ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Story number one, the winner of today's Pulitzer Prize for Biography, Frank McCourt. He won for "Angela's Ashes," a memoir of growing up amid punishing poverty in Limerick, Ireland, just before and during World War II. McCourt is a retired schoolteacher living in New York. He is 66 years old, and "Angela's Ashes" is his first book. I spoke to him last month about his life and his writing. Here is an excerpt from that conversation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us, Mr. McCourt.
FRANK McCOURT, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Biography: Thank you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about Limerick, the lane you lived in, what you had and what you didn't have there, the house you lived in.
FRANK McCOURT: It was gray. Everything was gray. The streets were gray. The part of Limerick we lived in is Georgian, you know, those Georgian houses. You see them in pictures of Dublin. But there were white streets--the civilized part--well, we lived in the back streets--they called them lanes.
They were the slums, not ghettos, lanes. And the particular lane we lived in there were 12 families, and the significant thing about that lane was we were the last house down at the lane, and diagonally across from our door, next to it, catacorner, was the lavatory for the whole lane. That was I suppose--if I were to pick a symbol for my life, an image, that lavatory that all the people emptied their buckets into, 12 families.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And your downstairs was wet a good part of the time, right?
FRANK McCOURT: We had two up, two down, the old houses, what they called artisans dwellings built by Queen Victoria in the old days. So there were two rooms downstairs, but when it rained, a lake formed at the end of the lane and seeped in under our door, so we--after October, we had to move upstairs. We called upstairs Italy. We went to Italy every October and came back down to Ireland in April because it was just a lake. It was a flood in the downstairs room.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your mother, Angela, of the title lived in almost a permanent state of grief, didn't she?
FRANK McCOURT: Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She had lost your little sister, your baby sister, Margaret, when they lived in New York.
FRANK McCOURT: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before they went back to Ireland. They had emigrated to New York and then returned. And then your little brothers, your twin brothers, died too. Tell us about those deaths. Why did they--did they die partly because they were so hungry and cold all the time?
FRANK McCOURT: Well, I think the death certificate says bronchial pneumonia; they both died of bronchial pneumonia. My sister died in Brooklyn. I think she died of bronchial pneumonia too, which is very strange. And they took her body away, and that was the end of it. She was never seen.
But I found out later where she was buried. She was buried in a pauper's grave in Brooklyn. So then we went back to Ireland because my mother fell apart, and my father was drinking all over Brooklyn, so my grandmother in Limerick sent money for six fares. My mother had had six children in five and a half years, and three of them died in that time.
When we went back to Limerick in early 1935, I think it was, one of the twins, Oliver, died in May, and the next one died in November. And my brother, Michael, was conceived in May, the month that Oliver died. So it wasn't till a long time after my mother died a few years ago that I realized how hard she'd had it, all these pregnancies and deaths in one year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your father, as you said, drank, did not support the family. Instead of telling us about him, read us something about him.
FRANK McCOURT: Okay. "I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him: the one in the morning with the paper, one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.
I feel sad over the bad thing but I can't back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father. And if I were in America, I could say, ‘I love you, Dad,' the way they do in the films. But you can't say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at. You're allowed to say you love God and babies and horses that win. But anything else is a softness in the head."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you find the voice for telling this story? When I read the book, I was amazed at how you are a small child. You're three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, nineteen years old when the book ends. How did you do that? How did you go back to that?
FRANK McCOURT: I think it was a matter of comfort. The first twenty pages or so are written in the past tense in the ordinary standard English, but then one day I just wrote the sentence. "I'm in a playground in Kassen Avenue in Brooklyn. I am three and my brother, Menachie, is two. We're on a seesaw. Up down, up down." I wrote in the present tense, and I wrote as a child and felt very comfortable. And I was on my way after that. I went right through from three to nineteen in that mode.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You must have been very angry for quite a while after this experience, losing so many members of your family, you being humiliated over and over again. Were you angry?
FRANK McCOURT: Well, when I arrived in America at 19, I was a time bomb, and I continued like that for a long time. I couldn't engage in any civilized discussion of anything because if anybody opposed me, I would simply erupt. And I was always getting into trouble over this.
And it took me years--and I think it was in the classroom as a high school teacher--I finally became a civilized human being that had to listen to other points of view and present mine in a reasonable way. I still get irritable--some of that anger is a residue of the anger still there--sometimes when I look back in Limerick and look back at particularly the role--of what the church did to us--I become a bit bitter.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you think you escaped? How do you think you managed to get out?
FRANK McCOURT: I always wanted to get out, and since I knew I was born in Brooklyn and my mother always said, we'll all go back to America some day. That was our dream. And our window on the world was the Lyric Cinema in Limerick, where we'd go over on a Saturday afternoon to see Fred dancing and Cagney--Cagney going to jail into the electric--the execution chamber. So we knew we were going to get out. That was our dream.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've sold the paperback rights for $1 million. How does it feel to be rich now, after so much poverty?
FRANK McCOURT: How does it feel? I feel very nervous to have to write another book. Kind of an addiction, that book two is a continuation of book one. All the money in the world won't help me to write that book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's a continuation with you starting at age nineteen and going forward?
FRANK McCOURT: And what a fool I was, how damaged I was by my childhood because I knew nothing. I knew nothing about women, sex. I didn't know anything about civilized behavior. I barely knew the difference between a knife and a fork. When I went into an automat--those Horn and Harder automats--I walked in my first time, and they had a steam table, and I said, I'll have one of those.
The lady says, "What?". I said, "One of those sausages." She said, "Oh, yeah, hot dog. Well, what do you want on it?". I said, "Some of that." "Gravy?" "Yeah." She thought that was very amusing, and everybody at the steam table laughed. So I was embarrassed. And this is how I picked my way through American civilization.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, good luck with your next book. And Frank McCourt, thanks for being with us.
FRANK McCOURT: Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you very much.