Tuesday, September 07, 2010
“‘Sez’ Malachy McCourt to Somerville”
by Tracy L. Strauss
“I like the name ‘Somerville’,” Malachy McCourt said over the phone from his home in upstate New York, “it’s got a nice euphonious ring to it. ‘Somerville’ – sounds like the wind whistling through the trees.”
In fact, as we spoke about his upcoming appearance at the 8th Annual Somerville Writers Festival, to be held November 13, the wind was doing just that.
Malachy McCourt, Frank McCourt’s younger brother, has had a varied career as a writer, actor, and politician. A co-writer (with Frank) of the play A Couple of Blaguards, McCourt has written and published close to ten books of essays, history, and memoir, including The New York Times bestseller A Monk Swimming. His work has also appeared in many magazines including New York Newsday, National Geographic, Conscience Magazine, and New York Times. McCourt’s column, “Sez I To Myself,” appears in Manhattan Spirit, The Westsider, and Our Town in NYC.
However, McCourt does not consider himself a writer: “I happen to be an author,” he said, “but I don’t consider myself a writer. Writers are people who are diligent and disciplined and all that, and I am not.”
When approached to participate in the Festival, McCourt said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Speaking engagements are his passion. “But I don’t consider it speaking or lecturing,” he made the distinction. “I consider it chatting with people. I like sharing whatever looney thoughts I have and then there’s the mischievous part of me that I know is going to piss people off. I like that because people absolutely disagree with you. The constitution gives you that right. Free speech is very expensive. We ought to get as much of it as we can. It’s more important than money. And it’s very important to writers, who don’t make a lot of money.”
In 2006, McCourt was the Green Party candidate for New York State. Running under the slogan “Don’t waste your vote, give it to me,” McCourt promised to recall the New York National Guard from Iraq, to make public education free through college, and to institute a statewide comprehensive “sickness care” system. He lost to Democratic Party candidate Eliot Spitzer.
“I have no formal education,” McCourt said, “so it always amuses me that people ask me questions. I’ll be delighted to share my ignorance with you. I don’t know anything about anything. All I have are opinions.”
McCourt is currently working on a one-man show about H.L. Mencken. “Like myself,” McCourt explained, “Mencken was a non-believer in organized religion, or in a vengeful deity. I believe there’s a plague of organized religion in our country that needs to be stopped. It’s akin to organized crime because they – conservatives – threaten you if you don’t do certain things. They say you will go to hell for eternity, and that various entities will shove red hot pokers up your armpit forever and ever. It’s just torture.”
McCourt has also led a prolific career as an actor on Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as in regional theaters, movies, and soap operas such as “Ryan’s Hope,” “One Life to Live,” and “All My Children,” on which he has had a recurring Christmas-time role as “Father Clarence,” a priest who shows up to give inspirational advice to the citizens of the fictional town “Pine Valley.”
In the 1970s, McCourt was one of the first talk show hosts on the Christian radio station WMCA, and also worked at WNYC and WABC. He was also a frequent guest on the “Tonight Show,” “Merv Griffin” and “Tom Snyder” shows, and, more recently, “Conan O’Brien” and “The Late, Late Show.”
As someone with public appearance experience, McCourt has advice for those writers preparing for a public reading: “Read monotone, or invest your work with life and drama,” McCourt said. “That’s what you have to think about.”
For aspiring writers, McCourt clarifies focus: “The main thing about writing,” he said, “is don’t edit – there are editors who get paid to do that and you shouldn’t be putting people out of business. Don’t worry about grammar, it’s not your business either. Punctuation is totally a matter of opinion. And don’t ever show any of your work to relatives until you’re published. Then they can argue with you.”
“There are two things to avoid in writing,” McCourt added. “Shame and fear. Don’t be ashamed of anything you’ve done. Well, do be if you want to be, but don’t be afraid of it. Put away fear and never, never judge your work. You will always find it guilty.”
********** Tracy L. Strauss teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston.