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Frank McCourt talks storytelling

The Story

In 1997, Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Angela's Ashes. It was his revealing memoir about growing up poor in Ireland. In this 1999 interview with CBC's Rex Murphy, McCourt talks about his teaching career, the importance of books in his life and the origins of Angela's Ashes. Rex Murphy later recalled this interview while reflecting on his own career in journalism. Of all his many author interviews, "it was, by far, the most fun," Murphy reflects.

Medium: Television
Program: The National Magazine
Broadcast Date: Oct. 22, 1999
Guest(s): Frank McCourt
Reporter: Rex Murphy
Duration: 3:32

Did You know?

• Frank McCourt was born in 1930, in Brooklyn, N.Y.


• In 1934, the economic hardship of the Depression forced his family to return to Ireland to seek a better life. Growing up poor and sickly in Limerick, McCourt's family lost several children to malnutrition. McCourt himself almost died of typhoid fever at age 10.


• When he was 19, McCourt returned to New York. He served in the U.S. army and upon his discharge enrolled in New York University.


• His second book of memoirs, entitled 'Tis, told the story of his days in university. In 2005 McCourt released his third book of memoirs called, Teacher Man. The book was about his early years as a high school teacher in New York City.


• The main branch of the New York Public Library opened in 1911, featuring two statues of lions at the steps of a grand entrance. They were nicknamed "Patience" and "Fortitude" by Mayor La Guardia during the Great Depression. 


Frank McCourt died of cancer on July 19, 2009. He was 78.


• When Frank McCourt died in 2009, Rex Murphy recalled his 1999 interview this way for CBC.ca:


"When Sujata Berry and I did an interview with Frank McCourt we both agreed that he was marvellously forthcoming, down-to-earth, engaged and ... playful. There was nothing of the "role-playing" assumed persona many interviewees put on when the camera starts to roll. What many have found attractive in all three of his books was there in the person of the writer himself.


McCourt was well in his sixties when the interview was done but there was something quite boyish in the delight he took in all the fuss being made over him, once Angela's Ashes roared up the world's bestseller lists. He enjoyed the "fame" in the right way: he was pleased to be known, pleased to have a space on the New York Times famous list, pleased with being invited hither and yon to speak; at the same time he didn't take it seriously, didn't suddenly decide he was a man of special insights and new importance.


There was (what I like to think of as) an Irish sense of proportion about the whole business, that somehow all this fortune and fame at the end of his career had a comic element. When he came to Toronto's Massey Hall the next year I learned just how popular -- even beyond the bestseller list name recognition -- he really was. People showed up two hours before his reading, drove quite long distances some of them just to see and hear the "hero" of Ashes.


His question and answer session was another revelation -- the number of people who spoke of how much Angela's Ashes meant to them and how intensely they responded to it was quite astonishing. After the talk and Q&A he stayed and stayed autographing books for a crowd that didn't seem to thin even after two hours.


He was one of the most personable writers I've ever interviewed."



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