NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a man who has had two distinguished careers in New York, one well known, one not-so-well known - Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, meet Frank McCourt. It was Fitzgerald who famously wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." It's hard to imagine anyone who's had a more successful second act than Frank McCourt.
“I did the 30 years of teaching, survived, then I noodled around and made notes and notebooks and wrote ÎAngela’s Ashes,’ and the tsunami came at me; all these awards and money," he says.
“The tsunami” is McCourt's description of the acclaim he received almost a decade ago for his first book, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Angela's Ashes. A second book, "Tis," followed.
Now he's back with "Teacher Man," stories from his first career — 30 years in the New York City school system.
"I started it as a novel, and I couldn't get the hang of it because reality kept intruding," McCourt says. "And I enjoyed nothing. When you have a book like this and when it's haunting you, it's very hard for you to read anybody else because you are envying them. You think to yourself, ÎOh my god, what a good writer this guy is.’ Food would turn to ashes in my mouth."
McCourt taught at four schools, the last 18 years teaching creative writing at the old Stuyvesant High School on 15th Street.
He returned to the new Stuyvesant recently for a reading and fund raising event, telling the story of his first day of teaching at McKee High School on Staten Island, when one student threw a sandwich at another student. It landed on the floor in front of McCourt.
“Layered with slices of tomato, onions and peppers, drizzled with olive oil and charred with a tongue-dazzling relish. I ate the sandwich,” he writes in the book.
The sandwich story was the first indication that McCourt's class would be different, his approach unorthodox.
"It is simply the hardest job in the world, I think,” he says. “Look what you're faced with; raging hormones, their either hungry or in love or their feeling sexy or something like that.”
McCourt often got his students' attention with stories of his childhood growing up in Ireland, and more than once his students advised him that he should write a book.
“I used to say to myself, ÎI want to know what they're thinking,’” he says. “Are they saying to themselves, ÎWell, there he is talking about writing - what has he ever done?’ except for my few paltry pieces in the Village Voice and other magazines and newspapers. So my career ended, my teaching career ended, and there was always this urge to write."
At first, McCourt and his brother Malachy created a show called "A Couple of Blaguards." He started writing “Angela's Ashes” in the mid-90’s. It's the story of growing up in extreme poverty in Ireland with an alcoholic father and a long suffering mother.
“Angela's Ashes” was published in 1996, went to number one on the New York Times best seller list, and was translated into more than 30 languages.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize, was made into a movie, and changed McCourt's life.
“Then this money starts coming, and then people look at me in a different way, and television people want to interview me and newspapers, and I'm like a zombie. I didn't know how to handle it,” he says. “Look at my age, in my 60’s. It's a good thing that it happened to me then. If it had happened to me in my 30’s I'd be like Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas. I’d be down in the Village drinking myself sick, chasing women all over the place and dying in St. Vincent’s Hospital, early.”
But perhaps the greatest honor came at the old writer's bar the Lion's Head in the Village, where McCourt had long looked at the book jackets on the wall and wondered if he'd ever make it up there. After the publication of “Angela's Ashes,” the bar's owner invited McCourt down for a drink.
“We sat there and chatted, and he said, ÎTurn around. There it is.’ And there it was, the book jacket “Angela’s Ashes’ on the wall,” he says. “And I said, ÎMike, that's the Nobel Prize for me.’"
He may be best known for his writings about growing up in Ireland, but Frank McCourt was born here and has lived in New York since he was 19, mostly in Brooklyn and the Village.
“And the Bronx, and Queens, and Staten Island. I lived in all five boroughs,” he says. “There should be [an award for that]. I keep telling people about this but City Hall is paying no attention.”
But it is the story of McCourt's youth in Limerick, Ireland, the story of “Angela's Ashes,” that propelled him to international fame.
“It was a miserable place, and poor. Kids with bare feet,” he says. “A lot of people don't want to admit this but that's the way it was.”
“Angela's Ashes” was told from the viewpoint of a child living with an alcoholic father, a mother dealing with the deaths of three children, begging for food, and one apartment situated right next to a community bathroom where all of the families brought their chamber pots to dump.
“We lived at the end of the lane. Next door was a lavatory, and I would look up the lane to the opening and I would say someday I want to go up there, turn left, go down the hill, and go up to the railroad station and leave forever and go to America,” he says. “That was the dream. That's the one thing about being poor - you always have your dream."
McCourt realized that dream when he came to America at 19. But you couldn't say that his goals were all that lofty.
“I wanted to be dry. I wanted an office,” he says. “I'd sit from 9 to 5 and push papers around. I'd marry a nice little Irish Catholic girl to please my mother, but she would be wildly amorous, and I'd live in Queens in a little house. That's all I wanted."
McCourt served two years in the Army in Germany, went to NYU on the G.I. Bill and started teaching here.
In fact, facing a classroom of all types of students helped him confront what he felt were contradictions he carried with him from Ireland, contradictions in his religion.
“I can't believe Sara over there is Jewish is going to go to hell because she is not a Catholic. We used to believe in all this stuff,” he says. “I had to bit by bit peel it off, get rid of this old skin from the Catholic Church. They did a very good job, and it got much deeper into me than I realized. Maybe it's the last 20 years - I'm 75 - I began to shed all this stuff and think for myself. Now I realize I have the understanding and that I can free myself of it. I'm not afraid of it anymore. I don't believe in the afterlife. I don't believe in hell or heaven, or anything like that. This is it baby.”
McCourt's tales of his mother and growing up in Ireland were first told in class to his students, and eventually read around the world.
“She would not have approved,” he says of his mother. “She didn't believe in any kind of exposure, confession. For her, poverty was something to be ashamed of. Somehow you failed. You were left out in the grand scheme of things. She would have hated the book. She would have hated me."
And yet these are wonderful times for Frank McCourt, 30 years a teacher, now 10 years a writer.
“It’s magic,” he says. “It's beyond the American dream. It's a fantasy.”
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
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