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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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Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt
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Frank McCourt Interview

Pulitzer Prize for Biography

June 19, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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  Frank McCourt

You've certainly addressed this question in your first book, but to begin with, what was your childhood like?

Frank McCourt: It was rich in the sense that...

Even though we were poor, at the lowest level, even below the lowest economic level, we were always excited. It was rich in the sense that we had a lot to look up to, to look forward to, a lot to aspire to, a lot to dream about. But in economic circumstances it was desperate. It was Calcutta with rain. At least they're warm in Calcutta. But it was desperate because of certain things, ingredients like my father being an alcoholic, my mother having too many babies in too short a time, no work available in Ireland, and even when my father did get a job he drank the wages. Then there was the harsh kind of schooling we had with school masters who ruled with a stick and then because of the overwhelming presence of the church, which imbued us with fear all the time. So it was fear, dampness, poverty, alcoholism, fear of the church, fear of the school masters, fear in general.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

But at the same time when we got out of school, when we were away from the church, when we were out of the house, we were on the streets and we were always excited. And when you have nothing little things become very precious, like books. There was an occasional book that came into our house and we just devoured it. In that sense it was very rich.

Were there specific books that were important to you as a young person? Books that inspired you or influenced you in some way?

Frank McCourt: I think the first book that I ever read was Tom Brown's School Days, which my mother bought for me at Woolworth's in Limerick for sixpence. One of those pulp--cheap pulp books. And I treasured that. And then occasionally other books came into our area but we couldn't just go out and buy books and there was not a library for children. There was a Carnegie library for adults. But we didn't have books. So when Huckleberry Finn came in I -- I wanted to be Tom Sawyer. I wanted to go down to the river Shannon and stand at the banks of the river, and did, and dreamed it might be the Mississippi, and I'd get a raft and off I'd go 60 miles out to sea. And I wanted to be free like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

But these were the books that made a big impression on me. The main literature in our lives was the literature of the church: the Sunday missal and the lives of the saints. Since books were so scarce I can remember all of them, even the look of them and the smell of them.

Did that make them all the more precious?

Frank McCourt: Oh yeah, everything was precious.

I remember a loaf of bread that was precious because it was so little. My mother would bring home what they called a Vienna loaf. I remember one particular loaf of bread when we were so hungry. I can still taste it. So poverty does make things precious. It turns everything into jewelry.

What about teachers? In the midst of that harsh schooling are there teachers who influenced you or opened up possibilities for you?

Frank McCourt: They didn't have the human touch that American teachers have, I think, but they did other things and they ruled in a way. They had style. When I get together with my people my own age and talk about Leamy's National School, we can still talk about all the teachers, how distinctive they were, from the first teacher, Tom Scallon, who taught the first grade. At the end of every day Tom Scallon became the music teacher. He'd stand us up and we'd sing in Irish and English and Latin. He had a way of teaching that was fairly brutal but still very musical, and he taught us all the Irish ballads, and some American stuff, and Gregorian or plain chant.

The last teacher I had was a man named O'Halloran. But he was the only one who offered words of encouragement, who told us we were distinct, unique individuals with a right to think for ourselves. And that was just before we left Leamy's National School. And he told me, "My boy, you are a literary genius." And you can imagine what I had to put up with at the schoolyard with all the others. "Hey, McCourt, you're a literary genius. Look at him. Look at the literary genius." But it wasn't negative. It was just teasing. But they respected him and they respected me for being picked out by Mr. O'Halloran.

Were you a good student?

Frank McCourt: I was, I suppose, because there was no choice. They'd beat the hell out of you if you didn't do your work. Some of us were quicker than others. Some kids were very slow and they suffered from it because the masters would get irritable. They wanted you to know, and if you didn't know, if you didn't comprehend, they would haul you out of your seat and knock you around the room, which is not advanced pedagogy.

What did you do to earn this label of literary genius at such a young age?

Frank McCourt: I think I was always attracted to writing. I always wanted to write because for me it was magic to get a piece of paper and put words on it. As I'm always saying, to put together words that were never before put together by anybody. To take two words that were never joined together like a "scintillating turnip." I would put words together like that just to keep the language fresh. When I was nine or ten I was trying to write a detective novel, an English detective novel, set in London, which I had never seen. All I knew about London was what I read in English detective novels. So I was always up to something like that, and writing little playlets that I'd make my brothers act in.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I wrote one play about how my youngest brother, Alfie was lost. He was only one, and there was a nail on the wall, and we hung him on that nail by the back of his shirt, and then we forgot about him. My mother came home and she says, "Where's the child?" And we couldn't remember. -"Where did you put him?" We couldn't remember and we found him hanging on the wall. I think he's been damaged by that ever since. But I would go on writing stuff like this.

In school if they told me write an essay of 150 words I'd write 500 words, so the masters said, "Stop, McCourt. Stop. That's enough. Stop." And then they might read it to the class and then, of course, I'd be teased again in the schoolyard. "For Jesus sake, McCourt, will you stop writing? We have to listen to it."

Mr. O'Halloran used to take my compositions home and read them to his kids who went to private school. I was always scribbling.

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