I decided to make an effort at writing a novel when I heard the news that Frank McCourt had died. It was July 19, 2009, and I was shocked when I turned my car radio on just in time to hear about Frank’s death. As I weaved through the city traffic, I quietly prayed that Frank had passed over peacefully on his way to his Angela. I spent the rest of the day thinking about the time I’d spent with Frank McCourt when he came to New Zealand as part of his Angela’s Ashes promotional tour in 1997.
I was the director of the local writer’s festival at the time and would be personally hosting Frank and his wife Ellen. I was excited, nervous and determined to be prepared. I even re-read Angela’s Ashes, just in case he asked me something about it.
Planning for this show consumed me for weeks. In addition to mapping out a production plan, booking a two-thousand seat venue, a five-star hotel, an event bookseller and an MC, I thought about the type of plants and chairs that should sit on the stage just behind the lectern and what color of lights the venue technicians should use to spotlight Frank as he read to the audience.
One thing that bothered me was the condition of the stage floor – mostly weathered wood with remnants of black and silver gaffer tape left over from previous shows. I asked the venue manager about the stage floor getting cleaned and polished before our event, and he laughed as he said, “If you have the time.” A few days later, a friend recommended putting a large Persian rug on the stage, and I agreed. It took a few phone calls, but I finally talked my way into a rug loan when I came across an Irish rug dealer who happened to be a fan of Frank’s. He was willing to let me borrow a large beautiful rug in return for two complimentary tickets to the event and an imprint of my credit card.
On arrival day, I made it to the airport just in time to greet Frank and Ellen and his publisher's representative at the gate. Frank was in a great mood, and when I offered to carry some of their luggage, he wouldn’t have it. While he did his best to fit several pieces of luggage into the trunk of my car, he asked me about my accent. When I told him I was American, he said, “Me too… and Irish.” “I read that somewhere,” I replied, and he grinned and said, “Me too.”
He peppered me with questions on the drive to his hotel. “When did you arrive from America? Are you a writer? You should be. Have you been driving long…'cause you know you’re on the wrong side of the road?” Frank’s good nature and amusing queries were a nice distraction from the production-related issues going through my mind.
As I left the hotel, with a promise to pick them up long before the 8 pm show start, I heard Frank ask the representative to request that the festival’s bookseller bring every copy they had of Angela’s Ashes to the venue by 5 pm so he could sign them. I headed out the hotel’s lobby door, curious about him wanting to sign books before the show.
Frank was waiting outside the hotel when I arrived at 6 pm, looking very relaxed and carrying a very worn copy of Angela’s Ashes along with a few pens. There were stacks of books waiting for us backstage, and Frank quickly sat down and began to sign. We chatted as the bookseller pushed new books his way and took away the signed ones. The signing went on for almost an hour before she said, “Are you sure you want to sign them all?” Frank grinned and said, “Yes I do. A signed book is a sold book, in my book.”
On our walk to the backstage green room, Frank told me that most booksellers won’t return signed copies to the publisher for credit. He also said that even if they didn’t sell after the show, he was sure our bookseller would appreciate having a few signed books in her shop.
The twenty or thirty minutes before a show starts can be a very awkward and anxious time backstage, a time when an artist can be at their best or their worst. In this case, it was the best. As Frank and I sat in the green room, waiting for the five-minute call from the front of house manager, he entertained me with funny stories and took it in stride when I told him the venue was sold out.
Just before I led him to the stage, he reached down and took his left shoe off and then held it up for me to read the label inside. I read an Italian name to him, and he slipped the shoe back onto his foot and said, “No more Florsheims for me. All because I wrote a book about a story I’ve been telling for a long, long time.”
I don’t recall too much of Frank’s talk that night but what I do remember is how quiet the audience was as they listened to him read a few of his favorite passages from his worn copy of Angela’s Ashes. Every one of the pre-signed books sold that night. And Frank signed just as many books that people had brought along and seemed pleased to do so. On the drive back to his hotel, I asked Frank what he thought made a good writer, and he said, “Good writers write well, and they write often. Great writers write what they know- be it awful, ugly or grand.”
It was a great experience, and I felt inspired to write like never before. So much so that I didn’t return the rug I’d borrowed from the dealer. I bought it. And it has lived in my bedroom, reminding me to write, ever since.