Now and then, if readers are lucky, a book succeeds so thoroughly that its author is doomed to spend the rest of his career working in its shadows. Even more dramatic is the impact of such a debut. In 1996, Angela's Ashes
, both critically acclaimed (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award) and hugely popular (more than two years on the New York Times
bestseller list, translated into thirty languages) transformed Frank McCourt from a retired schoolteacher into one of the premier storytellers of his generation.
Transformed him, that is, in the public eye. By the time the world at large got wind of McCourt's impoverished Irish upbringing, the sixty-six-year-old author had been sharing his life experiences with the young students of New York City for three decades. "Mea culpa," he writes in Teacher Man. "Instead of teaching, I told stories."
"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years," he famously noted in Angela's Ashes, "but nothing can compare with the Irish version." If any doubts persisted that the material made the writer— the sordid (his word) details of McCourt's childhood did, undeniably, shock and humble readers—his follow-up put those doubts to rest. Picking up where the first memoir left off, upon the teenager's transatlantic voyage, 'Tis stands as one of the great immigrant stories of our times, an indispensable record of twentieth century America.
"After it was published," McCourt explains in the prologue to memoir number three, "I had the nagging feeling I'd given teaching short shrift." With trademark spirit and candor, in Teacher Man he now focuses on those thirty years in the classroom.
"McCourt's many fans will of course love this book," Publishers Weekly declared in a (predictably) starred review, "but it also should be mandatory reading for every teacher in America. And it wouldn't hurt some politicians to read it, too."
Dave: In Teacher Man, you write, "There were no teenagers in Ireland, not in my world." How did that impact your teaching, do you think, in terms of the advantages and disadvantages of being such an outsider?
Frank McCourt: When I went to NYU, there was a required course in adolescent psychology. That baffled me. What the hell is this? I knew that something called teenagers existed because you saw them in the movies. I remember going to a movie when I was a small kid about Andy Hardy going through his adolescence, having tantrums and so on. But somebody said, "That's only in America."
When I had to come up against it as a teacher, I hardly knew what to make of it. It seemed to me they were a separate species of the human race. They had to be treated differently. That was beyond me. In my experience, you just behaved yourself. "That's all. Shuddup!" Here, once you get into the adolescent stages, you're supposed to be given special consideration because you're changing, the body is changing. They were supposed to be handled more delicately. I had to learn.
Dave: You say, "Instead of teaching, I told stories." Did your students believe them?
McCourt: There was some resistance when I would describe the poverty in Ireland, not very often and not in too much detail, but when I did they wouldn't accept it. They certainly would not accept the idea, the fact, that we had no toilet paper, that we would cut squares of whatever paper was around. It was very hard to explain to them that nothing existed of material nature. There was no paper to spare. We had no books or anything like that.
Dave: In Angela's Ashes, you describe fighting your little brother, Malachy, because he took the story your father had given you, the story about Cuchulain. You caught him telling your story to a friend. Stories were your possessions.
McCourt: Right. You didn't have much more. It's like a singer with a song: That's my song. Stay off my turf.
We didn't have a security blanket. This was your security blanket. We didn't have material possessions, but we had stories and songs.
Dave: Before you sailed into New York City that first time, age nineteen, you'd seen the Statue of Liberty and other icons of the city in movies. What do you remember of sailing past those landmarks?
McCourt: I was in heaven. I was sailing right into heaven.
It was dawn, early morning. The sun was just coming up; it hit the spires and skyscrapers of Manhattan. There was the Statue of Liberty, and there was Ellis Island. I knew something about Ellis Island, too—it was a very emotional time for me, thinking that my mother and father had passed through there before they went back to Ireland. I had some knowledge of New York.
The main image of my dreams, in years before that, was the New York skyline with the Statue of Liberty, and there it was before me. I was about to enter that world.
Dave: Another story you recount in 'Tis: When you visited Dachau with the army, you were overwhelmed by the urge to touch one of the ovens. Why?
McCourt: Who knows how many thousands of people were shoveled into those ovens? I don't know.
When I was a kid in Ireland and the news came out about the concentration camps, I was horrified and maybe in a very mordant way drawn to this. I could not believe it. Even nowadays...A few years ago, I went to a marital counselor, and he was Jewish. I said to him, "I'm looking at you, Henry, and I can't imagine the likes of you being marched into a room to be gassed." And he laughed. He said, "I can't imagine it either."
So many beautiful, gifted people. It has always astonished me, and I still can't grasp it. I read Primo Levi all the time. He's a man who got inside, and it destroyed him. That's why, touching the ovens...I went to lunch that day, right across from them, and I couldn't eat.
Dave: A lot of readers comment on the mingling of tragedy and comedy in Angela's Ashes. One detail that stands out is that your family called the upstairs "Italy." Every October, you moved to Italy, while downstairs, Ireland was flooded. You really lived large.
McCourt: Oh, we did. Living large.
When you have nothing else, you have fantasy; you have dreams. That was our fantasy: Italy was the sunny place. It had music and opera and Rome, the center of everything—although we didn't know much except what we saw in reproductions in local churches, all kinds of paintings. That was our dream. That and New York. New York for the material things, Italy for the artistic life.
Dave: You write extensively about the way the Irish were perceived in New York. Very often, in contrast to the Italians.
McCourt: It's changed, of course, but the stereotype of the Irish has been a kind of shiftless, brawling, drinking, mercurial, poetic, eloquent, storytelling, charming race—almost childish. Also, we came right out of the bogs. We had the bog mud on our shoes. They forgot that the Irish had all kinds of wonderful things. That was the stereotype.
That shocked me a bit when I ran into it, not only among Americans; Irish-Americans would look at me that way, too. Oh, he's just off the boat. And it showed in the kind of jobs they gave me, these menial, laboring jobs. Nobody ever said to me, "You look intelligent enough. You've read a book or two, you can write. We'll put you behind a desk." No. You were off the boat. It's just, "Go dig ditches."
Dave: You were admitted to NYU on good faith, basically.
McCourt: On trial.
Dave: Based on your reading.
McCourt: I was able to mention some books and I was able to talk about them. And I was able to show, I suppose, that I was capable of learning.
And I was eager. This is what I wanted; this is the world I wanted to be in. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life down at the piers and warehouses. I wanted to get into what I thought was the magical world of college and university. I thought, This is where they know things. What the hell do we know loading and unloading trucks?
Dave: But you were warned, "You can't go to NYU. They'll take the God out of you."
McCourt: There was a nun, yes. I'd had an accident and I was in the hospital. She said to me, "What are you going to do with your life?" I said, "I'd like to go to college." She said, "Where would you like to go?" I said, "I'd like to go to Columbia University." She said, "Aren't you afraid you'll lose your soul?" I said, "No, I'm not."
She told me then that I was very smug, and she walked away. I didn't know what to do with that. I didn't know how to handle such situations.
Dave: The fact that you taught English at vocational schools for a long time makes sense on a lot of levels. You wound up teaching creative writing in the form of excuse notes, obituaries, and restaurant reviews. Your approach was very practical, drawn from function.
McCourt: I wasn't much for high-flung ideas and distractions. I could get down and dirty, as they say. And I think I understood frustration. Even though I knew English, I was essentially an immigrant. I understood the frustration of kids coming in from other countries; I understood the frustration of native-born kids who were struggling with English. And I understood their nervousness and their resentment over authority. I was on their side, which may be a bit childish —I should have been able to rise to a more mature level—but that's how poorly developed I was, psychologically and emotionally.
Dave: "English teachers are always being told, You gotta make it relevant," you say in Teacher Man.
My parents were surprised, to say the least, when I changed my major to Lit, because I didn't read books before college. Any books. The ones assigned in my high school didn't interest me. It took friends giving me Vonnegut and John Irving to get me started. They opened my mind to the classics.
McCourt: That resistance is natural among kids. If they have to do it, or if you want them to do it, they don't want to. Unless you seduce them and charm them: "Alright. You don't like that poem? That's okay."
That used to shock them. They're waiting for something else: punishment, a demerit. I'd say, "I don't like every piece of music I hear. I read restaurant reviews in the New York Times that praise or criticize a meal; I make up my own mind. I make up my own mind about poetry and plays and movies. You all have a right to your opinion." That shocked them. They thought, Teacher hands you a poem or a story, you're supposed to like it and you're supposed to find the deeper meaning. Well, the hell with that. That's dishonest.
Dave: "The people in my classes," you write, "adults from eighteen to sixty-two, thought their opinions did not matter. Whatever ideas they had came from the avalanche of media in our world. No one had ever told them they had a right to think for themselves."
It seems that within the arc of your life you've seen the pulpit of the church replaced by the pulpit of TV and media.
McCourt: Most people get their opinions from television. They really don't trust themselves. I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. That kind of thing. It's almost apologetic. They have strong opinions politically, about Bush or something, but they're often emotional or they have to do with his appearances. We don't know.
This is what I was trying to help them explore all the time. Why do you believe what you believe? Who imposed it on you? Was it imposed, or did you find it out for yourself? The best knowledge, I think, is what you find out for yourself. It's true, but it gets complicated. If a kid came in, a good Catholic or a good Jew, you had to be careful that you didn't disturb them too much. But urge them to take a look at where it all came from, and how it came to be.
Dave: You weren't at NYU long before you realized that the School of Education students ranked near the bottom in terms of prestige. In Teacher Man, you explain, "This is the situation in the public schools of America: The farther you travel from the classroom the greater your financial and professional rewards."
Clearly, this isn't a new phenomenon in America, the public's lack of respect for teachers. Why do you think that is, and what can be done to change it?
McCourt: Teachers are regarded as the failures in the professional hierarchies. You look at doctors, engineers, and lawyers—all of these people are more successful financially. If teachers were to ascend in the financial world, there'd be more respect.
Teachers are regarded in the same level, in New York City, anyway, as policemen and firefighters. There's nothing wrong with being a policeman or a firefighter, but they don't need to go to college the way teachers do; they don't need a Bachelor's degree or a Master's degree, a degree of higher education. But in the contract negotiations, teachers are always lumped in with other civil servants. I think the profession is more particular. There's a dim view of teachers as the poor sister of the professions.
George Bernard Shaw said, "Those who can do and those who can't teach." Which shows he didn't know his ass from his elbow about teaching.
Dave: In one of the books, you cite your admiration for Sean O'Casey. Where should people unfamiliar with his work start out?
McCourt: His most famous one-act play is called Shadow of a Gunman. Then there's Juno and the Paycock, which is a great Dublin tragedy, and The Plough and the Stars. They're the three main plays. He also has an autobiography; I don't care much for the writing anymore—it's very florid and ornate and poetic and so forth—but it gives you the story of his life.
Dave: In the US, your book jackets are all brown. Did you imagine yourself as an author whose books would all be brown?
McCourt: They're not brown in other countries. Angela's Ashes has been published in thirty languages, so it has all different colors. But you're right: in the English speaking countries, they tend to be brown. In Italy, it's blue. Three blue covers.
Dave: What would your mother have made of these books?
McCourt: She wouldn't have liked it. She would have been ashamed. Shame was one of the main things in our life. You don't talk about such things. You don't talk about being poor. You don't reveal the intimate secrets of your life. No. You're here now, you're Americans. Get over it. Shame would be the main thing.
She liked a good story, but there was a kind of reserve among the people of the back lanes of Limerick. You didn't complain. What was the use? We were all in the same boat. Then when you escaped and became a snot of a writer you told a story.
Dave: When you spent a year at Trinity College, you wound up dedicating most of your time to the study of Irish-American history. Will you write about that someday?
McCourt: There's something I want to do with that. I've accumulated all those index cards; I still have them in a closet. There's fascinating stuff in there.
I did write a show a few years ago called The Irish and How They Got that Way, a dramatic look at the history of the Irish and Irish-Americans. It ran for a year in New York with the Irish Reparatory Theater. I want to rewrite that.
Dave: You originally conceived Teacher Man as fiction, right? As a novel?
McCourt: It was a disaster.
Dave: Why didn't it work?
McCourt: I was writing an autobiographical novel about teaching, but if you have reality, why not use it? You have to be careful about memoir— if you write a novel, it gives you greater freedom to say things about people and situations—but I struggled with that novel. Reality kept intruding. It was going nowhere, so I went back to the memoir.
Dave: Teacher Man jumps around a bit more than the first two books. How did you figure out how to tell this story?
McCourt: The obvious way is to start with Once upon a time and tell the story of how I arrived in New York when I was nineteen, but I wanted to ease into it somehow. I wanted to say certain things about teaching in the prologue, what my expectations were and how sadly they were unfulfilled, in the beginning, anyway. I wanted to make a big statement about teaching. Then I got into it: what it's like to be in the classroom on your first day when the kids walk in and how that can be daunting.
Dave: What is Limerick like today?
McCourt: Booming. Cranes everywhere. Tall buildings rising along the banks of the Shannon. Crime, drugs, litter, pollution, all the complexities of a booming, prosperous civilization. It's very prosperous. Now they're hiring construction workers from Eastern Europe and Central Europe; in every restaurant, you won't find an Irish waiter anymore. That's Limerick.
Dave: Have you read The Year of Magical Thinking?
McCourt: Wrenching. It's so strong and heartbreaking at the same time.
Dave: The book reads as if she spent the year in a trance. It's such a sad story, but she tells it with a complete lack of self-pity.
McCourt: To convey your pain without self-pity...It's a kind of stoicism, I suppose. Here's my story. I leave the emotion to you. I like that about a writer. They don't beat you over the head with it.
Dave: Do you remember reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time?
McCourt: I do. That got to me. I was thinking lately of certain things that got to me, and that was one of them. I still had this half-assed vision of America being a happy place, cowboys running around killing Indians and all that stuff. Even though there were problems, it didn't seem to be as sordid as what I came from. Then I came across Grapes of Wrath, and that opened my eyes.
Mark Twain opened my eyes when I was ten or eleven to style. Huckleberry Finn. I didn't know you could write like that; I didn't know you could be conversational. We were discouraged from that in school. No. Complete sentences, formal and balanced and, if possible, elegant.
Dave: Were you in New York on 9/11?
McCourt: No, I was in London trying to get back. I couldn't. I had to go to Milan to get back. It's a strange thing: you never know what's in your heart or in your soul. I had a deep feeling of love for the city. I wanted to put my arms around New York.
Dave: Are you working on anything right now? What's next?
McCourt: The big challenge for anybody who puts pen to paper is the novel. What it will be, I don't know. It might have something to do with what we were talking about earlier, all my research and the Irish-American story.
I'm interested in certain characters like the former mayor of Boston, Curley, who I think was a genius of human relations, administration, and survival. The same thing with the mayor of Chicago, Daley, and various characters at Tammany Hall. There's a particular Irish genius for administration, corruption, and power.
Also, speaking of New York, I'm writing a mass with a composer named David Amran. It's a celebration of New York, a historical worldview using the structure of a mass with a script and a kind liturgical music, but using the various forms of music that are peculiar to the city: the American Indian, the Dutch, the Irish, the English, the Italians, and the blacks.
Dave: When can we expect that?
McCourt: A while yet. It's in the works. It's just hatching.
Frank McCourt spoke from his New York home on January 5, 2006. He called my friend Greg "an angel" for commuting each day from Brooklyn to Newark to teach grade school. Greg will thank me, I'm sure, for withholding reference to less angelic episodes from his past.