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ONE warm morning last summer, Frank McCourt sat at a coffee shop off Third Avenue in Manhattan and told this writer about a new book he had coming out.
At the age of 65, the retired New York City schoolteacher and first-time author said he was merely happy to be publishing a book at all. Angela's Ashes, he said it was called, and if it was reviewed well in the paper and perhaps the New York Times, he said, well then he'd be happy.
"They tell me it should do pretty well," he said, speaking of the fortune tellers at his publishing house.
At the time, McCourt wasn't sure he could trust their word -- after all, they'd bought a book from him even before he finished writing it. Weren't they fooled once already?
Almost a year later, McCourt has found out just how correct those predictions were. Angela's Ashes has sold beyond anyone's wildest expectations, and on Monday it was awarded the ultimate critics' approval -- the Pulitzer Prize.
"Jesus -- the Pulitzer," said McCourt in New York on Tuesday. "This is the peak, the Olympus, the Academy Award, all them things, and now, I'm sorry, I'm going to bed."
McCourt was in Boston for an Angela's Ashes publicity reading when he heard the news.
"It was the A.P.," said McCourt. "Some reporter from the A.P., he called me at hotel in Boston yesterday at five past three and said how'd I feel that I won the Pulitzer. That was the first I heard."
That phone call arrived minutes after the annual Pulitzer announcement ceremony at Columbia University in Manhattan. McCourt was awarded the Prize in the biography category for Angela's Ashes, a harrowing yet hilarious account of his impoverished upbringing both in Brooklyn and his parents' native Limerick City. Although McCourt was a Pulitzer favorite since his winning of the National Book Critics Circle Award last month, the author says the news still came as a shock.
"Oh it was a shock alright," he recalled, "I wanted to get up on stage and thank my mother and my director and the Lord Almighty and everyone else. But in the end I was in my hotel room and I just thanked my wife Ellen."
After some champagne and the completion of his scheduled Monday evening reading at Boston's Brattle Theater ("It was a very festive reading, that's for sure," McCourt recalled), the author was put on a plane headed back to New York.
"We were supposed to stay over in Boston but when Scribners heard I'd won the Pulitzer they told me to get on a plane, that Katie Couric wanted my body," said McCourt with a laugh. "And when Katie Couric wants you body, you get moving right away."
Twenty-four hours later, McCourt hasn't stopped moving. By Tuesday afternoon he had taped segments for Ms. Couric's `Today' show, several radio programs and a TV interview for the MSNBC network. After a hero's welcome Tuesday afternoon at the Scribners office in Manhattan, McCourt hoped the phone would stop ringing long enough to afford him a couple hours sleep before the 5p.m. taping of NBC-TV's Conan O'Brien show.
And though the author may rest, the book moves on. Last week, Angela's Ashes was once again the Number One non-fiction book on the New York Times' national best-sellers list. Which meant yet another set of busted predictions: McCourt often jokes how the doorman at his Manhattan apartment building predicted the book would go no higher than Number Four, and McCourt himself told the Irish Voice in December, after Angela's Ashes first reached Number One, that it would "drop like a stone" after the Christmas gift-giving season.
"Me, I'm allowed to be wrong," said the author. "But my doorman, I still take great pleasure in telling him he was wrong and that furthermore, his pessimism will be reflected in the Christmas gift."
After Conan O'Brien, McCourt says the Pulitzer has won him bookings next week on Tom Snyder's CBS talk show and the Bill Maher-hosted `Politically Incorrect.'
"They tell me I'm on `Politically Incorrect' with Ollie North," said McCourt. "That should be a lot of fun."
A lifelong teacher as well as a New York actor and personality (he has performed stage shows with his previously better-known brother, the soap opera heart-throb, Malachy), McCourt says the unexpected success of Angela's Ashes continues to surprise him.
"It's like a series of waves hitting you," said McCourt. "First, getting excerpted in the New Yorker last summer, then getting published, then the best-seller list, the award, the movie deal, now this, a Pulitzer. Honestly, this time last year I thought that if the book sold a few thousand copies and had been reviewed by the New York Times, that would've been enough."
As for the movie deal, McCourt says a deal has been all-but finalized, with an option bought by producers Scott Rudin and David Browne and a screenplay in development by Hollywood veteran Laura Jones, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of Portrait of a Lady.
"Laura is writing the screenplay and I think she's re-naming it `Portrait of a Scabby-Eyed Kid from Limerick,'" deadpanned McCourt.
Any plans for the Pulitzer committee's prize -- a silver medallion?
"The medallion?," said McCourt, "I'm going to put in there in the other room with my relic of The True Cross."
What about the Pulitzer Committee's prize money of $5,000?
"Are you kidding?," said McCourt. "That's what I spend on lunch."
And finally, apart from the escalating price of grilled-cheese sandwiches, are there any other drawbacks connected to the continued success of Frank McCourt?
"Drawbacks? Ah, yes, the brothers," said McCourt, speaking of Malachy and the other two surviving siblings, who are featured as Frank's younger co-stars in Angela's Ashes. "They're clawing themselves to death with the envy. They're all complaining they have reporters calling them, looking for quotes. Jealous bastards."