‘Memoir is the twin sister of fiction’

Upon the death of Frank McCourt, described by some as the inventor of the misery memoir, read spiked’s interview with him from 2001.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes, ’Tis and Teacher Man, who is described by some as the inventor of the misery memoir, has died aged 78. Here, we republish Brendan O’Neill’s interview with McCourt, first published on spiked eight years ago, in which the author defended himself against those who accused him of mythmaking, exaggeration and ‘anti-Limerick libel’.

‘I have spent five years immersed in myself, my life, my squalor, my ups, my downs – and now I’m gasping for air.’

Frank McCourt, dirt-poor Irish kid done good, wants to write fiction. Having told the world about his ‘miserable Irish childhood’ in 1930s Limerick in Angela’s Ashes and about his adventures in New York in the follow-up ’Tis, he now wants to prove that ‘there’s more to Frank McCourt than feckin’ Frank McCourt’. ‘I’m tired of telling my life story. I long to write a thriller or a romp or a story from the point of view of a woman or a gay Irishman. You know, just to turn things on their head.’

But why not stick to a winning formula? Angela’s Ashes might have been a ‘sometimes painful experience’ for McCourt, but it sold five million copies and counting, was made into a film by Alan Parker, won its first-time author the Pulitzer Prize, and earned him a house up the road from US playwright Arthur Miller (‘Jesus, it’s weird having a neighbour who was hitched to Marilyn Monroe’, says McCourt). ’Tis might have been less of a hit with the critics, but it was another transatlantic bestseller. And as one critic said, ‘There’s gold in them there memoirs’.

‘But there’s only so much life you can write about’, says McCourt. ‘Before long, you run out of life. I want to exercise my imagination in a different way. With Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis I was never interested in glorifying myself – I just wanted to tell my story, to tell the truth as I experienced it. Now I want to write about some glory or other, with heroes and fictional characters. It would make a change from writing about me and my brothers and my father leaving and my mother dying and the consumption killing people left right and centre and the shoes falling off my feet. I’m grateful for what the memoirs gave me – but it’s fiction for me now.’

But McCourt has his detractors – like those who reckon he’s been writing fiction all along. Angela’s Ashes may have been A Phenomenon, but there was also The Backlash, with the book provoking the kind of vitriolic reaction that hasn’t greeted a personal memoir since Christina Crawford accused her actress mother Joan of child abuse in Mommie Dearest in the 1980s. For every review and article hailing McCourt as a great writer, there seemed to be somebody ready and willing to accuse him of exaggeration, ‘anti-Limerickness’, or of telling downright lies. ‘Ah yeah’, says McCourt, ‘the backlash’.

According to some reports, there was a book-burning atmosphere in McCourt’s childhood home of Limerick. Gerry Hannan, a dj on Limerick 95 radio station, achieved minor celebrity status as McCourt’s most outspoken critic, collating a book of memories from the people of Limerick that contradicted McCourt’s version of events, and challenging McCourt to sue him if he had the guts (‘See you in court, McCourt’ was his fighting talk). And when Alan Parker and his crew descended on Limerick to film scenes for the celluloid version of McCourt’s life, some claim they were chased out of churches and streets by anti-Angela’s Ashes mobs.

But McCourt is having none of it. ‘The stuff about people being hostile to me in Limerick is completely blown out of proportion’, he says. ‘It was actually a very small, very concentrated reaction, and the media pumped it up.’ So when I ask if he ever ventures into Limerick now – thinking that the last place in Ireland you would want to be unpopular is ‘Stab City’ – McCourt sounds aghast. ‘Of course I do. I was there just two weeks ago and I always get a warm response. I wish I could peddle some grand line about prophets not being recognised or accepted in their hometowns, but I’m afraid it just wouldn’t be true.’

According to McCourt, ‘the negative stuff has been given too much ink’: ‘The media loves a backlash because it makes good copy. They didn’t want to write about the fact that Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis sold thousands in Limerick; that when they made the film people swarmed out in their hundreds to be extras; that I got an honorary degree from the University of Limerick; that I was received at the City Hall by the mayor; that the city has an Angela’s Ashes tour that draws people in from around the world. But a few disgruntled accusations? Hold the front page!’

McCourt says the Limerick authorities even wanted to put a plaque on his childhood home – until they realised it no longer existed. ‘All the old slums are gone’, he says. ‘You can’t find a decent slum in Ireland anymore.’

But if the scale of the accusations was pumped up, what about their content – that McCourt has twisted the truth, or even lied about his childhood? Some argue that it’s impossible for a 65-year-old (McCourt’s age when he wrote Angela’s Ashes, after working as a teacher in New York for decades) to recall so vividly conversations and events that happened when he was six, seven or eight. Others claim that life might have been hard in Limerick in the 1930s, but it wasn’t as bad as McCourt makes out (children dying from cold and starvation, mothers begging priests for leftover bread), and that there was more kindness in the city than McCourt suggests. So is Angela’s Ashes the whole truth and nothing but?

McCourt thinks his critics are missing the point. ‘Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis are not autobiographies, they are memoirs – and they are not the same things. An autobiography is an attempt to bring up all the facts, and to stick to them, faithfully and chronologically. But a memoir is an impression of your life, and that gives you a certain amount of leeway. If an autobiography is like a photograph, then a memoir is more like a painting. So I’ve always said to my critics, This is my impression of my life, so what are you gonna do about it?’

For McCourt, memoirs have more in common with fiction than with journalistic fact or autobiography. ‘Memoir is like the twin sister of fiction’, he says. This is not an argument for making things up, as some fake memoirists have done in recent years, but for recognising that how we remember our own lives is sometimes different to how a disinterested outside observer might record a life. ‘There is a crossover between recalling events that actually happened and your interpretation or impression of those events. This doesn’t make it dishonest; it is just what the genre is about. If people want absolute fact they should stick to autobiographies, or the National Geographic.’

So what does McCourt think of today’s memoir mania, which some say he is responsible for? ‘Don’t blame me!’ But walk into any bookshop and you’ll see shelves groaning under the weight of memoirs – and it sometimes seems that the authors are competing to see whose life was the most degraded and depressing. There are child-abuse memoirs, eating-disorder memoirs, and, of course, the miserable Irish childhood memoir. In the wake of Angela’s Ashes, the miserable Irish childhood memoir has almost become a genre in its own right, with even two of McCourt’s brothers offering their own versions of the McCourt upbringing.

‘There are lots’, says McCourt, ‘that’s for sure. But I don’t think it’s really a “memoir mania”. Nobody ever complains about a “fiction mania”, do they? But there does sometimes seem to be this tortured approach in memoirs: my life was harder than yours, my pain is bigger than yours. I know that’s a bit much coming from me… but one of the good things about a memoir is looking for something bigger than yourself, you know; something important in your life, rather than just the life itself.’

But finally McCourt is moving on, and turning his hand to fiction. ‘I’m trying to write a novel about teaching. It’s very early days, it’s not even in its embryonic stages yet, it’s still waiting to be conceived. And who knows, it might end up as a memoir.’

It did. Teacher Man, a memoir about McCourt’s pedagogic shenanigans in New York schools and colleges, was published four years after this interview, in 2005.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. The above interview was first published on spiked in June 2001.

Read on: An emotional striptease, by Frank Furedi, spiked review of books, May 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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