Back in 1996, I had recently returned from a fairly extensive tour of Ireland. At work, I came across an advance reader's copy of Angela's Ashes and immediately dove into it. I figured having just seen Limerick; I'd be familiar with the lay of the land. Boy was I ever wrong. McCourt's stirring portrait of poverty so severely jarred with the thriving city I had just visited, it was as if I was reading about the Middle Ages, not the 1940's. Moved as I was by his memoir, I wrote McCourt a letter (his address was still listed in the Manhattan phone book). Frank promptly replied and I still have the postcard in which he hoped that more readers would embrace the book. And embrace it they did! Upon publication, Angela's Ashes was an immediate bestseller, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize
We interviewed Frank shortly after the release of Angela's Ashes and his candid grace, self effacing humor, and overall goodness left a lasting impression on us all.
B&N: If you were a tree -- no, scratch that. Could you settle the great debate? Guinness or Murphy's.
Frank McCourt: Is there a great debate? I wasn't aware. I'd have to say Guinness. Murphy's is too sweet, too sugary. You prefer Murphy's, don't you?
B&N: Er, yes.
Frank McCourt: I knew you were going to say that.
B&N: Okay, in the schoolyard: ten-year-old Frank McCourt versus Paddy Clarke. Who would win?
Frank McCourt: Oh, that's easy. Frank McCourt, for his sheer ferocity.
B&N: Is there a Dublin/Limerick rivalry?
Frank McCourt: Absolutely. Dubliners can't stand Limerickmen. Limerickmen don't give Dubliners much thought, but people from Limerick drive Dubliners crazy. It's because Limerick is undefinable, and Dubliners so love to pigeonhole everything: "Galway is the most Irish part of Ireland, Dublin is the cosmopolitan center of it all." But they don't know what to say about Limerick, and this infuriates them. Limerick remains aloof.
B&N: Have you been to the new Stuyvesant High School building?
Frank McCourt: Yes. It's a disaster. It's like public education the world over -- it's anti-kid. It's the whole adversarial relationship between schools and their students. I fail to understand why they insist on building these prison-like edifices and expect kids to learn in them.
B&N: I understand you've written a book. Has success changed you?
Frank McCourt: Boy, you're really on top of things over there at Barnes & Noble, aren't you? Well, yes. I'm much, much busier than I expected to be. I'm not complaining, mind you. It's just that I'm a great lounger, and I do so like to walk around and sniff flowers and the like. I'll do it a bit different next time.
B&N: One of the things I remember most about your book is the shocking state of your teeth. Did you ever get them fixed?
Frank McCourt: Oh yes, when I came back over here the Army fixed 'em up for me.
B&N: Any thoughts on the current state of Irish dentistry?
Frank McCourt: It's gotten much better. Used to be the slightest thing wrong with your teeth and whoops! Out it came. You'd see people walking around bleeding from the mouth all the time. I had three teeth yanked out for no good reason. It's better today, though England and Ireland are still the leading sugar consumers in the world, and until that changes dentists will still make a good living over there.
To paraphrase fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde; forget time, forgive life, and be at peace, Frank McCourt.
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