Author Kathleen McCormick Shares Her Amazing Literary Journey and Insights

Today we are featuring an author with a wonderful gift for plot, character, and narration, Kathleen McCormick, author of Dodging Satan:My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome, but Mostly Creepy, Childhood, a work that has been described by literary critics as “a consistently compelling read, highly original, classic, and hilarious.” Below is an interview in which McCormick shares wonderful insights that would benefit both readers and writers.

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YDA: When did you start writing and what has been your greatest inspiration?

Kathleen McCormick: When Joe Gibaldi of the Modern Language Association discovered early in the new millennium that I was half Italian, he told me it was my “duty” as an academic woman to “come out” as an Italian American, that it was assumed there were few Italian Americans in higher education and we needed to dispel that myth. He wasn’t joking and he enlisted a lot of us whose Italian sides were hidden because our mothers were Italian and we weren’t using their names. He introduced me to the most incredible group of academics I know—Italian American scholars, artists, and creative writers who changed my life. On the scholarly side, I ended up co-editing a book on Teaching Italian American Literature, Film, and Popular Culture in which I worked with over 40 people. On the creative side, I was deeply inspired by many Italian American women, particularly memoirists and fiction writers whom I began to read constantly; some made their way into my classroom and academic writing, and some into my heart.

My greatest inspiration is the power of laughter. My childhood has some parallels with Bridget’s, the main character of Dodging Satan, and, early in my life, I came to value anyone who could make me laugh because of the incredible feelings it created—release, joy, lightness of being. I’ve never stopped appreciating the power of the comic, and I get such pleasure when I make someone laugh, or even smile. For me, the most effective humor occurs when it takes the form of a story—whether written or told—and storytelling is something I’ve always loved and it feels natural to me, perhaps because of both my Irish and Italian ancestry.

YDA:  In Dodging Satan you explore the family world, the universe, and the concept of God through the eyes of the child, and you inject a lot of humor and wit in this area. How much of you come across in your protagonist?

Kathleen McCormick: I am not Bridget, but Bridget is most definitely mine.

kathleen-2As I said before, storytelling has been a part of me for as long as I remember. Family gathering were filled with stories, and every aspect of them enthralled me. I’d listen for different cadences, distinct rhythms of each relative, admiring the wealth of styles they’d use to make even the drunkest among us grow silent. Captivated by the undulation of their voices, how they might whisper in cigarette-husky tones, how their pitch could deepen here, rise there, how they could hold us, rapt, or, in an instant, make the room and any strains within it dissolve in laughter, I came to believe that stories had the power to kept people safe by somehow magically enveloping us.

At home, alone in my tense nuclear family, any lack of storytelling seemed to me potentially quite dangerous. So at an early age, I began to fill the gaps with as many stories as I could create, treading a fine line between embellishment and truth, and always searching for ways to be amusing and, in retrospect, a little weird, in order to mollify, to sooth the pain my parents seemed unable to stop causing each other.

When I discovered Bible stories, I was ecstatic. Not only did they promise me a virtually endless source of interesting narratives, they were all somehow connected and connected to me. You could say that Bible stories were my first experience with a “series.” Harry Potter has, what, eight? Nancy Drew had 56. But the Bible! It had an Old Part and a New one, each made up of almost infinite sections. The main character was divided into three. (Talk about satisfying my desire for a little weird!) Plus there were “bonus extras”—the Lives of the Saints, and later I discovered ancient and more contemporary “fan fiction,” from the Apocrypha to books written for all reading levels—Golden Books picture books to chapter books on Virgin Martyrs.

Further, the whole concept of immanentism meant that God and religion could explain everything in my immediate and extended family because God was present in all places across time and space. And everything that happened in life was ultimately because of him. Some reader comments on Dodging Satan suggest that religion is the source of most of Bridget’s difficulties—and of course in a humorous book, it’s impossible not to have a few nasty nuns in there. But as I remember my life as a child—and I feel this is true for Bridget as well—religion made frightening experiences not only endurable, but epic. It was such a relief to believe that my every experience was part of a grand plan that God was controlling, particularly when my life and the key people in it seemed so out of control.

It also meant that God was always on hand to have a conversation with. For a long time, I found that extremely comforting, as does Bridget, whose experience of God is much more off-hand than mine was, which I hope adds to the humor: “‘Did You have any idea she’s a model?’ God answers immediately. ‘Of course, my child, I am all-knowing.’”

Exaggeration and a touch of the weird, were probably the most consistent elements in the stories I told as a child. And to this day, I exaggerate when I tell a story—it happens without my volition. “About 80” is code my husband laughingly uses whenever I exaggerate. Roughly translated it means that I could say “about 80” when an actual number in a story I’m telling is probably closer to five or twenty.

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So the propensity to exaggerate, embracing the slightly weird, and being comical are all attributes Bridget shares with me. And, as I said in response to your first question, I love to make people laugh. I really do believe that laughter is such a gift. This is something I had a field day with in Dodging Satan—I very consciously exaggerated bits of “real life” story and then created other stories in which it would be quite obvious that Bridget is exaggerating—to everyone but Bridget—which is part of the fun of the book. I’m so pleased when I read customer reviews on Amazon from people who say they laughed out loud when reading Dodging Satan. I’m also happy when they say it’s a little weird. I’m thrilled to have that connection with others.

Some of the events in Dodging Satan did really happen to me. For example, my mother and I opened a nearly empty Holy Water container, but with much less drama than Bridget and her mom. And I really thought I saw “the Holy” in it. Only later did I realize it was something totally different. But how much more exciting to believe I’d been allowed to glimpse “the Holy.” And what a better story!

YDA:  When did you start writing and what was the very first thing you ever wrote?

Kathleen McCormick: A cousin of mine had a nervous breakdown at the age of 12, obviously because of all the domestic violence he’d witnessed growing up. But in our family lore, as bizarre as it sounds, his breakdown was attributed to the fact that he was allowed to read and write before he went to school—that he somehow strained his brain at an early age and that this had long term consequences. (I’m sure you’re going to stop wondering about the weird in my stories!)

So I was forbidden to try to read on my own or to write more than scribbles until I went to school. The first story I recall writing—because it resulted in required visits by both of my parents to some of the nuns—was for an in-class assignment. The subject was what we were going to be when we grew up. With great detail—I know because this story was saved for years and frequently brought out by my parents—I wrote about how I was going to become a wife and mother. I focused particularly on my children, a boy and a girl, and how they would create a beautiful garden with me which we would tend constantly and how they would love going to Catholic school and coming home and eating cookies that I’d just baked for them.

In a rather progressive move, the nuns called my parents in for a conference. Apparently, I not only wrote the longest and most elaborate story in the class, but I was the only child—boy or girl—who didn’t imagine that I’d have some profession outside the home—hairdresser, policeman, astronaut—when I grew up. At this conference, my parents were also informed that I was actually quite intelligent, and that the nuns expected them to increase my aspirations.

The conference caused mixed reactions in my parents and a fear in me that writing stories could quite unwittingly get a person into trouble. My parents were annoyed to have discovered from “an outsider” that I was smart. Why hadn’t I told them myself, they asked me accusingly? Somehow saying, “Because I didn’t know,” sounded pretty inadequate. Surely someone supposedly intelligent would realize she was. My parents acted as if I’d been intentionally keeping a big secret from them—a real taboo in our household.

When confronted by an angry father demanding to know what I really wanted to become and a mother upset that the whole notion of my wanting to be like her (except with an extra child) apparently now wasn’t good enough for anyone, I remember saying that I was going to become a nun. It was the first thing that came to mind—I had little experience with women working outside the home—and resulted in my mother running from the room in tears and a fantasy that I’d return to for many years, and always, as in this instance, for the wrong reasons.

So it took some time before I wrote other stories. I became a firm believer in the oral tradition since the written word—or my clumsily formed written words—could cause so much consternation.

YDA: Which author or book would you say has had a great influence in your writing career (style)?

Kathleen McCormick: I’ll answer this question so long as you realize I’m not in any way comparing my writing to this author’s. When I first read the bits I could understand of James Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while in high school (I came upon Joyce in a used bookstore; he certainly wasn’t assigned reading!), I experienced such an incredible sense of hope. Someone—who was filed under “Literary Classics,” who was not only Irish, but an Irish tenor—had grown up in an environment of alcoholism and Catholicism, in a city of domestic abuse, and was deeply critical of the Catholic faith, but yet still seemed totally engulfed by it.

Joyce, in my desperately superficial reading of him, wrote about characters who seemed to be stuck in the same way I was. We felt an urgent need to get out of the parish, maybe out of the Church, definitely away from home, and as well had an acute fear of leaving. Joyce was a lifeline for me well before I realized that he’s one of the greatest writers in the English language.

Today, I’m the resident Joycean in the college where I teach. I’ve written a couple of books and some articles on Joyce, but no one knows that I had this early, kind of primal, and a little embarrassing, connection to him.

YDA: What inspires you to write?

Kathleen McCormick: It’s the passion I have for storytelling and the desire to make people laugh that I was talking about before.

I’ve felt compelled to write for a very long time. Writing is simply something I have to do. For many years, my writing was exclusively academic—about literature, or about teaching literature or teaching writing—and I found that incredibly stimulating. For the last decade or so, I’ve done more “creative” writing, though, of course, academic writing involves great creativity. I want to write because I love the process of writing, the sense of discovery that accompanies it—you never end up where you think you’re going to—whether you’re writing a story or a critical analysis of something.

YDA: Who is the author you’d be found reading?

Kathleen McCormick: Ali Smith, especially How to be Both. Marisha Pessl, especially Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Though such different types of writers, they both do weird particularly well.

YDA: What are you working on now?

Kathleen McCormick: I’m writing a sequel to Dodging Satan because whenever I start to write something else, Bridget, with her insistent voice, just keep coming back. She still has more to say. But I’m also writing other unconnected stories in between and just letting myself have fun with them in the early drafting stages. There’s also this Catholic science fiction fanatic, Frances, who knows way more about sci fi than I do, so she requires a lot of research. She’s also obsessed with apparitions of the Virgin Mary which invade my Google newsfeed daily whenever I’m writing about her.

YDA: How does your writing help enhance your life and career?

Kathleen McCormick: Career first. I’m a career academic, but I’m so lucky to work in a college that is filled with artists—students and faculty—musicians, painters, actors, writers, filmmakers, dancers. That Purchase is the Arts College of the SUNY (State University of New York) system has meant that the Liberal Arts, the part of the College where I work, attracts students and faculty who are also creative thinkers and writers. My career at Purchase has definitely stimulated me to write creatively. I feel that if I were working elsewhere I might never have had the courage to try to write a novel, that I’d just be writing academically. So in this case, my career has enhanced my writing.

Writing creatively now feels like a natural extension of my life.

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