In the world of books I am a late bloomer, a johnny-come-lately, new kid on the block. My first book, Angela's Ashes, was published in 1996 when I was sixty-six, the second, 'Tis, in 1999 when I was sixty-nine. At that age it's a wonder I was able to lift the pen at all. New friends of mine (recently acquired because of my ascension to the best-seller lists) had published books in their twenties. Striplings.
So, what took you so long?
I was teaching, that's what took me so long. Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools. (I have read novels about the lives of university professors where they seemed to be so busy with adultery and academic in-fighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.) When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.
I never expected Angela's Ashes to attract any attention, but when it hit the best-seller lists I became a media darling. I had my picture taken hundreds of times. I was a geriatric novelty with an Irish accent. I was interviewed for dozens of publications. I met governors, mayors, actors. I met the first President Bush and his son the governor of Texas. I met President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. I met Gregory Peck. I met the Pope and kissed his ring. Sarah, Duchess of York, interviewed me. She said I was her first Pulitzer Prize winner. I said she was my first duchess. She said, Ooh, and asked the cameraman, Did you get that? Did you get that? I was nominated for a Grammy for the spoken word and nearly met Elton John. People looked at me in a different way. They said, Oh, you wrote that book, This way, please, Mr. McCourt, or Is there anything you'd like, anything? A woman in a coffee shop squinted and said, I seen you on TV. You must be important. Who are you? Could I have your autograph? I was listened to. I was asked for my opinion on Ireland, conjunctivitis, drinking, teeth, education, religion, adolescent angst, William Butler Yeats, literature in general. What books are you reading this summer? What books have you read this year? Catholicism, writing, hunger. I spoke to gatherings of dentists, lawyers, ophthalmologists and, of course, teachers. I traveled the world being Irish, being a teacher, an authority on misery of all kinds, a beacon of hope to senior citizens everywhere who always wanted to tell their stories.
They made a movie of Angela's Ashes. No matter what you write in America there is always talk of The Movie. You could write the Manhattan telephone directory, and they'd say, So, when is the movie?
If I hadn't written Angela's Ashes I would have died begging, Just one more year, God, just one more year because this book is the one thing I want to do in my life, what's left of it. I never dreamed it would be a best-seller. I hoped it would sit on booksellers' shelves while I lurked in the bookshop and watched beautiful women turn pages and shed the occasional tear. They'd buy the book, of course, take it home, loll on divans and read my story while sipping herbal tea or a fine sherry. They'd order copies for all their friends.
In 'Tis I wrote about my life in America and how I became a teacher. After it was published I had the nagging feeling I'd given teaching short shrift. In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. Teachers are told to use the service door or go around the back. They are congratulated on having ATTO (All That Time Off). They are spoken of patronizingly and patted, retroactively, on their silvery locks. Oh, yes, I had an English teacher, Miss Smith, who really inspired me. I'll never forget dear old Miss Smith. She used to say that if she reached one child in her forty years of teaching it would make it all worthwhile. She'd die happy. The inspiring English teacher then fades into gray shadows to eke out her days on a penny-pinching pension, dreaming of the one child she might have reached. Dream on, teacher. You will not be celebrated.
Copyright © 2005 by Green Peril Corp.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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