Alice McDermott is always at work on a novel—usually she’s writing two at the same time. “It’s a terrible habit and a crazy way to work, but it’s a failsafe,” McDermott says via Zoom from her home in Bethesda, Md., where she lives with her husband and their dog. “If I get 200 pages in and I’m not happy I can always say, you know, the other book you’re working on is much better, go back and work on that. But I’d advise any aspiring writers not to do this. It only means it’ll take you twice as long to finish anything.”

A singular voice in American letters, McDermott is expert at writing impeccable sentences and authentically human characters, many of whom, like her, are Irish American, Catholic, and from New York City. She’s the author of eight previous novels, including the National Book Award–winning Charming Billy, about an alcoholic whose death brings together the people he left behind, and an essay collection on writing, What About the Baby? Her books have sold more than 800,000 copies worldwide, according to her publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and have been translated into 12 languages.

McDermott’s gorgeous new novel Absolution (FSG, Nov.) is set in Saigon in 1963, a departure from her usual settings in New York City’s outer boroughs, and follows two American women—newlywed Tricia, whose husband works for Navy intelligence, and Charlene, the wife of a well-heeled corporate executive—as they navigate life during the Vietnam War era while acting as “helpmeets” to their often-absent spouses. “In the literature of Vietnam, in the memoirs and histories I read, women were barely mentioned,” says McDermott.

The novel is primarily narrated by Tricia and follows her and Charlene as they do charity work, deal with infertility, and interact with their female Vietnamese counterparts, who contend with their own struggles amid a volatile political landscape.

“How about giving full attention to the women who were on the periphery of these major events,” McDermott says. “That was my inspiration.”

Absolution is a counterpoint to Graham Greene’s 1955 classic The Quiet American, which McDermott says brilliantly exposed American hubris in Vietnam but ignored the lives of women. “There’s this scene in The Quiet American in which the protagonist, a British journalist, is at a café, looking at two American girls, and it’s such a male gaze,” she says. “He’s saying how they’re so uncomplicated, how he can never imagine them having the dirty passionate life that he’s lived. That scene has stayed with me. I always wanted to say, are you kidding me? I’ve met women of that generation at D.C. cocktail parties and functions—women who were State Department secretaries, who traveled the world. They could’ve been models for those two girls and they were not uncomplicated.”

McDermott is drawn to characters who have thorny lives and are part of immigrant families like her own (her parents were first-generation Irish), as well as to working-class men and women for whom Catholicism is a shared language. Her stories are elegant and measured, but not always planned out in advance. “It’s more fun for me not to know what I’m doing,” McDermott says of her approach to plotting. “I try to impose plots all the time, but in the long run the discovery is the pleasure.”

McDermott, who calls writers “lonely souls with mountainous egos as delicate as white cliffs of baby powder,” isn’t big on showing people her works in progress. “I keep everything very close to me,” she says. “I admire writers who can have that exchange, but I wait until I think I’m done to show anyone.”

When McDermott finishes a book she contacts Jonathan Galassi, who has been her editor at FSG since he acquired her 1982 debut, A Bigamist’s Daughter, after reading a partial manuscript. “The sureness of Alice’s voice is always there,” Galassi says. “She doesn’t miss anything. She has a mental and moral toughness, and it’s one of the key aspects of her art. In a way she’s coming into her own now. This next period will be her greatest.”

Born in 1953 in Brooklyn, N.Y., McDermott grew up in a devout family on Long Island, where dinner conversations were dominated by her father and brothers. “I didn’t get a chance to say much, so going to my room and creating characters who spoke up was my way of managing the world,” she says. She wrote her first novel, about the Beatles, at age 12, on loose-leaf paper.

After graduating from an all-girls Catholic high school, McDermott attended the State University of New York at Oswego, which she selected because it was “a top-three party school,” and where an instructor told her that she was a born writer. “It was like the clouds parted,” she remembers of that conversation. She subsequently earned an MA from the University of New Hampshire, and, until recently, was a writing professor at Johns Hopkins University. “I had a great gig, but I didn’t need it anymore,” she says. “It was time to let another writer enjoy it.”

Sarah Burnes, McDermott’s agent at the Gernert Company, praises McDermott for her generosity of spirit and her storytelling abilities. “If you sit down at a table with Alice, she’ll have a funny story about the Irish ambassador or somebody she met in a pub,” Burnes says. “Even though her work is kind of spare, there’s this Irish yarn aspect to it. Maybe that’s the secret sauce. She’s operating on this stringent literary level, but there’s this heart of the Irish storyteller there, too.”

McDermott’s devotion to her craft is on display in What About the Baby?—her only work of nonfiction—which highlights the faith and fortitude it takes to write. “Words matter,” she argues in the book, “and if you’re not suffering over every one of them, you’re in the wrong profession.” She calls language autobiographical, an echo of one’s past. “Language is shaped by those who taught you your first words, and my language was shaped by the rhythm of prayer. That was in my mind before I could speak.”

Pulitzer Prize–nominated author Ann Patchett is a longtime admirer of McDermott’s writing and considers Absolution to be the author’s crowning achievement. “I’ve loved all of Alice’s books, but Absolution is something else completely,” Patchett says. “I’ve been passing my galley around and everyone feels the same way. I called the book a moral masterpiece when I blurbed it. That’s exactly what it is.”

Most days, McDermott can be found at her desk working—trying to discover the unexpected word or phrase that’ll make a page shine. “Early on I realized that writing is what I must do,” she says. “Life loses something if I’m not spending some hours each day with the literary arts.” She smiles. “I still think it’s amazing that I get to do this. To be granted the privilege—and to not be starving in a garret as my parents told me I might do.”

Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.