks shallow only to step in a hidden hole and find I’m over my head.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
McDermott: Finding a safe place to swim alone is a challenge. I discovered a gem when I visited a writing retreat in a remote area of western Ireland. The host took care of the cooking and shopping and had Quiet Time house rules. Her guests had only to write. Even then, distractions, such as the gorgeous scenery, crept in. Yet I found that the lack of domestic responsibilities and freedom from time constraints fostered good writing sessions. Since popping over to Ireland every time I want to write is hardly practical, I’ve tried to recreate some of the conditions that spoiled me there. Deciding what’s for supper early in the day and having everything on hand helps, as does shutting off e-mail and Internet for Quiet Time. Still, procrastination is my biggest obstacle when swimming alone. I have to remind myself that I’d better get to work and write, because whether I’m in Ireland or at home in New Hampshire, ideal writing conditions simply don’t exist. Fortunately, I cherish solitude, probably because I grew up the oldest of seven kids. I like being alone with my characters and scenes, tweaking them until I’m ready to share them with others. Over time, I’ve built an acceptable writing retreat of my own, one with lots of reference books, including several on writing mechanics and style. Contemplative music not only helps me focus on starting that next chapter, it also makes me forget to worry I’m writing a story no one will read. Chocolate helps too.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
McDermott: Swimming underwater, hands down. When I coast through that blue-green world, surface distractions don’t exist, and the lack of gravity makes it the next best thing to flying. Whether I drift like plankton or zoom like a torpedo, I treasure the freedom to go wherever I please, plunging into a gem-filled abyss or riding a current to places I’ve never imagined. I can twist and turn and dive without effort to visit a fairy palace, a Japanese temple, or a volcano in ancient Italy. These places have already made their way into my stories. Many more still wait for me to find them, and I will, as long as I can get into the water.
For more information about Pat McDermott and her work, visit her website: http://www.patmcdermott.net
And to read more interviews, visit: