Photo: Kit DeFever
Frank McCourt slogged away for 30 years teaching in New York City public schools-hardly the traditional route to literary stardom. The self-described “late bloomer” retired in 1987 and wrote the memoir that would amplify his existence: Angela’s Ashes. When it arrived in 1996, McCourt, a ripe 66, became an international celebrity, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a consultant on the Hollywood film, and a sought-after speaker. ‘Tis: A Memoir, the second installment of McCourt’s life story, became another best seller in 1999. Now comes Teacher Man, which details McCourt’s three decades instructing thousands of challenging adolescents. Victoria Lautman talked with McCourt, who spoke by phone from his home in Manhattan.
Q: You set out to do a novel, but veered off into Teacher Man. What happened?
A: I thought I’d have more freedom in fiction, to say what I wanted about teaching and bureaucrats and the schools. But then reality turned out to be sufficient to fill the pages. Writing a novel is something I’ve wanted to try my hand at, but I’m not a kid anymore.
Q: There were memoirs before Angela’s Ashes came out in 1996, but it seems that afterwards the floodgates opened with writers chronicling their crazed, dysfunctional upbringings.
A: Maybe I beat everyone to the punch. But many of my contemporaries in Ireland told me, “I could have written that book,” or “I think I have a book in me,” and I’d say, “Go write it, then; put your ass in the seat and do it!” I suppose I might have inspired some people, but there are thousands of others who are ashamed to write of their history, and were even hostile to me for writing about it. Shame and guilt and fear: those are the main ingredients in all our lives.
Q: Were you at all bitter that success came to you relatively late in life?
A: No. If it had come any earlier I would have been dead of alcohol and fornication! I can’t stand hangovers and I’m not as amorous as I used to be.
Q: Your first act as a public-school teacher was to wolf down a bologna sandwich thrown on the floor by a student. Somehow, this seems like a harbinger of your teaching style for the next 30 years.
A: Ha! Well, it was the only thing I could think of doing at the time-an act of desperation, in a way. It betokened a certain radical way of thinking, although, at the moment, I didn’t think of myself that way. In fact I wasn’t much of a thinker at all, but I had instincts. And it was an excellent sandwich. I can still taste it.
Q: After the publication of Angela’s Ashes, you felt depressed until starting the next book. Now that you’ve finished the third installment, do we need to break out the Zoloft, or is there a fourth volume coming . . . maybe Writer Dude?
A: Oh, I don’t have time for being depressed anymore. I’ve learned a few things since then. Writing that book was accomplishing The Big Project, and if I hadn’t written it I’d have died howling, “Please, God, give me another year!” But then ‘Tis was beckoning, and then Teacher Man. As for what’s next, I do want to write a picaresque novel about a teacher, because it intrigues me to create characters out of nowhere, and it won’t kill me if I fail. Otherwise, what am I going to do with myself?
Q: Got a name for it?
A: Deep Stuff. But only my wife knows that, and now she’s groaning in despair.