Where He’s Calling From
Jim McDermott’s first novel is set in a blue-collar town like the one he left behind
Published in 2017 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on July 10, 2017
Updated on July 20, 2017
In the summer of 1990, James T. McDermott asked for a leave of absence from his Washington, D.C., business litigation practice so he could write a coming-of-age novel. “The first draft was 104,000 words,” says McDermott, now a partner at Ball Janik in Portland. “It was basically a jumble that resembled the used car lots I used to poke around in as a teenager, searching for old parts.”
After years of persistent editing and rewriting, McDermott managed to trim the novel to a lean 64,000 words—or about 236 pages. “The story lived with me,” he says. “I had imaginary conversations with the characters.” And 25 years after he began, Bitter Is the Wind was published by Rare Bird Books.
It’s not autobiographical—the protagonist, George Johnson Jr., gets in trouble with the law, and winds up a consultant on Wall Street—but his journey, from a dying blue-collar town in upstate New York to white-collar success elsewhere, mirrors the author’s. Indeed, it was the contrast in McDermott’s life that inspired the novel in the first place.
“I was flying first class around the country and to Europe instead of driving around in my pickup truck,” he says. “I was staying in five-star hotels and eating at fine restaurants with tablecloths. I would go home and visit the people I used to work on an assembly line with or in gas stations or in auto-body shops, and I was struck by the contrast between their lives and mine.”
More than simply describe both lives, he wanted his writing style to bridge the divide between them.
“My aim was to write a straightforward narrative that could be read, appreciated, and hopefully have some impact on people who were well-educated, and yet could be understood and relatable to people who had never read a novel in their life,” he says. “Like my father.”
Bitter Is the Wind is, in fact, the first novel his father has read. “He was proud to see it,” he says.
McDermott, whose favorite authors include Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver and George Saunders, notes that both of his jobs require a thick skin and storytelling skills. As a lawyer, he says, “You have to have analytical, cogent arguments that make logical sense to judges, juries and to opposing counsel—because most cases are actually settled. If you can infuse the analytical argument with an emotional tug, I think you make it more compelling.”
McDermott’s recent writings—op-eds in The Oregonian and New York Post—continue to bridge economic divides. The title of one is indicative: “I Want to Pay More Taxes.”
“Why isn’t there any real class warfare going on in the world?” McDermott asks. “Actually there has been for the past 30 years. And the ultra-wealthy are winning it.” The growing economic divide is the theme of his second novel, too.
His advice for attorneys with that novel inside them? “You have to be committed,” he says. “You have to make time. … Finding success in life is an intensely personal journey. You’d better get going.”
Excerpt from Bitter Is the Wind
Young George tried to picture what Albany State would be like, but really had no idea, never having visited a college campus and never having set foot in New York State’s capital city. …
On most of the drive north, neither father nor son spoke. With the rain beating down hard and the wiper blades cranking at full speed, young George confined his view to glimpses of fields, barely discernible through the car’s rain-blurred windows. At sixty miles an hour, the images, flashing one after another, seemed surreal. The rolling hills, with so many trees, seemed so filled with life. Trees and humans have an important similarity—they both have no say in where they’re born and grow up. Some are born in rich national forests. Others are born in the way of rich shopping mall developers.