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The McCourts: Down Memoir Lane 

Last Updated: 09/13/2016 3:53 pm

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Neither brother read Frank’s work-in-progress. (Malachy states, “That’s a rule of thumb: Don’t show anything to relatives until it’s too late.”) But nobody could have anticipated the spotlight Angela’s Ashes would turn on their lives. “A number of people in Limerick took exception,” says Malachy. “One guy tried to organize a book-burning—he said they’d burn 20,000 copies. I told Frank, ‘I hope it’s the hardcover. That’d add a lot to your sales.’” The objection? “It wasn’t respectable.”

Alphie adds, “One of the oddest things was people who said ‘We didn’t have much either, but...’ as if they were apologizing for having food in the kitchen. At one point an English newspaper ran a contest for anecdotes about families who were even poorer than ours. The winner wrote, ‘We were so poor we lived in a hole, in a ditch by the side of the road.’” Malachy thunders righteously, “Ye were lucky to have a hole!” and both brothers laugh.

The lunch group trickles in. Today’s celebrants include playwright Patrick Fenton and actress Mary Tierney; filmmaker Teressa Tunney; Malachy’s sons Conor and Malachy Jr. (in town from Bali, where he runs a scuba school); and numerous writers. Mark McDevitt congratulates Alphie on his publication. “There’s no room on the shelves for all these McCourt books. It’s a genre!”

Reached by phone in Connecticut, the genre’s progenitor says it’s “very gratifying to read their version of events.” The three brothers recently appeared at Marymount Manhattan College. “Each of us talked for awhile, with a lot of jeering and booing back and forth,” Frank reports.

Though he and Malachy once shared the stage in a semi-improvised Off-Broadway play called A Couple of Blaguards, Frank doesn’t consider himself a performer. “I put in my 30 years of teaching. Now I just want to sit quietly at the desk and let it come,” he says, adding, “Students are a very tough audience. They’re heat-seeking missiles.”

Teacher Man details his career in New York’s public schools, where the one-time dropout flummoxed administrators with nontraditional assignments (“Write a suicide note”) and shared his passion for words with thousands of lucky teenagers.

“I loved teaching, but writing is what I was put on this Earth for,” he says. “It was always in the back of my mind while teaching: You should just shut up and write.” But he was “too busy making a living” and lacked the self-confidence to make such a leap. He published his first book at 66, disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American lives.

Frank’s philosophy, as a teacher and for himself, is “to move from fear to freedom. You can’t ever achieve it, of course—there’s no Fourth of July in the human psyche—but you move slowly toward it, and if you’re lucky, you can feel the shackles falling off.”

All over the world, he’s had former students show up at his author events. “It’s very gratifying to have been a writing teacher, so-called, and then to go out and prove you weren’t talking through the hole of your arse.” His advice to aspiring writers? “Scribble. Don’t try to write, just scribble. If you tell yourself, ‘I’m going to write a book,’ or a play, you’re sunk. Do what an artist does, sketch it out in a very casual way. The most important thing is to sit in the chair.” Told that, Malachy says the same thing; he deadpans, “And where d’you think he got that?”

It’s telling that the McCourts’ memoirs bear similar dedications. Alongside a litany of wives, friends, and children appear these words: “To my brothers, Malachy, Michael, Alphonsus. I learn from you, I admire you, and I love you” (Angela’s Ashes); “With much gratitude to the brothers Frank—for opening the golden door and leading the way—and to Mike and Alphie with my love and thanks” (A Monk Swimming); “To my brothers, Frank, Malachy, and Michael, for blazing more than a few trails.” (A Long Stone’s Throw).

Which leads to an obvious question: Will fourth brother Mike, a San Francisco barman, ever write a memoir? Frank laughs. “Mike says, ‘I’ll write a memoir when the other fuckers are dead.’”

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