“Existential crisis” is a phrase novelist Ted McDermott understands the meaning of all too well.
It began when he got his hand crushed in a mixer at a bakery — at a job he took after graduate school to pay the bills. He broke 12 bones and had to have three surgeries.
That put an end to his work in a bread store.
“I was in a weird place,” McDermott said over coffee at his home on Mercury Street in Butte earlier this week.
“Dozens of rejections” from prospective publishers plus feeling that his personal life had stalled after graduating from the University of Montana-Missoula’s Master of Fine Arts’ fiction-writing program in 2009 led McDermott to rethink his life after the accident with the mixer.
Disheartened, McDermott felt like giving up on writing fiction.
He started working as a full-time reporter for The Missoula Independent thinking it was time to pursue journalism and let go of the dream he’d had since high school of writing a novel. But in his despair, he began to write in his spare time about the mundane things going on in his life.
Something began to click.
“It was the first thing ever that I wrote purely out of personal motivation,” McDermott said. “I was trying to be a writer and that wasn’t working. Feeling desperate after I crushed my hand, I thought about what should I write and then why should I write.”
Questioning the foundation of what he wanted to do and why, he began to find his literary voice. McDermott decided that he would write only for himself. Doing so, he reasoned, would make him a better observer of his own life.
The result is his novel, “The Minor Outsider,” set to make its literary debut in the U.S. next Tuesday. Published in the U.K. last year by a U.K. publisher, Pushkin Press, the book has already received positive reviews.
The London-based newspaper, The Guardian, called the novel, “ … a hip, touching and thoroughly readable story that presents young adulthood as a frustrating, alien place.”
The novel tells the story of a young man who lands at the University of Montana-Missoula’s MFA fiction-writing program. The protagonist, Ed, falls in love with a fellow fiction writer, named Taylor. She becomes pregnant as he learns he has a terrifying brain tumor. “The Minor Outsider” is darkly comic. With Missoula’s mountains for a backdrop, the reader watches Ed make several unwise choices as he navigates his terror of the fatal illness and his love for his growing family.
Even as McDermott enjoys his newfound success from his home in Butte, he can laugh over how he got to this point. A misunderstanding caught the attention of an editor at Pushkin Press. McDermott thought she had looked at his Linked-In account, an online employment-oriented social networking service. She hadn’t, but it launched an online discussion between the two —and of his work.
And then, even as getting his novel published last year in the U.K. was the fulfillment of a life-long dream, McDermott was still in a “weird place.” He had a published novel, but it couldn’t be found in U.S. bookstores.
That's changed, too.
Now 34, the novelist is a family man with something concrete — a novel that will be in U.S. bookstores starting next week. He also has a full-time job, working remotely as an editor for a Missoula-based academic publisher.
Though McDermott is new to Butte — he and his wife Shawn arrived earlier this year — he has tapped into deep southwest Montana roots. Shawn’s family, the Haggertys, homesteaded at Birch Creek near Dillon in the 1800s before moving to Butte. Shawn’s grandfather, Mike Haggerty, worked briefly in the underground mines before becoming co-owner of a painting business. Shawn and Ted’s 1-year-old daughter, Mae, will grow up as a sixth-generation Butte resident.
The McDermotts moved here to be closer to Shawn’s family, and because, he said, he prefers Butte.
Already the South Carolina native has begun to put down literary roots — in his spare time, he is busy writing his second novel, which is set in the Mining City.
McDermott says he mostly feels grateful that things have worked out as they have for him.
“I only got published by a real stroke of luck. I’m very lucky.”