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Author and Memoirist
Frank McCourt

An exclusive interview with the author of
Angela's Ashes, Tis' and Teacher Man



:: spotlight on the craft - "Something will insist on being told."

:: We asked author Frank McCourt about his craft and in a previous issue of WSQJ (Volume 1:2) he gave us candid answers. For St. Paddy's Day, and for all who have a bit of the Ol' Sod planted in their hearts and souls, here's an excerpt.


ROAMING WITH THE TEACHER MAN
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt

By Adrienne Mand

For decades, Frank McCourt was an Irish immigrant high school teacher in New York City instructing five classes a day and spending countless hours reading young people's prose. Philosophy, love notes, suicide notes, Romeo and Juliet-type sagas, every emotion - "blather and romantic sentimentality," as he calls it - was represented.

In an effort to cut down on his time grading papers, McCourt would instill in his students the importance of writing with simplicity and clarity. "I worked out a lot of my problems talking to those kids," he recalls, "but I was talking to myself, too. They'd ask about my life and sit there wide-eyed and tell me I should write a book. And I do what I'm told."

McCourt burst onto the literary scene in 1996 with "Angela's Ashes," a heartbreaking account of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland. The book remained a New York Times bestseller for more than two years, was available in 18 countries, and was adapted to a Paramount Studio film.

His follow-up effort, 1999's "'Tis," continued his story into adulthood. Despite some criticism from locals who felt his stories portrayed Limerick negatively - which he dismisses, because it was, after all, his life - McCourt quickly attained a level of acclaim that most writers can only fantasize about.

For a self-described "late bloomer," the success has been somewhat bewildering. "It was astonishing," he notes. "I'm still in a kind of semi-paralyzed state because so much happened so soon. You're not prepared for it … suddenly I have a bestseller. Before that, as they say, I was 'only a teacher.'"

For the past three years, McCourt has been writing "Teacher Man," an account of his years at Stuyvesant High School. "I'm going where man has never gone before - (telling) what it's actually like to be a teacher in the classroom. Nobody ever got into the daily life of the teacher, teaching five classes a day, dealing with about 160 kids."

His goal, he says, is "to show that a teacher's life doesn't stop at end of the day. You have to supplement your miserable income or take courses. There's no respect … when was the last time you saw a teacher on a talk show? Conan, Jay, David, or the early morning talk shows? There are starlets, stars, acrobats, strong men, every half-assed actor in the world is on the talk shows, but not teachers. And yet, they have the strongest stories. They're dealing with human flesh every day."

ON WRITING

McCourt had a somewhat serendipitous experience as an unpublished author. A friend who also is a writer read half of his memoir and showed it to a friend of hers. That person showed it to an agent, Molly Friedrich, who still represents him.

He didn't attend any publishing meetings, and the title he suggested was the one that was used. "I haven't developed any negative feelings about (the process,)" he says. "I was so naïve. A lot of writers get lawyers, but I didn't want to treat it with an air of suspicion and mistrust. I was raw. I was a virgin. And I have no regrets."

Though he's on his third book, McCourt has no magic writing formula. One of his routines was to process his thoughts while running. "I used to run a lot. A lot of the stuff would come into my head. My book was published. I became a big shot. It was the end of my running career," he quips. "One of the reasons I want to start running again is it helps with the writing. Some people have a Walkman stuck to their head, and I have my book stuck in my head."

Much of the advice he would give young students in his classes was simple: "Scribble. Out of the scribbling some form will emerge. Something will insist on being told. I have dozens of notebooks. I spent a long time making notes about growing up in Ireland. It all lodged in my head. I didn't need to use notebooks when I started writing."

While working on "Teacher Man," he used the same approach. "I keep scribbling. I think scribbling is the secret. I don't try to write. There are people who can do it. Thomas Hardy was out gardening and a complete novel came into his head. His wife called him for tea and it went out."

His current writing regimen is to "get up, make coffee and get to it," either at his home in Manhattan or Connecticut. "Some days I get disheartened and walk away from it. Most days I try to stay for four hours. Some days I go back to it in the afternoon," he explains. But he notes that his is not the only process. Ibsen would write from "8 to 1 exactly, and you could set your watch by it. You'd see him leave his front door. Graham Greene wrote exactly 350 words every day. He wanted to live, too."

As a former undiscovered talent himself, McCourt knows "there's many a fine novel lying in the drawer." He suggests authors attend conferences such as one in the state of Hawaii on the island of Maui where publishers, agents, and editors are accessible and willing to be approached.

ON SUCCESS

As McCourt works on his tales of teaching, he reflects on its high points and disappointments. He recalls one class that was simply "a complete failure."

"I couldn't reach them. The chemistry was all wrong," he says, adding, "I used to go home in the afternoon, I wanted to put a pin in my eye."

A few years later, he was in the legendary Greenwich Village bar Chumley's when a former member of that group approached him. "He said, 'Hey, Mr. McCourt, you were my teacher.' I said, 'I remember that class.' He said, 'I'm a writer because of you.' That gave me some moment of hope and redemption."

These days, as he works with other writer's at publishing industry conferences, his teaching experiences remain relevant. But he also notes that other writers and English professors help "raise you to another level of teaching and communication."

When considering the namesake of his original memoir, McCourt believes his mother would not have liked "Angela's Ashes." "She believed in keeping things private. Don't tell the world your troubles. You wouldn't want to admit you were ever poor. She'd say, 'That's an American thing.'

"Even when I became a teacher, she was more taken with my brother Malachy's success … she didn't know what I was doing in the classroom. She never saw me teach but she'd listen to Malachy on the radio, see him on television, see him work in the bar business."

But there is one thing McCourt is sure his mother would be proud of. "My mashed potatoes are the best in the world. It's a secret handed down from mother to older son, and it will die with me."

"McCourt's Mash" even made a Thanksgiving appearance at William Styron's home several years ago, and he said people hardly touched their turkey. He speculates that if the writing gravy train ever ends, he can become the next Paul Newman with a line of specialty foods.


Adrienne Mand lives in New York City where she has worked and written for abcnews.com. She has contributed to WordSmitten online (www.wordsmitten.com) and WordSmitten Quarterly Journal. Frank McCourt lives in Manhattan and Connecticut and has taught at the LIU Southampton Writer's Conference on Long Island. For more information on this writing conference click on the link above for details on how to apply to this conference. The annual deadline is in April for this summer event.


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