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In Profiler: If you loved the book . . .

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Karen Butler

Author Frank McCourt says he loves the movie version of his best-selling memoir, "Angela’s Ashes."

"It is marvelous," McCourt said last week. "It was overwhelming. It rock-jolted me and then it had me laughing. That’s [director] Alan Parker with his sense of tragedy and his sense of merriment. He’s the one. And [actors] Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle and the three kids [who play young Frank McCourt]."

The film version of McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is scheduled for limited release next month so that it can get Academy Awards consideration. General release will be in the new year.

McCourt said he had nothing to do with the filming and only visited the set twice.

"I felt very tentative about that," McCourt said. "I wouldn’t want anyone looking over my shoulder while I was writing and I didn’t want to be trespassing on Alan Parker’s territory. . . . Also, I would feel very self-conscious if I was an actor playing some man and he was standing over there watching me."

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McCourt insisted that the three boys who played him as a child are all much better looking than he was.

"I looked like something the cat brought in. I was very flattered by the choices," he added. The actors who play young Frank are Michael Legge, Ciaran Owens and Joe Breen.

"Angela’s Ashes" is McCourt’s recollection of growing up in Limerick amid poverty and family tragedy. The book spent 117 weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. It has been published in 25 languages and more than 6 million copies have been sold in 30 countries.

Considered an international phenomenon, the book has inspired fan web sites, walking tours of Limerick and a leap in tourism in a town that McCourt said "nobody ever paid attention to before."

"I’m lucky because what happened to me recently is beyond anybody’s dreams," the 67-year-old retired English teacher said. "I was so happy when they published it. When I had that first copy in my hands it was like holding a baby. That was the supreme moment of my life. Then it goes onto the New York Times bestseller list. The next thing was the Pulitzer Prize and next they’re making a movie about it. It’s almost absurd . . . especially when it comes so late in life.

"If I were younger, I might have been Brendan Behan or Norman Mailer getting into trouble — drinking and fornicating all over. That isn’t going to happen now. My wife would kill me."

McCourt said he understands why so many people seem drawn to "Angela’s Ashes."

"People," he said, "are seduced by the voice of the child and the story of a child looking at what’s happened to his family without passing judgment on the father or the mother or anybody else, and then it’s the story of a family dealing with adversity . . . above and beyond all this is the dream of eventual escape."

McCourt said the book is especially popular in Limerick. "It’s been a bestseller since it was published and when I went back a few weeks ago for a book signing, 1,000 people showed up," he said. "That’s the reaction in Limerick. There are a few people who say nay. But nobody pays any attention to them. They say I’m a liar, that these things didn’t happen. How would they know what went on in my life? But I don’t care what they say."

McCourt explained that what helped him deal with the horrors of his childhood and what put the heart back in him were his years of teaching New York City school children.

"The kids did it to me," he said. "They molded me. They formed me. They made me what I am. They made me tell the truth. Sometimes when I put on the mask, they tell me to take it off. . . . Kids, no matter what you say about them, they want the truth from us."

The author said that teaching high school actually taught him a lot about writing. He joked that he didn’t get around to penning his own book for so long because he spent all his time grading other people’s essays.

McCourt said that "’Tis: A Memoir," his follow-up to "Angela’s Ashes," was harder to write than his first book.

"I didn’t have the time, so I wrote it everywhere . . . on trains, on planes, on buses and on ships," he said.

McCourt insisted he wasn’t worried about the book living up to the

expectations of people who praised "Angela’s Ashes."

"I didn’t care about the expectations," he said. "I cared about my own expectations, my desire to write this story of coming to New York and dealing with New York and being essentially an Irish immigrant making my way through New York with no skills, no talents, no education, no self-esteem whatsoever."

However, he said he is very pleased with the way his second book has been received. Published two months ago, there are already 1.6 million copies in print. It is number one on the bestseller lists of several Irish and American newspapers. McCourt said his next project will be a novel, though, because, he said, "I’m sick of talking about myself."

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