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Friday, December 10, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Tis Tough For Mccourt To Find Rest These Days

Seattle Times Book Editor

Frank McCourt has nary a place to rest his weary head.

McCourt, who will turn 70 next year, has been on a trajectory that would render an ordinary mortal senseless - from Portland to Seattle this past Wednesday to give a reading, flying out the same night to meet with Pittsburgh schoolchildren, then back to the West Coast.

He can't decamp to the hotel room to rest - there is no hotel room. He's tucked in a spartan office on the third floor of University Book Store, signing copies of his new memoir, "'Tis" (Scribner, $26). He had just recorded a greeting in celebration of the store's 100th birthday next year. Sipping soup from a Styrofoam bowl, McCourt patiently answers questions on his two main loves - writing and teaching - and his sometime-tormentors: literary critics and lawyers. Such staying power is reminiscent of what "Angela's Ashes" and "'Tis" readers already know: McCourt is a tough, opinionated, eloquent guy who is never, ever at a loss for words.

On writing and critics:

McCourt, who taught school until 1987, says he spent decades trying to write "Angela's Ashes." In August 1994 he got married to his current wife; in October he started writing the book in earnest. "What broke the dam was - I found the voice of the child," he says. His previous efforts had been in the form of a novel, one he says he still has in a drawer, that he pulls out to remind himself of what a "horrible writer I was."

"I talked to the kids" in his classes "about simplicity and clarity. I would read what they wrote with a sense of awe and wonder. But I wasn't taking my own advice. "

"Angela's Ashes" was written "in the same room, in the same house . . . it was a serene existence." "'Tis" was written in hotel rooms, on planes, trains and buses, as he attempted to feed the literary frenzy created by "Angela's Ashes," the unlikely mega-seller about McCourt's impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. Of "'Tis," McCourt says that "if you stick a pin in any part of the world . . . part of it was written there."

"Maybe if I'd written it in one place I would have been more meditative," McCourt says, but he took his inspiration from another Irish writer, James Joyce, who "said he could write anywhere - despite his financial problems - and the fact that he was going blind. He integrated his writing with his life. Like Yeats. Joyce could write long into the day and night."

"'Tis," which chronicles McCourt's life in America as a young man, arrived to decidedly mixed reviews, though it has floated in the upper regions of the best-seller lists (in both America and Ireland) ever since. "'Tis" portrays McCourt's life as a young immigrant as a depressing and at times bitter struggle, and 1950s America as a class-stratified place where strength and insensitivity were needed to get by.

Some reviews had a why-is-this-guy-complaining-so-much tone.

"There's a lot of peevishness," McCourt says, "especially among Irish critics," who seemed somehow offended that an Irish American appropriated part of the national story. "I like helpful criticism, but I take offense at the peevishness."

He believes that some critics just cannot understand coming up from the streets, including Michiko Kakutani, the distinguished New York Times critic who heaped praise on "Angela's Ashes" but did not much like "'Tis." Noting that Kakutani went to Harvard, McCourt wonders if critics can understand the world he portrayed: menial jobs, loneliness, exclusion at every turn. "I wonder if critics can understand what it was like to have come to America," he says. "They like Irish writers to be lyrical and charming. I wanted them to say that it was urban and gritty and dangerous," McCourt says, a sly grin crossing his face.

He's gratified by "'Tis's" success, and by readers, such as the woman who hand-delivered a letter to him that day at a Costco signing, saying his books had helped her understand her family's alcoholism. In reference to "'Tis"' robust sales, he intones: `The people have spoken."

On teaching:

McCourt has become something of a spokesman for the teaching profession since "'Tis," with its gritty portrayal of a first-time teacher's lot, was published. The profession "hasn't changed at all" since the 1950s," he says, top-heavy with administrators, underrespected and underpaid. `"verybody's had teachers. Everybody thinks they're an authority. They think it's an easy job."

"The things we had to compete with" for students' attention - "TV, sports, sex - they're mad for sex. You have to hook them. Many teachers," unfortunately, "do it through fear.

"Going into those classes year after year . . . there are very few people who can walk into the room and get their attention. It starts every September. You walk up to them. You look at them. You don't know what kind of chemistry it's going to create." He recalls one class - "I remember I lost them in September," and a horrible year ensued. Years later, he ran into one of the students. "That was a great class," the young man enthused. "I'm a writer because of you."

On the next thing:

McCourt is writing a novel. He's worried (he was terrified about "'Tis," he told The Seattle Times in 1998).

"It will be about a teacher," he says. "Maybe a murder," he says, sly grin surfacing again.

Besides wrestling with the novelistic form, he's working hard at changing appearances, citing six-hour marathons with Scribner lawyers over some of the portrayals in "'Tis." "You can't have the slightest whiff of impropriety," he says.

McCourt, who once said that Henry James is the novelist every writer has to get over, says that James "was the most subtle of all the novelists . . . the truth of a novel lies somewhere between Henry James and Ernest Hemingway." Then there are writers like William Faulkner, clause piled upon clause until "soon you don't know where you are anymore."

"I think it's wonderful, but I don't have the skill to form sentences like that. I'm more a once-upon-a-time man." For now, the once-upon-a-time man has to sign two dozen more books. He sticks out a thin hand and gives the visitor a firm handshake. " 'Till next time," Frank McCourt says.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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