When Ted McDermott was accepted into the University of Montana's creative writing program in 2009, he already had one novel written and another in progress. He worked on the second novel during his time in the program and after graduation, but he couldn't find an interested publisher.
"It turns out the novel was really convoluted and bad," McDermott says. "I started thinking maybe this isn't for me, and I decided to stop writing fiction altogether."
McDermott took a job at the Missoula Independent as a copy editor and worked morning hours as a baker at Le Petit Outre. He published a few essays, including one for The Believer magazine, titled "The Lights Go On and You Reach for Your Hat," about his obsession with the "baffling" and "unflinching" films of Bobcat Goldthwait.
"[Goldthwait's films] employ the clichés of Hollywood movies as a means of mercilessly mocking convention and sentiment," he wrote in the essay. "They are flawed films that refuse to entertain."
One morning at Le Petit, McDermott placed some dough in a large industrial mixer and turned the machine on as he always did. This time, though, he'd forgotten to remove the thermometer from the mixture. He reflexively reached in to grab it, realizing his error too late. The machine crushed his hand, breaking 12 bones. At the hospital, a nurse delivered a piece of advice.
"She said to me, 'The universe is trying to tell you something,' in that way that you don't really want to hear in that moment, you know?" McDermott says. "And I was thinking, 'Shut up!' I was also on all sorts of crazy drugs and in shock—I'm probably romanticizing this somewhat apocryphal moment—but after that, I started writing again."
The Minor Outsider, McDermott's debut novel, is the result of his climb back into the world of fiction. It's a story about a young writer named Ed who arrives in Missoula to attend the University of Montana's creative writing program, where he meets another grad student, Taylor. Their intense romantic relationship appears doomed from the start, partly because Ed is so self-destructive, which may be related to his belief that he has a cancerous tumor spreading throughout his body.
The book began not as a novel but as a series of aimless third-person stories about himself—almost like journal entries—that McDermott wrote while laid up at home on pain meds, recovering from the mixer accident.
"I think I was trying to understand my life, and so I just kept writing them," he says.
They weren't quite fiction and they weren't quite nonfiction, and in that liminal space, he began to slowly home in on a truth, he says.
"Someone once said fiction is the worst-case scenario, so I played with that idea," he says. "I started to introduce one lie and then another, and each one would lead me on a different path. Unlike the other novels I wrote, I didn't write this one for publication. I didn't expect it to see the light of day."
Part of the book's illusion of truth lies in its recognizably familiar facts. The physical description of Ed matches Ted. The book's not-veiled Missoula landmarks include the "M," the Clark Fork and the pipe shop at the corner of Higgins and 6th Street.
- photo by Celia Talbot Tobin
- Ted McDermott’s debut novel follows a troubled protagonist based loosely on the author.
"I was worried about how people would read it," McDermott says. "I think my parents were really worried that my in-laws were going to read this book and disown me. But when they read it, they read it as fiction, which I thought was very generous and kind of them to do. Because it is fiction ... and it's through the prism of this worst-case-scenario Ted."
That's true. If you know the affable McDermott, The Minor Outsider has the unnerving effect of making you feel like you're meeting a darker, distorted version of him.
"He was 29 and he liked to watch people shoot drugs into their arms on YouTube while he ate the Safeway version of Cheerios," he writes. "He believed this had something to do with being afraid of, but interested in, death. He'd never done heroin. He was a coward."
At the same time, the people that McDermott has written about over the years offer insight into the type of characters to whom he's drawn. McDermott wrote another essay for The Believer about photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. He searched for meaning in Meatyard's nightmarish images by visiting every house Meatyard ever lived in (Meatyard and McDermott both lived in Normal, Illinois, though Meatyard died a decade before McDermott was born.) What he realized is that there was no way to really know what Meatyard was trying to do.
McDermott also met some dark characters during his year as a reporter for the Indy, a job he held for a few years after his stint as copy editor, and while he was working on the novel. For his first feature story, he interviewed Ryan Payne, a militia member from Montana who had been part of the armed conflict between federal agents and Cliven Bundy. Payne invited McDermott to his house in the woods outside Anaconda.
"He talked about violence a lot in a way that made it seem normal to shoot cops and stuff, but I thought he was a really interesting guy and a very troubled person," McDermott says. "He didn't just pop up out of nowhere. When he was 18 years old, he got flown to Iraq and given an assault rifle and told to do what you need to do to take over this country—and it really changed him and skewed his world and made him unhappy."
McDermott says he found empathy for unsympathetic characters during his time as a reporter. He also came to respect how difficult it can be to write journalism when every line in a story has to be factual.
"The one year I spent working at the Independent was probably the most important year for my writing life," he says. "Though crushing my hand in a mixer was important because it sort of set me straight in some ways that I can't quite explain."
Sticking to the facts is also what drove him crazy about journalism, he says, and back to fiction. But fictional stories have to ring true, too, and sometimes that means making your protagonist as difficult as any living person.
"When a character in fiction is too likable, I don't trust them," he says. "When they're not likable I find them more sympathetic. Because they're flawed, like me."
Ted McDermott reads from The Minor Outsider Tue., June 27, at 7 PM at Shakespeare & Co.This article was updated June 26 to reflect when Ted McDermott lived in Normal, Illinois.