The Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt talks about growing up in Ireland and the teachers who encouraged him to write.
Finding a voice
The Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt speaks with Phillipa Kennedy about growing up in the slums of Limerick, literary success and the teachers who encouraged him to write The e-mail from Frank McCourt was worrying. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes has been seriously ill since he was in Dubai in February. "My typing here might seeem (sic) erratic," he wrote. "I just spent weeks in hospital after a 'brain seizure' due to melanoma. That's why I have to wait a few days to send you a proper reply. Forgive this abruptness. Frank." Last week, news of McCourt's illness was made public and his -brother, Malachy, also an author, told the Associated Press that the cancer was in remission. He says that Frank is "a hearty fellow and he's survived worse than this". McCourt's agent, Molly Friedrich, added that he is now at home in New York, where he is "doing pretty well" and going through chemotherapy. The fact that he bothered to respond to my e-mail asking him to clarify something was touching. He is one of life's gentlemen - quiet, unassuming, courteous and possessed of huge charm. It never fails to amaze him how dramatically different his life is now to the one into which he was born. In Dubai during the Emirates International Festival of Literature, he marvelled at his journey from the poorest slums of Limerick, Ireland, to an apartment in New York's fashionable Upper West Side and a country retreat in Connecticut, where his nearest neighbours are the actress Mia Farrow, the author Philip Roth and, until 2005 when he died, the playwright Arthur Miller. "You write a book about your miserable childhood and you wind up in Dubai with a luxurious suite on the plane with your own bed, your own TV and your own supply of soft drinks - anything you want," he mused with the particular brand of gentle irony that characterises his writing. His searing memoir of his childhood, Angela's Ashes, which he started writing at the age of 64, catapulted him from the New York classrooms where he spent 30 years as a teacher to the feted life of an international literary success. It won him the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1997 and was made into a film directed by Alan Parker. Three books followed: 'Tis, the sequel to Angela's Ashes, Teacher Man, which charts his early life in New York and his progress as a teacher, and the children's book Angela and the Baby Jesus, which was inspired by a story his mother used to tell. He is currently working on a fourth memoir after having tried and abandoned novel writing. At 78, he is a wealthy man, happy in his third marriage to Ellen, a breezy, outgoing American from California whom he has known for 20 years. It's hardly surprising that McCourt has set up trust funds and made his will to ensure a comfortable future for his daughter, Maggie, from his first marriage, and three grandchildren. "Like everybody else I see the stock market sinking but I'm not too concerned about it. I've done my bit for the kids," he said. At the literary festival, it was clear that his popularity as a writer is assured, with long queues of admirers clutching his books and waiting for more than an hour for him to sign them, but he has never let it go to his head. "How do you adjust overnight to becoming recognised? I was just an obscure teacher and nobody paid me a scrap of attention. It's like dealing with marriage. I wallowed in it at first," he said. Success makes the years he spent teaching English at McKee High School and Stuyvesant High School in New York City seem worthwhile. "Have you ever stood before 35 New York teenagers at eight o'clock in the morning? That's just one class and you have five classes like that five days of the week. I don't know how I survived it at all. The kids knew that I was floundering and they gave me a break." McCourt was born to Malachy and Angela McCourt in Brooklyn but, unable to find work in the depths of the Depression, his father brought the family back to Ireland in 1934. Often out of work, Malachy drank his wages much of the time, forcing Angela to beg for money for food and clothing from a local charity. Malachy eventually abandoned the family, leaving Angela to bring up four children in a rat-infested slum where the outside lavatories overflowed and rain flooded the rooms. McCourt nearly died of typhoid when he was 10. Over the years he took a variety of jobs and engaged in some petty theft until, at the age of 19, he had accumulated enough money to pay for his ticket on a ship bound for New York. "That was the way out. For the British it was the Empire. For the Irish of my generation it was the USA or Canada or Australia, but I always had the New York skyline in my dreams. "I had no skills and the personality of an old eggshell. Every time I opened my mouth they said, 'Oh you're Irish', so I tried to disguise my accent and talk like James Cagney." McCourt was drafted into the US Army, and spent two years training German Shepherd dogs in Germany. He rose to the rank of Corporal in the Canine Corps. It was good preparation for teaching, he said, and it isn't a joke. "When I got out I was the beneficiary of a wonderful piece of legislation called the GI Bill. I didn't think I would get in with my limited -elementary primary education but I talked my way into NYU. That was the turning point of my life. What I'd be doing now I don't know. I might be a doorman in Park Avenue but I always knew that there was another path I wanted to take in my life." His self confidence was given a huge boost when a lecturer at New York University spotted his raw natural talent. "He told us to write about an object and it had to be specific. So I wrote about the bed me and my brothers occupied in Limerick. It had a mattress that collapsed in the middle and we tried to keep it together with strings but they rotted. People would be disgusted at how sodden it was. And there were fleas. "We got in and pulled these overcoats over ourselves, but there were no sheets. We had a bolster that never had a cover on it so the feathers came out and we went to school in the morning looking like Apaches. "The teacher wanted me to read it to the class but I was too shy. I didn't want the girls in the class to know the squalor of my childhood, but I noticed that after that they looked at me differently." It wasn't the first time he was singled out for his writing skills. His primary school teacher, a Mr O'Halloran, once announced loudly: "My boy, you're a literary genius" after reading a poem he wrote. It was something that resulted in constant teasing and fights in the school playground. McCourt describes those days quietly but so vividly that the listener is transported back to the filthy tenements known as the Lanes, where disease flourished and took the lives of the young and the weak. The smell of poverty has never left him, and occasionally he recognises it in the far-flung corners of the world when he travels (not in five-star luxury). "I smelled it again in India and I just fell apart. I carry the images with me and it gets to me," he said. "When we saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, my wife asked me if it reminded me of anywhere, and I said no because India is warm. "You don't see barefoot kids in -Ireland any more. When I was young, there would be 10 barefoot kids in a class of 30. We always had shoes, and mother would put cardboard in them. It was awful and freezing in Limerick in the winter. It's hard to convey what it was like for people without hope." McCourt found escape from the daily misery in books. "We had nothing else but ourselves - no TV and no radio. A rare book came into the house now and then. Tom Brown's Schooldays was my first book. Can you imagine how I struggled through that? It was my introduction to the doings of British boys at boarding schools like Harrow and Eton. "Then I stumbled on PG Wodehouse. I was living in an alternate universe and I thought that was how you write. I didn't know about having a voice. None of the teachers encouraged us to be individual in any way. Then I discovered Mark Twain and how you could write in a colloquial way. That was astounding and I tried to imitate him. I got into trouble about that, too. Mr O'Dee said it wasn't English." Not everyone was happy with the pictures McCourt painted of his hometown, and a furious correspondence kept the pages of the local newspaper alive with controversy. "It was stirred up by a few individuals, what they called in Ireland the begrudgers. The local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, turned against me and the actor Richard Harris, also from Limerick, denounced me. A lot of them jumped on the bandwagon then. "But the night I went to sign books in Limerick in O'Mahony's book shop, the people were lined up down O'Connell Street and round the corner - people from my past, people on the verge of dying, people who were in my class. It was a very emotional evening with people crying and talking about my mother." He still harbours ambitions to be a novelist but you get the impression that he's just happy to be alive and writing. "There's a novel in the back of my mind but you never know. I may be too late."