INSIDE Chico State
0 November 16, 2000
Volume 31 Number 7
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico





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Irish Tales

Author Frank McCourt signs copies of his books after his talk on November 6. Daran Finney, University Public Events, helped organize hundreds of autograph seekers.
Author Frank McCourt signs copies of his books after his talk on November 6. Daran Finney, University Public Events, helped organize hundreds of autograph seekers.

(Photo by Zu Vincent)

Author Frank McCourt jokes that he's horrified at the idea of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Angela's Ashes, being taught -- and therefore dissected -- in high school literature classes.

"There's no deeper meaning in Angela's Ashes," he insists about the childhood memoir of life in Limerick, Ireland. The book spent 117 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, has been reprinted 65 times in 27 languages, won numerous awards and inspired a Hollywood movie.

"I wrote it simply to show the ingredients which made up our lives: patriotism, religion, poverty and, grimmest of all, alcoholism."

Yet this tragic, humor-filled memoir has a life of its own, as shown by Monday night's tribute to the silver-haired bard in Laxson auditorium. After McCourt's deliciously rich and funny talk, a thick line of fans snaked along the sidewalk and out to the street, waiting to get their books signed.

McCourt sees the richness in life, wherever it leads, whether it's in Angela's Ashes or in 'Tis, his latest book, not like those Russian novels, he quipped, with their 900 pages of gloom that end in the character's doom.

"They should have killed that character off at page four," joked McCourt, "before we had to read the whole thing."

Beguiling the crowd with humor, McCourt talked about the development of his writing through the telling of tales, revealing his love of hangings, a hilarious romp through heaven, purgatory, limbo and hell, and scenes from his tortured school days.

"Writing is a mysterious process," he said, "like falling in love. 'What do you see in her?' your friends ask. 'She's marvelous!' you say. 'Don't you have any taste?' they counter."

This mysterious process has pulled him since childhood, when he created his first one-act play, indulging a then obsession for famous hangings.

"We couldn't actually have a hanging," he admitted about the time he coerced his brothers into acting. "But my brother Anthony, as an infant, provided a substitute."

Hanging the "fat-faced" baby on a nail on the wall, the older McCourt brothers staged their play, but forgot to rescue their brother.

"That was the start of my career," said McCourt, "but nearly the end of Anthony."

Ever since, revealed McCourt, he's been scribbling away, but it wasn't until his retirement in '94 that his story poured out.

His young life in Ireland was governed by a homogenous culture, where everyone knew the same songs of martyrs and saints, and where fathers were often out of work and down at the pub. Here a condemning Catholic church and a heavy-handed school system dominated through fear of heavenly reprisal.

"Any Irishman can sing one hundred songs of lamentation," McCourt said of this culture. "We're a nation of lamentation.

"Our songs sang of how our noble race fought the English for eight hundred years," he added. "And we were always about to win, too, but were betrayed by some dark damning foreigner at the final hour."

Ravaged by poverty, McCourt always had food on his mind, and he knew first hand his father's adage, "After a full belly, everything else is poetry."

"And he was right. You can't think when you're starving. You're so ashamedÉof your house that's so bleak and cold and wet. You can't have anybody over for this shame, so we stayed in our hovels alone, year after year." he explained.

Yet living life on the edge was also full of adventure, and the excitement of the street, where "nothing came between us and our lives.

"I never saw a wall I couldn't climb," said McCourt about a boyhood spent hoisting himself over anything taller than he was, just to see what was on the other side. These were days made magic by a football (soccer ball) fashioned from a sheep's bladder, and a tin-can ball.

His only troubles came, he insisted, from theology. Incidents such as the time in school when he was asked why God made the world, and he answered boldly, "So men can have a place to stand on, sir."

This smart answer earned him a familiar beating.

Sustained through his harsh upbringing by his dream of returning to America, where his family had lived until he was four, McCourt returned at age 17. Today, his dream has been rewarded beyond what even he thought possible.

"I didn't know when I wrote Angela's Ashes that all these things would happen to me," he said. "Now I'm the great hope of the senior citizen set. Old people everywhere are leaping from their beds with pen and pencil."

"I'm glad fame happened to me in my so-called Golden Years," McCourt couldn't help but add. "If it had happened when I was younger, I'd be dead now of whiskey and fornication."

He might tease, but he's also modestly grateful that he's made permanent the story of his family. And the man who suddenly has more money than he's ever made in his life, now only wants to use it to take care of his own, and write another book, this time on his love of teaching.

-- Zu Vincent


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