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How Geoff Dyer's Biography Turned Into an Autobiography.

In the tradition of the documentary "Sherman's March," Geoff Dyer has written a book about trying to write D.H. Lawrence's biography. "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence" (Farrar Strauss Giroux) ends up being both a biography and an autobiography. Dyer lives in Oxford, England, and has published several other books, including "Ways of Telling," a critical study of the art critic John Berger.


Other segments from the episode on June 16, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 16, 1998: Interview with Geoff Dyer; Interview with Malachy McCourt; Review of Garbage's album "Version 2.0."


Date: JUNE 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061601np.217
Head: Out of Sheer Rage
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

British author Geoff Dyer started out to write a study of D.H. Lawrence, the writer who Dyer says made him want to become a writer. What began as a biography turned into an autobiography of Dyer's tedious, frustrating and often very funny avoidance of writing his book about Lawrence.

It's called "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence." In it, Geoff Dyer obsesses over what books to read, the best places to write, if he's going to catch a cold from a fellow passenger on the train. He makes literary pilgrimages to places Lawrence lived all over the world. He does almost everything but actually write about D.H. Lawrence.

Geoff Dyer is also the author of a critical study of his mentor, the art critic John Berger, called "Ways of Telling"; a novel, "The Color of Memory"; and a book about jazz called "But Beautiful." Though his new book seems like the memoir of a hapless, obsessive man with writer's block, the Geoff Dyer in the book isn't exactly the same Geoff Dyer who wrote the book.

GEOFF DYER, AUTHOR, "OUT OF SHEER RAGE: WRESTLING WITH D.H. LAWRENCE": It had never been my intention to write a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence as I claim in the opening pages. This was always going to be a really wild, crazy book. Right from the start, I liked the way that Lawrence, who was always eager to earn money by writing, was commissioned to write a book about Thomas Hardy. It was part of a series of books.

And like all successful series', the idea was that each volume in the series would resemble every other volume as nearly as possible. And Lawrence duly set about writing this book about Thomas Hardy. In a letter he wrote: "I've begun my study of Thomas Hardy. So far, it's about everything but Thomas Hardy." And I thought it would be a really fun idea to write a book about D.H. Lawrence that was about, if not everything but D.H. Lawrence, then certainly a good many other things as well, namely my -- that most interesting of subjects -- myself.


BOGAEV: Did you have, though, an honest-to-God writer's block at any time in this process?

DYER: No -- no more than usual. It's a strange one, this thing of writer's block. I mean, I think that's pretty much the normal condition to have trouble writing. And I'm slightly suspicious of people who -- who, you know, who can churn out books with too much facility. And in fact this book, once -- I mean, always when you're writing books, it's very difficult to get going. Once I found the tone, though, and the tone, as you know, is one of incredibly sort of droning repetitions -- then it was actually a relatively easy book to write.

BOGAEV: Well, you obsess at least in the book, on whether to start a novel that you wanted to write first before this book. You also obsess on your personal dilemma of where to live because as a writer, you could really live anywhere. And then when you and your girlfriend are invited to stay on a Greek island, you even obsess on whether to pack a copy of D.H. Lawrence's complete poems to take with you on your trip.

Why don't -- why don't you read this passage about packing for the trip and whether to take the book.

DYER: Sure. This is me grappling with one of the huge moral quandaries of life.


If I take the complete poems, I won't need it. If I don't take it, I will not be able to get by without it, I said to myself as I packed and unpacked my bag, putting in my copy of the complete poems and taking it out again.

After a while, I decided to leave the complete poems and pack the Penguin edition of the selected poems, but that was a ludicrous compromise, since the defining characteristic of the selected poems was that it contained none of the poems I needed. It was a straight choice: either the immense bulk of the complete poems or nothing. And once I recognized that the real issue had nothing to do with whether or not I would need to refer to the complete poems, it was a very simple one.

The value of the complete poems was talismanic. If I had it with me, I would be able to begin my book. If I didn't have it with me, then even if I did not need to refer to it, I would keep thinking that I did, and would be unable to begin my book about D.H. Lawrence. Put like that, the complete poems was an essential part of my luggage. I had no choice but to bring it with me. Whether I referred to it or not was entirely irrelevant.

With that, I put the complete poems on the top of the pile of essential books by and about Lawrence, pulled my rucksack's cords sphincter as tight as possible, and propped it by the door, ready for our departure first thing in the morning.

In the morning before setting off, I took out my copy of the complete poems and left for Greece without it.


And that, as you know Barbara, is far from the end of the story. I mean, the -- it's not the last time that the complete poems crops up to torment me.

BOGAEV: No, it really does go -- truly does go on and on. This kind of obsessive-compulsiveness, I think, is familiar to everyone at one point in their lives. But writers seem especially prone to it. Are you superstitious about your writing? Ritualistic about it?

DYER: No, not really. I did fear at one stage that I'd got into too many lazy habits. You hear of these writers who virtually chain themselves to their desk for eight hours a day. And my line on this has always been that I just do it when I feel like it. It seems crazy to -- if you're free lance -- to, you know, to get rid of the freedom. And one of the things I talk about in the book is the way that the writing is sort of one thing which you do, but it's also the way that writing can enable you to live intensely.

And there's a sort of jokey bit in the book where I find myself in the streets in London where I know Julian Bonds (ph) lives, and I say something like: "It seemed to me an incredible waste of a life to just -- especially of a writer's life -- to just sit there writing books day after day."

This book really celebrates the sort of evasions and avoidances of the writing life.

BOGAEV: And the ironies, too. At one point, you -- you're attracted to an idea that you find in Rilke (ph) -- that idleness fuels the imagination. It's a really dangerous theory for a writer to think that everything but writing about what you're supposed to be writing about will fuel what you're writing about.

DYER: Yeah, that's a -- that's an incredibly seductive idea of Rilke's -- this notion that perhaps all our labor as writers can often be traced back -- have its origins in those days when we were apparently utterly idle. And I love the way that this idleness could be elevated to the level of active endeavor.

BOGAEV: As part of your research, you went on a number of literary pilgrimages to see Lawrence's various houses in Sicily; his birthplace in Eastwood; Chocoacha (ph), Mexico; Taos, New Mexico -- he moved around a lot.

DYER: Yes.

BOGAEV: What is the goal of the literary pilgrimage? What are you looking for?

DYER: That's -- that's one of the questions that I sort of dwell on at length in the book because the very first literary pilgrimage I made was to Algiers to visit the house where Albert Camus grew up. And of course, it was quite a sort of -- quite a trek to get there, especially since all the street names have been changed and they're all in Arabic, as opposed to, you know, French or English.

And I got there, found it, and this was something which was like a premonition of what I would experience when I got to Lawrence's place in Sicily. I felt pretty much nothing. And you say to yourself when you reach the mecca of the literary pilgrimage: "I'm seeing the things he saw" and "I'm touching the things he or she touched." And it doesn't really do anything for you.

But of course, as in the classical conception of the pilgrimage, it's not the destination that matters really. It's the fact that someone's writing; someone's -- the imaginative world that somebody has evoked causes you to undertake this literal -- this, you know, this actual physical journey. And that is the -- that is the importance of it, I think.

BOGAEV: Well, there is a whole school of thought that the artist doesn't matter; that the art does. And of course, I hear this a lot from writers I interview. How does the artisan matter so much to you?

DYER: I think it -- it depends on the artist. If, for example, there's a writer who is effectively pretty well erased all trace of him- or herself from the work, then you can say: "Yeah, OK, it doesn't matter much." And also if the writer led a relatively uneventful, secluded life. I think John Updike -- I mean, I can't imagine anyone being that interested in John Updike's life. What matters in Updike is the writing or bits of it at any rate.

With Lawrence, though, (a) the writing comes so totally from his own life; and (b) the life he led was so fantastically interesting. And I'm the kind of writer that -- I'm very much at the mercy of my existence. So when I'm thinking about what to write or what to write next, that question for me is absolutely synonymous with how I'm going to live; where I'm going to live. I know there are these writers who are happy to sit at the -- go to their desk day after day and draw on this sort of reservoir of memory and imagination, and don't need to do anything.

But I'm sort of having to constantly experience new things. And also I, like many -- like many writers, I have this idea of the perfect place to write. And it occurs to me that it's one of the sort of jokes running through the book, that what they all have in common -- these perfect places to write -- is that it's actually impossible to get any writing done in them. And the first place we try out is the Greek island of Alonisos (ph), and this is the place I've turned -- I turn up there with Lara, my almost-wife in the book. And it seems absolutely fantastic.


"This is paradise," I said to Lara, sitting on the terrace surrounded by sea and sky. "I wish we were going to be here for six months." Then, after a week, even a fortnight seemed intolerable. Except for looking at the brogia (ph) blue sea and sky, which after the first couple of days we scarcely even noticed, there was nothing to do. And for that reason, it was impossible to get any work done. The best circumstances for writing, I realized within days of arriving on Alonisos, were those in which the world was constantly knocking at your door. In such circumstances, the work you are engaged in generated a kind of pressure -- a force to keep the world at bay. Whereas here, on Alonisos, there was nothing to keep at bay; there was no incentive to generate any pressure within the work. And so the surrounding emptiness invaded and dissipated, overwhelmed you with inertia. All you could do was look at the sea and sky, and after a couple of days, you could scarcely be bothered to do even that.



BOGAEV: I don't know if that's as much about -- about writing or about you -- you as a person, what you need.

DYER: Right. It's -- it's -- I mean, all writers, of course, I mean hope that they will achieve the universal, but I think it's something which we can be pretty certain of; that the best way of achieving the universal is by being faithful to the idiosyncrasies, the vagaries and the highly contingent nature of your own -- of your own preferences and experience.

BOGAEV: One of the things you admired about D.H. Lawrence is that he knew how to do nothing; that he could sit and be perfectly content, allegedly.

Now, according to you, though, you're just the opposite and you try to go in the opposite direction of the one suggested by a lot of our popular culture that's into yoga and zen and meditation.

DYER: Right.

BOGAEV: Well, what is the opposite direction? What's the compulsion to go there?

DYER: Oh, yeah, this was something which I sort of got from Lawrence. I mean, one of the fun things about Lawrence is his endless capacity for irritation and ill-temper. He's always ranting and raving about things. And quite often he'll say: "Oh, well, I don't -- I don't care if this doesn't happen." And then he'll -- you know, he'll write to six or seven people telling them how he doesn't care about it; getting more and more sort of irate every time he tells us that he doesn't care.

So somewhat following Lawrence's example, instead of -- instead of accepting the fact that the coach I'm in is jammed in traffic and relaxing into it because it's out of my control, I went through this phase of focusing absolutely on the -- on that which was rendering, you know, life intolerable, in the hope that at the end of the day, like Lawrence, this -- this state of hyper-irritation would give way to a lovely, deep calm.

And it certainly did with Lawrence. And it's really -- I can't -- can't emphasize enough just how incredibly techy and furious Lawrence was a lot of the time. And this makes some of the letters from the last -- the last years of his life really, really touching -- when he's -- he says something like: "This is how I'm happiest, just sitting quietly watching, you know, watching the world go by." And he's -- of course, he's (unintelligible) in the south of France. And it's lovely to think that he's able finally -- he's granted finally this sort of Matisse or Duffi-like (ph) vision of the world.


BOGAEV: Well, what did it do for you?

DYER: Oh yeah, do you know, since I've finished this book, I really -- I mean, I've become a lot -- I really have become a lot -- a lot calmer; a lot -- a lot impatient. There's a lovely line of Lawrence's which he -- which I sort of did make my own for a while. He said: "When I was young, I had very little patience. And now that I'm older, I have absolutely none at all."


And I certainly went that way. But now I find I am, as a result of finishing this book, I'm a good deal less sort of frenzied than I was. I really got a -- you know, I got a lot of -- all this ranting and raving in the book, really -- you know, it really had a good therapeutic effect on me.

BOGAEV: Geoff Dyer is my guest. He's written something like a biography and an autobiography and a homage to the writer D.H. Lawrence. His book is "Out of Sheer Rage."

We're going to take a break now, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with writer Geoff Dyer. His new book is Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence.

You read seven volumes of D.H. Lawrence's correspondence in your research for this book. And characteristically, you say you tried not to read the seventh one so that you would always have something left that would be fresh, or you wouldn't have to face the despair of knowing that you'd read everything. But of course, you couldn't keep yourself from reading everything.

What are you looking for when you read letters? Are you looking for a germ of a poem or of a novel?

DYER: I think the attraction of letters is that you're really getting so close to the grain of the person's life; the sort of raw experience of their life, unmediated by the contrivances of art. And of course, in Lawrence's case, my word, I mean you really are up close to the -- really are up close to him because he wrote so many -- so many letters. And this is again related to the facts of his life. He was traveling the whole time.

So it was his -- it was his way of keeping in touch with people that he saw much less often than he wanted to, and spent a good deal of time sort of saying: "Oh, well, you know, it'd be great if you could come and stay." And then of course, they come and stay, and within days he's sort of writing to somebody else saying how "X" is getting on his nerves and he wished they'd go away again.


BOGAEV: A lot of the letters are about financial matters, too, which seems to be an obsession ...

DYER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ... of freelance writers.

DYER: That's right. I mean, one of the -- there's a lovely essay by that Romanian whose name I never know how to pronounce -- whether it's Churan (ph) or Cioran (ph) -- and he's saying how he can't bear Rilke always going on about his angels and all that oohing and ahing that we get in Rilke. He says: "I like it when writers are just writing about -- writing begging letters and this kind of thing."

And I was really struck by the way that so much of my enjoyment of Lawrence's letters lay not in those areas which marked him out as this man of genius, this great prophet. But in the areas which actually were very, very ordinary. So I liked the way that he was -- I was really quite touched by the way that he was so scrupulous about paying his debts -- this kind of thing.

But I also liked the way he made -- he was good at, you know, good at making jam and putting up shelves -- all these kind of things. And of course, this is exactly what -- what the experience of reading writers' letters gives you. It's all that mundane detail which often doesn't find its way into the more, you know, into the more finished, more exalted work of the novels.

BOGAEV: Do you read academic criticism?

DYER: Oh, I mean, no -- virtually never. I just really -- there's a -- well, let me go back a bit. When I left university, one of the most exciting phases of reading I had was when I first discovered Roland Bart (ph), Fuquo (ph) -- people like that. And it seems to me, I mean Bart and Fuquo -- they are great, great writers as much as anything.

What's happened, though, is that that whole kind of writing which I call discoursees (ph), has become absolutely as much of a orthodoxy as that which it sought to overthrow. And not only does it seem to me not the best way of generating insight, it almost seems to me insight-resistant. And it's -- it's a way of writing which just every third- and fourth-rate academic has learned off by heart, and it really is -- it's a -- there's a -- it really is -- it's death to me.

And there's a funny bit in the book where someone hands me, because they hear I was working on Lawrence, they hand me one of these sort of post-structuralist books about Lawrence. There's really -- and I sort of talk about how sort of incredibly angry this book makes me. And I end up sort of trying to tear it up, but it's too -- it's too -- it's too sturdily packaged. So I end up setting fire to it and say that, you know, it was only -- it was only -- this was the only way that I could find of adequately deconstructing it.

BOGAEV: Did you feel that you achieved what you set out to do -- to write this maverick form of a sober critical study?


DYER: Yeah, I think I did, really, because again, I'll go back. The first book I published was a sober critical study of the writer John Berger, who's my great mentor and hero. And the thing about Berger is that he's -- he's made available a different kind of writing; a different kind of criticism. That is to say, his book about Picasso, for example, is -- I mean, it's got more imagination in a couple of paragraphs than many novels have.

And it seemed to me afterwards that actually by protesting Berger in that timid sub-academic way, I'd actually failed to do justice to him, which is why several books down the line, I dedicated my book about jazz to him because I felt that by -- I was trying in that book to listen to jazz to -- with the same intensity that he had looked at paintings. So that was, it seemed to me, a more appropriate tribute.

And it seemed to me with the Lawrence book that actually by being faithful to the vagaries of my nature, by allowing myself to stray so wildly from the straight and narrow, I was actually being completely faithful to the example of Lawrence, whose life was of course based on this extraordinary straying, both from what was the accepted way to do a novel and of course, his life was a sort of series of, you know, of departures, of meanderings, of wanderings.

BOGAEV: Geoff Dyer, thanks so much for talking with me today.

DYER: Thank you very much.

BOGAEV: Geoff Dyer's new book is Out of Sheer Rage.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Geoff Dyer
High: In the tradition of the documentary "Sherman's March," Geoff Dyer has written a book about trying to write D.H. Lawrence's biography. "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence" (Farrar Strauss Giroux) ends up being both a biography and an autobiography. Dyer lives in Oxford, England and has published several other books, including "Ways of Telling," a critical study of the art critic John Berger.
Spec: Lifestyle; Culture; Entertainment; Books; Authors; Geoff Dyer; Oxford; England
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Out of Sheer Rage

Date: JUNE 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061602NP.217
Head: Malachy McCourt
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Two years ago, Frank McCourt's memoir, "Angela's Ashes," introduced millions of readers to the McCourt family of Limerick, Ireland. Now, Frank's younger brother, the character actor Malachy McCourt, has written a book which takes up the saga where his brother left off.

"A Monk Swimming" is about Malachy's first decade in New York, where he arrived in 1952 after Frank paid his passage. He quickly developed a reputation as someone who could out-drink anyone on a dare. He also began an acting career as a member of the New York ensemble group, "The Irish Players." He became an instant personality when he appeared repeated and often drunk on The Jack Paar Show. And he ran a couple of infamous bars.

When Malachy McCourt was growing up, poor and often hungry in Limerick, his dreams of life in America were based on westerns, Mickey Rooney movies, and gangster films.

MALACHY MCCOURT, ACTOR AND AUTHOR, "A MONK SWIMMING": One of my ambitions was to grow up and come to America and become an American convict because they had a nice little cell, these convicts, all to themselves. And they had a bed with a pillow and clean sheets and a blanket. And they had a toilet that was indoors. They had shoes and they had a uniform -- gray uniform with their name on the -- above the lapel. But you got three meals a day.

I would pretend I didn't like it because everybody else wouldn't like the prison food. But I would think it was magnificent stuff, from what I saw anyway -- from my vantage point. And then the warden's wife -- warden's daughter would come around to see how dreadful things were and she would talk to me about it, and I would tell her. And then we would go and tell the warden, and he would say: "My God, I didn't know such awful things existed in my prison." And he would rectify the whole thing and reform the prison, and I then would marry the daughter and become the assistant warden, despite my criminal record.

BOGAEV: What did you do when you first landed here in New York ...


... to support yourself?


MCCOURT: I got off the ship -- the good ship America. And I'd met some people on the boat and they got me a job as a dishwasher in a hospital on what was known then as Welfare Island, which is now Roosevelt Island, where there's rather nice housing on there.

So I entered the stygian darkness of a kitchen of a hospital and washed dishes. And that was my beginning. And then I worked as a longshoreman and then I worked as a truck loader in New Jersey. I worked as a concrete inspector on the Jersey Turnpike. So -- and then I walked into a theater and I saw a play by John Millington Sing (ph) and I thought: Wouldn't it be grand to be an actor? And I walked out of there on -- on floating on air from the wonderful words of John Millington Sing.

And then I made a 180-degree turn; went back into the theater and asked the man if I could join his group. And that's how I thought you did it. I didn't know about auditions and things. So they asked me to read. Somebody was leaving the cast and I got the part. And then I got on the -- as a result of that sort of odd way of getting a job as an actor, I got on the Tonight Show, and various other shows. And then somebody offered me a job as a bartender. And then shortly after that, somebody financed me in a saloon of my own.

And there I was -- this guy just stepped off a ship with $4. I had $4 in my pocket. And I -- and all of a sudden, I was on top of the world.

BOGAEV: You and some other friends started a bar around this time called "Malachy's" appropriately, and you claim it as the first singles bar. Did you actually set out to make it a singles bar, because they didn't exist then, right?

MCCOURT: No, they didn't exist. But it was inadvertent that it came about. We bought this hole in the wall -- or the two other guys, Hal Kemp (ph) and Roland Martinez (ph), who the ones -- were my partners. They gave me a percentage -- a 20 percent portion of the -- of the business. There was a tradition on Third Avenue. All the -- it was lined with Irish saloons, with green fluorescent shamrocks and all that kind of old fake Irish green ghetto rubbish -- all up and down the place.

The Shurem Begorrah (ph) brigades, as I called them, were in full flight then. But I -- I didn't like that kind of thing. And it was a tradition that women did not sit at a bar. And everybody thought it was a law. And I researched it and found out it was just simply tradition that the women sat away from the bar.

So I said: "Well, we're going to change that one." And much to the consternation of the old timers and -- who used to battle in their and some police thought it was the -- because the idea was that a woman wouldn't sit at a bar unless she was about to sell her body for money or for a drink.

Can you imagine that kind of ancient macho sexism that existed even -- up to quite recently, really? Anyway, there was a hotel around the corner called the Hotel -- the Barbizon Hotel for Women. And some of these actors who were doing shows on Broadway like people like Barton (ph) and O'Toole and Courtenay and -- Tom Courtenay -- and the Brits -- Alan Bates and these lads. He was doing "Look Back in Anger."

And they started wandering in -- Richard Harris. And then the young things heard. So that's how it became famous.

BOGAEV: What kind of drinker were you? Did you -- and by that, I mean over a typical night did you go through predictable stages? The witty stage and then the uproarious stage, then weepy?

MCCOURT: Well, one of the -- one of the -- one of the things that people have said was that they never saw me drunk. So I consumed large quantities of Irish whiskey. And I was one of those people that did not stutter or mumble or stumble or fall. And never seemed to -- never seemed to lose control. And that was -- that's a very dangerous kind of drinker because you are -- nobody knows that you are drunk and they keep buying you drinks.

And I wouldn't know I was drunk either. And then in the morning, I wouldn't know where I was, who I was going to wake up with, and who I'd insulted the night before, or what dreadful thing I'd done; where I was.

And that led to a great deal of trouble in my life, which I haven't had now for about 14 years of sobriety, thanks be.

BOGAEV: You got married pretty young -- your 20s right? And you rather quickly had a child -- a daughter. And you write that the night she was born, you went on a bender for four days. When you weren't drinking, were you actually supporting your family and functioning and holding down a job?

MCCOURT: When I was in the bar business, and I -- yeah, I was the -- breadwinner as they say. But Linda, my then-wife, she was from a rather well-to-do family and they lived on Park Avenue and all that. And they were subsidizing -- subsidizing Linda and of course, 'cause there were times when I wasn't around, and there was baby Chivonne (ph), my daughter who lives in Boston; and young Malachy who lives in Bali right now. And -- he's a diver.

So yeah, I was very much an absent husband. And following in the -- in the mythical steps of my own father, who had deserted us when we were children, but of course alcoholism, being a disease that tells you you don't have a disease, and it afflicts a whole family, told me that, you know, you're just having fun. That I was. And I was not faithful and I was not diligent about familial responsibilities.

But I had -- my only excuse -- my own explanation -- I have no excuse for it -- is that I had no role models for family life or for responsible male behavior. So I wasn't -- no I was not a good husband. And when I got married at 25, it wasn't a young age to get married really. But it was very young for me because I was just barely an adolescent in my head. And indeed when you're drinking, you stop maturing when you're having an addiction problem; you stop the maturing process. So I had stopped, and it's only lately that I've begun to mature.

BOGAEV: After your marriage ended, you lost custody of your two children. That was a pretty desperate time for you. You took up an offer to be a courier for a gold smuggler. Now, how did your part of the operation work?

MCCOURT: Well, I would meet my contact in Zurich. And I would check into ...


... one of those -- you know, they have all over Zurich -- they had then -- I don't know if it's still there -- the temperance hotels. I would arrive (unintelligible) and bring in all this whiskey. And so my man, my contact -- the gold man -- would bring over the gold bars. And there were 20 kilos, and put them in a kind of a body corset-type of thing with lots of pockets.

And would go from Zurich to Rome, and then take whatever airline that might be going from there, whether the Indian Airlines; it might be -- might be the other one -- Alitalia; or one of the American ones. And I would meet my contact in Bombay, and many times that -- the first times that was disastrous because there were so many misunderstandings, and I was left, as they say, holding the gold. But I finally did manage to deliver it. But I made about six deliveries traveling the length and breadth of India.

BOGAEV: You strapped 20 kilos of gold to your chest?

MCCOURT: To my body.

BOGAEV: Wasn't it hard to move?


How could you bend down?

MCCOURT: You couldn't.


I once remember, we stopped -- the plane stopped in Bahrain, where I could get off, disembark, and I got down. And the journey across the -- we had to go across the tarmac and into the terminal building that night. And so I was -- by the time I got in there, I was bathed in perspiration because the temperature outside was about 190 degrees or something. So I got in and I was desperately looking for a water fountain and I saw one. And I went over rather rapidly, and I bent over to drink, and I, being top heavy, I was like the Lusitania -- over I went and collapsed on the floor.

And I could barely get up, but I was looking at a row of seats of touring-type Arabs with their turbans, and all but eight or nine --- all looking at me. Those lads wear veils and they were looking -- with these sharp steely-eyed -- what is this idiot doing collapsed on the floor over a drink of water? And I got myself up, and there was a hint of amusement in one of their eyes. So I bowed to him and he politely applauded me for getting on my feet again.

BOGAEV: My guest is Malachy McCourt. He's appeared in a number of movies including "Devil's Own," "She's The One," "Bonfire of the Vanities," "Green Card" and "The Field." He's also acted for years on the stage in New York.

He has a new memoir called A Monk Swimming. It's about his first years living in America in the '50s, the early '60s. We're going to take a break now and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with actor Malachy McCourt. His new memoir is "A Monk Swimming."

It's so hard to understand, but so obvious at the same time. Your father drank and his drinking had such a ruinous effect on your family and your childhood. He drank away the family's money. He couldn't hold a job. Three of your siblings died from disease and malnutrition. And he abandoned your family. Do you think of your drinking at the time, that it -- you thought of it as something different; that what you -- what you made of your life was something completely and entirely different from your father's legacy?

MCCOURT: Well, I suffered from the delusion that I was -- that I was present, but of course being physically present, which I was a lot of the times, was different from being spiritually and responsibly present. And
so there it was. I didn't know. I did not know and I ought to have. I'm a pretty intelligent kind of a fellow. But I wasn't raised in any kind of self-analysis department.

And as they say today, you know, we're all from dysfunctional families, and I came from a dysfunctional family. But I would have said a dysfunctional family when I grew up was a family that could afford to drink, but didn't. And the rest of us thought it was a release. (Unintelligible) said that to not get enough to eat was an accomplishment; to get drunk was a victory.

So we had all this romanticism about it. And yet the reality of it was that the suffering that people endured under the -- the alcohol and the beatings, you know. There was a lot of -- a tremendous amount of wife abuse and spousal abuse and children abuse -- child abuse that was both -- both physical and sexual, as well as the other -- the spiritual abuses that went on.

All of which was considered, "well, it's a strong man's failing." "Ah, he's just fond of the drop." It was all -- it was excused. So that was that cultural thing then, and I'm glad to say that's all changing.

BOGAEV: So when did you stop drinking?

MCCOURT: I stopped about 14 years ago. I found myself, although Diana and I have been married now for 33 years, and I drank for a lot of -- good -- about 19 years of our marriage. But not the same kind of drinking that I'd done. I'd learned some kind of a lesson. But I was still not aware of the fact that I was alcoholic. So -- and she stuck with me, and then it dawned on me. I started sinking into a very deep depression and I said -- I fortunately, Diana's an extraordinarily intelligent, insightful woman -- and filled with love and compassion and decency.

And she -- but she never nagged me about it. She just said: "Well, I knew one day you would know." And I do. I hope I do, anyway. So I'm a recovering alcoholic now and I'm a loving husband and a loving father, loving grandfather. And I don't -- I'm a vegetarian. And I don't drink coffee and I gave up cigarettes and I'm just waiting for the call to go for my -- I'll be the only saint canonized while I'm alive.

And then all these good things have happened. You know, Frank writing his book and me and sobriety have been able to write this book. And it's -- some people don't like it. And they're all looking for "Angela's Ashes." They're telling me what I am not. I'm not Frank McCourt and I'm not -- it's not "Angela's Ashes." You're damn right, it isn't. That couldn't be written. That was written by a classic man -- the classic work by a classic man -- was much more generous and non-judgmental than I am.

But there it be. I don't mind.

BOGAEV: Did you consciously not write about your childhood because you felt that your brother Frank had pretty much cornered that -- that -- had covered that story?

MCCOURT: No, he didn't corner it. He wrote it. There was nothing I could add to it. The only thing I would have disputed with him was that I was not that angelic little fellow that he talked about. I had murder in my heart most of the time, and I was manipulative and I was conniving, cunning, cute little bugger. And I maneuvered people into doing what I wanted them to do, because I had that -- those looks and that gift, whatever it is, and persuasion and of charm.

It took me a long time to realize that they were gifts. And I used them the wrong way.

BOGAEV: I think your brother tells a story that they used to make you go around to people's houses essentially to beg for food or for money because you were so pretty ...

MCCOURT: Oh, sure.

BOGAEV: ... with the ...

MCCOURT: Oh, I was gorgeous. They wanted -- there were -- there's a story that some rich lady wanted to adopt me. She stopped in this limousine -- in a Daimler -- and a chauffeur got out and she said that I was gorgeous and told my mother she would pay any amount of money. And my mother thought and thought and thought, but then she said, well, she wouldn't know how to explain it to my father, if she had sold me on the street. That is the story.

Frank likes to tell it that way.


BOGAEV: Do you think, then, that your good looks as a child changed somewhat how you perceived the poverty of your family, of your childhood -- the reality of it, because you could charm people so well. Nothing -- do you think things didn't seem as dire to you?

MCCOURT: They seemed dire to me. They seemed dire to me. But at the same time, I -- I was able to subconsciously adopt the day at a time situation. So I lived a day at a time. And whatever I got now was just fine. And if we lived -- you see, when you see your -- when you see the kids die -- your sister and your two brothers -- and you -- the 11 classmates of ours that died -- you look around and you feel: "Well, it started -- it starts off, you know, with somebody's nose running, and then they have a cough, and then they start throwing up or something and then they don't come to school and the next thing they're dead."

So your nose starts running and you get a bit of a cough, and you think: "Uh-oh, this is it for me." So you better enjoy the day. So we were constantly aware of death, unlike here when it's concealed, people don't die here, as we know. They pass away. They pass on. Death is death and we were aware of that. There's a sort of permanence about it, and you got that very early in life.

So the thing was that if you -- any day above ground now is a good one for me. It's a great one. And I appreciate it. And so I live it now, much better than I did then, even though I was aware of the -- the day at a time situation subconsciously.

BOGAEV: Writing about this period in your life -- a lot of it is really hilarious. But a lot is -- particularly about your first wife and where your children are concerned ...


BOGAEV: ... was pretty destructive and ugly stuff. Writing about it -- has it given you a different perspective on the person you were then?

MCCOURT: Oh, yeah, yeah. It's -- that's -- that's old stuff, and but you're as sick as your secrets, families and people. So the thing is that well, all right, let it out there. And you're right, it is -- it was ugly. And it was rotten. And I was not a very nice human being. So writing about it, I said: Is anybody interested in whether I was or not? I really don't know. But I have written it and so be it, and there it is and if people want to read about it, and I hope -- I just hope it helps other folks. That's what I do hope.

There isn't much in this portion of my life. It's a decade when I intend to write some more. And I don't want to get into a mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa situation, but there is -- there is recovery in my life. There is joy. And there is a lot of love now. And I'm very grateful for that. I'm overflowing with it.

BOGAEV: Malachy McCourt, thank you so much for talking with me today.

MCCOURT: It was a great pleasure, Barbara. Thank you.

BOGAEV: Malachy McCourt's memoir is "A Monk Swimming."

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews "Garbage, Version 2.0."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Malachy McCourt
High: Malachy McCourt is best-selling author Frank McCourt's ("Angela's Ashes") younger brother. He's just written a memoir of his own, entitled "A Monk Swimming." (Hyperion) It picks up where Frank's left off, in 1950s America. Malachy is also an actor and has had featured roles in the films "The Devil's Own," "She's the One," and "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
Spec: Lifestyle; Culture; Entertainment; Books; Authors; Frank McCourt; Malachy McCourt
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Malachy McCourt
Date: JUNE 16, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061603NP.217
Head: Garbage
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: "Garbage" is a band based in Madison, Wisconsin, fronted by Shirley Manson (ph), a singer from Edinburgh, Scotland. Garbage's debut album released in 1995 has sold over four million copies.

Their follow-up CD is called "Version 2.0." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.



I'll tell you something
I am a wolf (unintelligible)
I like to wear sheep's clothing

I am a bonfire (ph)
I am a vampire
I'm waiting for my moment

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: Shirley Manson follows a line of tough punk girls from Patti Smith (ph) to Blondie's Deborah Harry to the Pretender's Chrissy Hind, with a little Pat Benetar thrown in for the sheer trashy fun of it.

With her perennially dark green mascaraed eyes and tendency toward breathy menace, Manson is both a tease and a formidable romantic foe. When she sings a song like "Push It," which contains a musical echo of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," you don't know whether her reading of the line "don't worry baby" is intended as a comfort or a threat.



I was angry when I met you
I think I'm angry still
We can try to talk it over
If you say you'll help me out

Don't worry baby (don't worry baby)
No need to fight
Don't worry baby (don't worry baby)
We'll be alright

TUCKER: Given Shirley Manson as their flashy frontwoman, it's easy to overlook the rest of Garbage -- three guys whose average age is 42 -- not exactly the pop star norm. The best known of these comparative geezers is Butch Figg (ph), who has quite a track record as a producer -- "Nirvana," "Smashing Pumpkins" and "Nine-Inch Nails" -- in every case pushing each act to a higher level of craft and fame.

Figg works more collectively with Garbage, and the band has come up with a second album that's worlds away from grunge or electronica. Instead, Garbage overflows with romantic realism and a fondness for musicianly contrast -- dense layers of simple guitar, keyboard, and drum hooks.

The result can be a thrilling little pop song like this one, called "Special."



I am living without you
I know about you
I have run you down into the ground
spread disease about you over town

I used to adore you
I couldn't control you

TUCKER: "Special," which at first seems all gloss and energetic prettiness, has a knife-blade of a lyric that Shirley Manson pokes into your ribs. "Do you have an opinion? A mind of your own?" she sings sneerily to a boyfriend whom she's just dropped dead -- telling him "there's no way I'd take you back."

Near the end, she invokes the Pretenders' song "Talk of the Town" and does a perfect Chrissie Hind (ph) impersonation, which Chrissie Hind is reportedly quite flattered about. Who wouldn't be, for a song this good?

Even when Shirley Manson is feeling less tough, less in charge, she gives the music a charge of urgent emotion.



You cannot (unintelligible)
You can touch
I don't think I like you much
Heaven knows what a girl can do
Heaven knows what you got to prove

I think I'm (unintelligible) away
And (unintelligible)
I think I'm (unintelligible) away

TUCKER: Listening to this second album of theirs, it's hard to believe that Garbage, in its initial formation, was about as contrived as the Monkees. Butch Figg, Duke Erickson (ph) and Steve Mocker (ph) picked Shirley Manson from the obscurity of a couple of forgettable Scottish bands, to front what they saw as their pop move out of the fading grunge scene.

The result, however, as in so much good self-conscious pop, is music that transcends its commercial calculation to achieve glossiness with depth, with Manson providing an unexpected range of moods and challenges, both to her bandmates and to her audience.

BOGAEV: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album from Garbage, entitled "Version 2.0." (Almo Sounds) Garbage's debut album, released in 1995, has sold over four million copies.
Spec: Lifestyle; Culture; Entertainment; Music Industry; Garbage; Shirley Manson
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Garbage
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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