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If you like Frank McCourt's story, you might also like:
David Herbert Donald,
James Michener,
N. Scott Momaday,
John Sexton,
Amy Tan and
John Updike

Frank McCourt can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Frank McCourt's recommended reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finny

Frank McCourt also appears in the video:
Heroes and the American Dream

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Frank McCourt in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Poets & Poetry

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Simon & Schuster
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Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt
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Frank McCourt Interview (page: 5 / 6)

Pulitzer Prize for Biography

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  Frank McCourt

When you started teaching in New York, did you think this was going to be your life, your career?

Frank McCourt: No, I didn't. Especially in the beginning at McKee Vocational, a technical high school where they nearly killed me. Before that I had worked in warehouses, I had worked on the docks, I had done all kinds of physical work, but I was never so exhausted as I was after a day at McKee High School. I used to go home and throw myself on the floor without benefit of pillow and lie there for two hours to physically and emotionally recover, and I dreaded going in the next day. But something happened.

One morning I was taking the train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, where I got the ferry to go out to Staten Island, and I was getting off the train at Whitehall Street, stepping off the train and on to the platform, and this thought came into my head, "You could decide today to be happy. You could just make a decision, instead of going in fear and trembling into the classroom." Now it's easy to say that, and it doesn't always work, but I realized that I was resisting some kind of gloom, gravity, that most of us, most of the time, we look on the dark side, I think, but you have to work at lifting yourself up but I tried it that day. It was the beginning of that kind of practice.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Then I realized, "If you don't enjoy yourself in the classroom, get out. "

It would have been easier to do what my three brothers did, go into the bar business. Go up there and meet glamorous men and beautiful women on the East Side and stay out all night drinking and have brunch with some long-legged creature from Boston. No. I thought of that but then I thought of the kids in the classroom, and there was something more appealing about that. And besides I wanted to get through. I wanted to get through to them and I wanted things to click, and sometimes in the -- there's something that happens in a classroom that I know actors experience and artists, in general. There's some time when you make a breakthrough, and some light goes on. One day in McKee I made a breakthrough of some kind, and for me there was kind of a white blazing light in the room and I went, "Jesus, this is absolutely orgasmic in an intellectual and emotional sense."

[ Key to Success ] Passion

We were dealing with a poem and it was called--the poem was called "My Papa's Waltz." You're always telling the kids, "Look for the deeper meaning," and then there would be a test. But I said to the kids, "Let's get inside the poem. What's going on in here?" And there was an explosion for me at that moment because we were doing it together. I wasn't a teacher anymore, as in "I know everything and you're just out there. I tell you what you need to know." Instead I said, "You tell me what's happening. Tell me what's going on in here." That was a turning point that colored my whole teaching career.

So at some point it became more than a job?

Frank McCourt: It had to be more than a job, because as Dylan Thomas said, "A job is death without dignity." And I didn't want that kind of life. I had to go into the classroom and enjoy myself. And I'd say to the kids every September, "By the end of this term there's one person in this class who will have learned something, and that will be me." And I have to enjoy myself. I told them, "I have to enjoy myself here. I have to do it. You'll be graduating and I'll still be here and I'm not going to wither on the vine. I'm not going to be old Mr. Chips. I'm going to swing."

How did you get from the classrooms of New York City public schools to Angela's Ashes?

Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes was germinating all the time, ever since that bed composition. I tried in the '60s, around 1967, '68. I tried to write a novel called If You Live in the Lane. I was talking to the kids about writing, but even though I was 38, 39 years old, I really didn't trust myself. So I was trying to imitate. I was going through a James Joyce phase, a Portrait of the Artist phase, which was a little late considering he wrote Portrait of the Artist when he was 22.

So here I am, at age 38 or 39, imitating Joyce, and it didn't work. I put it away. I was teaching at Stuyvesant High School at the time.

Kids were asking me about my life, and I would dole out a few anecdotes, and they kept saying, "Oh, you should write a book. You should write a book." And I thought I should write a book, and I was trying. And every summer I would try to write the book and you need -- You can't do it. It's like running a marathon. You can't say, "Oh, I'm going to run the marathon." You have to, nine months in advance at least, start training. And it's the same thing with writing. You have to get the rhythms, and you have to, above all, find the voice, and it took me all those years, not until I retired. But I had the material. That's the main thing. The material was circling around my head and lying there in my notebooks waiting to be tapped.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

How do you find your own unique, distinctive voice?

Frank McCourt: In the case of Angela's Ashes it was almost an accident.

I wish I could say again that I was like James Joyce, who worked things out, or Hemingway, who just sculpted those sentences. For me, it was my method of writing that led me to it. Sitting with a notebook and a pen writing on the right-hand page whatever story I wanted to tell, and making notes on the left-hand page about ideas coming to me for future reference. And I wrote 19 or 20 pages of Angela's Ashes which is in the past tense, describing my mother and father coming to New York. And on the left page I wrote one day -- I knew the next day I wanted to get to my earliest memories and start my story. My story. And I wrote, "I'm in a playground on Claussen Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two. I'm three. We're on the seesaw. He goes up. I go down. He goes up. I go down. I get off. Malachy comes down, crashes, bites his tongue and there's blood." That was my earliest memory. And the next day I picked that up in the present tense with the perspective of the three-year old, me, and it felt comfortable and I continued that way. I just -- it was a glove that I put on.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

How do you handle success?

Frank McCourt: Success! I'm almost somebody on an assembly line now.

I didn't know Angela's Ashes would be successful, and if it hadn't sold the way it did, it hadn't brought me all these prizes and so on, I would have gone back to teaching. But the book would have been written. It would be on the bookshelves. It would be -- it would have its Library of Congress catalogue number and I would have been satisfied. I would have been profoundly satisfied, and I would have gone back to teaching, and that would have given me such satisfaction, too. I'd stay there till I died. I'd be in front of the class some day talking about dangling participles, and I'd get an aneurysm and keel over, and they'd take me out feet first. A warrior, a pedagogical warrior!

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

But that didn't happen. It sold more than the 27,000 copies, and it sold, and sold, and sold, and I got the prizes. And then...

I realized that I hadn't finished my story. I had brought it up to the age of 19, but what I wanted to show was, I think, the effects of that childhood, the poverty and the religion, and everything else on a young man coming to New York. What it does to your self-esteem, how I was damaged and also how I benefited from it. Because no matter what I say about the poverty, there was a richness. No matter what I said about the church, there was a richness in that religious experience. If we hadn't had the church, the architecture, which was Neo-Gothic or Neo-Byzantine -- I don't know what the hell it was. But there was the liturgy, the Latin, the ceremonial, the sense of mystery, the sense of awe, the sense of wonder, and the power, the art, the duplicated paintings of the stations of the cross, all of that.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

So I realized when I finished Angela's Ashes...

I had to show what happened to this young man, me, who I hope would be a prototype for all immigrants. What happened to me. How I made my way through New York, which is a fearful place to get through, and how accidentally certain things happened, and how I made certain things happen. That's kind of a balance. Some things happen to you. I made certain decisions. I made a decision that I wasn't going to be a cop, that I wasn't going to be a bartender. That I wasn't going to stay in some menial job for the rest of my -- because of my anger. I'm better than this. And most people know they're better than that.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

So I had to go to college. I was saved, as I said, by the Chinese attacking Korea and then getting the GI Bill when I got out of the Army. This story, how all of these things happened to me, is the story of the next book, which is called 'Tis.

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This page last revised on Sep 09, 2013 14:23 EST
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