Acclaimed Novelist Tells Stories From Childhood

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt started off his speech at the Berkeley Community Theatre last night by talking "like a teenager" and defending freedom of children.

The author of two nationally best-selling books, "Angela's Ashes" and "'Tis," came to Berkeley as part of the Berkeley Speakers Lecture Series, an 8-part program of speakers to be held throughout the year.

McCourt told stories about his childhood, which was a major inspiration for his books.

One such story involved taking his mother to a bar, where his brother worked, to watch the moon landing. His brother said there would be no food or drink sold during the touchdown of the spacecraft. But, no more than two minutes into the landing, his mother piped up, asking for a cheeseburger.

McCourt lamented that today's youth are not as free as he was.

"A kid can't just go out, fall down, scrape his knee, and take his lumps anymore," the author said.

He said he believes children are being forced to take more and more tests in school and how this is starting to replace children's playtime, with negative effects.

"All Bush and Gore are talking about is testing the children, and then testing them more," he said.

He also mentioned how much flack he received from critics due to his different writing style. McCourt gained recognition from the literary community for writing his past in the first-person present tense rather than the past tense.

"I tried writing like a child, so I just dropped the quotation marks and punctuation," he said.

Now, however, on the topic of his age, the author said he is the "great hope of the social security sector." He said many aging writers should take advantage of their free time after they retire to take up writing.

At one point, the author spoke about how his father's alcoholism started to have an effect on his life.

He said his father would often come home drunk and take out his aggression on McCourt's mother, until he finally abandoned the family to leave for England.

But reliving the past in order to write, he said, was not always pleasant.

"I get asked all the time, 'Was it a catharsis?'" he said. "No! It was agony."

McCourt became very somber when he talked about the women in his book. He stressed that he wanted to show the dignity of the Irish women, even in poverty.

The movie which spawned from "Angela's Ashes," was, according to the author, very unexpected.

"I never wrote the book expecting to make a movie," he said.

He said he made sure, when negotiating with the directors, that the movie's tone stayed the same as in the book.

"It's not the kind of movie that would star Julia Roberts - and cleavage," McCourt said.

One audience member asked what it is like for him to complete a novel.

"Finishing a book is like having a baby," McCourt said. "It's a tremendously emotional moment."

Another, however, questioned why he always writes with such a dreary tone.

"I don't know how you could write about happiness, unless it's Hallmark, writing greeting cards and such," the author responded.

McCourt said he and his childhood friends had gone to so many funerals in their youth that they belonged to the "Death of the Month Club."

Following in this honest tradition, McCourt said he is working on another novel about teachers that will be more realistic than many stories about teachers already out.

"Most of them are very glamorized," he said.


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