Frank McCourt:
living his story

Frank McCourt screwed up his face for a moment, in thought or possibly amusement, when he was asked about his daughter, Maggie.

He warmed to the subject quickly, talking about her upper middle-class upbringing in Brooklyn, time spent following the Grateful Dead, unplanned children and her eventual decision to settle down in Vermont, where she's now studying to be a nurse.

"I learned a lot about geography" during her wandering years, he said with a smile.

Telling his family's stories, good or bad, is old hat for this genial Irishman, a teacher to his marrow who also happens to write books.

McCourt -- who came to fame on the back of the memoir Angela's Ashes, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and followed it up with 'Tis and Teacher Man -- spoke to an intimate gathering of fans Tuesday afternoon at Lititz Public Library in Lancaster County, Pa. He began with a brief, brisk reading from 'Tis, in which McCourt as a 19-year-old New York City laborer paid his first visit to the city library.

The sight of the Main Reading Room, North and South, makes me go weak at the knees. I don't know if it's the two beers I had or the excitement of my second day in New York but I'm near tears when I look at the miles of shelves and know I'll never be able to read all those books if I live to the end of the century. There are acres of shiny tables where all sorts of people sit and read as long as they like seven days a week and no one bothers them unless they fall asleep and snore. There are sections with English, Irish, American books, literature, history, religion, and it makes me shiver to think I can come here anytime I like and read anything as long as I like if I don't snore.

McCourt's appearance in Lititz followed a presentation Monday evening in nearby Harrisburg, where he gave the seventh annual Speaker's Millennium Lecture for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council at the State Capitol. The Lititz event was a private book discussion moderated by James Murphy, director of Irish Studies at Villanova University, for participants in the Lititz and Annville book groups.

For most of the hour-long discussion, McCourt held court over 50-some fans who asked questions and listened attentively to his rambling, often whimsical anecdotes. An amiable, tireless conversationalist with a shock of white hair, McCourt was dressed casually for the event in a blue-and-white striped shirt and a black leather jacket.

A colorful speaker, florid and uninhibited, his style of speaking often mirrors his stream-of-consciousness method of writing.

"I had very low aspirations," he remarked on his arrival in America after living in desperate poverty in Ireland. "I thought I'd come here, I didn't even dream of getting a high school diploma. ... I just hoped I'd get an indoor job."

McCourt was born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrant parents in 1930, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to New York in 1949. "You had to stay tough growing up in a lane in Limerick," he said. Despite the "Irish reputation for being mercurial," he added, "we were very reserved. I'm still learning to hug."

His first job in America was a menial cleaning position at the Biltmore Hotel. At a time when Irish immigrants were still viewed with distaste in some avenues, McCourt was warned by his Irish peers to "watch out for the Puerto Ricans" with their loud music and brash manners. "But I found them warm," he said. "Some of them were paying me to teach them English. Me!"

Of course, the famed "Celtic Tiger" that has energized the Irish economy of late has made the Irish much more accepted, even welcomed, into American society. "Now you have Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan and Riverdance," McCourt said with a throaty chuckle. "The Irish are now sexy. If only they could apply that to the teaching profession. 'Teaching is sexy.' Then the young people would be flowing into it."

Back in the 1940s and '50s, the Irish were still "Paddy from the Bog," he said, and Irish stereotypes revolved closely around St. Patrick's Day, the Blarney Stone and very little else.

"I suppose I became part of it," he mused, and soon McCourt had the small crowd in stitches with his memories of a St. Patrick's Day parade in New York and the domineering little Irishman who tried to whip the inexperienced marchers into military precision.

"That was the old Irish. It's still there in a sense," he said. "There's an Irishness here that you just won't find in Ireland. You'll never here anyone in Ireland say 'Top of the mornin' to ya' or 'Sure and begorrah.' That's Hollywood."

Molded by that same Irish stereotype, McCourt said he expected to meet "a Maureen," a chaste Irish girl who would give herself to him on their wedding night and would provide him with two or three children -- Sean, Bridget and Kevin.

"Somewhere along the way, something happened. I wasn't going to be satisfied with that," he said. "I was getting too big for my britches. Then I got drafted into the army, and that expanded my horizons."

Back home after two years in Germany, McCourt worked his way through college, earning a bachelor's degree from New York University and a master's from Brooklyn College. Then he bypassed one career goal -- newsman -- to become a teacher. "I wanted to be a journalist," he said, "but I thought journalism would be hard. Nothing is harder -- nothing -- than facing five classrooms of students every day." Still, McCourt found he thrived in front of a class. "Teaching became a joy. I couldn't wait to get into the classroom," he said. "But I couldn't be grim in the classroom. I told the kids, 'I have to enjoy myself in the classroom or you fail.' So they made every attempt."

His students enjoyed the "wild-drinkin', fightin' Irish" stereotype, McCourt said, so he began teaching them Irish songs as a lead-in to poetry studies.

"I still think the image of the teacher is very poor in this country," he fretted. "Teachers have a kind of semi-apologetic existence. ... When was the last time you saw a teacher on a talk show? Teachers have the best stories in the world. There's always something going on in the classroom."

In those days, he said, he never dreamed his own modest past would be fodder for a best-selling book.

"I tried to write outside of my experience," he said. "I didn't want to write my own life, because I was ashamed of it. We're all ashamed of where we came from." But experience -- along with inspiration from contemporary African-American writers -- taught him otherwise. And it also taught him how to put his thoughts together in book form.

"Don't try to write," McCourt insisted. "Just scribble, the way an artist sketches."

He and his brother Malachy, who has also penned his share of memoirs, put together a play, "A Couple of Blaguards," more than 30 years ago to share some of their experiences. The play was about telling stories, he said -- but he remembers his mother standing up during the first act of their premier performance and shouting, "That's not the way it happened at all. It's a pack of lies."

"I couldn't have written Angela's Ashes while she was alive," McCourt said. "The shame was great. She didn't want anyone knowing what we came from. ... Her life was harder than anybody's. The wretchedness of her life is something that consumes me."

Another brother, Alphie, has recently written his own memoirs, McCourt noted. The only unpublished brother, Michael, "has said he'll write a book 'when the other bastards are dead.'"

Angela's Ashes seems to have "sparked a whole avalanche of memoirs," McCourt added. But, even after all his successes, he still finds it hard to identify himself as an author.

"You have no idea how undeserving I felt when I won the Pulitzer Prize, how undeserving I felt when it got published. I thought, 'What's the matter with these people? Don't they know it's a piece of shit?' But when I look at the whole picture, I'm here. I never expected to be here, with bright and intelligent, well-dressed people talking about my memoirs.

"All of my dreams came true ... although I had to get married three times to get it right. I'm a slow learner."

interview by
Tom Knapp

15 November 2008

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